Monthly Archives: November 2010

Something stays

When I was in high school, my family developed a summer tradition where we’d load up a minivan and drive all over the West for a few weeks at a time.  We hit dozens of places of interest that catered to our individual interests—dinosaur graveyards for me, gunfighter haunts for Mom, and battlefields for Dad.

On one of those trips we ended up at the site of the massacre of Wounded Knee. There is a small memorial and gate at the mass grave where the frozen, twisted bodies were buried.

Some places in the West, even very beautiful ones (and the West has much more than its share of beautiful places), have a kind of melancholy, forlorn atmosphere.  I noticed it at some locations that were remote but simultaneously open and expansive, where you could look all around in any direction and see nothing but landscape and sky.  Little Bighorn, which is one of the most gorgeous historic sites I’ve ever visited, had that feeling.  Wounded Knee had it in spades.

Wounded Knee had something else, too.  It was an almost palpable vibe that was—there is no other word I can think of here—sinister.  You got the sense that even if you were blindfolded, driven to the site, and dropped off with no idea of where you were, you’d still have the notion that you were standing at a place where something terrible happened.


Memorial and grave at Wounded Knee, from Wikimedia Commons

Years after seeing Wounded Knee, I went to a symposium on the Revolutionary War in South Carolina.  On the last day they loaded us on a bus and took us to some of the little-known, out-of-the-way battlefields in the backcountry.  One of the stops was the battlefield at Waxhaws, site of another purported massacre, where British dragoons reportedly cut down Virginia Continentals who were surrendering.  It was a controversial event; the extent of the British excesses and their causes are still open to debate.

Like Wounded Knee, Waxhaws had a small monument and a mass grave.  Like Wounded Knee, it was a lovely spot.  And like Wounded Knee, it had that unmistakable something sinister.


Memorial and grave at Waxhaws, from Wikimedia Commons

I don’t believe in a permeable boundary between this life and the next one.  I don’t believe that the dead remain behind, and I don’t believe in curses or parapsychological trauma, or any of the rest of it.  But there’s no denying that these massacre sites have a lingering something, immaterial and intangible though it is.  Maybe it’s just an accidental combination of the events and the environment.

Joshua Chamberlain said of Gettysburg, “In great deeds something abides.  On great fields something stays.”  I suppose that what applies to great deeds and great fields sometimes applies to deeds and fields of horror and misery, too.



Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Andrew Jackson Superstar

I’m not entirely sure what to think about this.

This spring’s biggest downtown hit was undoubtedly BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON. Rolling Stone called it “the season’s best musical” and audiences flocked to The Public Theater-where iconic shows like A Chorus Line and Hair started out-to see what the daring young creative team ALEX TIMBERS (writer/director) and MICHAEL FRIEDMAN (composer/lyricist) had cooked up. Now, by populist demand, their bloody brilliant show is packing up its tight, tight jeans and heading to Broadway!

In BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, rising star BENJAMIN WALKER reprises his role as America’s first political maverick. A.J. kicked British butt, shafted the Indians and smacked down the Spaniards all in the name of these United States-who cares if he didn’t have permission? An exhilarating and white-knuckled look at one of our nation’s founding rock stars, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON recreates and reinvents the life of “Old Hickory,” from his humble beginnings on the Tennessee frontier to his days as our seventh Commander-in-Chief. It also asks the question, is wanting to have a beer with someone reason enough to elect him? What if he’s really, really hot?

I saw one of the people behind this thing interviewed on TV today, and he described it as an emo take on Old Hickory.  I’d always figured Jackson as more of an eighties metal sort of guy.


Filed under History and Memory

The Knoxville News Sentinel

…recently published an article on Lincoln and his connections to East Tennessee, illustrated with some items from the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate.  Check it out.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Appalachian History

A new biography of Robert Morris

…the controversial financier of the American Revolution, hit the shelves just a few days ago.  Morris is one of those critically important but often-overlooked figures who’s gone without a full-scale cradle-to-grave treatment for quite some time.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Want to create jobs? Don’t build. Restore!

Anti-preservationists invoke the need for new jobs with a kind of knee-jerk instinctuality.  All priorities must take a backseat to job creation.  Battlefield threatened by a residential development?  Regrettable, but we must have more jobs. Significant building in danger of demolition to make way for new construction?  A pity, but we must have more jobs. Somebody wants to put a casino/multiplex/strip joint/theme park/whatever next door to a national park?  A bit tacky, perhaps, but at the end of the day, we must have more jobs.

And we do indeed need to get people to work, especially these days.  The problem is that this dichotomy between creating jobs and preservation isn’t valid.  It operates under the assumption that we must pick one or the other.  And that’s just not true.

From the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota’s blog, with a hat tip to the NTHP’s blog:

Historic preservation creates more jobs than new construction.  This is a little-known fact, but one that makes sense when you consider that preservation is a labor-intensive industry.  It takes people to repair existing material rather than replacing it outright with new material.  In Minnesota, it’s estimated that preservation will create 5.7 more jobs than manufacturing, 4 more than road construction, and 2 more than new construction for every $1 million in output.  Our new state historic tax credit could create between 1,500 and 3,000 new jobs alone if we follow the success of other states.  This is powerful when you consider that we are putting to work the population of a town the size of Granite Falls; we are helping to sustain these peoples’ livelihoods and the money they spend in their communities.

Let government entities know that if they want to stimulate job creation, they can also act as good stewards of historic treasures by providing tax credits to projects that will put more people to work by repairing and restoring significant landmarks. We don’t have to sacrifice cultural resources on the altar of economic growth, or make economic sacrifices to preserve irreplaceable treasures.  We can have our cake and eat it too.

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Filed under Historic Preservation

Discovering the Civil War at the National Archives

The hardworking folks at the National Archives were kind enough to pass along some information about their fantastic Civil War exhibit, the second phase of which opens this month in Washington, D.C.  Check out this video:

This looks like the most comprehensive display of NA Civil War material ever.  More information about the exhibit is available here.  If you can’t make it to D.C., don’t fret.  The whole show is going on the road next year, so keep an eye out.

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Filed under Civil War

North Carolina is gearing up for the 150th

…and they’re pulling out all the stops.  Here’s a press release the good folks at the NCDCR passed along:

Preparations for the commemoration of the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War are underway with 150 programs, educational symposia and re-enactments already scheduled by the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources ( For the past year a team of Cultural Resources staff, operating with an experts advisory panel of leading historians, has planned events, lectures, exhibits and informational resources for commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Activities for life-long learners, travelers, teachers and school children will feature the theme “North Carolina and the Civil War: Freedom, Sacrifice, Memory.”

News and information are available at A logo, designed by the Department of Cultural Resources, presents that theme against a sunburst image, based on the button worn by North Carolina soldiers, 1861-1865.

North Carolina’s planning comes as a similar national effort is underway. Several other states have established commissions or other boards to mark the anniversary. Keith Hardison, Director of the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties, and Michael Hill, Research Branch Supervisor, co-chair the North Carolina group.

In establishing the committee of researchers, archaeologists, librarians, preservationists, educators, exhibit designers and curators, Dr. Jeffrey J. Crow, Deputy Director of the N.C. Office of Archives and History, noted that the Department has long held a commitment to projects associated with the Civil War and that, during the anniversary, those efforts will intensify.

“We anticipate that interest in the Civil War will draw tens of thousands of travelers to North Carolina,” Crow said. “Because cultural and heritage tourists stay longer and spend more than typical travelers, the Sesquicentennial will provide an economic boost. The Civil War was the most critical moment in the nation’s history. Understanding the conflict’s effect on the life of the nation, its institutions, and its people remains as important today as it did 150 years ago.” The Battle of Bentonville 145th re-enactment held in April 2010 drew 50,000 visitors to the Johnston County location, for example.

The group will develop and execute a multiyear program of state-sponsored activities to commemorate, in an appropriate and historically accurate manner, the richness, diversity and significance of the state’s participation in and contributions to the American Civil War. Accordingly, the objective is to extend to North Carolinians and travelers an understanding of the complexity of the issues surrounding the war and to transform the interpretation of the events for a new generation, via a layered and interdisciplinary approach.

An ambitious three-part series of symposia is planned, with the first dedicated to “memory” taking place at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh on May 20, 2011. Following that, keeping with the theme, panels will be held at Winston-Salem State University in 2013 (timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation) around the topic of “freedom,” and in Wilmington in 2015 on the topic of “sacrifice.” Calls for papers will be forthcoming.

The NCCivilWar150 Web site ( offers a concise overview with maps, graphics, an event calendar, digital records and text about North Carolina’s Civil War experience. It contains a timeline of the hundreds of military expeditions, affairs, skirmishes, actions, engagements, battles and other events that occurred in the Old North State during the war. Images of monuments from across North Carolina and a map feature illustrate where the monuments are located. State Archives will showcase relevant documents, such as letters regarding possible secession, that are gathered from its collection of more than 100 million maps, letters, and documents. Informative essays discuss North Carolina on the home front, slavery and the African American experience, reconstruction and other topics.

The Division of State Historic Sites and Properties ( is taking the lead with a new comprehensive education initiative related to the war. Thirteen of the 27 historic sites will participate, including such non-traditional Civil War sites as Historic Edenton, Somerset Place, Stagville, Tryon Palace and Roanoke Island Festival Park. Sites will create a permanent addition to their grounds and highlight the North Carolina experience through programs designed to help fourth- and eighth-grade students meet education standards. Each site also will have an individual program that is site specific. In preparation, a teacher workshop for renewal credits was held this past summer.

Exhibits will appear on a range of topics such as a Civil War transportation exhibit at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer in 2011, and an exhibit at the Museum of the Albemarle on the capture of the port towns on the Albemarle Sound, the rivers, canals and waterways.

Archaeological work will be undertaken at selected locations including Ft. Fisher and Ft. Anderson/Brunswick Town. State archivists will hold quarterly talks, and the genealogy staff will offer tips on “tracing your roots.” The N.C. Museum of History will build upon previous exhibits and highlight aspects of the war over the course of the anniversary period. The Historical Publications Office will initiate new publications related to the war and will perform a series of reprints, in addition to continuing work on volumes in the troops roster series ( A highlight is the new publication “Worthy of Record: The Civil War and Reconstruction Diaries of Columbus Lafayette Turner,” about an Iredell County native who spent time in two Union prison camps and later was elected to the General Assembly during Reconstruction.

Presently in development as a collaborative effort with the University of North Carolina Press is a North Carolina Civil War atlas, a project conceived by map maker and research historian Mark A. Moore.

The advisory committee of the state’s leading Civil War historians is guiding development and execution of programming. Members include Mark Bradley of the U.S. Army War College, Paul Escott of Wake Forest University, Chris Fonvielle of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Joseph Glatthaar of UNC-Chapel Hill, Susanna Lee of N.C. State University, Freddie Parker of N.C. Central University, John David Smith of UNC-Charlotte and Richard Starnes of Western Carolina University.

The African American Heritage Commission will provide underwriting for selected events.

The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources is the state agency with the mission to enrich lives and communities, and the vision to harness the state’s cultural resources to build North Carolina’s social, cultural and economic future. Information on Cultural Resources is available 24/7 at

Layered and interdisciplinary, indeed: symposia, new interpretation initiatives at historic sites, an educational website, archaeology, publication projects.  This looks to be one of the better Sesquicentennial efforts.  Let me encourage you to visit the website for more information.


Filed under Civil War