Monthly Archives: January 2011

The Tea Party

…is apparently good for business at Colonial Williamsburg.

Here’s my take: This is good news, whether the movement’s take on history is sound or not.  Folks are going to historic sites in order to engage the past so they can get inspiration for living in the present.  In the process, they’re getting exposed to aspects of the past that challenges as well as confirms, and hopefully they come away better informed.

Isn’t that why we do public history?

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Wal-Mart is doing the right thing

Wal-Mart has decided to back off from its plan to build a new superstore near the Wilderness battlefield.  Not only that, but the company is going to reimburse Orange County for the legal costs incurred in going to court over their decision to approve the project.  Hats off to the preservationists who kept this cause going in the face of discouraging obstacles, and to Wal-Mart for doing the right thing.

Speaking of battlefield preservation, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board met today, but without a decision on the proposed Gettysburg casino.  The folks from No Casino Gettysburg were there anyway, in order to stay on top of things.  They have their own blog, which I didn’t know about until today; I recommend you make it one of your regular online stops so you can keep up with what’s going on with this threat to America’s most famous battlefield.  I’ve added it to my blogroll here. 

Drop a line to the PGCB and let them know you stand with those who don’t think Gettysburg is an appropriate place for a casino.  Hopefully when the time comes for them to make the call, we can celebrate another victory to go alongside today’s.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

How to ruin your reputation as a researcher AND get banned for life from the National Archives

…all in one easy step.  Tip of the hat to Kevin Levin.

Now we can add altering original documents to the list of historical no-nos that people should have enough sense not to commit, along with plagiarism, invention of records, lying about your background, and pretending to be buddies with Dwight Eisenhower.

Lowry claims that the National Archives pressured him into a confession. Apparently archivists can be pretty intimidating, when they put their minds to it. Is there a warren of dingy rooms with concrete floors and bare light bulbs tucked away within NARA headquarters for just such a purpose?  Do they ask the CIA to lend a hand?  Do they bring in mob muscle?  Batman?

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War

Better living through willful ignorance

One of the things you didn’t do during the American Revolution was question George Washington’s integrity.  You could criticize his judgment, but not his character.

Once he assumed the presidency, of course, Washington’s character did become a target.  Serious differences about the direction the new nation should take emerged among the generation of men who made the Revolution, and these differences were the genesis of the first American political parties.  Despite Washington’s wish to appear above the fray, he ended up choosing a side, and that side was the one in favor of a stronger central government, a more modern financial system, and commercial relations with England.  Washington aligned himself with Hamilton and the other Federalists, and in so doing he opened himself to criticism from Jefferson, Madison, and their colleagues who thought this vision of America threatened the Revolution’s legacy.

Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

During the war Washington had been the embodiment of virtue, but to the Republicans it now seemed he was supporting men and measures that were undermining everything his generation worked to build.  Yet he was still George Washington. Perhaps this contradiction explains a conviction that appears in Jefferson’s writings from this period.  If you relied solely on Jefferson’s appraisal of Washington, you’d come away with the impression that the Father of his Country was basically a dupe.  For a time, Jefferson thought Washington supported Hamilton and the Federalists because he was being misled and deceived.  By relying on Hamilton to shape financial policy, Washington was supposedly letting himself be dragged along by a scoundrel, simply because he didn’t know enough about running the country to rely on his own judgment.

Washington was a shrewder customer than Jefferson gave him credit for.  How could somebody who worked with Washington misread him so badly?  I’ve started to suspect that part of the explanation is psychological.  During his second term, Washington became fair game for every sort of outlandish, slanderous charge imaginable—monarchism, Anglophilia, even treason during the war.  But other observers remembered Washington as America’s Cincinnatus while simultaneously seeing that he was taking the country down a path they believed to be wrong.  How to reconcile his virtue and his supposed lack of prudence?  The explanation had to be that Washington was in the dark, and therefore at the mercy of the unsavory characters who had his ear.

If this story sounds a little familiar, it should.  This was the same narrative Americans had been telling themselves a couple of decades before, except at that point it had been the King of England, rather than Washington, who was the dupe.  Americans believed that a plot was underway to enslave them, and they knew that English politicians and some of the king’s advisors were in on it.  But at first they were reluctant to implicate the king himself.  They assured themselves that his ministers were misleading him, and that if they could get the truth about America’s plight to the throne, then he would alleviate their situation.  Eventually they learned that he wasn’t as in the dark as they’d thought, and that in fact he wanted his subjects to submit to the same policies that they found oppressive. For many colonists this discovery was a profound disillusionment, and it was a crucial step in their eventual decision to break from England completely, a process Pauline Maier outlines in her study of the evolution of America’s protest movement.

It’s a richly ironic situation.  By psychologically preserving Washington’s integrity, Jefferson had to assume that he was fundamentally ignorant.  And in so doing, he recapitulated a pattern Americans had first applied to the same king against whom Washington led a revolution.

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Filed under American Revolution

Benedict Arnold is getting the trial he never had

…courtesy of the National Museum of American History, and you can be on the jury.  It’s a neat idea for a program.

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Filed under American Revolution

Evaluating presidents across the pond

The Jacksonian America blog directs our attention to a British ranking of American presidents, which is well worth a look.  Washington stands at number three, so apparently there are no hard feelings.

I find it interesting that Jackson made it into the top ten.  I would’ve assumed that Old Hickory would represent the stereotypical America imagined and feared by Europeans—a product of the frontier, brash, violent, rough around the edges.  (Plus there’s that whole New Orleans business.)  Perhaps a commitment to populism, like charity, shall cover the multitude of sins.

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Filed under History and Memory

Three and a half decades ago, a Confederate revolver vanished from the Museum of the Confederacy

…and the darn thing just turned up here in East Tennessee.  Now it’s headed back home.  Check it out.

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Filed under Civil War

The Battle of Cowpens, as presented by fifth graders

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Cowpens.  I thought some type of commemoration might be in order, so I went poking around online and found this video.  Some of the officers are a little shorter than average, but it’s more accurate than The Patriot.

I’m not sure where this school district is located, but they’re pulling out all the stops to get kids into the Revolution.  Good for them.

Some of you are no doubt horrified and outraged, and are primed and ready to inform us that this activity is not educational at all, that it fosters a sanitized view of combat and may in fact create a generation of callous warmongers.  Well, if you absolutely must, then you have my permission to click the comments link under this post’s title and moralize until you’re blue in the face.  Perhaps this sample from a Concerned Parent™ will give you some ideas to get started.  Keep in mind, however, that since we don’t know what additional context the teachers provided in the classroom and in other assignments, it’s just a wee bit presumptuous to assume that the only thing these kids took away from this was a notion that war is a barrel of laughs.  Okay?

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Filed under American Revolution

On the occasionally hirsute Revolutionary soldier

One of the interesting things about reenactors is that they have to devote extensive attention to questions that would never occur to the rest of us—even those of us who are fascinated with history.  Questions involving facial hair, for example.

For the eighteenth century, the answer would seem to be simple, at least at first glance. In depictions of gentlemen from this era, facial hair is practically unheard of.  Hence this admonition from a Rev War reenacting group:

18th century men did not wear beards, goatees, soul patches or long sideburns. (Yes, some German troops did sport waxed moustaches and Edward Teach, the infamous pirate wore a trademark black beard early in the century – but these are rare exceptions which had purpose in what they did.) Whatever you may have seen in movies – or even on reenactors – men simply didn’t wear beards during this era.

The German exception is an interesting one, and has always puzzled me.  Some Hessian units did indeed sport mustaches, and facial hair was also de rigueur in certain European hussar and grenadier units.  I’ve never understood why. Whenever I see a film clip or painting with Continentals going toe-to-toe against mercenaries with Super Mario Bros. mustaches, it always looks odd.

For most soldiers and civilians, however, going clean-shaven was the ideal.  But in terms of what actually happened on campaign, of course, things were probably quite a bit more complicated.  For one thing, the fact that officers were telling their men to shave regularly doesn’t mean the men were actually doing it.  If you look at Rev War orderly books, you’ll notice that commands regarding the troops’ appearance were repeated over and over again with ever-increasing tones of irritation, indicating that soldiers weren’t too compliant about this sort of thing.  Indeed, in his magnificent book on the Continental Army, Charles Royster states that “the most common of the soldiers’ signs of independence were hair and hats.”  This refers chiefly to the length of the hair on top of the head, but given this kind of independent streak there were probably a few oddballs in camp who were letting their chins get stubbly just to be ornery.

More importantly, and probably more commonly, the exigencies of warfare meant that soldiers were periodically unable to keep up their usual routines. In December 1776, as retreating American troops crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania, Charles Wilson Peale remembered one soldier who approached him “in an old dirty blanket jacket, his beard long and his face full of sores,” and it turned out to be his own brother.  His appearance was so ragged that Peale didn’t recognize him at first—probably the most sobering testimony to the harsh conditions in Washington’s Army that I’ve ever read.

Of course, this sort of hairiness must have been unusual, or else Peale probably wouldn’t have noted it.  It was neither condoned nor typical, so Rev War reenactors are doubtless correct in discouraging facial hair for new recruits.

Still, this raises larger issues for reenactors that go beyond specific matters like facial hair to suggest some of the difficulties of trying to depict history as it was lived.  Do you try to portray the ideal soldier, or do you indicate some of the minor infractions and hardships that arose from time to time?  Should each member of the unit try to be as “typical” as possible, or should you try to suggest some of the diversity that must have been present?  And if you’re going to try for the latter, how much is too much?

Reenacting, when done properly, is therefore a difficult enterprise, fraught with unique and delicate challenges.  I think serious reenactors deserve the respect of anyone who researches or teaches history.

By the way, just a few days ago I ordered a used copy of Franklin and Mary Wickwire’s book on General Lord Cornwallis.  It still has a sticker from the “Cottonwood Senior High” library, wherever that is.  By a remarkable coincidence, it arrived today, as I was typing this post, and apparently some student at Cottonwood High thought eighteenth-century armies needed a little more facial hair, because this is what the cover looked like when I opened it:

Doesn’t look half bad, actually.

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Filed under American Revolution, Reenacting

A face from King’s Mountain

It’s a rare thing to be able to see a face from a Revolutionary War battle, so I think this photo is pretty darn cool.  William Beattie was one of Campbell’s Virginians, the contingent that marched the farthest to fight at King’s Mountain.

Note that two of Beattie’s brothers were also in the battle and that one of them lost his life.  If you peruse rosters of King’s Mountain veterans you’ll find quite a few instances of close relatives serving in the same units.  (John Sevier lost one of the brothers who fought under him due to a mortal wound in the kidney.)

For more faces from the Revolution, check out Maureen Taylor’s The Last Muster.

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Filed under American Revolution