Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Smithsonian should’ve jumped on this

Take a look at these sample ads produced as a portfolio project by Jenny Burrows and Matt Kappler.

These things have been circulating online, originally with the Smithsonian’s name and logo.  A lot of folks assumed that they were actually part of a Smithsonian ad campaign.  I thought this was some of the best public history PR I’d ever seen.  It turns out the Smithsonian wasn’t aware of them until they went viral, and then asked one of the creators to remove the name and logo.

I think they’re awesome.  The folks at the National Museum of American History should’ve snapped this up in a heartbeat.


Filed under Uncategorized

Labor history is the new Confederate history

Back in 2008 Maine’s Labor Department unveiled a mural depicting the history of the state’s labor movement at their headquarters, which seems kind of appropriate given the fact that it’s, you know, the Dept. of Labor.

Now Gov. Paul LePage has decided that the mural is too much of a hot potato, so it’s got to go:

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor’s office has received “several messages” from the public complaining about the mural. She also released an anonymous fax, dated Feb. 24, that apparently came from someone who recently visited the Labor Department’s lobby.

“In this mural I observed a figure which closely resembles the former commissioner of labor,” the person wrote. “In studying the mural I also observed that this mural is nothing but propaganda to further the agenda of the Union movement. I felt for a moment that I was in communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”

Conference rooms in the same building are named for important figures in the history of labor, so they’re going to re-christen them, too.  One of them is currently named for Marion Martin, a pioneering female politician who worked to motivate Republican women voters during the GOP’s troubled New Deal years and organized the National Federation of Women’s Republican Clubs.  Since Gov. LePage is himself an ardent Republican, you’d think he would think twice about that one, or at least consider the irony.

A Maine newspaper got hold of a memo from the state’s acting Labor Commissioner:

“We have received feedback that the administration building is not perceived as equally receptive to both businesses and workers — primarily because of the nature of the mural in the lobby and the names of our conference rooms,” she wrote. “Whether or not the perception is valid is not really at issue and therefore, not open to debate.”

She asks workers to suggest names for the conference rooms by April 5 and indicates there will be “a small prize” for anyone who comes up with a new name.

What I want to know is whether the re-naming contest is open to the public or just restricted to DOL staff.  If it’s the former, then I suggest we name each conference room for a different Masters of the Universe character—the He-Man Room, the Skeletor Room, the Evil-Lyn Room, the Stratos Room, and so forth. It would really give the place some class.

Speaking of labor history, today’s the 100th anniversary of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.  It left 146 garment workers dead, most of them immigrant women in their late teens and early twenties.  These days it’s a lot easier for a young gal to land a good job, especially if she happens to be Gov. LePage’s daughter.


Filed under History and Memory

My mom found a vintage Civil War recruiting poster in her attic

Okay, okay, it’s a vintage Civil War reenactment recruiting poster, but it’s still neat.

Mom’s been cleaning out some old stuff this week and found a box with this relic of dad’s living history days inside.  He caught the Centennial reenacting wave and was pretty active in the hobby for a number of years.

The reference to LMU’s museum means this thing can’t be older than 1977, but Dad hung up his shell jacket and kepi not too long after I was born.  That dates this poster in the late seventies or very early eighties.  A nice bit of curatorial detective work on my part there.

In the same box was another item of some historical interest. It’s an envelope from the Kennedys to my mom.  She sent the family a sympathy letter when Bobby died, and they sent back a printed card and a mourning photo bordered in black.

If my conservative father had known we had a thank-you card from the Kennedys in the house, he would’ve gone thermonuclear.

Also in that box was a 1984 clipping from the Knoxville News-Sentinel, covering the Olympic torch relay’s passage through town.  This piece isn’t really significant, except that my family was in the crowd and the reporter ended up quoting us for his man-in-the-street sound bytes.

My aunt stated, “I don’t understand how Russia can miss all of this…This is a great thing.”  This, you may recall, was the year the USSR boycotted the games.

Here’s the scenario I imagine.  Somewhere in Moscow, a couple of Politburo officials read that and said, “You know what?  That American woman from Tennessee is right.  We missed the torch relay. This Marxist ideology stuff just isn’t worth it anymore.” And the Soviet Union’s downfall began that very day.  Of course, I could be wrong about that.

When my turn came, I left the geopolitics out of it and tried to focus on the sunny side: “Michael Lynch, 4, of Tazewell, son of Sylvia Lynch, admitted he did not know what the Olympic Games are.  He did say one thing about the rally: ‘I liked all of it.'”

I’ve never been a very keen follower of athletic events.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory, Reenacting, Tennessee History

Just passing through

It took two centuries and millions of dollars to improve on Daniel Boone’s route through the Cumberland Gap.  For years, the portion of US 25E that crossed from Tennessee into Kentucky followed the path of the old Wilderness Road as it skirted the tip of southwestern Virginia, passed along the rocky face of Cumberland Mountain, and cut through the Gap—the notch in the mountain wall near the point where Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky intersect.  Then it descended into the valley of Yellow Creek just across the Kentucky state line.

It worked well for a pioneer footpath, but as an automobile route it presented a couple of problems.  For one thing, paving over the old Wilderness Road obviously made it very difficult to appreciate the way this critical passage looked when tens of thousands of settlers used it to head to the West.

Cumberland Gap from the Tennessee side. The old highway passed along the mountainside just to the right of the opening. From an NPS publication, reprinted from TN Historical Quarterly

Second, since it ran along the mountain face, the highway was treacherous.  If you happened to veer off the road, you could easily go plummeting down into the town of Cumberland Gap, TN at the mountain’s base.  Quite a few motorists had done just that over the years.  Locals sometimes referred to it as “Massacre Mountain.”

This combined need for safety and preservation resulted in one of the largest engineering projects this area has ever seen, a four-lane, two-way tunnel bored completely through the mountain not far from the Gap itself.

The north entrance to the Cumberland Gap Tunnel. The historic pass would be roughly half a mile to the viewer's left. From Wikimedia Commons

When the tunnel opened, the old portion of the highway across the mountain closed.  The Park Service tore up the pavement and began restoring that part of the Wilderness Road route to its pioneer-era appearance.  Now it’s one of the walking trails at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park; you can literally walk in Boone’s footsteps, along the side of the mountain and right into the Saddle of the Gap, along what used to be a busy roadway.  (Click here to see a map of both the trail/old highway route and the new tunnel route.)

I was in high school when the tunnel opened.  My school was just a short distance from the Gap, almost within sight of the pinnacle of Cumberland Mountain.  We all got out of class that afternoon to attend the opening ceremony, seated with the other spectators in folding chairs facing the tunnel’s Kentucky side.  The governors of the three states spoke, as did various other local dignitaries.  Lee Greenwood sang “God Bless the USA,” there was a brief historical lecture, and a good time was had by all.

For the grand finale, a procession of reenactors marched out of the tunnel, depicting all those who had passed through the Gap: Indians, then long hunters, then pioneers, then Civil War soldiers.  It was a flesh-and-blood, live-action version of Frederick Jackson Turner’s poetic summation of the Gap’s importance to the westward movement: “Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file— the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by.”  The reenactors’ march out of the tunnel embodied Turner’s belief that the frontier consisted of stages of development, one following another in inevitable progression, and that the Gap was one of the places where this process played out.

Unconsciously, it also exemplified something that’s always bothered me about the way we remember and interpret the Gap, and indeed about the way we remember and interpret many historic places.  The emphasis was on the people who were just passing through it.  Migrating buffalo, Indians on the warpath, hunters on their way to the bluegrass, pioneer farmers on their way to new land, Civil War soldiers on their way to invade either North or South (the Gap changed hands four times during the war)—they were all from somewhere else, and going to some other destination.  Everything around it, meaning the area where I grew up and have lived most of my life, was just an indistinct blur.

Once I got older and acquired an interest in history, I was a little appalled that I had spent much of my life just a few minutes’ drive from one of the most important places in America and had never really given it much thought.  So I picked up a copy of The Wilderness Road by Robert Kincaid, the inaugural volume in a series of books on historic travel routes originally published by Bobbs-Merril in 1947.  Like me, Kincaid had spent quite a bit of time in the Gap’s shadow; he held a number of posts at Lincoln Memorial University, just a stone’s throw from the Gap, and he eventually became the college’s president.

Kincaid’s book probably remains the most comprehensive examination of the Gap and the route of which it was a part, from the earliest European contacts through the first part of the twentieth century.  Dr. Thomas Walker, Daniel Boone, the Civil War armies, the post-war British industrialists who founded the towns surrounding the mountain—they’re all there, marching across the pages just as they had marched across Turner’s imagination and then out of the newly opened tunnel in reenacted form.  In that sense, the book is comprehensive; it gives you an overview of all the hubbub that went on in this part of southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and southeastern Kentucky for the past couple of hundred years.

But the hubbub is basically all you get.  Kincaid’s book, like the tunnel pageant, is very episodic.  Each chapter is devoted to some notable incident or group of incidents.  Explorers, hunters, pioneers, soldiers, and industrialists saunter onstage, do their bit, and then saunter back off.  What was going on between all this migrating, invading, and exploiting?  Where were the people who actually lived here?

It’s not that this context would necessarily be more interesting than some of the highlights in the history of the region.  In fact, it’s hard to beat this corner of the world for dramatic incidents and wonderful stories—the gruesome murder of Boone’s son when the famous pathfinder tried to lead a party through the Gap in 1773, the escape of General George Morgan’s besieged garrison from the pass in 1862, or the creation of a short-lived industrial and resort enterprise which flourished for only a few years before vanishing entirely in the 1890’s.  Still, these occasions when the world came crashing in on the Gap region don’t, in and of themselves, constitute its complete history.

There is a natural tendency, especially among older or popularized history books, to focus solely on those occasions in which “something happened.”  History then becomes a simple series of events.  To be fair, this part of Appalachia wasn’t too heavily settled until after a lot of the more favorable lands to the east and the north were taken up, so there wouldn’t have been too much to cover besides the migrants passing by for those earliest years.  But by the early 1800’s, this region began to have a history of its own.  You don’t get much of that in many accounts of the Gap.

The region in which the Gap is located might have something to do with it.  An early commentator referred to Appalachians as “contemporary ancestors,” meaning that people in this region lived for many years in a kind of static state of preservation, exactly as the pioneers who passed along the Wilderness Road to greener pastures had once lived.  It wasn’t true, of course, but the idea caught on and has become one of the most widespread and persistent of Appalachian stereotypes.  If you buy into it, then it makes sense to ignore the broader regional context, because you’d essentially be assuming that the region didn’t really have a history of its own.

It reminds me of the concept in evolutionary biology known as “punctuated equilibrium.” in which species change during occasional fits and starts, with longer periods of stasis in between.  If you assume that things are just puttering along as usual, then why bother?  You might as well ignore the stasis altogether.

I’m not denying that the more dynamic periods of history merit disproportionate attention, so I don’t intend this to be a criticism of historians in general.  Nor do I intend it to be a criticism of Kincaid’s book in particular.  It’s a valuable distillation of information about this area that I’m very glad to have in one volume.  Besides, he was writing at a time before many of these issues became problematic.  Anyone interested in the history of Cumberland Gap in particular or Appalachia in general owes him a debt of gratitude.  (Besides, he and I have the same alma mater, so I’ve got his back.)

It’s just that the backdrop to that procession of long hunters, pioneer migrants, Civil War soldiers, and New South industrialists is my homeland, and I wish I knew as much about the folks who lived here as I do about the ones who were just passing through.


Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Tweeting the home front

LeRae Umfleet of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources has set up a Twitter account and accompanying blog that will run throughout the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Each tweet will be a snippet of first-person testimony from a Tar Heel State civilian who experienced the war on the home front, with a fuller excerpt in the matching blog entry.  Looks interesting.

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Filed under Civil War, History on the Web

“It could be several months”

…before we find out who gets the new gaming license in Pennsylvania, and thus whether or not the proposed Gettysburg casino goes through, according to this report.  Part of the delay is due to the presence of new members on the gaming board, who have to get up to speed on the whole thing.

An encouraging word from one member regarding opposition to a casino near the battlefield: “Out of hand you just can’t discount their concerns. We all know it and love it as hallowed ground so it certainly will weigh on the decision making process.”  Here’s hoping.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation

Looking for a substantial research project?

Then consider writing a biography of an early national figure, particularly one from Tennessee.  Mark Cheatham is probably correct in guessing that “many graduate students who might be interested in writing biographies as dissertations are discouraged by their advisors.”

It’s a shame, because there are plenty of prominent early leaders about whom we just don’t know enough.  Both Gordon Belt and myself have lamented the lack of a good biography of John Sevier.  A few hagiographic treatments came out over a century ago, but as far as I can determine, the only scholarly attempt at a life of Sevier was Carl Driver’s, published back in the thirties.

William Blount’s life story would also make for a fascinating read.  A study of his conspiratorial dealings came out not too long ago, but as a member of the Constitutional Convention and governor of the Southwest Territory, Blount deserves a cradle-to-grave account, too.

In part, this dearth of early Tennessee biographies is symptomatic of a more general shortage of scholarship on the Volunteer State’s frontier period.  The good news is that those relatively few recent studies on early Tennessee history have been very good—such as John Finger’s overview of the Volunteer State’s early daysKevin Barksdale’s book on the Lost State of Franklin, and Cynthia Cumfer’s examination of early Tennessee’s three races.

But it’s also symptomatic of the surprising gaps that exist in the field of early American biography.  These gaps become readily apparent when you look at Rev War biography.  One thing that’s always struck me is the lack of a recent, full-scale life of Nathanael Greene, the remarkable general who took command in the South in late 1780 and turned that theater of war on its head, after having served under Washington in the major campaigns in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.  Few men played a more critical role in the war.

Henry Knox, Washington’s resourceful artillery chief, also needs a full-scale, scholarly biography.  Don Higginbotham wrote a very good life of Daniel Morgan, but another look at the Old Wagoneer wouldn’t hurt, either.  Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates could also stand intensive biographies.

Let me point out that all these men were general officers, and yet we have more abundant published work on some Civil War colonels than on these guys.  Biographies of British commanders are just as hard to come by, perhaps more so.  In a sense, Rev War historiography has leapfrogged over the old military history and gone straight to the new.

Grad students and young scholars in search of dissertation or book topics need not worry about running out of material.  There are enough dead white guys in search of their Boswells to keep us all busy for a while.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, Tennessee History

“War in the Mountains” symposium

If you’re interested in the Civil War in Appalachia, then allow me to recommend “War in the Mountains,” a symposium scheduled for Saturday, April 16 at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, TN.  Here are the presenters:

For more info, call (423) 869-6439 or send an e-mail to

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Tennessee History

Founders with green thumbs

Here’s an aspect of the Revolutionary era that I’d never considered, and I’m not aware that anybody else has, either.  Looks kind of interesting.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

It doesn’t come out until September

…but you can already pre-order your very own copy of Bill O’ Reilly’s Lincoln assassination book, which will doubtless sell nine hundred bazillion copies.

Despite early indications that this was going to be another harebrained conspiracy account, along the lines of the 1977 book which falsely implicated Stanton in Booth’s plot, I was hoping against hope that O’Reilly and his co-author wouldn’t strike out into the tall grass of pseudohistorical nonsense.

I mean, it’s bad enough when websites and sensationalized documentaries foist that sort of stuff off on the public.  Put it in the mouth of a well-known media personality like O’Reilly, and then picture the madness that would ensue.  For decades, anyone giving a Lincoln lecture or site tour would end up fielding questions about whether members of Lincoln’s administration plotted to have him whacked. History blog comment sections would overflow with the rantings of crackpots, accusing all doubters of perpetuating a 150-year-old cover-up.

It would be one of the biggest boons to spurious history since Glenn Beck started dabbling in Native American studies.  We’d never hear the end of it.  Indeed, we’d be up to our armpits in it.

Now take a look at the promotional copy:

In the spring of 1865, the Civil War finally comes to an end after a series of incredibly bloody battles. President Abraham Lincoln’s generous terms for Robert E. Lee’s surrender are devised to fulfill Lincoln’s dream of healing a divided nation, with the former Confederates allowed to reintegrate into American society. One man and his band of murderous accomplices, perhaps reaching into the highest ranks of the U.S. government, are not appeased.

So here we go again.  Gird up thy loins, ye public historians who specialize in Lincoln.  Your job just got a little bit harder.


Filed under Abraham Lincoln