Monthly Archives: August 2011

A colonial romance movie

…is shooting this fall in Virginia.  It’s based on Mary Johnston’s 1900 novel To Have and to Hold, about a Jamestown settler who marries a girl pledged to a nobleman.  The book was wildly popular when it was first published, and was the basis for two silent films. You can read it online for free, if you’re so inclined.

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Filed under Colonial America, History and Memory

Ed Bearss’s favorite Civil War books

Ed Bearss is a living legend when it comes to the history of the Civil War, so it was about time somebody asked him to name his favorite books on the subject.  I think his choices were pretty good.  Check it out.

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Filed under Civil War, Historiography

Another historic site desecration here in East Tennessee

This time it’s a Revolutionary War veteran’s grave in Johnson City.  As a teenager, Darling Jones served under Isaac Shelby in South Carolina and participated in John Sevier’s Cherokee campaigns.  Now people are using his final resting place as a trash dump.

There’s a tradition that Jones fired the shot that killed Patrick Ferguson at King’s Mountain, but he didn’t mention being present at the battle in his pension application, and Bobby Moss doesn’t include him in his annotated list of King’s Mountain vets as either a documented or possible participant.  I suspect the Ferguson story is a bit of accrued tradition, since it seems that Jones wasn’t there. King’s Mountain was The Big One as far as most Tennesseans have been concerned, so it makes sense that local Rev War vets would get lumped in with the guys who fought there.  (Most traditional accounts credit another Tennessee militiaman named Robert Young with the fatal shot, although Ferguson’s body was apparently so riddled with holes that one wonders whether any single individual can be said to have “killed” him.)

Whether the tradition that Jones was at King’s Mountain is true or not, his gravesite is no place to leave garbage.

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Filed under American Revolution, Tennessee History

Have a fashionable lunch with Lincoln

There’s something kind of inappropriate about the fact that a luxury vehicle is named after one of the most unpretentious men to ever occupy the White House.

There’s something equally inappropriate about the fact that a painfully hip, upscale eatery in Washington, D.C. is named after him.

Wikimedia Commons

“The lunch menu focuses on traditionally sized entrees, such as broiled golden mac ‘n’ cheese sassed up with smoked ham ($12) and the juicy Lincoln burger served on a slightly sweet brioche bun and topped with creamy goat cheese, a homemade tomato jam and a speckling of watercress shoots ($14). At dinnertime, the menu switches to small plates, with more than 30 selections. Enjoy a French twist on a seaside sensation with the lobster beignets ($12), or get a kick out of the coffee-rubbed duck breast accompanied by a plum, walnut and farro grain salad ($14).”

According to the proprietor, Lincoln’s era “evokes the simplicity of food itself.” That’s probably what people thought back in that age of the Market Revolution. “This evokes the simplicity of food itself,” they must have said to each other, as they sent their manufactured products and commercial crops along all those canals and railways they were building.

Speaking of simplicity, they serve the lemonade in a mason jar.  You can sit there and sip your lemonade out of a jar and feel all folksy, while you gaze at the Pop Art images on the walls and await your fourteen-dollar “Lincoln burger” on a brioche bun.

Can you imagine Lincoln ambling into a place like this, with his hair characteristically unkempt and his pants too short, and folding his angular frame into a booth?  “Well, I reckon I’ll have the coffee-rubbed duck breast with the plum, walnut and farro grain salad.”

The whole thing reminds me of Cornelius Van Santvoord’s story about a petitioner who came to the White House asking for a presidential endorsement to help promote a business scheme.  Lincoln told him, “I’ll have nothing to do with this business, nor with any man who comes to me with such degrading propositions.…You have come to the wrong place, and for you and everyone who comes for such purposes, there is the door!”

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

You’ve got about three weeks

…to see the turret from the Monitor live and in person.  Conservators at the Mariners’ Museum have taken it out of its freshwater tank for cleaning.  Once they’re done, the turret goes back in for another soak, and it’ll be fifteen years before they take it out again.  Those of us who can’t make it to Newport News by the end of the month can still watch on live webcam.

I’ve wanted to get down there for a long time.  I may have told you guys this before, but LMU’s museum has a number of very rare Monitor items in its collection.  Some of them belonged to John Worden, who commanded the ship during the battle with the Virginia, including a collection of his papers, mementos given to him by the crew, the speaking trumpet he used in the engagement, and one of the ship’s signal lanterns. One of my biggest thrills as an intern was getting to handle these items in the process of dismantling a display.  You can see some of this material in the museum’s current temporary exhibit, “Lincoln and the Technology of War.”

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Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Fifteen kilotons of misplaced outrage

We just marked a significant but somber anniversary here in East Tennessee—the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, an event in which the town of Oak Ridge played an indispensable role.  Charles Johnson and Charles Jackson tell the story of the wartime city which sprang up virtually overnight in their fascinating book City Behind a Fence.

For some time now the National Park Service has been mulling over the possibility of a new park devoted to the Manhattan Project with sites in three states, including historically important locations at Oak Ridge, and last month the Secretary of the Interior gave it his recommendation.  The idea has some people pretty upset, for reasons that I think are not only mistaken but downright odd.

These critics seem incapable of distinguishing between preservation and celebration, and between interpretation and glorification.  Here’s a recent sample of the brouhaha from The New York Times:

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week offered his support for the establishment of a Manhattan Project National Park, and top leaders on Capitol Hill have already vowed to move a plan developed by the National Park Service through Congress in the coming months. But Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Maryland-based Nuclear Information Resource Service, said today that the effort runs contrary to the goals of the national park system.

“National parks are national treasurers, and glorifying a weapon of mass destruction is certainly not among the purposes of a national park,” Mariotte said.

No kidding.  Glorifying a weapon of mass destruction isn’t among the purposes of any sane person or institution. But we’re not talking about glorification; we’re talking about a national historical park.  National parks preserve and interpret.  Neither of those activities necessarily involves glorification.  I doubt the Polish government had glorification in mind when it set aside Auschwitz-Birkenau as a historic site.  It doesn’t amount to a statement about whether something is good or bad, only that it’s important.

Workers at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge during the war. From the American Museum of Science and Energy via Wikimedia Commons

Greg Mello, of the Los Alamos Study Group in New Mexico, shares those concerns.

“We have to bracket a healthy historical interest with our moral sensibilities and with common sense, and that’s what’s not happening here,” said Mello, whose group has been lobbying against the effort for several years as the National Park Service has conducted a feasibility study ahead of making its official recommendation.

“What we risk is harming the national park system as a whole and the idea of national parks just when we need to protect the environment the most,” Mello said.

Setting aside significant places for stewardship will harm the idea of national parks?  That’s weird, because I thought it was the idea of national parks.  These guys do know that the NPS maintains historic areas, right?

Mello and Mariotte said honoring the atomic bomb with its own national park would set a poor precedent.

Again with the celebratory language.  Who said anything about “honoring” the bomb?  Does Ford’s Theatre National Historical Site “honor” the practice of political assassination?

“Once you open the gate … a national park can be anything,” Mello said. “Why don’t we have a Disneyland national park or NASCAR national park; what’s the limit?”

The limit is that a national historical park or site must be deemed significant enough to warrant federal ownership and administration.  Within those guidelines, you can have national parks dedicated to any number of aspects of American history—textile manufacturing and whaling, to name just two examples.

Here’s a rather bizarre line of argument from a recent editorial by Russ Wellen at Scholars & Rogues:

It’s always a mistake to assume that much of the public favors the United States leading the way on disarmament when other states retain nuclear weapons. But you can be fairly certain that the public either lacks knowledge of the extent to which nuclear weapons still exist since the end of the Cold War or it locks said existence in a tiny room in its mind. In other words, isn’t the Manhattan Project National Park a vast investment of money in an attraction for an audience that’s strictly niche?

Wellen chastises the American public for their ignorance and indifference regarding the important issue of nuclear weapons, and uses the fact of their ignorance and indifference to discredit a measure that would inform them and engage them with that very issue. It’s as if someone blew off a proposal to encourage literacy by arguing that people didn’t care enough about reading books for it to work.

In any case, I think Wellen’s assessment of the American public’s indifference is off the mark.  Elsewhere in his editorial, he refers to Richard Rhodes, whose prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb has been in print for twenty-five years and sold hundreds of thousands of copies despite the fact that it deals with highly technical subject matter and clocks in at some 900 pages.  The success of this volume indicates that there is indeed a public interest in the historical aspects of this issue.  The tremendous popularity currently enjoyed by WWII literature and media of all kinds also bodes well for the success of the proposed park.

A piece in The Oak Ridger applies some much-needed good sense:

Creating this park provides an opportunity to interpret and discuss an incredibly important piece of American and world history, and to allow contemporary society to better understand the complex and difficult decision to use the bomb.

Experts with divergent views will be consulted during the development of the educational materials to ensure the materials are balanced and informative. Park rangers can share the stories of participants and decision-makers with visitors to allow them to be better informed about these decisions.

“The decision of whether the bombs should have been dropped will always be subject for intense debate, and the public should have access to the places instrumental in the development of atomic power so they can reach their own conclusions,” said Ron Tipton, senior vice president at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Because the government already owns the land and historic Manhattan Project properties, the costs associated with the creation of a Manhattan Project National Historical Park will be modest. In fact, the Department of Energy will be saving an estimated $100 million or more by preserving the Manhattan Project facilities such as the famous B Reactor at Hanford, Wash., rather than destroying and disposing of them. The National Park Service study recommends that it make use of existing museums and interpretive centers such as the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, and the Los Alamos Historical Society Museum in New Mexico.

The story of the Manhattan Project isn’t just the story of the bomb, but of the people and places involved and all the momentous consequences that followed.  The NPS has been in the historic interpretation business for quite some time, and they’re rather good at it.  Let’s at least see how they plan to tell these stories before condemning the effort altogether.

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Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Tennessee History

A wider view from Tryon Palace

The New York Times has a piece on the recently constructed North Carolina History Center at New Bern.  It’s part of the same site that includes a reconstruction of Gov. William Tryon’s impressive eighteenth-century house.

What’s cool about the article is that it uses the center’s exhibits to explain some of the ways historic interpretation has changed over the years.  Rather than focusing exclusively on Tryon and those who sat with him atop the pinnacle of colonial society, the exhibits widen things out a little by examining the everyday lives of ordinary North Carolinians, the ways the environment shaped human history, and so on.  And, of course, the center employs all the latest gadgets in order to engage in its audience.

Check out the link to the center’s website in the article, too; it takes you to a short video where you can get a taste of the exhibits.

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Filed under Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

New guide to Appalachia’s Civil War, with some delinquency thrown in

A new guide map called “Appalachia: Civil War Home Front” directs visitors to historic sites across thirteen different states.  You can get more information on the places featured at Visit Appalachia.  Pick up a copy and pay us a visit.  We’re not as ornery as we’ve been made out to be.

Speaking of Appalachia and the Civil War, a couple of young punks allegedly vandalized a cemetery and historic church in Hamblen County, TN, just down the road from my neck of the woods.  James Longstreet spent some time in that area following his unsuccessful attempt to take Knoxville in late ’63.  His men used the church in question as a hospital, and the cemetery includes some Civil War burials.  I visited the site a few years ago; it’s a very cool place.  The youths were evidently ghost-hunting, a popular vocation for people whose families dread being asked about them when they run into friends in the supermarket.

Luckily, authorities were able to track down the culprits because one of these criminal masterminds (and I’m not making this up) actually left his bicycle at the scene, seemingly oblivious to the fact that leaving your personal belongings lying around the place where you’ve committed a crime is generally not the best way to evade detection.  No word yet on whether or not these kids are enrolled in any of their school district’s gifted programs; somehow I don’t think they are.

What juvenile vandals really need is just a firm but gentle push in the right direction.  While standing over a pit filled with live crocodiles.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Tennessee History

It’s about time somebody started celebrating the Whiskey Rebellion

…and the good people of Washington County, PA did just that.

The artillery demonstration left something to be desired, however:

Photo via the Associated Press

Take that, Federalist leprechauns!  HUZZAH!

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Filed under History and Memory