Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Confederate States Air Force

Harry Turtledove, eat your heart out.

While Rebel and Union soldiers still fought it out with bayonets and cannons, a Confederate designer had the foresight to imagine flying machines attacking Northern armies. He couldn’t implement his vision during the war, and the plans disappeared into history, until resurfacing at a rare book dealer’s shop 150 years later.

Now those rediscovered designs have found their way to the auction block, providing a glimpse at how Victorian-eratechnology could have beaten the Wright Brothers to the punch.

The papers of R. Finley Hunt, a dentist with a passion for flight, describe scenarios where flying machines bombed Federal troops across Civil War battlefields. Hunt’s papers are set to go up for sale at the Space and Aviation Artifacts auction during the week of Sept. 15-22, giving one lucky collector a chance to own a piece of an alternate technological history that never came to pass.

Anyone who runs is a Yankee.  Anyone who stands still is a well-disciplined Yankee.

Here’s the whole story, along with images of some of the documents.

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I spent a year after college working as a curatorial assistant in the same Lincoln/Civil War museum where I was an undergraduate intern.  We had a small staff, with one part-time guest relations employee.  On days she didn’t work, the rest of us had to keep one eye on whatever we were usually doing and another eye on the front desk to check visitors in.  A row of floor-to-ceiling glass windows separated the office area from the lobby and gift shop.

One Tuesday I spotted an elderly couple walk through the door from the atrium, so I ran over to the front counter to take their admission fee.  Before I had a chance to do the usual little spiel—temporary exhibit gallery upstairs, restrooms behind you and to the left, no flash pictures—the wife said, “We just heard on the radio that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.”

I visualized something like a small prop plane jammed into the side of a more or less structurally intact building.  “Gee, that’s odd,” I said, and went back to what I assumed would be a mundane Tuesday.  It wasn’t.

We didn’t have a TV in the building, and the news websites couldn’t keep up with all the traffic, so we spent several hours huddled around a radio.  I didn’t see the images that riveted most of the world until I got home.  Instead, I heard radio announcers trying to make sense of what was happening and sort out all the rumors that were flying around—a missile into the Pentagon, a car bomb at the State Department, explosions at the White House and FBI headquarters.  In the same way that the creature in a horror movie is scarier before the director lets you get a good look at him, what happened that day seemed especially frightening when you couldn’t see it unfold on TV.

One of the things I learned about public history back in those days between college and grad school was that good interpretation is as much as about quantity as quality.  Sometimes objects require you to slather on the interpretation and tell visitors why they matter and what we can learn from them.  Other objects speak for themselves, and the public historian just needs to get out of the way. Artifacts like that do your work for you, because they’re more eloquent than any exhibit copy.  A simple identification label will suffice.

So here are two such artifacts, separated by exactly 224 years—to the very day—of American history.

Revolutionary militiamen carried this flag at the Battle of Brandywine, PA on Sept. 11, 1777 (from

Recovery workers found this one in the rubble of the World Trade Center (from the NMAH).

click to enlarge


Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Comment glitches

Ladies and gents, we seem to be experiencing some technical difficulties.  Some comments are getting kicked into the spam bin, despite the fact that they’re obviously not spam.  Others are getting put in the approval queue even though they’re from folks who have already commented in the past.  Once you leave a comment on this blog, all additional comments from your e-mail address are supposed to be approved automatically and appear as soon as you submit them, but some comments from frequent fliers have ended up in the queue anyway.  Weird.

I don’t know what the problem is, but rest assured that if you’ve tried to comment on a post and it’s been kicked into a queue, it wasn’t intentional.  I’ll try to figure out what’s going on, but given my lack of technical competence, it’ll mostly involve staring at the computer in slack-jawed ignorance.  Until then, continue to comment away; I’ll keep checking in as often as I can to see if anything has been wrongly held in blog limbo.

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Should Washington’s letter to a Newport synagogue be on display?

An editorial in the New York Daily News makes a case that it should be, since the document is among “the seminal American endorsements of religious freedom.”

Some six decades ago, businessman Morris Morgenstern purchased the letter and later gave title to a personal charity, the Morris Morgenstern Foundation.

The foundation, in turn, loaned the document to B’nai B’rith International for display in a museum that closed about 10 years ago.

Since then, Washington’s words have been in storage and the foundation has declined to cooperate with efforts by the Library of Congress, the National Museum of American Jewish History and others to return this letter to wonderful public display.

While the foundation’s ownership of the document is unimpeachable, his inspirational words on paper are part of the American patrimony.

You can read Washington’s letter in its entirety here.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

I can has history?

I found a website that lets you write captions for image macros, so I decided it was high time us history junkies jumped on the Internet meme bandwagon.  

If you’ve never heard of such phenomena as Ceiling Cat or Philosoraptor, then you probably won’t get any of this.  Serves you right for not wasting enough time online.



Filed under History on the Web

Would any of you good people happen to know

…where the heck the monument at Admiral David Farragut’s birthplace went?

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Filed under Civil War, Tennessee History

Just like gravity

An old photograph of a lanky, bearded guy has turned up, so once again we’re afforded the opportunity to witness Lynch’s Inexorable Law of Amateur Photograph Collecting in action.  It operates with all the mechanical, pitiless necessity of the other principles which govern the observable universe.

The Abraham Lincoln Observer notes three discrepancies between this latest Pseudo-Lincoln and the generally accepted Lincoln of record: Pseudo-Lincoln is smoking a pipe, drinking, and has what appears to be a small mammal sticking out of his face.

BONUS POINTS: The photo in question comes from what the owner claims to be a trove of Roosevelt family photos. That’s supposedly Teddy Roosevelt’s dad sitting next to Abe.  It’s basically an inescapable conclusion.  See, Teddy was a mere lad during the Civil War, but this guy resembles Teddy, ergo it’s Teddy’s father.  Obvious, really.

I suppose it’s also possible that it’s Teddy himself, shortly after falling into a rift in the fabric of the space-time continuum during one of his hunting expeditions and landing on the White House lawn, just as Lincoln was celebrating a personal record for longest interval between beard trimmings by smoking his first pipe and indulging in a stiff drink.  But we don’t want to jump to any hasty conclusions here, do we?

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