Monthly Archives: February 2012

So you want to have a national heritage area

There’s an interesting controversy brewing in the Carolinas.

Advocates in North and South Carolina are fighting to have a region made up of 58 counties recognized as a national heritage area, specifically focusing on the contributions made by the Carolinas during the American Revolution.

The national heritage designation is a way to celebrate, protect and preserve what makes a region unique and can be used as a tool for tourism.

Examples of places with a national heritage designation include the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area and Iowa’s Silo and Smokestacks National Heritage Area.

Sounds like a good idea to me.  So what’s the problem?

A recent National Park Service study was completed, and the counties were told they did not meet the necessary criteria for the designation.

In the published results, one of the reasons cited was that there is a lack of distinctive cultural traditions in North and South Carolina from the 18th century that have carried over into today’s everyday life. These distinctive characteristics must be readily apparent to an outside observer.

What, I wonder, would constitute a readily apparent and distinctive cultural tradition from the eighteenth century?  Knee breeches?  Smallpox inoculation?

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution

Another sorta-kinda history series

Next month Spike TV will debut a new show in which Ric Savage and his team of associates will root around in people’s yards in search of valuable artifacts.  If the name rings a bell, it’s probably because Savage gained national fame by beating grown men within an inch of their lives as a professional wrestler.

“Heavy Metal” Ric Savage had a prolific seven year career in the sport, competing in nearly every wrestling organization, among them the WCW (World Championship Wrestling), the ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) and the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance). Following his retirement from professional wrestling in 1997, Savage returned to his other passion, the Civil War era, by getting his start in relic hunting.

These endeavors have not been unprofitable.  Savage now runs one of the leading artifact recovery enterprises in the country.  Here’s how the show works:

In the US, there are millions of historical relics buried in backyards just waiting to be discovered and turned into profit. “American Digger” hopes to claim a piece of that pie as the series travels to a different city each week, including Detroit, MI, Brooklyn, NY, Chicago, IL and Jamestown, VA searching for high-value artifacts and relics, some of which have been untouched for centuries. After pinpointing historical locations such as Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields, Savage’s first task is to convince reluctant homeowners to let his team dig up their property using state-of-the-art metal detectors and heavy-duty excavation equipment. The team will then sell any artifacts found for a substantial profit by consulting experts and scouring the antique and collectible markets, but not before negotiating a deal to divide the revenue with the property owners.

Mr. Savage is pictured below in the act of wielding a chair.

From Wikimedia Commons

Personally, I’m not about to tell that guy he can’t dig up my property.  In fact, I’d tell him to go ahead and tear up the floor of my living room and then help himself to whatever I had in the fridge, and perhaps have his way with my wife and daughters if he felt so inclined.

Is the launch of “American Digger” a sign of the public’s interest in history?  I’m not so sure.  As I’ve said before, I’m becoming convinced that Americans aren’t so much interested in history as interested in the past.  Lots of people enjoy the subject matter of history, but the process of history, the scholarly discipline of making sense of the past, goes largely ignored.  Hence we have wildly popular TV shows which depict people digging up artifacts, haggling over the price of heirlooms, and firing old guns, but the level of historical sensibility among the public can simultaneously remain low.

I don’t intend this as criticism of the show; I think I might give it a look.  I’m just suggesting that the appeal of the past is not necessarily a reliable indicator of any widespread historical awareness in America.

3 Comments

Filed under History and Memory

In recognition of Valentine’s Day

…I recommend you spend a few moments perusing the remarkable letters exchanged between John and Abigail Adams.  They don’t make marriages like that anymore.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Messy endings

The Center for Education and Leadership at Ford’s Theatre opens this month, and The New York Times paid a visit (hat tip to Brooks Simpson).  This article merits quoting at length.

After you leave a reproduction of the deathbed in the Petersen House, you enter the new building, as if emerging into the Washington streets the morning after Lincoln’s death. Church bells are tolling; broadsheets are plastered on walls. The panel text makes the atmospherics even more vivid. We learn that when Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor, heard what his brother had done, he said, “It was just as if I was struck on the forehead with a hammer.”

Mary Todd Lincoln was so mad with grief that White House pallbearers went barefoot, so sounds would not distress her. She neither attended the Washington service nor accompanied the coffin on its 1,700-mile railway journey to Springfield for burial.

That journey is evoked in a gallery space resembling the train car that carried the coffin. And touch-screen monitors give us the details: seven million people viewed the body where it was shown along the way, or congregated along the tracks; 300,000 in Philadelphia alone. There were hints of Lincoln’s legacy in the tributes, and signs of unfinished business too. In Washington the 22nd United States Colored Infantry headed the procession; in New York the City Council refused to allow blacks to march at all. Its ruling was overturned by Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

In counterpoint to the funeral train, we get a survey of Booth’s flight through the Virginia marshes. Parts of his diary are transcribed onto touch screens. Booth was bewildered by the manhunt: “I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.” He is tracked to a tobacco barn that is set ablaze and is shot by an overzealous soldier; his co-conspirators are hanged. Reconstruction begins, falters and ends.

In a panel about Lincoln’s vice president, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, we see how quickly the world Lincoln opposed oozed back into place. As president, Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation, approved of “Black Codes” limiting the freedom of former slaves, and wrote, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.”

Was Booth, then, ultimately triumphant? He certainly altered the shape of Reconstruction. As a result, the exhibition points out, by the 19th century’s end, Lincoln was recalled differently from the way he had been just after the war. At first he was remembered as a liberator, undermining the culture of enslavement; later memorials emphasized instead his devotion to the Union.

But we also learn of Lincoln’s afterlife and nearly universal appeal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower kept a complete set of Lincoln’s writings in the Oval Office. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “it was time” for Democrats to “claim Lincoln as one of our own.” The only portrait that the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen kept in his home was one of Lincoln, while Mao directed his followers to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Here too is Lincoln’s popular heritage, in Lincoln Logs, cartoons, knickknacks.

This is a radically different approach than the cabin-to-coffin exhibit at the ALPLM in Springfield, which ends on a note of somber resolution—the war won, Lincoln’s place in national pantheon secured.  The narrative at Ford’s is less reassuring.  This exhibit starts with Booth’s bullet, and then takes the visitor through the post-war debates over the changes Lincoln implemented.  The story meanders through an America still dealing with the ripples of Lincoln’s presidency, a nation taking steps both forward and backward, both toward the transformations wrought by Lincoln and in the opposite direction of Black Codes and the collapse of Reconstruction.

And the way in which people remember Lincoln, in this narrative, is not set in marble in April 1865.  Instead, the world contests his legacy down through the years, finding multiple meanings and dropping the ones that become inconvenient.

It seems to paint a messy, complicated, and often ambiguous picture of history and historical memory.  In other words, it sounds like it’s worth a visit.

1 Comment

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Lincoln lotto spot

An Illinois lottery commercial, in which a ginormous orange Powerball rolls through the Land of Lincoln and past a statue of the Great Emancipator himself, has Professor Owen Youngman pretty upset.  “The state of Illinois’ using images of Abraham Lincoln in TV ads to sell lottery tickets,” he writes, “is (to borrow a phrase from a recent presidential debate) as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”

Here’s the ad:

Personally, I don’t get the outrage, unless one objects to the very notion of a lottery.  There are indeed a good many arguments against lotteries which are worth considering, but in the ad Lincoln’s face is just one among many features of the Illinois landscape.  They don’t go so far as to specifically invoke Lincoln, unless the crack about “dreaming bigger” refers to the famously ambitious and upwardly mobile Abe, who was a firm believer in America as a haven for aspiring self-made men.

This strikes me as much ado about nothing.  Now, that upscale Lincoln eatery in D.C., on the other hand…

Hat tip: Abraham Lincoln Observer

1 Comment

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

A new collection on Rev War cavalry

…is coming out this fall.  Cool!

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

A group of reenactors wanted to do some good

…and rather than put up a flagpole, commission a statue, or get politicians to issue a resolution, they did something that actually needed doing.

RALEIGH — A coat worn by a North Carolina officer who was badly wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg has been stowed away at the N.C. Museum of History since 1914.

This week, a group of Civil War re-enactors will donate $10,000 to the museum so Collett Leventhorpe’s coat can be preserved and put on display for the first time.

The 1st North Carolina Volunteers of the 11th Regiment has already donated more than $18,000 toward preserving artifacts from the war to be featured at the museum. Among them was the battle flag Leventhorpe carried at Gettysburg, now on display at the museum.

After the flag, the 1st/11th re-enactors group, which has about 90 members from eastern and central North Carolina and Virginia, wanted to donate money for another project.

That rare conjunction of traits—not only the desire to do something and the gumption to see it through, but the wisdom to undertake something worthwhile.  Too bad there aren’t more folks like that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

Imprisoned Patriots

Carl Borick has a new book out, examining the plight of Revolutionary War prisoners in the South.  This one ought to be worth a read.  Borick previously published a book on the 1780 siege of Charleston, which I recommend, and organized a fantastic temporary exhibit on the occupation of that city at the Charleston Museum.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Reconsidering Andrew Johnson

Dr. Paul Bergeron probably knows more about Andrew Johnson than anyone else does, so his newest book ought to be well worth a read.  Check out this article on Bergeron’s work in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

1 Comment

Filed under Civil War, Historiography, Tennessee History

The Farragut Folklife Museum is back in business

…with updated exhibits.  If you’re interested in learning more about the community that Admiral David G. Farragut called home—site of the infamous disappearing monument—then stop by and pay the museum a visit.  Admission is free.

Leave a comment

Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History