Monthly Archives: September 2012

Lincoln movie items of note

In the next few weeks there are going to be so many Lincoln updates that you’ll be pining for the good old days when nothing happened other than the occasional Liam Neeson visit to Springfield.

As is his custom, Daniel Day-Lewis was fanatically committed to his role in Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln film.  This according to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Robert Todd Lincoln and whose character in The Dark Knight Rises was utterly superfluous, thank you very much.

Producer Kathleen Kennedy also talked to reporters about Spielberg’s Lincoln.  More importantly, she gave a progress report on the next Jurassic Park installment.  (One of these days I’ll finally give in and make this a history/dinosaur blog.)

There’s already been misplaced criticism of Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln’s voice.  All you people who want your Lincoln to sound like Gregory Peck need to read up on what his voice was actually like.

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Paranormal investigators add gravity, scholarly rigor to Antietam commemoration

Staff rides and ranger walks are great, but there’s just no substitute for the insight of an experienced ghost hunter:

Among the stories told was one about a re-enactor who was re-enacting a battle at one point and thought he had been “killed” by another re-enactor. However, after the battle was over, nobody else saw the “killing” re-enactor, and Riley implied it was the spirit of an actual dead soldier who took part in the battle re-enactment, thinking it was real.

A subsequent investigation by four adolescents and their dog revealed that the “spirit” was actually a local con man in disguise.  When reached for comment, the malefactor stated, “I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids!”


Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Have a look at Col. Cleveland

Remember that painting of Rev War militia officer Benjamin Cleveland that Don Troiani was working on?  It’s done!  The Wilkes Heritage Museum has a copy, and you can get a look at it by clicking here.

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Oh, well

That Lincoln document that a guy has been hawking on the street in Milwaukee?  It’s probably a facsimile.  The original is still at the Library of Congress.

If you can’t put your faith in a presidential manuscript that somebody’s peddling by the road with a handmade sign, then you can’t really take anything for granted, can you?

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A frontier landmark

If you drive along U.S. Route 58 in Lee County, VA you might notice a distinctive geologic feature a few miles east of the entrance to Wilderness Road State Park and just inside the eastern boundary of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.  Atop the ridge of Cumberland Mountain sit the “White Rocks,” a sandstone formation containing light-colored quartzite that shines when the sun hits it.

In the late 1700’s the rocks were an important landmark for the hundreds of thousands of settlers traveling on the Wilderness Road below.  The sight of this outcrop let migrants know that they were about a day’s march away from Cumberland Gap, which offered a passage through the mountain wall into Kentucky.  (Today you can drive from White Rocks to the Gap’s opening in fifteen minutes.)

I doubt any of those frontier migrants felt like climbing to the top of the ridge to see what the valley looked like from the rocks; they had more important things on their minds.  Today, though, if you want to check out the view from White Rocks, there’s a three-mile trail that will take you there.  That’s three miles one way, mind you, and it’s mostly uphill.  Not exactly easy, but you can take in some nice scenery once you get there.

Sort of a bird’s-eye view of Daniel Boone country.  Actually, I guess it is a bird’s-eye view, since you’re eye-level with the birds.

If you’re going to hike to White Rocks, make sure you see Sand Cave, too.  It’s about a mile from the White Rocks overlook, and on the other side of the ridge.  I’d never been there before last week, but as soon as I saw it, it immediately became one of my favorite places in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

The cave gets its name from the fine sand that covers the floor.  There’s a small waterfall near the cave’s entrance.  My pictures don’t really do it justice; with the waterfall-fed stream running through the trees and the cave’s ceiling towering overhead, it’s like stumbling across the Garden of Eden.  It’s not a deep cave, but the semi-circular roof towering overhead and the wide entrance make it pretty spectacular.  The sand inside is so thick that it’s like walking on a beach, with your feet sliding and churning all over the place.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites

Seems legit

Here’s a golden opportunity for all you Lincoln buffs in the Milwaukee area.

For a few weeks now, Ron [Barczynski] has been sitting there at 27th and Cleveland for hours a day trying to find a buyer for what he insists is an original and authentic letter from one of our greatest presidents to a Civil War hero.

“I want $10,000. It’s a bargain,” he tells me when I stop to ask what the heck he’s up to. Other Lincoln documents have gone for 10 times that amount, he says.

He found the letter tucked into the back of a picture frame that he bought 40 years ago from a south side resale shop. Now at age 74 – which means he’s been alive half as long as Lincoln has been dead – he is feeling a sense of urgency about cashing in.…

The letter, dated Sept. 20, 1864, and written to Major Gen. Philip Sheridan in Winchester, Va., is just three sentences long: “Have just heard of your great victory. God bless you all, officers and men. Strongly inclined to come up and see you.”

It’s signed A. Lincoln.

The original was at the Library of Congress as of the 1950’s, so the notion that it ended up in a Wisconsin second-hand shop a mere twenty years later is rather unlikely.  And yet when I look at this photo…

Photo by Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

…I can’t help but think this would be a sound investment.

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Two anniversaries

Today wasn’t just the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam; it was also the 225th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.  Wonder if all the guys who labored over that piece of parchment had any idea how expensive it would turn out to be.


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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Hope you weren’t planning on doing research at the Georgia State Archives

As of November 1, the Georgia State Archives are closed to the public.  Open access hours aren’t being reduced, mind you—they’re being eliminated entirely.  You’ll need an appointment to use a state’s main archival repository.  Appointments will be limited, of course, based on the availability of the remaining staff.

I don’t know the ins and outs of Georgia’s fiscal situation, but I’d imagine $30 million would go a long way toward helping the public servants at the archives keep their jobs.  That’s the amount Delta Airlines got in tax breaks authorized by Gov. Nathan Deal last year.  Two weeks after Deal signed off on that, he and his wife received preferred customer benefits from Delta worth some $8,000 consisting of “free upgrades when seats are available, Sky Club membership, bonus miles, priority check-in and boarding, fee waivers and more,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  A spokesman called the perks a “contribution to the state of Georgia.”  Deal will only utilize his seat upgrades and priority check-in while traveling on official business, you see.  Georgians who are unable to access their public records can thus take comfort in knowing that the governor’s check-in at the Delta counter has been expedited.


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The pale horse

Not long ago I screened a copy of Death and the Civil War, which premieres on PBS Tuesday, Sept. 18.  Based largely on Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, the show explores the implications of the tremendous loss of life (to the tune of over 700,000 dead) during the costliest war Americans have ever fought on their own soil.

One of the most salient facts about this bloodshed was the degree to which the country was unprepared to deal with it.  Nineteenth-century Americans had particular notions about what constituted a “good death,” but the war forced men to come to terms with the prospect of a sudden, horrific, and ignominious end to their lives.  Neither of the two contending governments were adequately prepared for the number of losses either, lacking standardized policies or an infrastructure to handle the identification, removal, and burial of the corpses.  Nor was there a systematic effort to ensure the provision of prompt and accurate information about their fate to loved ones back home.  This absence of a comprehensive official effort in the war’s early days forced private organizations and individuals to fill these roles, seeing to the burial of dead comrades and writing letters to their relatives.

Confederate dead collected for burial after Antietam. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (Call number LC-B811- 557)

There was improvisation and change on many levels.  On an immediate and practical one, embalming grew in popularity to answer the desires of families to have soldiers’ bodies shipped home for burial.  The horrific death toll exacted by the war’s larger battles prompted the creation of national cemeteries.  Congress began authorizing the acquisition of land for burials near major battlefields in 1862, but with the establishment of a national burial ground at Gettysburg the following year, the issue of soldiers’ internment became a matter of civic responsibility and public sentiment.

In fact, the growing awareness that the public owed something to the war dead and their families contributed to important changes in conceptions of the proper scope of federal activity.  In some cases it took the advocacy of private individuals to accomplish this; after losing his son to the war, Henry Bowditch called for the creation of a proper ambulance service, and Clara Barton worked to locate information on the missing at the request of distraught families while advocating for greater government attention to the dead and their loved ones.  This growing sense of national obligation, along with a fear that Union graves would be neglected or desecrated by hostile Southerners, led Montgomery Meigs to call for a comprehensive survey of U.S. war burials, many of which had been haphazard affairs conducted by comrades as circumstances permitted.  Official requests for information on graves brought forth a deluge of written testimony, and surveyors eventually located and documented thousands of Union interments across the former Confederacy.  The national government oversaw the relocation of over 300,000 of these bodies to national cemeteries, one of the largest federal programs undertaken up to that time.  The war had changed the relationship between the government and its soldiers and citizens as the scale of bloodshed led to a developing notion of a debt owed by the nation to those who gave their lives for it.

This official effort did not encompass Confederate dead; instead, Southern women responded to federal neglect of their soldiers’ graves by organizing their own volunteer efforts.  They tended to the graveyards of Rebel soldiers in Richmond and saw to the repatriation of Southern bodies to their native soil.  Both North and South developed postwar traditions to perpetuate this sense of obligation to the war dead, but there was thus a sectional difference in the level of government aid available in seeing to the disposition of bodies.

Death and the Civil War covers additional topics not discussed in this review, such as the manner in which Lincoln gave meaning to the war’s dead in his dedication speech at Gettysburg, the loss of life in contraband camps, and Alexander Gardner’s photographic exhibition of battlefield casualties.  (The photos themselves are utilized to chilling effect throughout the program.)  It’s a documentary that manages to be comprehensive and intimate at the same time, conveying something of the scale of death created by the war while offering glimpses of the ways individual Americans lived out the experience in their own words.  By making connections between the battlefield and the home front and by exploring the war’s impact on religion, race, and memory, it brings some of the questions of the new military history to public attention.  It’s both informative and sobering, offering us an utterly unromanticized look at a war which resolved important issues at the heart of American history, but only at a fearsome cost.  It’s well worth your time, so tune in Tuesday night if you get the chance.


Filed under Civil War

NPS battlefield report is ready for your comments

The report, which examines Civil War battlefield preservation over the past twenty years and offers some recommendations for the future, went online today at  The NPS will be taking comments until October 12, so take a look and sound off.

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites