Monthly Archives: October 2012

Birth of an assassin nation

Yesterday a longtime amigo of mine picked up Assassin’s Creed III, the new installment of the wildly popular historical video game series set in the era of the American Revolution. I headed over to his place to check it out.

ACIII utilizes open-world gameplay, so instead of following a particular path and smashing whatever turns up in your way, you’re free to explore your environment and interact with its inhabitants. A few historic figures put in appearances, some of them obscure to anyone who isn’t familiar with the period, which indicates that the folks behind the game did a little homework. (William Johnson isn’t exactly a household name.)

When you wander around Boston, the architecture is all period, right down to the paneling on the interior walls. Some of the buildings themselves are historical; one of the game’s protagonists plans his missions at the Green Dragon Tavern. The town criers shout out actual eighteenth-century news, and there are animals roaming around the streets. Step in front of a British patrol, and you’ll find yourself brusquely shoved out of the way.

There are only a couple of minor things that undermine the illusion. Characters in ACIII aren’t quite as conscious of rank and deference as you’d expect a colonial American to be, and there’s a little too much facial hair for the 1700′s.

Other than that, it’s pretty nifty, sort of like a virtual Colonial Williamsburg with the added risk of getting killed. If you’re a history buff who’s into gaming, you’ll probably get a kick out of it. ( I’m more of an old school Galaga sort of guy, so I’ll just watch.)

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America

Down from the top shelf

I once heard my pastor (who also happens to be my uncle) quote another minister to the effect of, “The preacher’s job is to reach up and take it down from the top shelf, and put it in people’s hands.”  The preacher, in other words, must not only have a certain level of expertise in his subject matter, but also the ability to translate it into a usable form for people whose expertise is in some other area.  When I worked in museums, I used to see my job in pretty much the same way. The public historian’s job is to take it down from the top shelf and put it in people’s hands.

There’s an unfortunate tendency in academia to look down on public historians, as if curators, park rangers, and their colleagues at museums and other institutions are engaged in a less demanding enterprise than those who earn a paycheck from teaching and publishing.  But in many ways, the demands placed on the public historian are greater. The public historian, like his academic counterpart, must be able to conduct original research and make sense of the relevant secondary literature—to reach the top shelf. But his success will also depend on his ability to get that stuff down from the top shelf and into the public’s hands. That’s what distinguishes the public historian from the ivory tower historian.

A few days ago, however, it occurred to me that although I’m not in the museum field anymore, my job still consists of taking things down from the top shelf.  I make a living by teaching college survey courses.  My audience isn’t composed of colleagues or apprentices; it’s made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, each with different levels of interest and differing aptitudes when it comes to the study of the past.  I’ve therefore decided that teaching a college survey course is essentially an exercise in public history.

Wikimedia Commons

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Once bitten, twice shy

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is out on DVD now, and my mom has been determined to see it, for reasons unfathomable to me. The day before yesterday she went to the local rental place, and every copy was checked out. Every single one.

She went back again yesterday, and still had no luck.

On her way home from work today she tried for the third time, and there was one copy available. She snagged it and carried it around while looking over the other new releases, and while she was in the store she overheard two different people ask the clerk if there were any extra copies of AL:VH in the back.

Maybe it’ll be one of those movies that die an ignominious death in theaters only to enjoy cult status in the home video market.

By the way, Mom didn’t like it.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History and Memory

Heads up

Eastern Kentucky University just acquired a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite. This isn’t the sort of thing I’d normally bring to your attention, but this meteorite has an interesting provenance. It’s probably from the same bunch of space debris that turned up in my hometown of Tazewell, TN in 1853.

Other than the nineteenth-century angle, this doesn’t have much to do with American history, but look—I find something in the national news about a meteorite in my hometown, it’s going on the blog.

As long as we’re on the tangential subject of meteorites in my immediate vicinity, the town of Middlesboro, KY is actually inside a meteorite crater, and it’s about fifteen miles from Tazewell, just on the other side of Cumberland Gap.  (Here’s an article from the Planetary Science Institute.)  That’s two separate instances of big honking things hurtling down from space and smacking into the ground near where I’m sitting as I type this.  Tomorrow I’m buying a hard hat.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

North Koreans love Gone With the Wind

Pyongyang is just about the last place in the world you’d expect to find GWTW fans, but apparently you can’t swing a dead cat there without hitting one.

Maybe the notion of a society devastated by war and famine is especially resonant in North Korea.  Or maybe it appeals to some aspect of East Asian culture in general; Tony Horwtiz mentioned GWTW‘s popularity among Japanese visitors to Atlanta in Confederates in the Attic.

Personally, I think the explanation is pretty simple: Margaret Mitchell was a master storyteller who knew how to create remarkable characters.  Sure, her portrayal of the Old South was mythical—but holy cow, what a myth she managed to build.

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Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Take a tour of Kentucky’s War of 1812

The War of 1812 tour is now available on the Kentucky Historical Society’s Explore KY History app.  If you haven’t downloaded this thing, let me once again recommend it to you.  Most Americans probably associate the War of 1812 with the Chesapeake or the Gulf of Mexico, but Kentucky suffered more casualties in that conflict than all the other states combined.

Gov. Isaac Shelby as painted by Matthew Jouett, from the Kentucky Historical Society’s Hall of Governors via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most notable Kentucky vets was Isaac Shelby, who became the state’s first governor in 1792 and then ran for the same post twenty years later.  Shelby didn’t throw his hat into the ring until less than a month before the 1812 gubernatorial election, and he was more than sixty years old.

He won handily anyway, partly because he’d already made a name for himself during the Rev War and Kentuckians were gearing up for another confrontation with England. (Shelby had led a regiment at King’s Mountain; in fact, he was one of the primary architects of the expedition that defeated Ferguson’s Tories.)  In the summer of 1813 he took the field himself at the head of 3,500 volunteers who fought at the Battle of the Thames, thus seeing action in both of America’s wars with Britain.

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Bummer

Today is the anniversary of an event that is familiar to students of American religious history, one which has come to be called the “Great Disappointment.”

No, not that one.  I mean the Great Disappointment of 1844, in which, contrary to the expectations of thousands of Millerites, the world did not come to an end.  You’d think people who build their reputations on a painstaking study of Scripture would eventually get around to reading Matthew 24:36, but it’s one of the most widely ignored verses in the Bible, right up there with Matt. 5:44, Matt. 5:281 Cor. 6:7, and the last part of Leviticus 19:19.

On a different note, if you’d like information about a battlefield preservation opportunity, click here.

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Old slogans

A Chinese guy who ordered a t-shirt with a Patrick Henry quote on it is appealing his sentence of two years in a labor camp.  When you live in America, it’s easy to forget that in some parts of the world those 250-year-old words are still…well, revolutionary.

On a much lighter note, there’s a pretty clever Lincoln-Johnson campaign site you guys should see.  Oh, and some new John Bell Hood documents are coming to light.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, American Revolution, Civil War, History and Memory

Gates gets a gravestone

This weekend the DAR is dedicating a marker to Gen. Horatio Gates at Trinity Church in New York.  Gates was buried somewhere in the churchyard, but the exact location of his grave has been forgotten.

These days Gates is most famous for two things: his plummet from the hero of Saratoga in 1777 to the laughingstock of Camden in 1780, and his association with the Conway Cabal’s attempt to sabotage Washington’s command.  It only took a few years, a series of disastrous miscalculations, and a generous dose of narcissism to send his career into a tailspin.  He’s sort of like the M. Night Shyamalan of Rev War generals.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

Smile!

Hey, all you inconsiderate dolts who are defacing the cannons at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.  Peek-a-boo!  You’re being videotaped.

The elusive North American Nincompoop, captured on video while cavorting in the wild. Photo from the Middlesboro (KY) Daily News

Those artillery pieces aren’t replicas.  They’re genuine relics from Chickamauga and Chattanooga, and if you’re old enough to go pee-pee by yourself, you should have enough sense not to write, carve, or play on them.

While we’re on the subject of the Civil War at CGNHP, here’s an image I’ve had on my computer for a while that I don’t think I’ve posted on the blog before.  This is Cumberland Gap as seen from the Kentucky side when the Union held the pass.  The print itself is in the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, within sight of these very mountains.

The Pinnacle is at the top left, Tri-State Peak at top center, and the road into Yellow Creek Valley is in the foreground.  Check out the fortifications on top of the ridge and on the slopes.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War