Monthly Archives: January 2013

A heritage tourist’s bucket list

Preservation Journey asked readers to name the historic buildings they’d like to see in person before they head off to that big self-guided walking tour in the sky.  Maria Pease decided to take them up on it, so she’s compiling a list of all the places in the United States that she wants to visit.

In that spirit, I thought I’d write down a bucket list of U.S. historic sites and history museums of my own, and I was surprised at how long it turned out to be.  Before I did this little exercise, I thought I’d been making pretty good progress with my history travels, but it turns out I’ve still got quite a bit to cover.  Here they are, in no particular order.

  1. All the Rev War sites in and around Boston
  2. Lexington and Concord
  3. Plimoth Plantation (I’ve never been to New England, so there are quite a few entries from that neck of the woods.)
  4. New Bedford. The history of whaling has fascinated me for a long time, longer than I’ve been interested in “history” in general.
  5. General Nathanael Greene Homestead
  6. Trenton and Princeton
  7. Valley Forge
  8. Saratoga
  9. Petersen House (Went to Ford’s Theater with my family when I was a kid, but for some reason we didn’t go across the street.)
  10. Alamance Battleground (This was a near-miss for me.  I planned to visit during a weekend trip to North Carolina, but I spent more time than I’d expected at Guilford Courthouse and had to head back.)
  11. Mary Todd Lincoln House (I lived ten miles from Lexington for a year and never made it to this one.)
  12. Moore’s Creek Bridge
  13. Museum of the Confederacy
  14. Fort Sumter (I’ve seen it from Sullivan’s Island, but haven’t actually been to it.)
  15. Blue Licks
  16. Perryville (I’ve never been really obsessive about hitting Civil War battlefields; I just try to make it to the ones that really interest me and the obligatory destinations like Gettysburg and Antietam.  But I’ve heard Perryville is really nice, so I’d like to make it up there at some point.)
  17. Monmouth Courthouse
  18. Brandywine
  19. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (I’ve never really been into these engagements, but it seems a shame to have all those battlegrounds in one place and not visit.)
  20. Fort Necessity
  21. Blair Mountain (Better see it while it’s still there.)
  22. Atlanta History Center (A friend of mine went a few years ago and said it was great.)
  23. Horseshoe Bend
  24. The Mariners’ Museum, just for the Monitor stuff
  25. Savannah, GA

Finally, a few places I’ve visited already, but which need do-overs for various reasons.

  1. National Museum of American History, since it’s been totally renovated since the last time I was there.
  2. Independence National Historical Park.  I didn’t have time to see the whole thing.
  3. Mt. Vernon.  Went when I was a kid, but I don’t remember anything except the tomb.
  4. New York City.  Been a couple of times, but it was before I’d developed an interest in history, so I didn’t want to see anything except the American Museum of Natural History, the Empire State Building, and a couple of Broadway shows.

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What do American college freshmen think of when someone mentions Lincoln? (An unscientific survey)

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been teaching a section of the introductory course on Abraham Lincoln which all freshmen at Lincoln Memorial University are required to take.  On the first day, I asked the students to write down five things they think of when they hear Lincoln’s name.  I didn’t require correct answers, and I told them not to consult any books or other sources.  I was just curious to see what comes to the mind of the average American eighteen-year-old when Lincoln is mentioned.

The most common responses by far involved some aspect of the assassination, with all but five of the students mentioning Lincoln’s murder.  About one-third of them referred to the fact he was shot in a theater, and one-fifth mentioned John Wilkes Booth by name.  One of them mentioned Booth’s close proximity to Lincoln at the 1864 inauguration.

Lincoln’s height was the second most common thing that came up, followed pretty closely by references to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, and his “Honest Abe” moniker.  One-quarter of the students mentioned the fact that he was the Sixteenth President of the United States, and the same number mentioned his iconic stovepipe hat.  One-sixth of them referred to Lincoln’s whiskers, his Kentucky background, his appearance on American currency, his “railsplitter” nickname, or his association with the Civil War.

The early deaths of several of Lincoln’s relatives was mentioned twice.  So was the Thirteenth Amendment, the date of his birth, his election to the presidency, and the association of his name with LMU.

Only two incorrect statements appeared in the responses.  One student claimed that Lincoln was “stern and serious,” perhaps confusing his appearance in formal portraits with his actual demeanor.  Another wrote that Lincoln got into hot water with his dad for chopping down a cherry tree, but I half suspect that this answer was an intentional joke rather than an honest mistake.

The following references each appeared once:

  • Member of the Whig Party
  • He dressed badly
  • Born in a log cabin
  • Was a Republican
  • His wife shopped a lot
  • Carried letters in his hat
  • A public speaker
  • Had many enemies
  • Was a great leader
  • Loved reading books
  • Had “defined” facial features
  • Had disturbing dreams
  • Mentioned the names of attending doctors at his deathbed
  • Gettysburg Address
  • Wrote about giant bones at Niagara Falls
  • Grew up poor

Only one student mentioned the Gettysburg Address, which came as a surprise to me.  Also surprising was the reference to Lincoln’s short meditation on Niagara Falls, one of his more obscure written works.  In addition, I expected to see more references to his humble origins and log cabin birth, since that’s been such an important aspect of the Lincoln cultural phenomenon over the years.  In fact, of the five major aspects of “Lincolnian memory” identified by historian Merrill Peterson (the savior of the Union, the great emancipator, the man of the people, the first American, and the self-made man), only the notion of Lincoln as emancipator was prominent in the students’ responses.

Finally, three students mentioned the recent “vampire hunter” meme.  I leave it to you to decide whether that number is alarmingly high or reassuringly low.

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“She is the very picture of Ann Rutledge”

Today I’ll be spending some time in my Lincoln class talking about the Ann Rutledge controversy.  People tend to take biographical information for granted, as if all the facts we think we know about famous historical figures have just always “been there.”  The Ann Rutledge case is a handy way to show students that historical information is constructed and contested, dependent on  the evidence researchers are able to uncover and how they interpret it.

Ann Rutledge died in 1835, when photography was still in its infancy.  That means I’ve got to rely on later, imaginative reconstructions when it comes to my PowerPoint slides.  But while I was browsing around the Interwebs yesterday, I stumbled across a picture I’d never seen before, with an interesting typewritten caption attached.

Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

This photo is part of the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana at the Library of Congress; Stern acquired over 11,000 Lincoln items before turning his material over to the LoC in 1953.

In his book on the Ann Rutledge case, John Evangelist Walsh identifies James McGrady Rutledge as Ann’s favorite cousin.  He was one of the family members who claimed that Ann and Lincoln were formally engaged.

I haven’t found any other information on “Miss Minnie Harms,” but that photograph might be as close as we can get to knowing what Ann really looked like.

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Civil War lectures at the McClung Museum

The Frank H. McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee is hosting a series of Sunday lectures on the Civil War in Knoxville, starting this Sunday.  While you’re there, you can check out the Ft. Sanders exhibit; it’s pretty cool.  Click here for details.

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The backwoods battles of the Revolutionary War

While Continentals, Redcoats, and militiamen were battling it out in the American Revolution, a related struggle played out on the frontiers of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia as settlers and Indians wrestled for control of the West.  This frontier war for land and independence doesn’t get as much scholarly attention as the conventional war to the eastward, which is why I was glad to see the release of Richard D. Blackmon’s Dark and Bloody Ground: The American Revolution Along the Southern Frontier a couple of months ago. 

Blackmon demonstrates that colonial officials tasked with maintaining the Indians’ loyalty had long struggled with unscrupulous traders and land-hungry frontiersmen, and found their role even more difficult when those frontiersmen became rebellious colonists.  In the South, this responsibility fell on the shoulders of John Stuart, Superintendent for the Southern Department.  Both Stuart and his Whig opponents tried to secure the support (or at least the neutrality) of the southern tribes, which required supplying the Indians with the arms and powder on which they depended for hunting and persuading the tribes to expel agents working for the opposing side.

All-out war finally erupted on the frontier in the summer of 1776, after Stuart and his deputies failed to convince the Cherokees that a general assault on the settlements would only inflame white Whigs and Tories alike into reprisals.  The response from the Carolinas and Virginia was precisely what Stuart had feared.  Frontier militias rebounded from the attacks and marched into the Indian towns, burning crops and dwellings while engaging in battles with war parties.  These invasions of Cherokee country forced the tribe to trade land for peace, although a faction of warriors led by Dragging Canoe refused to lay down their arms and instead moved south to continue resistance against the settlements.

The Creeks, meanwhile, were divided over whether to join Britain’s war against the colonists, reluctant to take up arms without the support of British troops and supplies.  Pro-British Creeks did attack the Georgia frontier in 1778, although the Whigs kept part of the tribe neutral by supplying them with goods.  When British armies finally invaded the South, the Whigs faced the two-front war which they had long dreaded, but British military activity in that region was never as well-coordinated as advocates of a frontier strategy desired.

Ultimately, those Native Americans who cast their lot with England lost their military gamble, as British troops evacuated the southern posts they had been trying to maintain since the late 1770′s, leaving the Cherokees, Creeks, and other tribes at the mercy of an independent United States.  Although the war brought devastation and bloodshed to the frontiersmen (the Cumberland settlements in present-day Middle Tennessee and the Kentucky settlements proved especially vulnerable), it reduced residents of the devastated Indian communities to an especially precarious existence, and the final peace between the U.S. and England in 1783 proved to be a mere intermission in the contest for the West.

My only complaint about this book is a curious omission.  Blackmon’s description of the struggle between frontiersmen and Cherokees in 1776 is quite detailed, but it doesn’t really cover the summer attacks on the settlements in what is now northeastern Tennessee.  He does deal with the wrangling among Tennessee settlers, British officials, and Native Americans that preceded these attacks, as well as John Sevier’s later battles against the Chickamaugas, but readers interested in the early history of the Volunteer State may be disappointed that the siege of Ft. Caswell doesn’t get the same coverage as the Ring Fight, the defense of Boonesborough, and the Battle of the Bluffs.

That criticism aside, this book is a great addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the American Revolution or the early frontier, utilizing both official documentation and eyewitness accounts of the major engagements.  Blackmon’s analyses of Andrew Williamson’s exploits and the negotiations at Ft. Patrick Henry are the best I’ve read.  Even if your knowledge of the war’s backwoods battles is extensive, it’s heplful to have a solid overview of the entire frontier war for the South in one volume, placed deftly in the context of the larger war as a whole.

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Now, eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your–on your dinosaur tour, right?

Check out Katy Lasdow’s write-up of her visit to the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. After forking over twenty-five bucks, sitting through a mock town meeting, pretending to dump tea chests from the deck of a replicated ship, and watching two holographic women talk about the coming war, she got to see a grand total of one original artifact.

“When does a museum stop being a museum,” Lasdow rightly asks, “and become something else?”

My former boss used to say, “A museum is a communication device.” I agree. A museum should do more than collect and display artifacts; it should use the tools at its disposal to contextualize those artifacts. The days when an exhibit consisted of a conglomeration of artifacts, labels, and pictures are over. But the use of artifacts and other objects to communicate and instruct is still the distinguishing feature of museums. That’s what separates the museum exhibit from other means of communication and instruction.

There’s no magic ratio of artifacts to gizmos that works for each and every exhibit, but when there’s only one artifact in the whole building, one wonders why they decided to call it a museum in the first place, whatever the quality of the information being conveyed or the nobility of the planners’ intentions.

To read a couple of my older posts along these same lines. click here and here.

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Movie items of interest

  • International audiences for Spielberg’s Lincoln will see a slightly different opening sequence to provide context for viewers who might not be as familiar with American history.  Maybe some additional background would’ve been a good idea for American moviegoers, too; Black Hawk Down and Argo both needed historical prologues even though the events in question happened during the lifetimes of many of the people watching the films.
  • Readers of ScreenCrush selected Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as the worst movie of 2012, indirectly proving the continuing viability of democracy as the best available form of government.
  • Saving Lincoln, the upcoming film about Ward Hill Lamon, made HuffPo.
  • That high-pitched, ecstatic shrieking sound you heard?  That was me: We now have a trailer for the twentieth anniversary 3D re-release of Jurassic Park and an official release date for JP4.

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IFC Fix’s top American historical films

They’re not at all the ones I would’ve picked, but that’s part of the fun of reading these lists, right?

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The long ’75

Kevin Phillips’s 1775: A Good Year for Revolution is well worth your time, but possibly not for the reason the author intended.  His thesis is that it was not 1776 which was the critical year in America’s struggle for self-determination, but rather the previous one, since much of the groundwork for the colonies’ political and military success was laid over the course of what Phillips calls the “long 1775,” meaning the period from late 1774 through early 1776.  Having read his argument—and it’s not a brief one—I’m not entirely convinced that he’s made his case.  In the course of the attempt, however, Phillips covers so much material of interest that the book functions as a fine overview of the Revolution’s beginnings.

A longtime student of American political trends, Phillips devotes the book’s first section to the demographic, religious, economic, and ideological factors at play on the eve of the Revolution.  Religious affiliation, he argues, was an important factor in determining an individual’s allegiance; New England Congregationalists, backcountry Presbyterians, and low church Anglicans in the South were at the forefront of imperial resistance.  Tightening economic constraints were irksome to a growing colonial population plagued by currency shortages, indebtedness to British merchants, and restrictions on trade.  Seamen and laborers dependent on maritime activities were especially zealous participants in Whig mobs.  Frontier expansion was another source of ferment and division between western settlers and colonial authorities, complicating the efforts of both sides to draw on backcountry support.  Much of this background information will be familiar to readers who have read the work of scholars such as Patricia Bonomi, Woody Holton, and Gary Nash.

The book’s second section examines how the political, logistic, and military contests between America and the empire actually played out over the course of the “long 1775.”  Both sides had been moving toward armed confrontation for some time before Lexington and Concord, with de facto government and military power falling into Patriot hands across the colonies.  A key component of this early stage of the struggle was the contest for resources.  Americans scored a critical logistical victory in their effort to obtain gunpowder and other munitions, despite the trade restrictions imposed by the British in retaliation for the Continental Association’s import/export boycott.  British authorities, meanwhile, neglected their own logistical needs, causing serious problems for their forces besieged in Boston.  Raids by American privateers exacerbated these problems.

From a military standpoint, the British squandered a number of opportunities and committed a series of important mistakes in 1775 and early 1776.  Efforts by royal officials to enlist the aid of slaves and Indians only stirred up white colonists against British authority.  Raids on coastal towns, and threats to destroy these towns when supplies were not forthcoming, similarly made for potent American propaganda fodder.  British strategists neglected American vulnerable points while wasting time and troops on poorly-coordinated efforts such as the ill-fated expedition to the Carolinas, and allowing most of their forces to remain tied down in the demoralizing siege at Boston.  English attempts to obtain foreign mercenaries proved controversial at home, while the French and Spanish seized the opportunity to avenge their losses in earlier wars created by the American rebellion.

Patriots, meanwhile, enjoyed a number of military successes during this same period, as Whig militias acted to suppress Tory uprisings and makeshift American naval forces wreaked havoc on British supply lines.  Although Americans did lose their dramatic wintertime gamble to capture Quebec at the end of 1775, Phillips emphasizes the extent to which this campaign came close to victory, as British forces in Canada were stretched extremely thin.

During the “long year” of late 1774 to early 1776, then, the American Revolutionaries scored important military, logistical, and political victories that would help carry them through the disappointments and disillusions to come.  And since Phillips emphasizes how the Whigs had already taken de facto control of colonial governments, the eventual decision for independence comes off as anti-climactic, necessary only for diplomatic reasons and to shore up resolve before the massive British invasion of New York that same year.  But having built up the importance of the long ’75, he doesn’t spend much time demolishing the edifice of 1776, despite a few hints at how that year’s mythic status arose out of shifts in cultural memory after the Revolution.

Phillips does, however, demonstrate how the American successes and British missteps of the long ’75 gave the Revolution the breathing room it needed to mature.  Taken as a wide-ranging examination of the war’s formative period, this is one of the better books on the Revolution to be released by a commercial publisher in recent years, drawing on an impressive reading of the secondary literature.

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This might hurt a little

I’ve got this irritating discomfort in the back of my jaw that just showed up a couple of days ago, so I’ve had to make a dental appointment. This is a problem, because deep within my mature and balanced psyche lies the pain threshold of a four-year-old girl.

But at least I’m in good company. Here’s an excerpt from a paper delivered by Dr. William Harper De Ford to the Pennsylvania State Dental Society on June 11, 1912 and published in The Dentists’ Record later that same year:

Dr. Wolf of Washington, D. C., told me that on one occasion, a tall, gawky, raw-boned, awkward specimen of humanity came to his ofiice for the extraction of a tooth. He placed him in the chair, procured a forceps, and just as he was about to operate, the patient said, “Just a moment, please,” drew from his pocket a small bottle, and took several inhalations. “Now you may proceed,” he said, and opened his mouth. The tooth was extracted painlessly. The bottle contained chloroform. The patient was Abraham Lincoln, then president of the United States.

He knew from personal experience that you’d better prepare for the worst when having your mouth worked on. Years earlier, another dentist had torn off part of Lincoln’s jawbone while extracting a tooth…and without any anesthesia. I hope I have better luck than he did.

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