Category Archives: Uncategorized

Christina Snyder will discuss ‘Great Crossings’ at UTK

This year’s Charles O. Jackson Memorial Lecture at the University of Tennessee looks to be pretty interesting.  Christina Snyder will deliver a talk based on her book Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson.

Snyder is McCabe Greer Professor of History at Penn State.  Her first book, Slavery in Indian Country, is well worth your time; I’d recommend it to anybody trying to sort out the history of captivity and race in early America.  Here’s some additional info on her talk:

Her lecture will examine how United States imperialism during the era of Indian Removal reshaped the geography of the freedom—or lack, thereof—of certain Americans and how it brought conflicting ideologies of race and slavery into contact with one another. The talk also will explore the strategies that people of color developed to navigate the shifting landscape.

Snyder’s book uses as a case study Great Crossings, an experimental community in Kentucky where America’s diverse peoples intersected and shared new visions of the continent’s future. The town got its name the previous century, when bison habitually crossed Elkhorn Creek at that shallow spot. By the 19th century, the bison had disappeared, but Great Crossings became a different kind of meeting ground, home to the first federal Indian school and a famous interracial family.

The lecture is at 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 23, in room 103 of the Howard Baker Center.  It’s free and open to the public.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

No on-air historians deployed in ‘The Vietnam War’

I’ve been enjoying the new Ken Burns series, especially the riveting firsthand accounts from Vietnam veterans on both sides.  But the absence of on-air commentary from historians has been an unpleasant surprise.  I’m not trying to imply that historians had no input in the series; I’m sure Burns has done his homework and consulted with a lot of knowledgeable people.  I’m talking about the way the series conveys information, not the quality of the content.

When a documentary uses historians as talking heads, it puts a human face on the discipline.  And by that, I don’t mean that it introduces audiences to individual scholars.  I mean that viewers can see how historical knowledge is something constructed by real live people.  It isn’t an assemblage of facts that descends from on high; instead, it’s a conversation among many voices working together, and sometimes arguing with one another.

When you watch The Civil War, for example, it’s clear that Barbara Fields, Ed Bearss, and Shelby Foote are asking different sorts of questions and approaching the same subject from distinct perspectives.  In the Vietnam series, by contrast, the eyewitness insights of participants are embedded within a single, overarching story told from the perspective of a seemingly omniscient narrator.

You might argue that a documentary about a war that’s still a living memory doesn’t need historians’ commentary as much as a series about the nineteenth century.  But I think historians’ voices are all the more necessary when you’re covering a subject as raw as the Vietnam War.

H Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment at Huế (National Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Paul Harvey will discuss African American politics and religion at LMU

If you’re in driving distance of Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN, you’ve got two opportunities to hear Dr. Paul Harvey give the 2017 Dr. Robert L. Kincaid Lecture, “African American Politics and the Judeo-Christian Tradition.”  He’ll give a 45-minute talk to the LMU community at 11:00 on Sept. 21, and then a full lecture with Q&A and a reception at 7:00 that same evening.  Both presentations are at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.

Harvey is a professor of history and Presidential Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.  His books include The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (co-authored with Edward J. Blum); Through the Storm, Through the Night: A History of African American Christianity; and Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Help a friend and colleague with his medical expenses

The grad students in UT’s history program are a pretty close-knit group.  A few days ago we learned that Josh Hodge, one of our friends and colleagues, has been diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor.

Josh is a Ph.D. candidate working on a dissertation about public lands in the South during the late nineteenth century.  He’s also a husband, a father to a twenty-two-month-old daughter, and a great guy that a lot of us look up to.

If you can, please make a donation to help with Josh’s medical expenses at his YouCaring page, and share the link as widely as possible: https://www.youcaring.com/joshhodge-882854.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

MHS gets Robert Gould Shaw’s sword

The Massachusetts Historical Society has acquired a pretty special Civil War object: the sword that Col. Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts, was carrying when he fell at Ft. Wagner.  Descendants of Shaw’s sister found it while cleaning an attic, and it’s going on exhibit this month.

The Globe reports that the sword was “stolen from Shaw’s body shortly after he was killed,” but doesn’t say how it made its way back to his family.  The MHS, however, has traced its provenance all the way back to its manufacture, so it’s the real deal.

Quite an acquisition!  I’d almost be willing to drive to Boston just to see it.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Bookworm habits

Just ran across this listicle on ten signs of a hardcore bookworm.  Since history aficionados tend to be bibliophiles, you’ll probably recognize some of your own habits therein.

The Bookworm by Carl Spitzweg, via Wikimedia Commons

The only one I’m not guilty of is number eight—reading various books simultaneously.  I only read one book at a time.  Well, actually, I only read through one book at a time.  I’ll dip into books I’ve already read while in the process of reading a new one from beginning to end.  But when it comes to reading straight through a new title, I don’t juggle multiple books.  Maybe it has something to do with my OCD.

I’m ridiculously uptight about my books.  I don’t scribble notes in the margins, I don’t underline passages, and I darn sure don’t use a highlighter.  (I do, however, stamp the half title page of each one I’ve read with a personal embosser I received as a Christmas present, as a means of staking an indelible claim without defacing them.)  I live in mortal dread of a fire; the idea of losing the library it’s taken me years to build is almost too horrible to contemplate.

My apartment doesn’t have space for all my books, so about half of them are at my mom’s house: most of my dinosaur books, my religion books, almost all the fiction, and a smattering of other titles on miscellaneous topics.  I miss them.

Part of the space problem is my backlog of unread books.  I used to avoid stocking up on too many new books until I’d made significant headway in my pile of titles to be read.  (The OCD again.)  My buying habits changed when I started frequenting used bookstores.  If you run across an interesting title in good condition and at a steep discount, you have to snag even the opportunity’s there.  Now I have stacks of unread books that I have to pick up and move whenever I vacuum.  I could probably get caught up if somebody imposed a four-year moratorium on the publication of new Rev War books, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A look at the Museum of the American Revolution

Most of you probably know that the Museum of the American Revolution opened in Philadelphia a couple of months ago.  I set aside some time to visit while staying in Pennsylvania.  I’m happy to report that it exceeded my expectations.

The MAR’s use of technology, immersive environments, and full-scale tableaux with figures has invited comparisons to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield.  Personally, though, I found the MAR much richer in content, more judicious in its use of bells and whistles, and far more impressive in its assemblage of original material than the ALPLM.

At the Springfield museum I sometimes couldn’t shake the feeling that the designers were deploying all the latest gizmos (holograms, smoke, and deafening sound effects) not because each gimmick was the best tool for a particular interpretive need, but because the gimmicks were cool and they had money to burn.  To borrow a phrase from my favorite film, they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.  I never got that impression at the MAR.  The content, and not the medium, is in the driver’s seat.

There’s quite a bit of stagecraft and showmanship, but it serves a pedagogical purpose.  An interactive panel, for example, allows you to zero in on passages in Revolutionary propaganda pieces to dive into the meanings of particular phrases, or to place each document on a timeline of broader events.

Figures in life-size tableaux are so prominent at the ALPLM that you almost get the impression they’re the main course of the meal, with the artifacts as a garnish.  Not so at the MAR.  The tableaux in Philly are interpretive tools, the icing on the cake.  But they’re also quite evocative.  Here the artist-turned-officer Charles Wilson Peale encounters a bedraggled fellow soldier during the Continental Army’s disastrous retreat in late 1776.  The man turns out to be his own brother, barely recognizable after weeks of hard campaigning.

But the heart and soul of the MAR exhibits are the artifacts, and they’re spectacular.  Never in my life have I seen such a remarkable assemblage of objects from the Revolutionary era.  Weapons used on the war’s very first day at Lexington and Concord…

…a timber from the bridge where the “shot heard ’round the world” was fired…

…Washington’s uniform sash…

…a signed copy of Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems…

…the sword Hugh Mercer carried when he fell at Princeton…

…John Paul Jones’s spyglass…

…and the museum’s crown jewel, Washington’s headquarters tent, with a place of honor inside its own auditorium (where photography, alas, is not permitted.)

Ordinary civilians and soldiers get representation, too.  A simple canteen carried during the campaign for New York…

…an original fringed hunting shirt, one of only a handful still in existence…

…the remnants of Hessians’ caps…

…and an especially poignant object, a pair of slave shackles small enough to fit a child.

Each exhibit case bristles with so many fascinating artifacts that part of the fun of touring each gallery is the anticipation of what you’ll find in the next one.

Of course, a successful exhibit requires not only objects for the cases, but the proper interpretation and contextualization of those objects.  Here, too, the MAR impressed me.  The introductory film provides a solid introduction to what was at stake in the Revolution, and the exhibits place the struggle for independence in the context of wider transformations across the British Empire.  The museum’s narrative gives us the Revolution’s heroism and its high ideals along with its contradictions, unfulfilled promises, and the fearsome cost in suffering it imposed on the people who lived through it.  If any layperson came to me asking where they could get a sound and incisive overview of the subject, I wouldn’t hesitate to send them there.

There are only two aspects of the museum I’d criticize.  I’m pleased that the MAR sets aside significant space for the Revolution’s frontier and Native American dimensions.  But the Native perspective is almost entirely that of one particular tribe: the Oneidas, who (perhaps not coincidentally) made a substantial donation to the museum.  The focus on a single tribe has its advantages; visitors get a compelling look at the Oneidas’ difficult decision to support the American cause.  The drawback is that there isn’t much room left to tell the stories of other Indian communities, many of whom made very different choices.  Additional space devoted to the tribes that took up arms against the young United States or tried to play different powers against one another would convey a more well-rounded, representative portrait of the Revolution’s impact on Native Americans.

My other criticism owes a lot to the fact that I’m a Southern Campaign guy.  Many popular presentations of the Revolution give short shrift to the war in the South.  You get thorough coverage of the battles in the North, but once the war moves to the Carolinas and Georgia it’s only a few general remarks about partisan warfare and perhaps a reference to Morgan’s tactical master stroke at Cowpens.  Cornwallis ends up in Virginia to surrender to Washington and the French, but the details of how he ended up there are often sketchy; it’s almost as if Yorktown was a freak accident.  The MAR’s coverage of the war unfortunately follows this formula.  The exhibits on the war’s beginnings in New England, the fall of New York, Washington’s counter-thrust across the Delaware, Saratoga, the capture of Pennsylvania, and Valley Forge are superb, but when the narrative reaches the war in the South, it doesn’t quite stick the landing.  The gallery devoted to the Carolinas and Georgia is given over mainly to Cowpens, with some remarks on initial British successes, the relationship between the Southern Campaign and slavery, and a bit on the viciousness of partisan fighting.

Still, if the exhibit on the war in the South is more or less a Cowpens gallery, it’s an exceptionally impressive Cowpens gallery.  The life-size figures of Tarleton’s dragoons convey something of their fearsome reputation…

…and I got a kick out seeing artifacts associated with the units mauled at Cowpens: the 71st Highlanders, British Legion, and 17th Light Dragoons.

I should add that the skimpier treatment of the South applies only to the galleries devoted to the war itself.  In its treatment of the Revolution’s other dimensions, the MAR’s geographic balance is admirable.  You never get the sense that the non-importation movement was solely a Boston affair.

And in any case, I don’t want to dwell on those few things about the museum that irked me, because the experience as a whole was so remarkable.  I enjoy museums, but it’s not often I get so excited while I stroll through one.  This is the American Revolution for everybody—enough breadth to encompass the story, enough showmanship to engage visitors of all ages, and more than enough striking material on display to satisfy even the most hardcore history buff.  From now on, anyone planning that historical sightseeing trip to Philadelphia is going to have to budget for an extra day.  The MAR is a first-rate destination in its own right, and one nobody should miss.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized