Tag Archives: George Armstrong Custer

A Smithsonian smorgasbord of awesome objects

I used one of my free afternoons in Washington to take a whirlwind tour of the National Museum of American History.  I hadn’t been inside since the renovations that wrapped up in 2008.  I like the changes; the new halls are much more open and inviting, and easier to navigate.

But as I’ve said before, what I’m really after when I visit the NMAH isn’t so much interpretation as the chance to stand in the presence of iconic “superstar” objects—the things the Smithsonian has because it’s, y’know, the Smithsonian.

And hoo boy, does the NMAH have them in spades, especially in the exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.  From the French and Indian War through the War on Terror, it’s nothing less than a comprehensive military history of the United States in exhibit form, bristling with incredible artifacts.  One of them—Gen. John Pershing’s WWI desk—is right outside the exhibit entrance.

I was mostly drawn to the Rev War stuff, of course.  Hessians of the Ansbach-Bayreuth Regiment surrendered this flag at Yorktown.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring pieces in the exhibit are personal items worn or used by George Washington: epaulets, sword, camp stool and chest, and 1789 uniform.

While we’re on the subject of generals and their apparel, here’s the uniform coat Andrew Jackson wore at the Battle of New Orleans…

…and William Sherman’s hat, along with the sword he carried at Shiloh.

If you visit the McLean House at Appomattox today, the chairs inside the parlor are reproductions.  Here are the originals, in which Grant and Lee sat to hash out the end of the Army of Northern Virginia.

If you’re going to be a frontier officer, you might as well dress like a frontiersman.  Here’s George Armstrong Custer’s buckskin coat.

And we haven’t even gotten to the twentieth century yet.  You could easily spend an entire day in the Price of Freedom exhibit—and if you can’t visit yourself, you can check out the artifacts online—but there are treasures on every floor of the NMAH.  Some of the most remarkable are in American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which boasts the portable desk Thomas Jefferson used to write the Declaration of Independence…

…and the box Washington used to store papers from the Constitutional Convention.

Here’s an object with a Tennessee connection.  Davy Crockett received this ceremonial hatchet from a group of admirers in 1835.

Some of the coolest objects are in the NMAH’s maritime exhibit On the Water.  Here’s some ammo recovered from the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship.

I’ve mentioned my interest in the history of whaling before, so I was delighted to find a section of the maritime exhibit devoted to it.  Here’s one of the basic tools of the trade.  Once this harpoon’s toggle head sank into a whale’s flesh, the rear prong sprang outward, holding the blade fast.  Think of it: Men climbed into small boats and used these things to wage close-quarter battles to the death against sixty-foot leviathans on the open sea.

The twisted iron below, wrung out of shape by a diving whale, is mute evidence of how fierce these contests could be.  That thing gave me chills.  It brings to mind Ahab’s remark about Moby Dick bearing harpoons “all twisted and wrenched in him.”  You can also see some of the improvements in the whalers’ arsenal that became more common in the late nineteenth century.  The harpoon gun and the exploding harpoon head, patented by Sven Foyd in 1870, allowed whalers to take down even the largest and fastest species.

A whaleboat outfitted for the chase:

With their prey dead, the whalers towed the carcass back to the ship and lashed it alongside.  Some men donned “monkey belts” like the one below to hang over the vessel’s side, where they stripped the blubber to render it into oil.  It was messy, dangerous work.

Chopping blades hacked the strips of blubber into “Bible leaves,” while skimmers and forks were indispensable tools around the boiling vats.

At the end of the day, of course, whaling was a business.  Ships’ logs recorded the number of barrels of oil obtained from each kill.

Whaling voyages were long; many ships stayed at sea for years at a time.  Scrimshaw carvings in teeth and bone helped sailors pass the time.

The NMAH also has an extensive collection of objects related to mass media and pop culture, but as a serious history professional, I wasn’t about to sully my intellect wi—HOLY CRAP, IS THAT THE BATMOBILE!?

Indeed it is, and it’ll be parked at the Smithsonian for three years.  And maybe it’s as appropriate an object as any for wrapping up a visit to NMAH.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

The first reenactors of Little Bighorn

During my last stint in grad school I helped out with a conversational English program at a Knoxville church.  The students came from a variety of places, but East Asia was probably the most common point of origin.

During one class–I don’t remember how this happened–the topic of reenacting came up, and most of the students had no idea what we were talking about.  As I tried to explain what reenactors do, one guy from China was absolutely bumfuzzled by the whole concept.

“They shoot guns?” he asked.

“No bullets.  Just gunpowder.  They line up like they’re going to fight a battle and do what the soldiers would have done, but it’s just acting.”

“A game?”

“No, not a game.  They use it to teach people about history, but sometimes they just do it for fun.”

“And they wear old clothes?”

“They wear what people would’ve worn a long time ago.  The kinds of clothes their ancestors wore.”

He thought about all this for two or three seconds…and then he started laughing hysterically.

The notion that adults would put on historical clothing and pretend to shoot at each other for fun was absurd to him.  Most of the other students were just as perplexed.  They were looking at me like I’d just told them that some Americans liked to put on Mickey Mouse ears and fling salad dressing at each other.

Ever since that conversation, I’ve sort of assumed that reenacting was an essentially Western and white phenomenon, basically limited to the U.S. and Europe.  But a few days ago I ran across something in an unexpected source.

I’ve been reading a biography of Barnum Brown, one of the twentieth century’s most famous fossil hunters and a longtime collector for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  (He’s the guy who found the type specimen of T. rex.)  Brown was a product of the frontier, born in Kansas in 1873. In 1889, he set out with his dad on a wagon trip across the West to find a new home for the family. On July 4 they arrived at the Little Bighorn in time to see the Crow Indians engaged in what Brown’s biographers term a “reenactment” of Custer’s defeat.

Here’s how Brown described it years later, as quoted in the biography:

Although this tribe had always been friendly to the whites, the Commandant was taking no chance, so he had two companies of the garrison under arms, and two Gatling guns trained on the battleground.

I well remember the occasion: squaws with papooses on their backs or in their laps sat all around the edge of the battlefield….

That’s pretty much all the book has to say about this event, but it’s a fascinating passage.  I’d never heard of any Native American tribe recreating a battle.

I poked around a little and found a similar reference in another book.  In her examination of memory and Little Bighorn, Debra Buchholtz says the Crow “were the first to reenact the fight in the immediate battlefield vicinity” on July 4, 1891 with Indians playing Custer’s men as well as the Native Americans.  That would have been two years to the day after Brown claimed he saw an Independence Day reenactment; maybe Brown had his dates wrong, or maybe this was some kind of annual event.

The Crow weren’t the only people reenacting the battle around that time.  Buffalo Bill Cody was staging portrayals of Little Bighorn for his traveling show.  Buchholtz also refers to a 1902 reenactment in Wyoming between Indians and a National Guard unit and another with both whites and Native Americans at the Crow Fair in 1909.  But it’s the notion of the all-Indian reenactments at the battleground, held only a little more than a decade after the real thing, that fascinates me.

What was the impetus behind it, and how did the participants’ motives for staging it compare to the motivations of modern-day reenactors?  What role did this reenactment play in Native American culture, and how different would it be from the role of reenacting in modern American culture?

By Michael Barera (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

1 Comment

Filed under History and Memory, Reenacting

If you thought Civil War interpretation and preservation was a headache

…then thank your lucky stars you’re not trying to run an Indian wars site.  Observe the numerous obstacles faced by the folks at Little Bighorn, where politics of both the conventional and cultural varieties collide with the usual challenges of historic site management to create a perfect storm of frustration.

Hat tip to Larry Cebula for this one.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites