Tag Archives: World War I

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.

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

ETHS goes into the trenches and in search of Sgt. York

I highly recommend you visit In the Footsteps of Sergeant York, the new special exhibit from the Museum of the American Military Experience at the East Tennessee Historical Society.  It strikes a neat balance between an intimate portrait of York himself and a broader examination of Tennesseans’ mobilization in the Great War as a whole, and takes you from York’s rural Fentress County home…

…to the trenches of the Western Front.

The exhibition also chronicles the Sergeant York Discovery Expedition’s use of GIS and archaeology to pinpoint the precise location of his famous attack at Hill 223 near Chatel-Chéhéry.  (You may recall that the Tennessee State Museum’s Military Branch hosted this part of the exhibit a few years ago, although ETHS has augmented it with additional material.)  The machine gun below is reportedly one of the weapons York captured, while the rounds in front of the helmet are among the artifacts the SYDE recovered from the battleground.

Fire from the machine gun nest York took out cut down six of his comrades, and artifacts excavated from their original burial site are also on display.

As fascinating as the Chatel-Chéhéry items are, though, the object that struck me the most is this canteen carried by Fred O. Stone.  Like my great-grandfather, he was a Claiborne County, TN native who graduated from Lincoln Memorial University’s old medical school in Knoxville.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

The past isn’t a foreign country in ‘Wonder Woman’

Everybody seems to love the new Wonder Woman movie.  There’s quite a bit that I like about it myself, especially the depiction of Diana’s personality.  And it’s nice to see a DC movie where the atmosphere isn’t so gloomy—the literal, physical atmosphere as well as the mood, I mean.  

One thing that irks me, though, is the movie’s sense of history.  It doesn’t have one.

Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, the stars of ‘Wonder Woman,’ at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con. By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Gal Gadot & Chris Pine) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Wonder Woman made her comics debut in 1941, a couple of months before America’s entry into World War II.  But the movie takes place near the end of the First World War, with strategists and politicians on both sides expecting an imminent armistice.  When Steve Trevor crashes into the waters off Themyscira, he’s fleeing the kaiser’s men rather than the Führer’s.  I’m not sure why the filmmakers opted for a WWI origin; maybe they wanted to distinguish their movie from Captain America: The First Avenger.

A couple of decades may not seem like a big shift, but there’s a world of difference between 1918 and 1941.  Any time traveler from 2017 would experience much more profound culture shock in the WWI era than the WWII one.  I’m not just referring to the external conditions of people’s lives, like technology and clothing, but also to the internal conditions: the ways that people of different classes, genders, and other categories conceived of themselves and related to one another.

The 1910s were much less recognizably modern than the 1940s, and much more “foreign” from the standpoint of the present day.  There’s little sense of this “foreignness” in Wonder Woman other than the hairstyles and costumes.  For a movie set a century ago, it’s notably ahistorical.  This is especially true of Steve Trevor himself.  None of his dialogue or his characterization would be inappropriate for an airman/intelligence officer of WWII.  For that matter, none of it would be out of place for a man of our own time.  

It’s interesting to contrast Wonder Woman‘s Trevor with the characters in another movie released this year, The Lost City of Z.  Portions of that film take place during WWI; in fact, both Wonder Woman and Lost City have battle sequences in which troops go over the top and into the hellscape of no man’s land.  But while Trevor is more or less interchangeable with a twenty-first-century American, Lost City‘s Percy Fawcett is very much a man of his time and class.  Indeed, the mores of the Edwardian British upper class figure in Lost City‘s plot.  Fawcett’s questionable family background hampers his advancement. It’s the story of a time and place when pedigree mattered a great deal.  Its characters’ attitudes and outlooks are distinct from our own.  Wonder Woman‘s Steve Trevor, by contrast, could be your next-door neighbor.

What’s especially curious is that the makers of Wonder Woman seem pretty uninterested in exploiting their period’s special relevance to everything that makes their title character singular.  Wonder Woman posed quite a challenge to prevailing attitudes about femininity in 1941, but imagine what a radical figure she would’ve been in 1918, before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.  You’d think a movie about a superhuman warrior woman that takes place in an era when women’s lives were so circumscribed would milk that fact for all it’s worth.  But the film’s engagement with 1910s gender norms is surprisingly light.  There’s a passing reference to women’s suffrage, an amusing scene in which Diana tries on a corset and underskirt for the first time, and another in which her presence inside an all-male conference room causes an uproar.  That’s about it.  I’m not trying to argue that the filmmakers should have concentrated more on Diana’s challenge to 1918 gender norms.  I just find it surprising that they didn’t engage that angle more, given their choice to set the story in the 1910s rather than the 1940s or 2010s.

I’m well aware that critiquing this movie on the basis of its historical sensibility is somewhat beside the point.  It isn’t really a “historical” film in the same sense that The Lost City of Z is.  Nobody goes to Wonder Woman to immerse themselves in the 1910s.  The filmmakers’ only real duties were to be true to the central character and to tell a good story.  But the notion of the past as a foreign country is a favorite theme of mine, so I get miffed when filmmakers and storytellers assume that people have always been more or less like us.  Some of Wonder Woman‘s most enjoyable moments are the ones in which Diana finds herself a fish out of water in a world of men.  But if any of us found ourselves in WWI-era Europe, we’d likely feel out of place, too.

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Filed under History and Memory

Lecture on African American soldiers in WWI

Here’s an event to commemorate the centennial of American involvement in the Great War that might be of interest to those of you in the Knoxville area.

On Thursday, Feb. 23 UT’s Department of History and the Center for the Study of War and Society will co-host the Second Annual Fleming-Morrow Distinguished Lecture in African-American History.  Chad L. Williams, Associate Professor and Chair of the African and Afro-American Studies Department at Brandeis University, will discuss “Torchbearers of Democracy: The History and Legacy of African American Soldiers in World War I.”  Like his book of the same name, Williams’s talk will examine the 380,000 black soldiers whose WWI service was part of a larger battle waged both at home and abroad.

The lecture is at 5:30 p.m. in the Alumni Memorial Building, Room 210.  It’s free to the public, with a book signing to follow.

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Upcoming talk on Eugene Debs at UTK

Here’s a timely event for those of you in the Knoxville area as we move closer to the centennial of America’s entry into the First World War.  On Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 6:00 P.M., Ernest Freeberg will present “Eugene V. Debs and the Fight For Free Speech in World War One” in UT’s Hodges Library, room 212.

Dr. Freeberg, head of the Department of History at UT, is the author of a prize-winning book on Debs and civil liberties in wartime titled Democracy’s Prisoner.  His other works include The Age of Edison and The Education of Laura Bridgman, which won the AHA’s Dunning Prize.

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Sgt. York’s voice

I really should be grading finals right now, but for some reason I developed a sudden urge to find a recording of Alvin York’s voice.  Most of the historical figures that interest me came along well before the advent of sound recording, so I don’t get to indulge this sort of curiosity too often.  This newsreel includes a brief clip of York speaking.

As a bonus, here’s a video tour of his home, with some reflections from his son and daughter-in-law.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

World War II’s oldest casualties

With The Monuments Men hitting theaters this week, I thought this might be a good opportunity to discuss the fate of valuable artifacts during WWII.  And this leads us—as all things inevitably must—to the subject of extinct reptiles.

About a hundred million years ago, North Africa was the world capital of big, carnivorous dinosaurs.  The biggest of them all was Spinosaurus, top contender for the largest known meat-eating dinosaur of all time.  Even the lowest estimates of its size would make this animal longer than T. rex, and the higher estimates—up to 59 feet from nose to tail tip—are longer by far than those for any other theropod dinosaur known to science.

By Bogdanov, modified by Matt Martyniuk (User:Dinoguy2) and User:FunkMonk. Jaw muscles taken from[1] by User:Steveoc_86. (dmitrchel@mail.ru) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Spinosaurus got its moniker from the row of spines atop its vertebrae, some of them over five feet high, giving it a prominent sail or ridge running the length of its back.  The German paleontologist Ernst Stromer came up with the name in 1915, based on some jawbones, vertebrae, and ribs discovered three years earlier in Egypt.

Ernst Stromer

For thirty years, these fossils were safe and sound in Munich’s Paläontologisches Museum.  Then the war came, and European museums weren’t safe havens anymore.

On the night of April 24, 1944 the Royal Air Force hit Munich with a bombing raid that wrecked the museum and destroyed the Spinosaurus fossils inside.  Spinosaurus bones aren’t that plentiful, so the loss of any of them is a big deal, but the loss of this specimen was especially significant because it was the holotype (the individual used in the first official scientific description of the species).  All that remains of it today are Stromer’s notes, drawings, and photos.

Perhaps the rarity and fragmentary nature of Spinosaurus fossils help explain why this dinosaur hasn’t always been as popular as you’d expect.  It’s more well known now than it used to be, largely thanks to a starring role as the main antagonist in Jurassic Park III.

I’m partial to T. rex myself, but that scene is just freaking awesome.

Another massive carnivorous dino prowling around Cretaceous North Africa was Carcharodontosaurus, first discovered in the 192os and re-named by Stromer in 1931.  Like Spinosaurus, this guy was huge—upwards of forty feet long.  Its five-foot skull was lined with serrated, eight-inch teeth.

By Ornitholestes (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And also like Spinosaurus, the holotype got pulverized by Allied bombs falling on Munich.  Expeditions to the Sahara unearthed additional specimens in the 1990s, but Stromer’s original went up in smoke during the war.

In fact, the RAF’s April attack on Munich basically wiped out Stromer’s remarkable collection, including the type specimen of the carnivorous dinosaur Bahariasaurus, the only known specimen of the unusual prehistoric crocodile Stomatosuchus, and the bones of the long-necked dinosaur Aegyptosaurus.  And the war cost Stromer much more than his fossils.  Two of his sons died in the army, while the third spent years as a prisoner of the Russians.

Incidentally, the First World War took its toll on paleontology, too.  In December 1916 the German raider Möwe sank the Canadian ship Mount Temple, along with the twenty-two crates of hadrosaur and turtle fossils on board.

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