Tag Archives: Yorktown

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

A walk in Yorktown

For those of us who are crazy about early American history, there aren’t many places better for spending a few days than Virginia’s Historic Triangle.  Jamestown and Yorktown—the two places where England’s colonial experience in the future U.S. began and ended—are right there within a short distance of each other, with Colonial Williamsburg in between.

I just visited the triangle for the first time in over a decade, where I kicked things off with a stroll around Yorktown.  Here are a few highlights.

British redoubt #10, captured by a party under Alexander Hamilton on the night of October 14th and incorporated into the Americans’ second parallel:

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Redoubt #9, assaulted by the French on the same night:

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Grand French Battery:

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The Moore House, where officers from both the Allied and British armies met to negotiate the terms of surrender:

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Surrender Field, where the British laid down their arms:

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Site of the French artillery park:

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An untouched earthwork that survived the siege:

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The Victory Monument:

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One side benefit of visiting the battleground is getting some spectacular views of the York River:

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In the town, a few structures that were present during the siege are still standing, such as Gov. Thomas Nelson, Jr.’s house:

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Nelson’s home took fire during the siege.  The cannonballs embedded in the walls are twentieth-century additions…

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…but the effects of the originals are still evident:

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Before the war, Yorktown was an important tobacco port.  Here’s the custom house:

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Grace Episcopal Church dates from the 1600s and is still in use:

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Filed under American Revolution, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

Tidbits

Sorry for the absence, folks.  I’ve been pretty busy with classes, so we’ve got some catching up to do.  Here are a few items to amuse and inform:

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Filed under American Revolution, Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Bringing down the house

I’ve never been a fan of John Hagee, the bombastic pastor of San Antonio’s Cornerstone Church.  I find his theology bizarre and his sermons too laden with his own geopolitical concerns.  You might remember him as the guy whose endorsement for McCain made the news because of remarks he’d made about the Holocaust.

When I stumbled across his broadcast the other night on my circuit through the channels, I found him talking about the founding of America.  Thinking this would provide some entertainment, I stuck with it.  It turned out to be your standard civil religion jeremiad.  America is going down the tubes, we’ve forgotten our roots, etc. 

 By way of illustration, Hagee ran through a list of men who signed the Declaration of Independence and later suffered devastation and ruin because of their support for the Revolution.  If this rings a bell, it’s because it comes from a patriotic chain e-mail called “The Price They Paid” that usually makes the rounds on July 4.  It’s mostly hogwash, riddled with the sort of errors that anybody with Internet access can debunk in a few minutes.

Take, for example, the story of Thomas Nelson, Jr, member of the Continental Congress and commander of militia.  In 1781 he succeeded Jefferson as governor of Virginia.  He owned a fine home in Yorktown, supposedly used as the headquarters of Cornwallis during the siege.  According to “The Price They Paid,” and as repeated by Hagee, Nelson was aware that the British commander would have taken up residence in his house and requested French and/or American artillery to open fire on the building.  The cannons demolished the house, and Nelson died broke.

It’s a great story, but it’s at best highly exaggerated.  How do we know?  Well, here’s a modern photo of the site of Nelson’s home:

From Wikimedia Commons

Note  the big freaking house sitting on top of it.  Nelson’s home is still there, and while it did indeed suffer cannon damage, there’s no evidence outside of tradition that Nelson himself ordered troops to fire on it.

In fact, according to Jerome Greene’s highly detailed study of the siege, Cornwallis did not even use Nelson’s house as his headquarters.  Instead, he set up shop in the home of Nelson’s sixty-five-year-old namesake uncle.  Allied guns struck this home, too; Greene reports that cannon fire killed one of Nelson’s servants.  Some versions of the legend maintain that it was this house to which Nelson directed fire, but again, it’s an unsubstantiated tradition.

Personally, I think these myths actually trivialize the actions of the signers.  They took real risks in publicly identifying themselves with an unlikely cause because they thought it was the right thing to do.  Embellishing their stories implies that this wasn’t enough, that they weren’t real patriots until they lost everything they had because of their allegiance to the cause.  It’s the willingness to risk that makes someone a hero, not the outcome.

From Wikimedia Commons

You’d think a guy like Hagee, who makes a fortune as a speaker and writer, could do better than a sappy chain e-mail for a sermon illustration.  But if his congregation thinks they’re getting their money’s worth, then I guess they might as well have at it.

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory