Last night I booked the hotel for the New York History conference in Cooperstown early next month. The NYSHA conference should be a lot of fun. With the cool weather we’d been having in New York, June seemed so far away until yesterday. Today, though, has been the warmest day of the year so far, and the rising temperatures had everyone talking about their summer plans. It is difficult to believe Memorial Day weekend is a few days away. This afternoon I submitted my annual leave requests for June-August. I will be splitting time between here and our place in DC. Today I also joined Shorewalkers, a group that hikes various points of interest in the New York area. There is a walk in August that covers the Civil War and other monuments of Hoboken and Jersey City that I am especially looking forward to. I intend to criss-cross the five boroughs this summer, in a group setting but also by myself, to explore New York history, especially out-of-the-way New York history. My list is growing.
It is a drizzly Sunday morning here in Brooklyn.
I noted with pleasure earlier this week that the bibliographic information for volume one of Mark Lewisohn’s three-part history of the Beatles has just been released here in the U.S. (It had been on Amazon’s UK website for some time now.) It is titled All These Years: Tune In and brings the Fabs up to 31 December 1962, on the cusp of Beatlemania. Tune In has been in the works for nearly a decade now and is destined to be a huge deal in the Beatles’s historiography. As with Civil War historiography, there is much we have to unlearn about the Beatles before we understand their true history and significance. So much of what we “know” is simply the same self-serving narratives and folk tales told again and again until becoming accepted as fact. That will not be a problem with Tune In and the two volumes that come after it. Lewisohn is one of a handful of people who can pull off such a magnum opus. I would say Bruce Spizer and Allan Kozinn are probably the only two others.
Lewisohn has said that there will be an “official cut” and longer “author’s cut” with greater detail. Unfortunately it appears there are no plans to release the author’s cut in the United States for the time being, though the publisher is leaving its options open. The smaller version still logs in at 1,200 pages. Interested parties may want to pre-order from their online bookseller.
I had a meeting in the city today and afterward went to the nearby New York Central Library to do some research. The Conference on New York State History in Cooperstown is now just three weeks away. My presentation is on how Theodore Roosevelt Sr, William E. Dodge and other Republican leaders assisted in the Union war effort and then rebuilt the city in their own image when the fighting ended. A mistake many people make is to think of New York history, especially New York City history, in vacuum, placing it outside the scope of wider events in our national story. It is understandable in a way; the city is so complicated and densely layered that it is easy to think of it as its own thing. I am trying to avoid that in my discussion. Overall I feel pretty good about how the talk is coming along.
Another reason I was at the library was to get ready for the upcoming season at Governors Island National Monument. It reopens next Saturday, Memorial Day Weekend, and will be open to the public on weekends and holiday Mondays through the end of September. This week I re-read chunks of Barnet Schecter’s The Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America. I find Schecter’s book helpful because he puts the draft riots into broad context without losing sight of the scale and human cost of the violence. It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the idea that thousands of individuals battled in the streets of Manhattan against, not just police, but battle-conditioned American soldiers. And these weren’t just angry mobs. The rioters showed tremendous tenacity, organization, and unity of purpose, and sustained it for nearly a week before eventually succumbing to hastily-gathered greater force. The rioters also had, if not the support, at least the sympathy of many political and intellectual leaders, including important newspaper publishers. In all these ways the New York draft were similar to the fighting in Europe during the failed revolutions of 1848 and the carnage of the Paris Commune in 1871. I don’t know if it is a stretch–maybe not–but Schecter argues that Reconstruction began with the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863. He carries the story into the 1870s, which is something too few “Civil War” books manage to accomplish. I wanted to re-read the book to refresh my memory and get some new insights to incorporate into my Interpretation at Governors Island this season. Much of the military response to the rioting came from the Department of the East headquarters there in the harbor. These are the types of things I am exploring as I get ready for Cooperstown and for the Governors Island season.
Four years ago, just prior to getting married, I moved from an apartment I had lived in for twelve years to another about five blocks away. Overall, the move wasn’t much: same grocery store, post office, dry cleaner, etc, etc. The big change (other than the marriage) was that I was no longer so close to Prospect Park. An extra twenty minutes each way may not seem like much, but it adds an almost-prohibitive amount of time to a potential weekend walk or evening stroll after work. Brooklyn’s Prospect Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and, though not as well-maintained, is very much the equal of their earlier Central Park. (Central Park is better maintained because the rich folks who live along its perimeter give piles of private money for its maintenance.) For me it was a big loss, though one that came with an equally big win: I am now just five minutes away from the gates of Green-Wood Cemetery. Green-Wood is one of the original garden cemeteries and is currently celebrating its 175th anniversary. To mark the occasion the Museum of the City of New York is hosting an exhibit titled A Beautiful Way to Go: New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery. It opened yesterday and runs through October 13.
Garden cemeteries, sometimes called rural cemeteries, were a phenomenon of the nineteenth century, when American and European societies were industrializing rapidly and green space was becoming scarcer and scarcer for city dwellers. It may surprise you to know that in the late nineteenth century Green-Wood was the most-visited place in New York State after Niagara Falls. Graveyards are for the dead, final resting places for those who came before us and have now passed on; cemeteries are for the living, places to commune with nature and the past. One hundred and seventy-five years later Green-Wood is still serving this function. No matter how many times I have been there–and it is in the hundreds by now–I always see something new on each visit. It is not hard to do, whether it’s reading the many freshly-planted headstones of the 4,000 Civil War soldiers buried there, poking my head into the bars of a mausoleum to peek at the Tiffany windows, or seeing the sun hitting a familiar vista at a different angle during the change of seasons. I am looking forward to catching this show in the coming weeks, and will have more to say about it here on the blog after I do.
An interesting vignette came to my in-box yesterday about the George E. Bissell statue of Lincoln that stands in Edinburgh’s Old Calton Cemetery. Bissell’s name does not carry the same weight as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, or Paul Manship, which is unfortunate because the sculptor was very much their equal. Bissell created one of my favorite statues in all of New York City, the monument to Chester Arthur that stands in Madison Square Park. Bissell’s Arthur stands adjacent to the more lauded Saint-Gaudens’s tribute to Admiral Farragut. Sadly, both are off the tourist path and stand equally unnoticed by New Yorkers themselves as they go about their daily routines.
Bissell’s Lincoln was dedicated in 1893 and was the first of many Lincolns erected outside of the United States during the era. As you can see, it fits neatly into the “Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves” motif described by Kirk Savage in his book of the same title. We have our own such statue, for Henry Ward Beecher, here in downtown Brooklyn. Bissell’s Lincoln is more than a tribute to the Great Emancipator, however; it was also built to pay honor to the Scots who fought for the Union. If you look closely, you will notice that it stands next to the tomb of philosopher David Hume, which could not have been coincidental. We are clearly meant to associate the two men and to think of them as equals. In the tradition of the time turnout was significant for the dedication, so much so that tickets were required despite the blustery conditions. It is lost on us today how seriously people of the period took these kinds of things. Bissell’s Lincoln is a good reminder, too, that the world was paying attention to the events in the United States during our Civil War.
The Civil War and American Art exhibit ended its run at the National Portrait Gallery a few weeks back and is currently under installation at the Metropolitan Museum here in the Big Apple. It will be showing all summer and is well worth the trip. Though I saw it in DC, I intend to go back–probably more than once–during its time here in Gotham. There are many great works in the show; my favorites were the landscapes of Conrad Wise Chapman, a Virginian who lived with his family in Italy prior to the war with his artist father. The Chapman works on display in this sesquicentennial show are primarily landscapes he painted for the Ordinance Bureau during the Confederate defense of Charleston Harbor. On the simplest level the paintings work as literal representations of Confederate camp life during the siege, just as Winslow Homer’s sketchings depicted the quotidian life of Union soldiers. Chapman’s works are more than that though. Whatever his thoughts on secession, slavery, and the other issues of the day, Chapman was an artist of the first order. He reminds me of the Dutch Masters in his use of natural light. He was equally adept at depth and scale.
Chapman was all but forgotten in the decades after Appomattox. Southerners, impoverished by the war’s destruction, did not have the financial resources to buy art the way their Northern counterparts did. The overt Confederate imagery was another minus in the art market of the Gilded Age. Chapman remained active throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, mainly living as an expatriate in Mexico and Europe. Most of the Charleston Series ended up in the care of the Museum of the Confederacy in 1898. Chapman lived another twelve years and died in poverty in 1910. Now we may be entering something of a Chapman renaissance. First, there was his place in the Civil War and American Art exhibition. Now, Sotheby’s is auctioning one of his postwar paintings, Paisaje del Valle de Mexico con el Lago de Texcoco, later this month. The landscape is projected to sell for a cool $125,000-175,000.
(image/Gibbes Museum of Art)
I mentioned yesterday that I went to Albany this past Saturday to see the New York State Museum’s mammoth exhibit, An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War. There have been many excellent exhibits throughout the sesquicentennial, and I must say that this makes the short list of the very best. Here are some highlights.
This daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass is believed to be the first visual image taken of the publisher/abolitionist. Note how young he looks. Upstate New York was a hotbed of abolitionism in the decades prior to the war. The region was also one of the key routes of the Underground Railroad. John Brown, of course, lived in the area.
The scale is difficult to make out because there is nothing beside it with which to compare, but this plaque was about 2 feet tall and three feet wide. It is from the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The Erie Canal is something of a forgotten part of American history, but it was instrumental in tying the Atlantic Seaboard to the Midwest. I had never associated the two in my mind but, coincidentally or not, New York State abolished slavery two years after the canal’s opening.
Again the scale is tough to make out, but this campaign poster from 1860 measured about three by five feet. I loved the reference to Edwin Morgan, who won the New York gubernatorial race and was hugely influential in raising men and materiel for the Union cause.
The photograph did not come out well but this object was so moving that I had to include anyway. Currier and Ives sold such certificates to the loved ones of those killed in the war. I imagine these were common, being an inexpensive way to commemorate the loss of a son, husband, or brother. If the soldier was buried far away, as many of course were, a lithograph of a headstone hanging in the parlor would have to do.
This was a pro-Lincoln broadside from the 1864 election versus McClellan.
Sculptor John Rogers created many works with an abolitionist and Civil War motif before, during, and after the conflict. (See here from the New-York Historical Society.) The swords into plowshares reference is easy to intuit. Like the Currier & Ives certificates, these would have been low-cost ways for people to remember the war. Returned Volunteer remained in the Rogers’s catalog until 1889, a quarter century after it was first produced.
There was so much in the museum I had to step out and recharge my batteries. The people at the museum said it was unusually slow because the weather was so nice. Having left the house at 6:00 am to get the train from Penn Station to Albany, I was quite hungry. So, taking the advice of the museum folks, I headed to Lark Street for lunch. You have to pack it in on these day trips.
Another difficult one to make out, but this handbill commemorated Elmer Ellsworth’s one hundredth birthday in 1937. I found this interesting because it shows that the Civil War was not that long ago in the grand scheme of things. I mean, it’s from the FDR-era for heaven’s sake.
. . . and the pièce de résistance: the chair from Grant’s Cottage in which he raced against the clock to finish his memoirs before he died.
All-in-all it wasn’t a bad Saturday. You can catch An Irrepressible Conflict at the New York State Museum in Albany through September 22. It is a long train trip from the city, but then again there is only one Civil War sesquicentennial.