Civil War subway trip

Hey everybody,

This past Saturday the Hayfoot and I took the A train to a site that, sadly, most New Yorkers no longer visit: Grant’s Tomb.  For decades after it was dedicated in 1897, the mausoleum was one of the most visited places in Manhattan.  Tens of thousands from across the country turned out annually to pay their respects.  Now, as you can see, that is no longer the case.  That’s the Mrs. on the far left.

The National Park Service acquired the General Grant National Memorial, as it is properly called, in 1959.  We took in a discussion led by a very knowledgeable ranger.  There aren’t many displays but the ones they do have are informative and cover Grant’s career in its entirety.

These regimental flags are reproductions

…with the exception of this one that belonged to the 11th Indiana, Colonel Lew Wallace commanding.  It was covered with glass, which is why the photo is a bit difficult to make out.

In a rare misstep, the Park Service built these benches around the perimeter of the tomb in the 1970s.  I think they were trying to be relevant.

In a better use of the space, the public area outside has been a regular stop on Harlem’s Jazzmobile going back nearly five decades.  We’re going to try to get up there this summer.

It opened in 1897 at the height of the reconciliation phase.

Hayfoot and Strawfoot

The final resting place of President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant.

And then it was on to Ethiopian cuisine in Harlem.

Thanks for checking in.


“My” Civil War

Hey everybody,

No, I’m not on a quick jaunt to Gettysburg.  This statue of General Gouverneur Warren should not be confused with this one.

I took these photos right here in Brooklyn.  That they are a bit hard to make out is part of my point.  Yesterday I left work and hopped on the subway to check out a few items at the Central Library.  I had exited the subway and was walking up the hill when I came across the Savior of Little Round Top.  As dusk was setting in I took a few quick snaps on my cell phone camera before heading off to the library and eventually a slice of pizza.

No one loves living in New York City more than I do.  That said, I often felt vaguely resentful about not being closer to our Civil War battlefields.  I have always know of course about New York City’s role in the conflict, but felt far removed from the war because getting to Shiloh, Fredericksburg, Antietam, and elsewhere is a challenge.  My epiphany came about six months ago when I realized I could have “my” Civil War within the five boroughs I call home.

One cannot understand the American Civil War without understanding the battles and battlefields.  Walking Pickett’s Charge I learned things from the undulations of the terrain that I could not have gotten from any book; standing on the bluff above Burnside Bridge I finally understood why that Union general was so long in getting his men across the Antietam.  I’ll continue to read about the campaigns and to visit the battlefields and walk in the footsteps of the courageous men who gave us our history.

Still, there is more to the war than left obliques.

It was early last fall after a trip to Green-Wood Cemetery with my father-in-law that the lightbulb went off and I realized just how much Civil War history is around me on a daily basis.  It’s evident in statuary like the one dedicated to Warren, in sites like Cooper Union where Lincoln gave his speech, and even in the names of our subway stations (Grand Army Plaza).  Not only that, we are blessed here with world-renowned historical societies, libraries, and museums that contain unique collections of material—material that might be used by yours truly to find his niche in this whole thing.  Suddenly the war didn’t seem so far away anymore.  And that’s when the resentment went away.

Just a little story I thought I’d share.

Your next Civil War road trip

As I think you know The Strawfoot is more than a clearinghouse for information about Civil War sesquicentennial events.  That said, with so many things already underway—and a tsunami of programs, memorials, and unveilings to come before all is said-and-done in 2015—I thought it would be helpful to offer a few words.

By definition the hundreds of events that will take place around the United States in the next four years will be of uneven quality, as the means, talent, enthusiasm, and imagination of museum personnel, heritage groups, and state & local agencies will vary widely.  When we are fortunate enough to experience a worthwhile endeavor, we should recognize the invaluable work these organizations are doing and enjoy and learn from what they offer (and maybe drop a buck or two in the collection box). The exhibit at the county museum and the “living history” program put on by the local reenacting unit can teach us a lot about the war and the home front.  Still, there is one organization that has the scope, resources, and institutional memory to examine the war in all its complexity: the National Park Service.

As I write these words the NPS is in the midst of a nine-state, sixteen-city reenactment of President-elect Lincoln’s journey from Springfield, IL to Washington D.C. for his first inaugural.  (Unfortunately, I myself was unaware of the event held at Grant’s Tomb until it was too late.)  And that’s just for starters.  A highly random, hardly exhaustive perusal of the NPS sesquicentennial website informs us that within just the next few weeks the following are taking place:

The “Baltimore Plot” against President-Elect Lincoln– Ford’s Theater National Historic Site, Washington D.C.; February 22 & 23

The War Begins – 1861 Lecture Series–Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center, PA; February 26

Soldier Camp Life of the United States Colored Troops program– Petersburg National Battlefield, VA; March 5

Film in honor of women soldiers of the Civil War–Fort Donelson National Battlefield, TN; March 10

Archeology on America’s Bloodiest Day–Antietam National Battlefield, MD; March 20

That’s five programs on five very different subjects in five states.  And as I said, I pulled these off the NPS calendar highly at random.

The National Park Service covers the Civil War so exhaustively because it can.  It maintains over seventy sites pertaining at least in part to the conflict.  These are found in places you would expect, such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland; and a few areas you would not, including California, New Mexico, and Key West, Florida.  Don’t believe me?  Check it out for yourself:

Whether your next Civil Road road trip is to your branch library for a book discussion or to Little Round Top, I hope you have a fun and informative time.

Thanks for checking in.


Dancing about architecture

As I said when I began The Strawfoot the primary focus of the blog is the American Civil War.  I say primary because life is too large to focus exclusively on any one thing, even if that “one thing” is our nation’s seminal event.  In this post I turn our attention to Old Blue Eyes.

Not long ago something came in the mail from Ye Olde Online Retailer.  It was the Frank Sinatra: Concert Collection.  The seven dvd set is the gift that keeps on giving with over fourteen hours of concert and television material and a forty-three page booklet.

Sinatra had been on television almost since the medium’s beginning.  His first ever appearance on the small screen came as a guest on Bob Hope’s vaudevillian Star Spangled Revue.  During his wilderness years in the early 1950s Sinatra had his own show on CBS called, appropriately enough, The Frank Sinatra Show.  A decade later, after The Comeback, there was the Frank Sinatra-Timex Show on ABC.  It was here that Sinatra scored his coup with the “Welcome Home Elvis” special in 1960.  Welcoming The King home may have been the Chairman of the Board’s only highlight as a regular television host.  Sinatra and television were just never a good fit.  Gone on the small screen were the grace and confidence he commanded while on stage with a microphone in his hand.  And his attempts at comedy?  I won’t go there.

Thankfully none of this is present in the Concert Collection.  It’s all about the music.  And what music it is.

The set was produced by the folks at Shout! Factory, a company begun in 2003 by some guys who had worked previously at Rhino Records.  In its short history Shout! Factory has produced sets on Second City Television (SCTV), Lenny Bruce, and the wonderful Dick Cavett Show—Rock Icons, among other things.  With Sinatra they have outdone even themselves.

There are no stilted skits or cringe-inducing monologues here.  The focus is on Sinatra’s day job.  Here in one place are the “Man and His Music” specials of the 1960s.  The first special was in 1965, when Sinatra was on the cusp of turning fifty.  Sinatra produced such specials annually for the next few years, jamming with artists as disparate as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Ella Fitzgerald, the 5th Dimension, and Diahann Carroll.  These affairs were so special precisely because they were so rare.  Released from the burden of creating content regularly, Sinatra and his guests exude an energy missing from his previous television efforts.

Then there is the concert footage.  Most of the live sets come from the 1970s and 80s, when Sinatra was recording less but touring frequently in front of rapt audiences.  There are many highlights but my favorite is The Main Event from 1974.  Sinatra always had a tad more energy when playing for a New York audience and this is apparent here on this set.  He enters Madison Square Garden with the grace of a seasoned prize fighter.  The set is worth the money just to hear the introduction by Howard Cosell.

There is even more but I won’t go on.  Sinatra’s art speaks for itself.

Thanks for checking in.


Calling young scholars

Something came through my inbox yesterday that I thought I’d pass along.

The National Park Service has a new project aimed at high school students throughout the country.  It’s the National Park Memory Trail.  The hope is to get students, working under the guidance of their teachers and local librarians, involved in the Civil War sesquicentennial.  The Memory Trail is designed to allow students to do real research on their own communities and create digital narratives which will then be posted on the National Park Service website.  Students can research what life was like in their local community in the early months of 1861.  Or, they might explore how the war’s centennial coincided with the Civil Rights Movement.  Finally, they might reflect on their own place in our nation’s history and where this awareness might lead them in the future.  It’s called the Memory Trail because viewers will be able to click on a map of the U.S. and read the narrative of each participating locale.

You may be asking yourself, what did my little town have to do with the American Civil War?

The answer is, probably more than you think.

Over three million soldiers fought in the American Civil War.  Some were city slickers from Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Manhattan’s Bowery; others were rubes from hamlets too tiny to be found on any map.  Then there were the parents, wives, children, sweethearts, and other loved ones left behind to cope as best they could.  The war reached into every household in America, including undoubtedly the town where you live today.

I’ve worked in small museums and libraries throughout the country and can tell you that much of the most interesting scholarship is done at the local level.  There is the genealogists maintaining funeral records of the town’s ancestors in a small office in her own home, the archivist at the local historical society safeguarding (usually on a shoestring) the town’s collection of artifacts, and the librarian conserving old newspaper clippings and one-of-a-kind ephemera in the library’s now seldom used Vertical File.  There is a great deal of material out there to work with.  Photographs, letters, oral histories, maps, postcards, and old advertisements are a few examples of things today’s young researcher might use for her narrative.

To find out more, go here:

Thanks for checking in.


Ellis Island National Monument

Hey everybody,

As I mentioned in my welcome post, it is my privilege to be a volunteer in the Interpretation Division at Ellis Island National Monument.  I confess that at first I thought I was settling because I would have preferred to have been at a Civil War site.  Now I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I never tire of hearing stories of the 12 million brave souls who passed through the Golden Door.

Each of our national parks is a treasure and it is the NPS rangers who make it so.  If you were to take a tour of Ellis with each ranger, you’d have a solid grasp of Ellis Island’s history and its place in our national memory.

This past weekend was my first anniversary at the island.  I thought I’d share a few pics from the past year:

This is the Main Building. I took this last spring. The immigrants arrived at the same ferry slip visitors use today. I often wonder what they were thinking when they approached.

One Friday last July a senior ranger received permission to take a small group of rangers and this volunteer to islands 2 and 3. What an honor this was.

This is Lady Liberty from one of the old buildings on island number 3. You can practically feel the ghosts.

The million dollar views of the city are an added bonus. I took this on a rainy day last fall from the second floor of the museum.

This is the Great Hall, or Registry Room. One of my small pleasures is to take a few quiet minutes here before the crowds arrive.

January 2011: This is island number 2 (the hospital) after the recent snowstorm.

One year and counting…