Monuments gone wild

Hey everybody, I am sorry about the lack of posts this week. There are a few weeks to go in the semester and the Hayfoot and I have been busy. The week has been something of a grind.

On the lighter side of things I ask this question: What do FDR, Peter the Great, Crazy Horse, and Martin Luther King Jr. have in common?

Answer: They made Travel + Leisure’s list of the World’s Most Controversial Monuments. Fear not, internationalists among us. Bad taste knows no borders; everywhere from Argentina to Uruguay is here.

Enjoy these misguided homages the good and the great.

FDR: loved the president, the statue, well…


“A place where people gather”

Step into the sanctuary of the African Meeting House and you will walk on the same ancient floorboards where Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and other prominent abolitionists railed against slavery in the 19th century, and where free black men gathered to shape the famed 54th Massachusetts Civil War regiment.

I can’t wait to visit here on my next trip to Boston, the city where both my parents grew up and where I still have family.  For decades visitors, myself included, have walked the Freedom Trail.  Our definition of that term is about to get a little wider.

Dreadlocked rustler

In recent weeks there has been much in the news and on the blogosphere about the successful effort to ban the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) license plate in Texas.  Now a Native American group is protesting the just-approved plate that pays tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers.  The relationship between Native and African Americans was and is a complicated one and this is just the latest skirmish between the two groups.  Future disputes are likely.  In a guest post last month my friend Susan Ingram outlined the ongoing dispute between the Cherokees and Cherokee Freedmen.

(image by Chr. Barthelmess/25th Infantry, 1890)

Black Friday

One of my favorite things to do the day after Thanksgiving is visit a museum.  Being that the New-York Historical Society opened earlier this month after a two year renovation, this year’s choice was a no-brainer.  I have been a habitué of the N-YHS since moving to New York over a decade ago.  If you are a serious student of American history and have never been to this institution, you simply must visit.  An added bonus is that it is directly across the street from Central Park and a few blocks north of the Dakota apartment building.  I always go out of my way to see the Dakota when I am in the area and it fills me with sadness every time.  Earlier this week I finished this.

When I exited the train station on 72nd street this morning the bleachers from yesterday’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade were still standing.

The New-York Historical Society’s institutional memory is unsurpassed.  The Society opened its doors in 1804, the year Vice-President Aaron Burr mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton in a duel on the cliffs of Weehawken, New Jersey overlooking Manhattan.  Thomas Jefferson was the sitting president and George Washington had died just five years earlier. Here are a few photos, all taken on my cell phone camera.

The scale is difficult to make out but these slave shackles were intended for small–very small–children.  This was from the first floor permanent exhibit.

No, this is not a ghost.  There were living historians at the Society today.

These Revolutionary War-era musket balls,

and buttons worn by British troops, are from archaeological digs in upper Manhattan.

The introductory film did an excellent job tracing the evolution of New York City from the time of the Lenape Indians, through the Dutch and Colonial eras, the Civil War, the Gilded and Jazz Ages, 9/11 and today.

I loved this contemporary figurine on the third floor’s visible storage area.

The ribbons are from Civil War reunions.  The first is from a UCV gathering in South Carolina in 1898; the second is from 1904.  It is often lost on people how far into the twentieth century Civil War veterans lived.

A tribute to General Michael Corcoran of the 69th New York.  Several months ago I wrote of the restoration of The Return of the 69th (Irish) Regiment, N.Y.S.M. from the Seat of War. I saw it today for the first time and can attest to its power. I have always loved the confluence of art and history.  I cannot wait until January when the New American Wing Galleries reopen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It has been almost three years.  I already have MLK Jr. Day marked on my calendar for a Holiday Monday visit.

It is hard to make out (again, cellphone camera), but this is a paper toy soldier of an African American doughboy.  The Centennial of the Great War is a little over two years away.

It is not all militaria.  The Society collects and interprets artifacts from all aspects of New York and American life.  This baseball sculpture was made in 1868.

Death masks are compelling because they remind us that historical figures were living people, not just names in a history book.  This is General Sherman.  My gosh, look at the detail in the beard.  They have the Lincoln Volk mask at the Society as well.

Frederick Douglass.  The statue is new.

All-in-all not a bad way to spend Black Friday.  No lines, no crazy customers, and a lot cheaper than the department store.

Happy Thanksgiving

My idea of Thanksgiving wasn’t instilled by an artist. That happened on a plane ride over Iowa, many Novembers ago. My wife and I were flying to Cedar Rapids to spend the holiday with her parents. Propeller planes then flew low over America, and around midday I noticed a recurring pattern on the snow-covered landscape below. Cars and pickup trucks, presumably loaded with husbands and wives and their kids, kept turning off the arrow-straight county roads and into the yard of the ancestral farmhouse—the one that had a barn. America was coming home.

Hey everybody, no Civil War here today. Someone woke up at 7:00 to dress our turkey. The bird is now in the oven and we are relaxing with our coffee and our Kindles and Pink Martini on the record player. Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, probably because I have much to be thankful for. Wherever you are, we hope you enjoy your day. Happy Thanksgiving.

(above/theHayfoot’s homemade cranberry sauce)

Grayson, Oklahoma; population 134

Your humble writer lived in North Texas for a number of years and is married to someone who went to college in Oklahoma.  In the decades just after the Civil War there was a sizable movement of African-Americans from the Deep South to the state of Texas and what was then the Oklahoma Territory.  All-Black towns thrived during this era.  Some of these locales became so successful that whites reacted violently to them in what were, in effect, pogroms.  This history was lost, often intentionally so, for decades and is only now being rediscovered.  Other times these towns declined for less dramatic reasons, such as changes in the economy.  These places, so far removed from many parts of the country, have fascinating stories that will hopefully be told before they are lost forever.  Here is a small clip from one of them.

Cemetery robbery

Visiting cemeteries has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember.  One of my favorite afternoons ever was exploring Pere Lachaise one spring day a few years ago.  A few weeks back I was in one of the small cemeteries that dot Manhattan and can be found if one looks hard enough.  I struck up a conversation with one of the security personnel who told me that the theft of bronze, copper, and other metals has become an increasing problem in the past few years.  The metals are worth a great deal as scrap and apparently the economy is forcing individuals to desperate measures.  The Wall Street Journal corroborates that this is, sadly, a national phenomenon.  Civil War cemeteries would seem to be particular vulnerable to such crime, with their statuary and other ornamentation.  Hopefully officials are aware of this trend and will increase their vigilance.

Redrawing America

Many, even most, Americans today find it difficult to believe there was a time when millions fought and died for Union.  A reason for this lack of understanding is that many Americans simply take for granted that their country is a fixed entity, permanent and indissoluble.  That it could be otherwise is, literally, inconceivable.  Things will not be changing anytime soon, but nowhere is it written that ours will be a nation of fifty states in perpetuity.  Forever is a long time.  Some social scientists compiled data from the Where’s George? project to understand better how Americans currently live their lives in and across the state borders.

Homeward bound

Hey everybody, it is Friday afternoon and I am in the Albany Amtrak station waiting for the 3:05 back to New York.  I had a fun and productive two days here at the Researching New York conference.  My panel was this morning.  I spoke about the New York Harbor defenses during the Civil War; my co-panelist Bruce Dearstyne gave an informative presentation on the state of Civil War memory and historiography within New York State.  As you can imagine this set off a lively discussion during the Q&A period. I could not agree more with his premise that the Empire State needs more and better Civil War scholarship at the state and local levels.  For myriad reasons, this is not happening to the extent one would like.  New York sent more men and materiel to the cause than any state in the union.  It would be a tragedy if the state’s role in the Civil War were lost in the narrative.  I guess the sesquicentennial is our opportunity to not let that happen.  To be continued.