Winter reading

It doesn’t feel like a New York winter based on the temperature outside, but nonetheless the calendar still reads January. Today I finally began David Blight’s seminal Race and Reunion, which I had shamelessly pulled from the shelves of the library where I work several months ago and kept in my office all this time. I am not totally new to Blight’s work, having read American Oracle when it was released this past fall. And, of course, he is a fixture on the book talk show circuit. For those who may have missed it, the scholars at Emerging Civil War ran this series in October marking the 10th anniversary of the book’s release. I’m going into R&R with an open mind, but am aware of its premises and the counter-arguements against it. In yet another sign that I married the right woman, the Hayfoot came home from the public library a few months back with Gary Gallagher’s The Union War for me to read, finding all by herself on the New Arrivals shelf.

Memory has been a major component of contemporary historiography for well over a decade and this trend has only accelerated during the sesquicentennial. The first time I ever truly questioned my assumptions about the American Civil War was when I read Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic in 1998. In it he mentions the potential unreliability of such seemingly unimpeachable cornerstones of Civil War scholarship as the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. Horowitz explains how figures on both sides provided details of the war in the OR and in their memoirs that were clouded by self-serving prejudices and faulty memories. Call me naive if you want; I was a lot younger then. It was the first time I had ever seen it put in those terms before, and it is still what I took away the most from Horowitz. That all, or even some, of your assumptions may be wrong is a very unsettling thought.

The following year I went to Shiloh for the first time. Seeing the monuments the veterans constructed to themselves in the years roughly from 1880-1910 I could not help but wonder how and why they came to be. Every June my wife and I visit Gettysburg and, if anything, the hows and whys are even more intriguing at the war’s High Water Mark. I’m looking forward to reading Blight’s work and will comment on it when I finish.

Bombay jazz

Jazz has been influential beyond America’s borders from its beginnings. I had always known, of course, of the music’s role in Parisian society after the Great War in the 1920s. Later, at the height of the Cold War, Eisenhower’s State Department sent Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and others around the world on what turned out to be highly succesful goodwill tours. An underlying theme on these trips was the shared experience of African Americans with people of color in the Third World.  Most famously, Louis Armstrong toured Africa in 1957. The highlight was Satchmo’s performance celebrating Ghana’s independence that March. That the Little Rock desegregation crisis was reaching its climax at the same time was not lost on anyone. The wit and sophistication of these artists did much for America’s standing, even–especially–when they chided their country back home for not living up to its ideals.

What I did not know until the Hayfoot brought this to my attention the other was the role of jazz in India going back to the 1930s. The Raj was still going strong during these years but the movement seems to have been influential primarily on desi musicians. My favorite part is when author and narrator Naresh Fernandes mentions the jazz scene in Karachi, which is today in Paksitan due to partition.

Enjoy your Sunday.

(image/Eros Theater, Mumbai; Colin Rose)

Lincoln’s internet

Sherman to Lincoln: Savannah has fallen, December 1864

The Huntington Library, owner of perhaps the best collection of Civil War regimental histories in existence, announced this week that it has acquired a sizable collection of Civil War telegrams thought to have been lost or destroyed decades ago. The World Wide Web has changed the way we have lived over the past twenty years. Hard as it is to imagine however, the telegraph transformed the lives of mid-nineteenth century Americans even more extensively. When Samuel Morse sent the first ever telegraphic message, from Washington, DC to Baltimore in May 1844, he altered people’s concepts of time and space. News that previously took months to arrive by ship or horse now travelled in real time. If Morse’s code had existed during the War of 1812 General Andrew Jackson would not have fought the British at New Orleans in January 1815, two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent ended the conflict.

The U.S. Army was quick to understand the signifiance of telegraphy and embraced the new technology quickly. (Not coincidentally, the military also understood the signifance of the internet after the Second World War and quickly embraced that technology as well.)  Unfortunately the various presidential administrations of the 1840s and 50s were less quick to adapt. When Lincoln was inaugurated and the war came he was reduced to leaving the White House and venturing to the War Department and elsewhere for war news. That would be the equivalent today of the president and White House staff having no internet access and leaving the grounds to get their news from sources who are better plugged in.

The telegrams are in several dozen leather binders and once belonged to Thomas T. Eckert, assistant general superintendent of the United States Military Telegraph. Prior to serving in this capacity Eckert served on McClellan’s staff. After the war he worked for railroad magnate Jay Gould. Gould also went on to acquire Western Union. Only a fraction of the correspondance has been previously published. Over 100 telegrams in the Eckert collection are by Lincoln himself. The Huntington will display a portion of the material in two exhibits later in the year. Hopefully they will digitize at least some of this material in the future as well.

(image/War Department, Office of the Military Telegraph; NARA)

Tippecanoe and Tyler too

The expression of a man who fathers fifteen children

In a small news story that serves as a reminder that the Civil War was not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, geneaologists announced this week that two of the grandsons of President John Tyler are still alive. The Virginian Tyler was the tenth president of the United States. He served from 1841 to 1845 and died in 1862. One of the Tyler grandsons served on the Virginia Civil War Centennial Commission from 1959-1963 and later received his PhD at Duke.

The Marshall House flag

The New York State Military Museum has one of the most extensive collections of flags in the United States, going back two centuries to the War of 1812. Its collection of Civil War battle flags is the largest in the country, which should not be a surprise given the Empire State’s outsized role in bringing an end to the Late Unpleasantness. One of the crown jewels of the state’s collection is the Marshall Flag, the Confederate national banner which flew above the Marshall House hotel in Alexandria Virginia until taken down by Colonel Elmer Ellsworth in May 1861.

The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume one, the Opening Battles

Virginia passed its Ordinance of Secession on May 23 and tensions were high in the capital and just across the Potomac in Virginia. The following day Ellsworth noted the flag flying atop the building and in a fit of bravado dashed to the roof and pulled down the stars and bars. When he got to the bottom of the stairs Ellsworth was shot by proprietor James Jackson. Jackson in turn was shot by one of Ellsworth’s men. Both died instantly.

Currier and Ives print from the collection of the Library of Congress

Ellsworth was a dashing figure and a favorite of President Lincoln. He had been the colonel of the 11th New York “Fire Zouaves,” whose men had spent much of 1861 parading with great fanfare to large, appreciative crowds across the North. Their showmanship had more in common with acrobatics and synchronization than military tactics, and their colorful uniforms only added to their popularity and mystique. Ellsworth’s death made him a martyr across the North. The gruesome and violent nature of his death, however, was also one of the first signals to Americans of what the war would entail. How could a man so handsome and young, so vibrant, so full of life and charisma be taken away in an instant? Such is the nature of war.

Envelope from the collection of the New-York Historical Society

The NYS Military Museum has spent the last several years conserving what is left of the Marshall House flag. Here is an overview.

Quote of the day

Thomas Eakins photograph of WW, April 1887

There will come a time here in Brooklyn and all over America, when nothing will be of more interest than authentic reminiscenses  of the past.       –Walt Whitman

(image/Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscript Library, Yale University)

The African American Guidebook

Cane River Creole National Historic Park, Natchitoches, Louisiana

The other day I received from Eastern National the Guidebook to African American History in the National Parks. The monograph was published last summer in conjunction with the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall. The guidebook is not a comprehensive account of African American history as interpreted by the NPS, but it is extensive. Some sites, such as the African Burial Ground in Manhattan, are obvious inclusions; however some entries are less intuitive. Examples include the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (the St. Louis arch), Port Chicago (California) Naval Magazine National Memorial, and Hot Spring (Arkansas) National Park. In addition to site information there are brief essays about the Civil War, Juneteenth, the Buffalo Soldiers, and other aspects of African American heritage. The book is insightful not just for the information it provides on the sites themselves, but for what it says about the Park Service’s efforts to tell a more inclusive version of our nation’s history. With Black History Month coming up there could not be a better time to read this new offering from the NPS.

(image/James W. Rosenthal)