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.

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)

Etta James, 1938-2012

Etta James has died. Incredibly the singer who began her career over half a century ago was only seventy-three. James was a diva in the time before that word meant more than “female singer.” She was known primarily as an R&B singer because of her work with Chess Records, but she was so much more than that. Jazz, blues, soul, gospel, rock & roll, and whatever else struck Ms. James’s fancy were all part of her body of work. As Duke Ellington would have noted approvingly, Etta James was Beyond Category. Unfortunately the public was not always so quick to catch up, with deleterious effects on her career.

Etta was about more than the music, however. With her curves, dyed platinum hair and feline eyes she oozed female sexuality in a way that was aggressive but never vulgar. Let’s just say it never would have occurred to Etta to flash her vagina in public the way so many of today’s singers and actresses do.

We will miss you Etta.

Johnny Otis, the man who discovered her, died on Tuesday at ninety. Like James, Otis worked in many genres. He started as a big band leader but was also one of the pioneers of early rock & roll. It was Otis who produced Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog” for Big Mama Thornton before it was covered by Elvis and others.

Shipwreck project

Cape Coast Castle, Ghana

George Washington University anthropologist Stephen Lubkemann has received a grant from the school and the Smithsonian Institution to locate and hopefully study a slave ship that sank off the coast of South Africa in the late eighteenth century. Archaeologists have previously studied shipwrecks of vessels that had been used in the slave trade. What makes this unique, the researchers claim, is that this will be the first study of a ship that sank with slaves aboard. The Smithsonian hopes the project yields previously unknown details of how the trade was practiced and contribute to the museum’s educational programming.


New beginnings at the Met

I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art today for the opening of the third and final phase in the renovation of the American Wing. Today the new Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts were opened to the public for the first time. The project was ten years in the making and began with rededications of the museum’s collection of American classical arts (2007) and period rooms (2009). It is a new era for one of the world’s great museums and you owe it to yourself to go if you are able.

Holiday Mondays, especially in the winter, are a great time to visit the museum. I thought it was going to be extremely crowded today. New Yorkers often leave the museums to the out-of-towners during the holiday season. I figured that the reopening, coinciding with a day off and a cold but otherwise fine day would have New Yorkers lining up to see the Gilbert Stuarts and Rembrandt Peales in their new surroundings. Surprisingly, this was not the case. Attendance was brisk but not unmanageable.

I intend to write more about art and history over the course of the year and so today will give only a brief overview:

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware has again taken its proper place as the centerpiece of the American Wing. In the old gallery Washington was cramped in a small space unworthy of the masterpiece. Forced to compete with lesser works, the painting’s grandeur was diminished. This is no longer a problem. Entering the space one first sees a gallery of eighteenth century portraits. Turning down the hall to enter the next gallery one gets a partial, teasing glimpse of Washington several rooms down that just builds the excitement and expectation. Let’s just say there is a big wow factor when you finally get to it. I always tell people “Look at the frame. The frame is part of the story.” Here the Met has outdone itself. Washington is in a new frame based on a recently found Matthew Brady photograph of the painting taken during the 1864 Sanitary Fair that raised funds for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. A great touch.

The Met has always had an extensive collection of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and they have employed the sculptor’s works throughout the new galleries to great effect. Ones I noticed included a study for his David Farragut statue that sits in Madison Square Park, a Standing Lincoln like the one in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, a sculpture of Victory as also depicted atop the Sherman statue in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza, and the Lincoln that Saint-Gaudens created using the Volk life mask. A half hour later I saw the death mask of Lorenzo de’Medici from 1492 in an exhibit of Renaissance portraiture. It was one of those moments of serendipity and inspiration that can only happen in Met, the Louvre, and a handful of other institutions.

There are twenty-six rooms in the new space, each filled with little surprises that reward the close observer. When a person gets to the end he will have a good understanding of American history and society as depicted by its artists. The only thing missing today was the Hayfoot, who had to work. I am already counting down to President’s Day when we can go together.

Central Park from the Metropolitan Museum of Art