The Marshall House flag, cont’d

Earlier this year I wrote about the Marshall House flag, the posting of which you can read below. Alas yours truly will be at the Yankees game and so will have to watch the repeat, but tonight’s History Detectives examines whether a swatch found in some old boxes by a daughter going through her parent’s belongings is indeed part of the famous banner. Portions were filmed at the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.

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.

Riding Ellis ferry

From the “You never know what will enter your in-box” department:

  • Josh Rasp lives on Yankee Ferry, the only remaining Ellis Island Ferryboat
  • Step 100 years into the past and feel the history of this iconic boat
  • Tour the boat during sunset and discover the on-board vegetable garden

If you were an immigrant coming to New York at the turn of the century, Yankee Ferry would have been the last boat you’d have seen before stepping onto New York soil. Though she was originally built as a ferryboat for the Calendar Islands off of Maine, she moved to Boston Harbor during WWI under the command of the U.S. government as a watch point for German U-boats. After that, she spent time in WWII and off the coast of Block Island before making her way back to New York in the hands of a private buyer.

Yankee Ferry has definitely seen her fair share of interesting characters, heard more than a few crazy stories, and outlived all others of her kind to claim the title as the only surviving Ellis Island Ferry. These days, she’s home to Josh Rasp, a self-described nomad, who’s been living on Yankee for over a year. The current owners, Richard and Victoria, have turned Yankee into housing for a chicken coup and a sustainable garden as the next stage of her life begins.

Visit Yankee at sunset and learn about her incredible history over dessert with the boat team. You’ll take in amazing views of the Manhattan skyline while you tour the 4 original decks that used to hold up to 2000 passengers. You’ll also see the 120 tires that are geometrically placed to look like polka dots from the top, but are actually filled with vegetables and plants including heirloom tomatoes and summer squash. A true step back into the past, this experience will leave you eager to learn more about New York’s deep and interesting history.

The tour is Sunday August 12 and leaves from Hoboken, New Jersey.

(image and text courtesy of Sidetour)

A Sunday morning poem for the Hayfoot

Not a drum was heard, nor a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning;
By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light
And the lantern dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Nor in sheet nor in shroud we wound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him.

Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollowed his narrow bed
And smoothed down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o’er his head,
And we far away on the billow!

Lightly they’ll talk of the spirit that’s gone
And o’er his cold ashes upbraid him,–
But little he’ll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring:
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But left him alone with his glory.

The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna–Charles Wolfe

Walking through Governors Island

Much of my mental energy this summer has been spent on my volunteer duties at Governors Island National Monument. I had always known that the island had a rich history. I feel that this summer I have come to understand some of that history in a deeper way than I had perviously. Other than the week the Hayfoot and I went to Gettysburg, I have not missed a Saturday. My favorite part of the island is a toss up between the general orientation tour and manning the gates–literally–at Castle Williams. The latter is especially rewarding because, standing at the entranceway to the old fortress greeting passersby, one eventually meets most visitors to the island. Some are in and out of the fort in minutes and some stay an hour or more reading every wayward sign. It’s all good.

At my day job we do not work on Fridays in July and most of August. So, today I went out to the island for a walk-through of the interpretive program I have been preparing for the upcoming Civil War Weekend. Essentially I spent the past few weeks researching and drafting an interpretive program about the island’s connection to the Civil War, and today a ranger and I walked the island where I performed it for him for advice and feedback. It is always beneficial to get some input before facing the public and I got a great deal of it today from a ranger who is especially knowledgable. It was lot of fun. I was about 90% there before the walk-through. After a few tweaks based on the input I received this morning I will be ready.

If you live in the New York area, I hope you are able to make it to Governors Island for Civil War Weekend, August 11 and 12. Details to come.

Building a collection

When I was in Washington last week I saw the construction of the African American Museum underway on the Mall. It was comforting to see progress being made after years of just plans on a drawing board. The Smithsonian seems to be taking their time on this project and doing everything the right way. The museum is slated to open in 2015, three short years from now.

Different voices

Everyone who has been following the sesquicentennial understands that one of the primary opportunities of the 150th commemoration is the incorporation of interpretations that were not part of the Civil War narrative fifty years ago. The institutionalization of African American, Women’s, and other disciplines began in the 1960s, at the time of the centennial, and reached maturity in the past decade. It is not just the Academy. As readers of The Strawfoot know, museums throughout the United States are offering Civil War related programming right now. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit is producing a monthly film series through 2015 that promises to be one of the most enlightening. The museum has just released episode six. Here is the first installment:

Visiting the National Portrait Gallery

The other day I mentioned catching the Volck show at the National Portrait Gallery. The Confederate Sketches of Adalbert Volck exhibit is just one of many that the NPG is putting on during the sesquicentennial. Volck is in the same exhibit space as the recently ended Elmer Ellsworth show. Matthew Brady’s Photographs of Civil War Generals is going on through May 2015. What makes the Brady photographs so special and wonderful is that the images are contemporary prints made from the original glass-plate negatives from the Smithsonian collection. The level of detail is something you will not see online or in a book. The Portrait Gallery is a unique place to learn about the Civil War because so much Civil War history took place there. Clara Barton worked in the Patent Office in the 1850s. Whitman served there during the war when the building was a hospital, and after when the Patent Office Building became the home of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Lincoln’s second inaugural ball was held there in March 1865. Guests walked down the hallway shown above to meet the sixteenth president. If you are going to DC anytime soon you owe it to yourself to visit the NPS, especially for The Civil War and american Art show coming later this year. Here is some audio about the building and the war courtesy of the Gallery.

(image/Doug Coldwell)

Who was the most important person in the Confederacy?

Temptations is a New Orleans strip joint whose neon sign declares it “The Gentlemens’ [sic] Club in a Class By Itself.” Open noon ’til dawn, it sits on a crowded stretch of Bourbon Street between the century-old Galatoire’s restaurant and Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal Club. Inside Temptations, the ground-floor parlor is done up in antebellum-period décor, with a pair of grand fireplaces and crystal chandeliers. The paint on the walls cracks with antiquarian charm. At the rear of the room, red velvet-upholstered stools line a bar that serves up chilled cocktails to cut the bayou heat. The parlor is centered around a stage with a dance pole, where, during a recent late-night visit, a stripper billed as “Ryan” Lockhart was hard at work, wriggling her g-string-clad body around the head of a bald man with a fist full of money.

When Lockhart finished her routine, redonning her leopard-print brassiere and shredded black dress and joining the half-dozen other ladies working the floor, I asked if she was aware of the building’s notable history as the former home of Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate secretary of state and America’s first openly Jewish senator.

The answer given to the above question is usually either Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee. A compelling case can be made however for Judah Benjamin, the individual who served the Confederate States of America at various times during its short existence as attorney general and secretaries of war and state. Davis and Lee really would be his only competition, Davis by default as president and Lee for keeping the army in the field and serving as the nation’s face. Benjamin, though, did as much as anyone to keep the Confederacy afloat for as long as it did. While I do not think he has been as forgotten by history as the Tablet article excerpted above makes him out to be, Benjamin has been left out of the narrative somewhat. Diplomacy and the minutiae of supply procurement don’t make for the riveting reading that many Civil War “buffs” are looking for. The article does a good job of explaining why Benjamin is less know today than he should be. Reasons include anti-semitism or, conversely, embarrassment on the part of contemporary Jews at acknowledging his outsized role in secession and the South’s peculiar institution. Also, his relocation to France after the war left him far from the point of creation of the Lost Cause mythology. Another reason is that the notoriously private Benjamin may have been gay. Whatever the cause, Daniel Brook offers a fascinating account of the Benjamin historiography.