The last rodeo of the season

Today was my final day of the season at Governors Island. After tomorrow the park will not be open to the public again until next May. It was a fun and rewarding summer. The staff there is very hardworking and knowledgeable without taking themselves too seriously. It is really a privilege to work with them and with the public at one of our country’s great historical sites. Here are some photos from the final two Saturdays.

Remembering the Emancipation Proclamation

Today was a special day. The wife and I went to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to see President Abraham Lincoln’s handwritten draft of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln released the document 150 years ago yesterday, 22 September 1862, five days after the fighting ended at Antietam.

The Schomburg, part of the New York Public Library, is located between 135th/136th Streets and Lenox Avenue. The weather today could not be beat and there many people out enjoying the day.

After a short film narrated by Morgan Freeman one enters the library’s museum space on the second floor.

The exhibit was just the right size, small with a focus on the proclamation itself. There was some signage such as this that put emancipation into context, before the war, during Reconstruction, through the Civil Rights Movement, and today. A nice touch were portions of a draft of a speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. to the New York Civil War Centennial Commission’s Emancipation Proclamation Observance on September 12, 1962. It is not a coincidence, as some have made it out to be, that the Civil War centennial and Civil Rights movement overlapped. Less than a year after commemorating the president’s proclamation, King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington.

Abraham Lincoln’s handwritten Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln donated the above document to the U.S. Sanitary Commission in 1864 to be raffled off for the Union war effort. It is now owned by the New York State Library. Thankfully it was not lost in the Great Capitol Fire in Albany in 1911.

Also on display was this is an original copy of the proclamation, owned by the National Archives. Because flash photography was not permitted some of the images from our cellphones are grainy. The Emancipation Proclamation was written by Lincoln the Lawyer and does not contain the literary flourishes one finds in the Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural.

The security guards told us they were getting big crowds for the four day event held at the uptown library. It is always good seeing parents bringing children to such events. The proclamation will travel to seven other New York cities this fall. I cannot tell you how special it was to witness this.

When in Harlem, go to Sylvia’s


My Red Sox had a disastrous season, but at least there will be postseason baseball in the nation’s capital for the first time since the first year of the FDR administration. The Hayfoot and I went to the Mets/Nationals game in Queens on September 11th. They had a moving ceremony before the game. We were wondering afterward if Major League Baseball scheduled the New York and Washington DC teams on the anniversary of 9/11 intentionally. One of the nice touches at the Mets ballpark is the rotunda paying homage to Ebbets field. Earlier this week we were going to dinner near the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and walked past the site where Jackie Robinson signed his contract. Several years ago I saw Mrs. Robinson speak on the anniversary of her husband’s first major league game. A Robinson biopic will be released on April 12, 2013.

Citi Field rotunda

Homer at work

Image of Winslow Homer by Naploean Sarony
Homer’s Eight Bells

The Portland (Maine) Museum of Art is re-opening Winslow Homer’s Prouts Neck studio after a six-year, $10.8 million renovation. The institution purchased the property from the artist’s descendants in 2006. Homer’s Civil War sketchings are some of the most iconographic images of the conflict, equal to the drawings of Alfred Waud and photographs of Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner in our visual understanding of the war. What is striking about Homer, and many other figures from the Civil War Era, is the length of their careers after the war. Already known for his Civil War drawings, Homer carved out a second, even larger career during the Gilded Age and well into the Progressive Era. He lived until 1910.

The Civil War sketches were works of realism, drawn for an anxious audience eager for news from the front in the age just prior photography’s maturation and widespread accessibility. The post war paintings are impressionistic, created by an artist using his full powers. These works represented America moving past the death and destruction of the war and reinventing itself for the modern age. At the same time they are somewhat idyllic in that many of them are outdoor nature scenes, eschewing the hard reality of an increasingly urbanized America.

If you have not been I recommend you visit the recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s New American Wing. My favorite Homer painting has always been The Veteran in a New Field, his 1865 work depicting a returned soldier who has put down his sword in exchange for a plowshare. The Met has many Homer pieces, some of which can be seen here.

The Civil War in my life

Alexander Gardner image of Antietam’s Sunken Road

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. Last night my wife and I were watching some of the C-SPAN and other coverage, which led to a conversation about the Civil War’s role in my life. Some things have the ability to captivate us always. My list includes the Beatles, New York City, Elvis, both World Wars, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, Sinatra, and the American Civil War. Don’t ask me to explain; how does anyone know from where in the human imagination such interests arise? Now middle-aged, I have nonetheless reached that point where I am so removed from the events of my younger days to see where the roads turned. For me, the Civil War path has taken several twists.

The first was when I was ten and my uncle gave me a book of Matthew Brady photographs. I was too young to pick up on at the time but the book was a reprint of Benson J. Lossing’s History of the Civil War. Thankfully I was also too young to read the dense prose. If I had I might still be influenced by its early 20th century take on the War of the Rebellion. It was something like the Time-Life books about the Second World War many people had in their living rooms in the 1970s and 80s. Fun to look at, but not especially reliable. Still, the Civil War photo were captivating, especially to a latchkey kid whose parents had uprooted him from his home in Connecticut and transplanted to Florida before divorcing two years later. I lost the book over the years until seeing it again for $10 in a Border’s a few years ago. I shelled out the money but eventually gave the book away, worried about the accuracy not just of the text but even the captions on the photographs themselves. For starters, we now know that many “Brady” photos were actually taken by Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, or other members of Brady’s studio. The captions on old photographs are often wrong as well. I have read my Frassanito.

I got away from the Civil War during my high school and college years but had my interest piqued again when Ken Burns’s documentary was released in 1990. It is a dramatic film, beautifully choreographed, that inspired many of us to delve more into the literature. This in turn led me to purchase Bruce Catton’s American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War when it was re-released with updated maps, art work, and photographs in 1996. At this time I was going to graduate school and working fullltime at a large chain bookstore to make ends meet. Often I worked until midnight and came home too wound up to go to sleep immediately. I would sit at my tiny kitchen table eating my 1:00 am dinner and reading Catton’s lyrical prose. I was still too young and unaware that Catton was part of any historiographical “school.” Ironically, I never took a Civil War class in either grad or undergraduate school. This is especially unfortunate because I did my undergraduate work at the University of Houston and could have studied with Joseph Glatthaar.

The next turn came with the release of Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic in 1998. Many readers enjoyed it for its anecdotes about the levels of farbiness one finds at Civil War reenactments. What I most took from the book though was how little we know about the war, despite the tens of thousands of books written on the subject. Self serving regimental histories. Lost Cause mythology. The foggy memories of aging veterans visiting the battlefields of their youth. Flaws in the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. It was all new to me. It was (and is) terrifying also to think that everything one knows about something could be wrong. Even worse is realizing that there might be no way ever to know the full story of something, even by extension one’s own life. The next year I visited Shiloh for the first time when I went out to visit my dad. Other than a quick one hour stop at Fredericksburg in 1997 when I got off the freeway during my move to New York, I had never visited a Civil War battlefield before. After that we visited Pea Ridge, Vicksburg, and Shiloh again. This is where I became fixated on the myths and memory of the war.

In 2008 I visited Gettysburg for the time, and the following year I went back with the woman who became my wife a few months later. That year we also went to Sharpsburg in what has become something of an annual pilgrimage. There is no substitute to walking a Civil War battlefield. On that same trip we also visited Harper’s Ferry on what was the anniversary year of John Brown’s raid. This got me thinking harder about the sesquicentennial and the opportunity it presented to think harder about American Civil War and its place in our history. I never romanticized the Civil War–and I was certainly never a Lost Causer–but I believe I think more critically and less sentimentally about that conflict than I might have when I was younger. This in turn led to another path, the one I am on now, where I started this blog to make the leap from buff to serious writer. I feel I am now finding my niche, which include the Civil War in New York, and Civil War veterans in the Gilded Age among other aspects.

In a nutshell that is the Civil War in my life. Last night, looking at the images from over the weekend on the Antietam NPS Facebook page, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the children taken to the event by their parents will become captivated by this tragic event in our history. Some will forget almost immediately, but years from now others will look back on the commemoration of 2011-2015 as the spark that started it all.

Sunday morning coffee

Hey everybody, this is the 400th post here at the Strawfoot.

We are sitting in our living room having our coffee and listening to the Statesmen Quartet. Gospel music on a Sunday morning is one of our small rituals. It varies between the Statesmen, Elvis, Sam Cooke, the Staples Singers, or various compilations I buy here in Brooklyn from sidewalk vendors. Our good friend Sami is coming in a while for breakfast. Sami is also a volunteer at Governors Island National Monument. We met him three years ago just after I met the Woman Who Became the Hayfoot and took her took her there one Friday in 2009. Sami was the one who talked me into leaving Ellis Island across the harbor. I am going to interview and profile him here on the blog in the coming weeks.

Earlier this week the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program released the draft of a report on preservation of the Civil War battlefields. They are seeking public input between now and October 12. The NPS had done an amazing job restoring our battlefields over the last 15-20 years and that work is on display right now during the sesquicentennial. We got gloriously lost last year at Antietam when we ventured off one of the walking trails thinking we’d make our won shortcut. We would have loved to have been at Antietam this weekend but we just couldn’t swing it. We are looking forward to seeing the handwritten Emancipation Proclamation next weekend in Harlem. I haven’t seen anything on it, but I would love to see someone put the Brady Studio images that shocked the nation on display here in New York in 2012 just as they were 150 autumns ago.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Roulette Farm, Antietam National Battlefield

Remembering the Great War

In the area where my brother lives in France Great War monuments are as ubiquitous as Civil War monuments are here in the United States. Every town square has its bronze doughboy representing the young men from that locale who mort pour la France. World War One monuments are less common here in America but one does see them on a fairly regular basis. We have been spending so much time on the Civil War sesquicentennial that the upcoming 100th anniversary of the First World War has been pushed to the back burner. Ready or not it is coming in just two short years. It will be an opportunity to challenge many of the assumptions we have about that conflict, just as the CW 150th has done for the War of the Rebellion. If you ever have a chance I strongly recommend a visit to the National World War One Museum in Kansas City; if you really have a chance take in the Historial de La Grande Guerre in Perrone. Both will change your perspective of this pivotal event in 20th century history.

I don’t know if the National Mall needs another monument but earlier this week Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) proposed the construction of a national World War One memorial to be built in Constitution Gardens near the Reflecting Pool. The proposal has a long road before reaching fruition because of a 2003 law prohibiting new construction on the Mall. Any exemption would mean setting a precedent. Washington already has a WW1 memorial, located in Pershing Park, but it is a local memorial dedicated to the soldiers from the District who fought in the conflict. It will be interesting to see if this proposal goes anywhere. Monuments take time, sometimes decades, to go from drawing board to ribbon cutting. I doubt this would take that long if it indeed comes to pass. 2014 is probably too soon. Perhaps five years, in time for the 100th anniversary of American involvement in April 2017, is more realistic. It will be interesting to see if this goes anywhere.

(image/Thomas R Machnitzki)

The Maryland Campaign continues

Reading is not enough when it comes to understanding the military components of our civil war. One must visit to grasp things more fully. It was not until I visited Antietam for the first time in 2009 that I realized how close it was to Harper’s Ferry, South Mountain, and other places. This changed my whole concept of the fighting in these places, especially in regards to climate, time, and topography. Visiting also taught me that to understand Gettysburg, Antietam, or any other military activity from the war one must understand the campaign, not just one battle from it. However big and dramatic these events were, they are just one piece in a larger context.

So looking forward to seeing the handwritten Emancipation Proclamation the week after next.

Intelligent growth

I mentioned the other day that I have been following the anniversary of the Maryland Campaign with great interest. This coming week come the sesquicentennial events of South Mountain (the 14th) and Harper’s Ferry (the 15th). A week from tomorrow is Antietam’s 150th. Every year when we visit we are struck by the ever increasing urban sprawl in Washington County. The McMansions are now just a few miles down I-65 from the Antietam battlefield. Sprawl is a complicated issue, especially in the Greater Washington area with its expanding population. One would like to save as much land as possible; on the other hand, people have a right to live where and how they wish. What’s more, municipalities must balance the needs of the local community against the larger interest. Every acre added to the a national battlefield or historic site is one taken off the local tax rolls. Mayors and city councils are not evil or wrong for thinking about such things. The issue is further complicated by changing demographics. The Greater Washington Area has undergone a shift in recent decades with people coming from around the country–and around the world–who have no emotional attachment to the American Civil War. We ourselves are part of that trend. We take the Boltbus regularly to visit good friends of ours who moved to Maryland recently and live not an hour away from Sharpsburg. There are no easy answers.

Things would be worse across the country without groups such as the Civil War Trust, of which I am a member. At the more local level, the Save Historic Antietam Foundation has done much work in the past two decades to ensure that growth is managed sensibly. David T. Whitaker of Smart Growth Maryland has the story.

(image/John Delano)