The Civil War in my life

Longtime Strawfoot readers will recognize this post. I wrote it on September 17, 2012 for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. I reposted it again on July 1st 2013 for the sesquicentennial of the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg. Now, for the final time, here it is on the anniversary of Appomattox. It is difficult to believe the Civil War Sesquicentennial is ending. When it began with the remembrance of John Brown’s raid in 2009 I had just gotten married and my father was still alive.

History of course is not as neat as commemorations suggest. Life just doesn’t work that way. The fighting still went on even after Lee surrendered to Grant. Joseph E. Johnston did not surrender to Sherman until April 26. Edmund Kirby Smith’s Trans-Mississippi Army finally laid down its arms on May 26. Still Lee’s army was the most significant, and logic dictates that April 9 is the day we pause and remember. I know that the blog has taken a few turns over the past four years, especially after I attended the World War One Centennial Trade Show in Washington last June. Still, the Civil War is my primary research interest and will continue so. Anyways from 2012…

Wesley Merritt's 1897 interpretation of Lee's surrender

Wesley Merritt’s 1897 interpretation of Lee’s surrender

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.

(image/Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Surrender At Appomattox.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1897.

Dan T. Moore: White House aide, sparring partner

Dan T. Moore was a captain of artillery and presidential aide when he sparred with Theodore Roosevelt.

Dan T. Moore was a captain of artillery and presidential aide when he sparred with Theodore Roosevelt. A few years later he founded the Field Artillery School of Fire in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. His work prepared many of the artillery officers who fought in France a few years later.

My post the other day about boxing as part of basic training for the First World War got me thinking about Theodore Roosevelt. Many people do not know that Roosevelt was rendered fully blind in one eye during a sparring match while he was president. The reason so few people know is that he made so little of it; he only referred to it occasionally from the time it happened in 1905 until his death in 1919. That’s right. Theodore Roosevelt was fully blind in one eye for nearly the last fifteen years of his life. Not even the man who caused the injury knew about it.

Roosevelt had always loved boxing, and did not sour on it even after the incident; he called it a “first-class sport” in his 1913 autobiography. As New York City Police Commissioner he encouraged young men to put on the gloves in clubs and YMCAs throughout the city. Still, he understood its tawdry side. Just a few months after he became governor in early 1899 he signed the legislation that outlawed professional fighting in the Empire State. Surprise! Pro boxing was corrupt even a century and more ago.

In 1916 the Wilson Administration promoted him to major in a move to promote 1000 officers in preparation for potential involvement in the Great War. AS this once-classified document indicated he served on the General Staff.

In 1916 the Wilson Administration promoted him to major in a move to promote 1000 officers in preparation for potential involvement in the Great War. As this once-classified document indicated he eventually served on the General Staff. He eventually made colonel and lived until 1941.

Dan T. Moore was a military attaché stationed in the White House who sparred with the president approximately 100 times during the two winters he was stationed in the Executive Mansion. Years later Roosevelt mentioned in passing that the injury had occurred while he was sparring a “captain of artillery.” Moore, stationed at Camp Meade at the time and preparing the American buildup taking place after the declaration of war that April, understood immediately that he was that captain; there were others who boxed with Roosevelt, but he was the only captain of artillery. When Moore realized the gravity of what had happened he wrote to Roosevelt immediately to make amends. Roosevelt never blamed Moore, but the military officer never got over it.

(top image, Library of Congress; bottom image, NARA)

Opening Day

Spot Poles and other ballplayers played for such hotels as the Royal Poinciana

Spot Poles and other ballplayers played for such hotels as the Royal Poinciana

A year or so ago there was an ESPN 30 for 30 short called Borscht Belt Bellhop about Wilt Chamberlain and other African American basketball players who worked as cooks, waiters and valets in the summer camps of Upstate New York back in the 1950s. What I did not know until researching and writing the bit about Spottswood Poles for the WW1 Centennial Commission last week is that there was a similar phenomenon that took place in Florida and California in the early twentieth century. Negro players such as Poles played baseball in so-called hotel leagues during the winter months. In Poles’s case it was Palm Beach. In the years immediately before and after the First World War he played for Royal Poinciana and The Breakers Hotels.

When not playing ball they worked in the dining room and elsewhere.

When not playing ball they worked in the dining room and elsewhere.

The Florida Hotel League, sometimes called the Coconut League, went back to the 1890s until finally disbanding in 1931. Such leagues played an abbreviated schedule of about fifteen games, usually twice a week from January through March. This was the same period that most ball clubs, white and black, went to Florida, the sunny West Coast, or the Caribbean to train. Gametime was usually scheduled for mid-afternoon between the lunch and dinner hours. That is because the players served double-duty as the waitstaff and in other capacities. Poles led the Florida Hotel League in batting several seasons and led the Breakers to titles in both 1915 and 1916. Poles returned to Palm Beach in 1917. By the end of the year he was in France with the 369th. He saw a great deal of the hard fighting of 1918.

Here is the field. The audience was primarily the hotel guests.

Here is the field. The crowd was primarily the hotel guests.

The money was never good in the Florida Hotel League but it did give players a chance to make a few dollars, get out of the cold, play some innings and otherwise get in shape for the regular season.

After playing in 1914 with Poinciana, Poles jumped teams and joined The Breakers.

After playing in 1914 with Poinciana, Poles jumped teams and joined The Breakers.

Enjoy the season.

(Royal Poinciana images, Library of Congress; The Breakers, NYPL)

Happy Easter

artist Louis Dalrymple for Puck magazine, 18 April 1900

artist Louis Dalrymple for Puck magazine, 18 April 1900

The death of Vice President Garret A. Hobart in 1899 left the office open to many aspirants going into the election the following year. When President McKinley opened his Easter egg that Sunday morning out popped such potential prospects as Elihu Root, Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt and others.

Enjoy your Easter.

(image/Library of Congress)

The Sweet Science goes to war

World's largest boxing class

World’s largest boxing class

Early last week I posted something about boxer Gene Tunney’s 1940 visit to the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace on the TRB Facebook page. I had stumbled across a photo of Tunney at the house on East 20th Street while reading old RMA bulletins at the New York Public Library a few weeks previously. It turned out serendipitously because I had just completed Rex Passion’s The Lost Sketchbooks. Passion wrote text to go along with artist Ed Shenton’s drawings from the Great War. Shenton’s experiences included training in the Sweet Science while at Camp Hancock just outside of Augusta, Georgia. A little digging into the story reveals that over three million doughboys boxed as part of their training and preparation to fight in France. Those three million included Shenton–and Gene Tunney.

Boxing instructions, main barracks, Naval Training Station, San Francisco, California, circa 1918

Boxing instruction, Naval Training Station, San Francisco, circa 1918

The Commission on Training Camp Activities had created and implemented the idea. They even produced a training film consisting of highlights from the bouts of such fighters as Gentleman Jim Corbett and Kid McCoy to show doughboys the proper technique. Keep in mind that moving imagery was still a fairly new medium at the time. It might well have been the first film many of these young men had ever seen. The training program was so successful that in the months just after the war’s end the Knights of Columbus organized an A.E.F. tournament in Paris. This all came to pass in early 1919 with Tunney, a U.S. Marine at the time, walking away with the title. Soon, like all Americans marines and doughboys, he returned to the United States and civilian life. Less than a decade later he would beat Jack Dempsey and become heavyweight champ. He retired undefeated in 1928.

Tunney had come to the TRB in 1940 to help Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the upcoming presidential election. FDR was still wildly popular but many were upset that he was violating the then unwritten rule that presidents step down after two terms. Tunney and FDR, I recently discovered, went all the way back to late 1918. Roosevelt, in his capacity as assistant secretary of the navy, had made sure that the young marine could stay in Paris and train for the A.E.F. tournament. The two remained friends. He campaigned for FDR in 1932 and, obviously, continued doing so in ensuing elections.

(top image, Library of Congress; lower image, National Archives and Records Administration)

Dreaming Rough Rider

John_K._Daniels’s_butter_sculpture_of_Teddy_Roosevelt,_Minnesota_State_Fair,_1910Here is something you don’t see every day. It is a butter sculpture of Roosevelt as Rough Rider. As the caption indicates it was sculpted for the 1910 Minnesota State Fair. Butter sculpting assuredly dates back as far as the Original Churn. From what I learned in the article from which this image appears it became part of popular culture at the 1876 Centennial Expo in Philadelphia. Perhaps because butter’s simplicity contrasted so markedly with the rapid technological changes of the Gilded Age? Whatever the inspiration, one Caroline Shawk Brooks displayed the portrait of a lady in butter in Philadelphia which she had titled Dreaming Iolanthe.

In her article “Butter Cows and Butter Buildings” Pamela H. Simpson notes that Roosevelt was a popular subject of butter sculpting because of his creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Butter Sculpting thrived through the Great War into the 1920s. The Depression and then the rationing during the Second World War ended the practice as a widespread phenomenon. Still, one might still it at state fairs even today.

(image from the private collection of Pamela H. Simpson and published in “Butter Cows and Butter Buildings: A History of an Unconventional Sculptural Medium”, Winterthur Portfolio 41, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 1-19 via Wikimedia Commons)

Sidd Finch turns thirty

George Plimpton, founder of the Paris Review and Sidd Finch

George Plimpton, founder of the Paris Review and Sidd Finch

I was at work yesterday and mentioned that tomorrow (now today) was the 30th anniversary of the Sidd Finch hoax. For those who have never heard, Finch was a hot prospect for the New York Mets in 1985. This was the moment when the Mets were turning it around. Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden had won the Rookie of the Year the previous two seasons. Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter were now with the club. Finch was going to take the Mets to Promised Land. There was only one thing: he didn’t exist. It was all an elaborate hoax that appeared in the April 1 edition of Sports Ilustrated. George Plimpton wrote the fifteen page piece on the hurler who could throw it 168 mph. Finch, as the story went, had never played organized ball but had learned an amazing throwing technique while studying Eastern Philosophy in Tibet.

The story sounded so implausible but what made it work was that the April Fools project had the blessing of the Mets management and ownership. Nelson Doubleday owned the publishing firm under which Plimpton was under contract at the time. The general manager of the team and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre also chipped in their support, giving fake interviews to build up the hype and feasibility. An SI photographer went to Port Saint Lucie to record Finch at the Mets training camp. They even found the perfect guy to play Finch, a middle school art teacher from Chicago named Joe Berton.

In today’s world such a tall tale would be debunked pretty quickly. In those days before the internet though, millions fell for the joke. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth was getting anxious calls from baseball people asking for details; editors were chastising beat writers for missing out on the story. It captured Americans’ imaginations for the first of April. It was even on Nightline.

The folks at my job to whom I mentioned it had no idea who Finch was. When I mentioned Plimpton though they lit up. Little did I know that we are in a Sidd Finch renaissance. ESPN’s 30 for 30 released a short today about the whole thing. Take fifteen and have a laugh this April Fools Day.

(image/Nancy Wong)


Spottswood Poles, 1887-1962

Spottswood Poles, upper right, with the New York Lincoln Giants: May 1912

Spottswood Poles, upper right, with the New York Lincoln Giants: May 1912

As a general practice I do not link to things I write for the Park Service or WW1 Centennial Commission’s social media platforms. Tonight though I made an exception for a small piece about ball player and Harlem Hellfighter Spot Poles. It is up on the Strawfoot Facebook page on the left.

I have been reading Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times over the past few weeks. Ritter’s oral history was a seminal event in baseball historiography, coming as it did in the mid-1960s when many of the early players were disappearing. Poles does not appear in the book and his name was only slightly familiar to me until recently. I suspect that he never got his due because he died in 1962, just before many of the players from organized Negro baseball were being rediscovered. Ritter published Glory in 1966. That same year Ted Williams famously said during his Hall of Fame induction that he hoped some day the old Negro players could be represented in Cooperstown in some way. Poles was four years gone by then and there was no one left to speak for him. He nearly did get in to the Hall some years later on the old timers ballot but fell short.

I did not know until writing the vignette that there were over 500 professional ball players who fought in the Great War. When we think of ball players and military service we think of WW2, because we always think of WW2 before WW1. Williams of course was one of the great war heroes of the Second World War. Poles too was a war hero. He reached France around New Years 1918 and fought in all of the major battles through the Armistice.

(image/By Staff Photographer (New York Lincoln Giants Publicity Office) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Hemingway and Roosevelt: cub reporters

Theodore Roosevelt officially began his journalism career with the Kansas City Star on October 1, 1917. With typical Rooseveltian vigor however, he wrote a few stories in the weeks leading up to his official start date; Roosevelt was typing away at a desk at Star headquarters on Saturday September 22nd. He used his platform at the newspaper primarily as a vehicle to excoriate Woodrow Wilson and his Great War policies. After that brief September stay Roosevelt returned to Oyster Bay, where he dutifully filed dispatches until his death in January 1919. Roosevelt’s collected output for the Star, published in book form in 1921, runs 295 pages.

A few weeks after Roosevelt’s debut with the Star another cub reporter joined the staff: Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway began on October 18th, less than three weeks after Roosevelt. For the next six months he wrote the types of stories—fires, accidents, petty crime—to which young reporters are invariably assigned. He was only a teenager. Hemingway always maintained that the Star’s daily grind was the best thing that happened to his writing career.

Grover Cleveland Alexander was the ninth inductee and fourth pitcher inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame

Grover Cleveland Alexander was the ninth honoree, and fourth pitcher, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He entered Cooperstown in 1938.

It had its moments. In March 1918 young Hemingway met pitching great Grover Cleveland Alexander at Kansas City’s Union Station. The right hander was en route to California to join the Cubs in spring training. Hemingway dutifully filed a report. After all he had a scoop on his hands: The pitcher wanted a $10,000 signing bonus. The Cubs saw things differently and the two sides were at an impasse. That Alexander was even thinking of going to California to join the team was a story.

Alexander only pitched three games for Chicago that season, though he did go 2-1 with a 1.73 ERA. Hemingway was not long for the Star. He left the newspaper a month later. By mid-summer both were in Europe helping the Allied cause. Hemingway was driving an ambulance in Italy and “Old Pete” Alexander—now in his thirties—was wearing an A.E.F. uniform in France.

The war was hard on Alexander. He already suffered from epilepsy and his military experiences exacerbated an already growing drinking problem. He almost certainly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, when he returned Alexander had plenty of baseball left in him. In 1926 he led the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series title over Babe Ruth’s Yankees. Alexander went 2-0 (two complete games) and had a game seven save to seal the deal. He pitches 20 1/3 innings and had a 1.33 era. Babe Ruth ended the series when, with Alexander on the mound, he unsuccessfully tried to steal second base.

That same year Ernest Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises, his story of the disilussioned Lost Generation living in Paris after the war. Future decades proved difficulty for both men but the Twenties were good years. Alexander was a twenty-one game winner at the age of forty in 1927. The aging star posted winning records in 1928 and again the following year. Hemingway’s career was now in full swing. He published A Farewell to Arms in 1929.

(image/Library of Congress)

Frum on the limits of exceptionalism

The Big Four at the Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919

The Big Four at the Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919

David Frum, recently returned from a trip to France, has written a sobering and thought-provoking editorial about the lessons he believes Americans should take when commemorating the Great War. I am not the type to wring my hands but Frum offers much to dwell on. I agree with him that the world of 2015 looks much more like the world of 1920 than of 1945. That said, the years after the Japanese surrender on the Missouri were much darker and more violent than we tend to remember. This was true in Europe and truer still in other parts of the world.

This evening when I got home the latest copy of Civil War Monitor was waiting for me in the mailbox. It is the special “War is Over” issue. The past four years have added much to our understanding of the causes and consequences of the War of the Rebellion. The myth of the Lost Cause is held on to now only by the most bitter of bitter enders. They’re still there, but have pretty much lost the war of ideas. In that sense the sesquicentennial served its function. The Great War never had a romantic mythology of its own because the ideas for which Americans went to war, such as Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the League of Nations, came to nothing so quickly. It might be, as Margaret McMillan argues in Paris 1919, that the leaders in Versailles did the best they could given the circumstances. And the circumstances were indeed complicated. I hope Americans, Europeans, and people around the world think soberly about the events of 1914-1919 and what they can teach us in our own difficult times.

(image/”Big four” by Edward N. Jackson (US Army Signal Corps) – U.S. Signal Corps photo. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –


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