Thinking about the war’s legacies

Europe as it was after being redrawn in 1919

Europe as it was after being redrawn in 1919

Yesterday a friend sent me something from the Wall Street Journal. It is one of those list type things in which the Journal chronicles 100 legacies of World War One. A few of the items cannot be truly credited/blamed on the First World War. Doctors were fitting wounded soldiers of the American Civil War for prosthetic devices decades prior to 1914. It is true, however, that the science of prosthesis took a great leap forward in the 1910s and 1920s. Give the whole thing a look. Among other things the list encourages us  to think beyond the minutiae of the battles–important though they are– and ask ourselves why the events of 1914-1919 are important to us today in the 21st century. I cannot think of a better lesson as the Centennial gets underway.

(image/National Archives, United Kingdom)

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Filed under Historiography, Memory, WW1

Archiving the Great War

00046rI received confirmation late last week that the Library of Congress will be preserving The Strawfoot as part of the LOC’s Web Archiving initiative for the World War I Centennial. The Library of Congress’s goal is to collect and preserve materials born digitally during the Centennial. So much of what is online seems transitory and impermanent. I am very excited about the 100th anniversary of the Great War and think it offers all kinds of interpretive and other possibilities. That the blog will be included in the endeavor means a lot to me. Working on the website these past 3 1/2 years has been a labor of love, with equal emphasis on both words: love and labor. It was a lifestyle change. Writing the blog has its rewards; the site might not get the traffic that some others do but it does have a regular readership.

Longtime followers may have noticed a shift of emphasis in recent weeks and months. It may seem that way but to me it is all cut from the same cloth. I have never thought of myself as strictly a Civil War guy, though the events of 1861-65 have always been a source of interest and fascination for me. I have always been more interested  in the causes and consequences of the war; what came just before and after is equally important. That is why I have found volunteering at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace these past ten months rewarding. The Roosevelts–both side of the extended family–offer so many intellectual opportunities.

I am still plugging away on the Theodore Roosevelt Senior and Joseph Hawley biographies, still volunteering at Governors Island over the summers, still writing the content for the TRB social media platforms. There are more connections than might be apparent. For starters, General/Senator Hawley and Theodore Roosevelt knew and admired each other. I find it fascinating that the young Franklin Delano Roosevelt lost a power struggle with his boss, the unreconstructed Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, over the naming of a new ship in 1917. Instead of Roosevelt’s choice, the destroyer was christened in honor of Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury. These types of things fall under what we now call Memory Studies, which I suppose is broader and more encompassing than just historiography. More of these types of things are going to come out here at The Strawfoot in the coming months.

(image: Theodore Roosevelt at Washington’s Union Station during the First World War, LOC)


Filed under Libraries, Media and Web 2.0, Memory, WW1

The Guns of August

The guns of August began pounding 100 years ago this week as one by one the countries of Europe went to war. The United States would not enter the conflict for almost another three years. Two of the biggest advocates for Preparedness before and during the war were Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Both had spent parts of their careers as Assistant Secretaries of the Navy, and Franklin was serving in that capacity when the war began. He was in a difficult spot; as a low ranking member of the Woodrow Wilson Administration he did not have the freedom to speak the way his cousin, and wife’s uncle, did. Still FDR worked indefatigably, in that way the Roosevelts had, to help modernize the U.S. Navy, much as Uncle Ted had organized the Great White Fleet and sent it around the world a few years earlier. Naval power only became more important after the opening of the Panama Canal on August 15, 1914. Throughout the war Franklin also kept Theodore informed of the palace intrigues within the State, War, and Navy Building.


Here is an incredible image from the National Archives of FDR at the laying of the keel of “Number 39,” the ship that would become the USS Arizona. (Learn more about the image’s provenance.) This was in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, March 16, 1914, exactly one full year into his assistant secretaryship. The Arizona began its sea trials in 1916. I don’t know if ironic is the word for it but, in a twist, the Arizona would be sunk at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

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Filed under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt Jr (President), WW1

The monument to Washington’s Great War veterans

The District of Columbia War Memorial

The District of Columbia War Memorial

I took this photograph of the Great War Memorial a few months back.  It was restored a few years ago and looks fabulous. As you can tell by the image however, it does not get too much pedestrian traffic. That it is a tad off the beaten path explains part of it. Still, that can’t be the whole reason. It is less remote than it was even just three years ago when the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was built; one walks through this general area when passing from the Mall to the MLK statue or vice versa. Even with the extra foot traffic, people do not seem inclined to stop and look. Maybe that will change during the Centennial.



I met historian Mark Levitch at the World War One Centennial Commission Trade Show in June. Since then I have contributed a few memorials to his World War I Memorial Inventory Project with a few more in the hopper. Earlier this week Mark was interviewed by CBS News about the project. Check out the video here.

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Filed under Monuments and Statuary, Washington, D.C., WW1

The restoration of Richard Theodore Greener, a further update

AR-140729811.jpg&maxw=368&q=100&cb=20140731000233&cci_ts=20140730130001I have been following the story of the personal papers of Richard Greener off and on for a few years now. As you can read from previous posts below, the papers were discovered during a home restoration in Chicago a few years ago. Since then the documents have been sold incrementally. I am glad the worker who found them did not get ripped off and that he has managed maintain control. Next week on August 6 one of the most prized artifacts–Greener’s 1865 Harvard College diploma–is going on the auction block. It is expected to fetch $10,000-15,000. We shall see what happens.

A year and a half ago I wrote the post below about the rediscovery of some of the effects of Richard T. Greener. There was great interest and speculation about where these things would end up. Appropriately, they have returned to the University of South Carolina. Find a half hour over the weekend to watch the ceremony that took place earlier this week.

Further update: This was a more complicated story than I first realized. Boston Magazine has more on the story, including a threat to burn the documents. Crazy.

(Hat tip David Jensen)

I have written before of my appreciation for the recovery of Long Lost Items. The stories are exciting precisely because of their unexpectedness. You are reading the newspaper one day and learn, for instance,  that a WW2 German U-boat has been discovered off the coast of New Jersey, as actually happened about a decade ago. The other day a friend forwarded me this piece about the discovery of a cache of personal effects once belonging to Richard T. Greener. That many readers might not know who Greener was is unfortunate, because he was very much the equal of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and even W.E.B DuBois. Greener was the first African American graduate of Harvard College, entering that institution in September 1865 as a member of the first class to enroll after the Civil War’s end that April.

In the early 1870s Greener was the principal of the Male Department in the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth. He soon took a similar post at a school in Washington DC. Eventually Greener earned his law degree from the University of South Carolina. While studying there he traveled through the heart of the fire eating Palmetto State preaching the gospel of racial equality, often under considerable threat of violence. Wisely, Greener left South Carolina as Reconstruction was ending. He moved back to Washington where he served as Dean of Howard University’s Law School, but left after a few years to open his own highly successful practice on T Street. Greener was a Republican and a close friend of U.S. Grant’s. He was secretary of the Grant Monument Association and was thus largely responsible for the creation of Grant’s Tomb. He even procured funds from African nations such as Sierra Leone for this endeavor. Later he served in India, China, and Russia in the McKinley and Roosevelt Administrations. (It is always surprising to read/hear of Americans serving in such far flung regions in the nineteenth century.)

Richard T. Greener

In the earlier twenthieth century Greener had fallen into obscurity, eventually moving to Chicago. That so few know who Richard T. Greener is today is partly because his family was not there to protect his legacy. Many had changed their name to Greene and lived their lives passing in White America. Greener died in 1922.

The documents that came to light the other day were found in a derelict house in a rough neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. A construction worker found them in a trunk in 2009 and saved them by stuffing them in a paper bag. Included are Greener’s Harvard diploma and his personal correspondence with President Grant. How these items came to be found in  a derelict home open to drug addicts is one of the story’s great mysteries. Time will tell where these items will eventually settle. Wherever they do end up, we can only hope they restore Greener to his rightful place in the pantheon of Great Americans.

(image/J.H. Cunningham for The Colored American)

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Filed under Libraries, Uncategorized

Hermann Hagedorn, 1882-1964

Hermann Hagedorn died fifty years ago today. The name may not ring many bells within the general populace. Hagedorn, however, was a towering figure within the world of Theodore Roosevelt memory and historiography. When the Roosevelt Memorial Association was formed weeks after the former president’s death, Hagedorn became the group’s first acting secretary. He eventually became the RMA’s executive director. Hagedorn dedicated a significant portion of his life to the Roosevelt legacy; the RMA formed in 1919 and Hagedorn was still going strong during the Roosevelt Centennial in the late 1950s.

13834Hagedorn met Theodore Roosevelt in 1916 when a small group of supporters were trying to convince him to make one final run at the White House. That of course did not come to pass. The son of a German immigrant, Hagedorn was born in New York City. Though the United States was not yet involved the Great War, the fighting was raging in Europe when Hagedorn and Roosevelt first met. One can see why they were drawn to each other. Roosevelt was advocating for Preparedness while Hagedorn was extolling the virtues of Americanism, especially with the German-American community.

The Men’s and Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Associations were responsible for rebuilding Roosevelt’s boyhood home on East 20th Street. As I often emphasize on tours this was a time before presidential libraries. In addition to the house itself there was, and is, a museum and substantial library on site. Hagedorn claimed in the August 1929 Bulletin of the American Library Association that officials from the New York Public Library had told him that the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace’s collection was “the most extensive library built around one individual in the United States.” The library indeed includes a substantial collection of books and other materials. It is worth noting that the Birthplace library collected not just photographs but moving imagery as well. This was pioneering stuff in the 1920s.

The RMA and Hagedorn did a lot more than just the Birthplace though. They were responsible for constructing Roosevelt Island in Washington DC and transforming Sagamore Hill into the historic site it is today. These are just a few of their accomplishments.

Hagedorn wrote a number of biographies of Roosevelt written for children and adults. He authored his first Roosevelt biography, The Boys’ Life of Theodore Roosevelt,  in 1918 while the former president was still alive. In the mid 1920s Hagedorn edited Roosevelt’s Complete Works, a substantial undertaking given that Theodore Roosevelt authored over thirty books. Some people believed that Hagedorn became too involved in the Roosevelt legacy and that he sometimes stepped over the line into idolatry. Lewis Mumford and Oswald Garrison Villard were two of Hagedorn’s harshest critics. Hagedorn did sometimes lapse into hagiography but some of the criticism was shrill and unfair.

Hermann Hagedorn accomplished many things in his lifetime. There were plays, poetry, biographies of such figures as Leonard Wood and Albert Schweitzer, and other projects over his long life. Still, he is now most associated with the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt. So much of what Hagedorn did is still here today.


Filed under Historiography, Libraries, Memory, Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace (NPS), Theodore Roosevelt Jr (President), Those we remember, WW1

Textiles and the Civil War

Yesterday a friend and I visited the New-York Historical Society to see the exhibit about textiles and the Civil War. Textiles, in this case cotton, obviously were a major cause of the secession crisis and the war. The exhibit though went beyond cotton’s role in the conflict. Included were quilts, flags, housewives (hand stitched sewing kits), clothes, and other items. Among the most touching artifacts were swatches from the Jordan Marsh catalog in various textures and shades of black from which to make mourning clothes. Jordan Marsh is yet one more thing from my past that no longer exists but that is another story.

I do not know if this is true or not, but the exhibit states that there were no hidden messages within quilts for fugitives on the Underground Railroad. It’s funny how these types of stories get propagated and then never entirely go away. More than once I myself have readjusted what I say in tours and public talks after discovering a long-held assumption is false. One that comes to mind off the top of my head was that there was once a tax on having closets in one’s home.

It is an extraordinarily thoughtful show and runs through August 24.

One thing that caught my eye was this little Zouave uniform made for a little boy. The reason it stuck out, besides the fact that it is beautiful is because little Theodore Roosevelt had one that was similar. (See it here.)

similar Zouave uniform on display at the New-York Historical Society

a girl’s dress and little boy’s Zouave uniform on display at the New-York Historical Society

Speaking of the New-York Historical Society keep in mind that the museum has an exhibit about New York City and the Civil War running through September 28 in Building 18 on Governors Island. I still have yet to check this out. There is still two months to go in the Governors Island season.




Filed under Governors Island, Museums, Theodore Roosevelt Jr (President)