Sunday morning coffee

Private Hiram L. Barrett of Co. K, 7th Connecticut Infantry Regiment

Private Hiram L. Barrett of Co. K, 7th Connecticut Infantry Regiment

It’s 6:40 and I am here on the couch having a quiet moment before leaving for Governors Island. Somewhere along the way today I am going to squeeze in a mention of D-Day. When I was growing up June 6 was always a big deal; nowadays the anniversary of the Normandy Invasion barely registers. Only one person mentioned it to me yesterday. I suppose that’s the way it goes.

A few years ago during the sesquicentennial I wrote about the Liljenquist Collection at the Library of Congress. A few years ago the Liljenquist family donated their sizable collection of Civil War photographs and daguerreotypes to the Library of Congress. Soon after that donation the Library put a sizable portion of the donation on display. It is funny how the sesquicentennial is already receding into memory.

The image above came through my email the other day. It is Private Hiram L. Barrett of Co. K, of Joseph Hawley’s 7th Connecticut Infantry Regiment. The little girl is Marrie. The metadata explains that the photo of the baby is probably from 1853. The Liljenquists bought well and wisely. The quality of the images is stunning.

Enjoy your Sunday.

(image/Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, LOC)


Counting the WW2 dead

Though as a general rule I don’t post videos created by others, I wanted to share this film that a friend passed along to me. The Fallen of WWII is a breakdown of the 70 million persons killed in that conflict. Neil Halloran is the filmmaker behind the documentary. I read many of the comments and it seems Mr. Halloran sees this very much as an ongoing project, with updates and corrections coming based on viewer input. One thing that seemed ambiguous to me was his statement that the war began on September 1, 1939. A little later though he talks about deaths in Asia caused by the Japanese offensives. Does this mean his numbers don’t include Japanese actions dating back to the early 1930s?

Halloran adds that this could be the first in a series. I would love to see something about the Civil War and WW1 along with a few other conflicts. The film is a little under twenty minutes but it is worth your time. We toss the numbers around too easily. One must never forget the human cost of war.

Reading Liggett

Hunter Liggett authored  these two books in 1925 (Commanding and American Army) and 1928 )A.E.F.).

Hunter Liggett authored these books in 1925 (Commanding an American Army) and 1928 (A.E.F.).

Last week I interlibrary loaned these two books by Hunter Liggett. Yes, this is the Liggett after whom the building on Governors Island is named. WW1 memoirs, or any memoirs for that matter, are notoriously self-serving. These two books work well because they are not so much personal narratives as they are accounts of American involvement in the Great War. I read the one of the left over the weekend and learned a great deal. Liggett recounts his responsibilities as the I Army Corps commander, then First Army commander, and then the III Army Corps commander during the German occupation. He does not mention Ted Roosevelt in this monograph, but I am really hoping to find evidence that General Liggett and Colonel Roosevelt knew each other personally. As an officer in the Big Red One Roosevelt would have been under Liggett’s overall command. I have a feel their paths crossed in the 1920s and 30s. We’ll see what happens.

Liggett Hall on Governors Island is named after Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett.

Liggett Hall on Governors Island is named after Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett.

I was looking at the other volume today. As its title suggests, this one is more a general overview of the A.E.F. in France. Its seven chapters were each published individually in the Saturday Evening Post. One thing he conveys well in this volume is how intertwined the American Expeditionary Force was with the British and French fighting units. Pershing tenaciously and successfully held out against what was called amalgamation. However, brigades and divisions of one Allied nation sometimes inevitably came under the commands of another country. In both books Liggett captures the immediacy of the decision-making process and explains well why many of the decisions made during the war came to be.

(lower image/National Photo Company)

The summer is on at Governors Island

The Staten Island ferry with the Statue of Liberty off in the distance, 10:00 yesterday

The Staten Island ferry with the Statue of Liberty off in the distance, 10:00 yesterday

It was like New Years all over again when I took the ferry to Governors Island for another volunteer orientation yesterday. I was actually there last Sunday, but the orientation is when you see many folks all in one place since the following season. It was good seeing some old friends and also meeting new people with whom I will be working over the summer.

This year I will be focusing on a few specific things. I am going to do some Interp on the Military Service Institution, the YMCA, and the II Corps Building. There is well over a century of history to work with there. I am also hoping to prove or disprove an urban legend I once heard from two returning Coast Guard personnel about President Franklin Roosevelt and a visit he made to the island as commander-in-chief. I don’t want to give it away, but I can find documentation of something these two men told me, it will make for a great story. We’ll see what happens.

Orientation under one of the shade trees in the Fort Jay courtyard

Orientation under one of the shade trees in the Fort Jay courtyard

This cannon is on loan from another site for the summer.

This cannon is on loan from another site for the summer.


The scaffolding is going up around the eagle atop the Fort Jay sallyport. The sandstone sculpture in over two centuries old.

The scaffolding is going up around the eagle atop the Fort Jay sallyport. The sandstone sculpture in over two centuries old.

The island is open seven days a week until the end of September, with a full compliment of Park Service activities every day. Visit your national parks.

The Roebling Museum

The gateway to the Roebling Museum

The Roebling Museum opened in 2009 and is easily reachable by public transit.

I had an enjoyable and productive meeting in downtown Brooklyn early this afternoon with the director of the Roebling Museum. As its name indicates, the museum honors the legacy of the family who built the Brooklyn Bridge. I have always known how important John A. Roebling and his son Washington were. However, it was not until visiting the museum a few weeks ago that I grasped the family’s true significance. At one time their factory outside Trenton, New Jersey manufactured 80% of the wire used in the United States. That wire was strung on telegraph and telephone poles, elevators (Otis was a huge customer), electric cords & cables, bridges, and just about anything else one can imagine that required wire.

Today’s meeting was the product of that visit to the museum. A friend and I had a tour with a very engaging and knowledgeable docent. In the course of the conversation I mentioned the possibility of myself volunteering in some capacity. It seems I will now be writing a little content for the museum’s social media platforms and perhaps eventually work my way up to a walking tour. The Roeblings are fascinating and played key roles in many of the nation’s most important event. Washington himself was an officer in the Union Army. There are additional Interpretation opportunities regarding immigration, labor, the World Wars, and the eventual collapse of the manufacturing sector within the United States, to name just a few things. These are some of the stories I hope to tell.

Volunteering with the museum is a good fir for me because I can contribute in a modest way without taking away from the many other projects I am involved with at the moment. I would like to learn more about science and engineering as well.

As for the museum itself, I should note how easy it is to reach via mass transportation. One can get there very easily from New York or Philadelphia Penn Station to Trenton, followed by a fifteen minute train ride on the River Line. For those who drive, it is near the turnpike. It is definitely worth the time.

Memorial Day 2015

index.phpA few years ago during Open House New York weekend a friend and I went to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park hoping to get a glimpse inside. We did not, as it turned out to be closed. This monument was completed in 1902 after decades of the sausage-making inherent in constructing such public memorials. Fundraising efforts dated back to at least 1882. Officials nearly chose 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, the site where the statue of William T. Sherman now stands. Oddly the Sherman statue, dedicated on Memorial Day 1903, was originally intended for Riverside Park but Sherman’s family did not want it so close to Grant’s Tomb.

The New York Times noted this past Thursday that Riverside Park Conservancy is pushing for a major renovation. The last major rehabilitation came in the early 1960s during the Civil War centennial.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument was part of the fabric of New York City Memorial Day ceremonies for decades, and still is to a degree. There were 700 Grand Army of the Republic veterans in attendance on Memorial Day 1914. Archduke Ferdinand was killed just a few weeks later and the Great War was soon on. The following year Leonard Wood, then commanding the Department of the East at Governors Island, pointedly made an appearance. I say pointedly because he, Theodore Roosevelt and others were advocating strenuously for American preparedness, a sentiment that did not endear the general to the Wilson Administration.

Lieutenant Colonel Theodore (Ted) Roosevelt, veteran of the Great War and a founder of the American Legion, led the Great War contingent at the 1919 Memorial Day ceremony held at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Present that day were veterans of the WW1, the Spanish-American War, and the dwindling contingent from the War of the Rebellion. Ironically Governor Al Smith reviewed the troops that Memorial Day; Roosevelt ran unsuccessfully against Smith five years later in the 1924 governor’s race.

I really hope the conservancy can raise the funds to rehabilitate this important part of our city’s and nation’s history.

(image/Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Soldiers’ and sailors’ Monument, Riverside Drive, New York.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

William Zinsser, 1922-2015

In a piece about Ellis Island, William Zinsser famously took up the 300 word challenge to prove that a write need not be verbose to convey his message.

In a piece about Ellis Island William Zinsser famously took up the 300 word challenge to prove that a writer need not be verbose to convey his message.

The world became a smaller place this month with the passing of William Zinsser. A memorial service was held in his honor yesterday here in the city. I wrote about Zinsser way back in 2011 when he was still writing his weekly column for The American Scholar. Then in his late eighties, he was crafting 700 word pieces of grace and elegance on any topic he chose every Friday. A year after I wrote the vignette, Zinsser–then in his 90th year–won a National Magazine Award for digital commentary; he had mastered the internet just as he had mastered writing for newspapers and magazines in the heyday of periodical publishing in the middle of the twentieth century. The reason he stayed relevant is that he never strayed from his core belief: simplify your writing and thereby find your humanity.

I could go on, but won’t. Here is the homage I wrote in March 2011:

For several years in the mid-2000s I collaborated with two teachers and a librarian on a writing and research module at a local high school. The four of us taught the basics of scholarship to a group of Advanced Placement English and History juniors. The final assignment was a five-six page paper. I continually stressed the importance of writing clearly and concisely. We kicked things off each term with a reading and discussion of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” One school year, when the budget permitted, we distributed copies of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to each student that were theirs to keep. Most students eventually “got it,” but I was always struck by how tenaciously some clung to the belief that pretentious, ornate prose was the way to the teacher’s heart and a good grade. In his most recent “Zinsser on Friday” posting, the incomparable William Zinsser recounts a challenge once posed to him by an editor: submit a travel piece not to exceed 300 words. Not wanting to stray too far from home, he selected a certain island “a mere subway and ferry ride away.”  Read the results.

(Note that the link immediately above is now dead. Because The American Scholar may link to it again, I am going to leave it there. Here is the Ellis Island piece.)

(image/Library of Congress; permalink:

The Roosevelts’ Bowling Green

Bowling Green, looking North. The Cunard Building I wrote about the other day is on the left in the background.

Bowling Green, looking north. The Cunard Building I wrote about the other day is on the left between the truck and the bus.

One thing I always conveyed during my tours at the Roosevelt Birthplace was how far back the family goes here in the city. The Roosevelts trace their New York City roots back well over three centuries. Here is an example of that. I took these two images, one looking north and one south, of Bowling Green the other day. Most early New York City life took place in this vicinity. The Roosevelt & Son hardware concern, founded in the 1790s, was near here. Johannes Roosevelt, the patriarch to whom the Oyster Bay Roosevelts trace their lineage (as opposed to his brother Jacobus, who began the Hudson Valley Roosevelt line), was in business around these parts even earlier. Johannes was born around 1689 and worked as a merchant providing goods and services for the shipping industry.

Bowling Green, looking South. That is the Custom House in the distance.

Bowling Green, looking south. That is the Custom House in the background.

Bowling Green is called bowling green for a logical reason: people bowled here. Decades prior to the American Revolution Johannes and two associates received a public concession to operate and maintain this space. The nominal fee was one peppercorn a year.

The Cunard Building

IMG_2185I was down on Lower Broadway the other day and took a few minutes to take these photographs of the Cunard Building. As the plaque indicates this edifice was IMG_2180constructed after the First World War and thus obviously after the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s strange how such events, tragic as they are, don’t prevent the world from continuing; officials announced this construction project in February 1918 while the war was still going on and very much hanging in the balance.

It is important to remember how long the transatlantic passenger shipping industry existed. It lasted well into the 1950s and even early 60s until the arrival of wide-scale and economical airline passenger travel. John Lennon’s father, Alfred Lennon, was a so-called Cunard Yank, a man who saw the world working shipboard. For years he was a waiter on different ships, entertaining passengers with his humor and singing voice. When the Beatles came to America in 1964 they flew in to JFK. The rotting piers were a fixture of the NYC waterline until just 10-15 years ago when city officials and urban planners figured out how to re-purpose them.

IMG_2181Investors purchased this site at 25 Broadway across the street from Bowling Green for $5 million in July 1919 currency and spent the same amount on the 48,000 square foot building. The construction went quickly; Cunard and other tenants took occupancy in July 1921. Investors purchased the building in 1962. Cunard remained as a tenant for a few more years and left around 1970, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things.

index.php(bottom image/The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Cunard Building, New York” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1860 – 1920.

In Flanders Fields

It has been a busy week, thus the lack of posts. Yesterday I did manage to get to DeWitt Clinton Park on 52nd Street and 11th Avenue for the annual In Flanders Fields commemoration. I ran into Mark Levitch from the World War 1 Memorial Inventory Project at the ceremony. He told me he now has about 2,000 of the nearly 10,000 Great War monuments across the country inventoried. Remember, he is looking for volunteers if one is interested in playing amateur historian. He is doing some interesting and important work. There were many folks there from last week’s Lusitania event as well.

The In Flanders Fields doughboy, sometimes called the Clinton doughboy, is just one of the dozens of Great War monuments here in New York. The sculptor Burt W. Johnson, was the brother-in-law of Louis St. Gaudens. The former U.S. ambassador to Germany, James W. Gerard, dedicated the monument in 1930. (Sixteen years earlier Gerard defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in the 1914 U.S. Senate race in New York; Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Wilson Administration at the time.) Yesterday’s program was not a centennial program per se; they do this program every year. Some regular attendees did tell me though that yesterday’s attendance was twice the average because of the 100th anniversary of the war.

Here are a few pictures.






Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 116 other followers