Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on this date in 1817. The writer and philosopher lived an incredibly short life; he died in May 1862 just shy of his 45h birthday. To put that into perspective, his death occurred in the middle of General McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. I have always wondered what Thoreau might have had to say about the Civil War had he lived through its entirety. Walt Whitman gave us “Drum Taps” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” at the war’s end, and then went on to live another twenty-seven years after Appomattox. Thoreau was a mere two years older than Whitman.

Henry David Thoreau, August 1861

Perhaps intellectually Thoreau did not have the sensibility to live in and understand Gilded Age America, much in the way Theodore Roosevelt’s 1919 death spared him having to live through the Roaring Twenties and Jazz Age, to which Roosevelt would have been constitutionally unsuited. So, maybe it’s for the best that Thoreau died when he did before the full tragedy of the war unfolded. This was we remember him as we do with the transcendentalists and for the influence he later had on Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.

A few weeks ago I began subscribing to The Atlantic. Given certain things taking place in our world today it has never been more important to support journalism. One of the things I find most beneficial about the periodical, in addition to its great stable of contributors, is its historical memory. The Atlantic has been in publication since 1857, the year of a great financial panic and depression. Three years later came  Lincoln’s 1860 presidential victory and soon thereafter the Civil War. Here is the magazine’s online author page for one Henry David Thoreau.

(photograph by George F. Parlow/Library of Congress)


These Old Houses

King Manor Museum interior, Jamaica, Queens

New York City is not a place known for preserving its architectural heritage. Since the arrival of the first Dutchmen centuries ago the city’s entire philosophy has been to tear down and create anew in pursuit of mammon. That creative destruction makes what indeed remains that much more precious. A friend of mine and I had intended to pick up where we left off last summer in our visits to the five boroughs’ few remaining historic homes, but that is not happening for obvious reason. My friend, another Park service volunteer, recently emailed me this New York Times piece from early June telling the stories of the men and women entrusted with the care of the dozen or so historic houses spread through New York City’s diverse neighborhoods. The caretakers live, either alone or with their nuclear families, in these houses, literally keeping the lights on and making certain nothing untoward occurs. All of their stories are intriguing. I was especially interested in the brief profile of eighty-year-old Roy Fox, who has been keeping watch at the Rufus King Manor for over three decades now dating back to the late 1980s. I have not yet met Mr. Fox, but would love to when the shutdown finally does end.

I am still adjusting to the reality of this most unusual summer; though I regard myself as among the fortunate, it is so difficult to be closed off from the wider world on beautiful summer days such as today. Under normal circumstances, who know where we might have been or what we might have seen? Historical homes such as King Manor and the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum have been quiet for more than three months now. As the article itself points out however, these sites have been around for a long time–centuries in most cases–and been through a lot: world wars, economic depressions, civic unrest, blackouts, petty vandalism, and more. Someday this crazy era too will be part of these structures’ history, and thankfully there are people there right now to preserve that ongoing institutional memory.

(image/CaptJayRuffins via Wikimedia Commons))

Like Sands Through The Hourglass

I was in my office at 7:45 this morning and the first thing I noticed when I opened the door and turned on the lights after being away for more than three months was the wall calendar still turned to March. Little did I know when I turned out the lights, closed the door and left way back in late winter that I would be gone for so long. The entire spring, with all its tumult and uncertainty, came and went. Now July is here and I went in to do a few things possible only in my office, pick up a few things, and go through some papers in preparation for the upcoming fall term. I only ran in to three people in the complex: one colleague, a construction worker, and two security officers. On my way out in the early afternoon I had a brief conversation with the officer at the entranceway about all the changes in the world since late spring, not least the deaths of several people from the college community who have perished from the virus.

San Fransisco, June 1945

President Truman (left) watches Edward Stettinius sign the UN charter on behalf of the United States, June 25, 1945

V-E Day had come and gone six weeks previously when representatives of fifty countries gathered in San Fransisco in late June 1945 for the signing if the United Nations charter. The war was still very much going on, quite brutally in fact. It is easy to think today that everyone knew that the war in the Pacific would be over by summer’s end, but of course no one could have predicted any such thing on June 25-26 when Edward Stettinius, President Truman, and others gathered at San Fransisco’s War Memorial Opera House to prepare for the future, whatever it might look like. The seeds of the creation of the international organization date to the start of American involvement in the Second World War: on New Years Day 1942 the United States and over two dozen other countries issued the United Nations Declaration expressing their cooperation in defeating the Axis Powers.

Truman speaks to UN closing session, June 26 1945

In an ironic way it is easier and more comforting to study war than it is peace; battles have a beginning, middle, and end, and easily recognizable sides to go with their timelines. Orders of battles imply the illusion of, well, order. Peace is messy and more often than not comes filled with ironic and bitter compromises. Truman of course was a veteran of the Great War and knew the failures of Versailles. The day before his speech in San Fransisco the president told a hospital ward full of wounded soldiers that “in the next generation the veterans of this war are going to run this country.” And that is essentially what happened.

Over the past several days I have been listening daily to Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul,” the seventy-nine-year-old musician’s recent single about the Kennedy assassination. Kennedy had fought in the Pacific. Thinking of the signing of the United Nations charter seventy-five years ago this week I can’t help but think now of JFK’s words from his first inaugural, just sixteen year later, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”

(images/Truman Library Institute)

June 22, 1941

Operation Barbarossa map

Today is the anniversary of one of the most significant turning points of the twentieth century: June 22, 1941, the date the Germans began Operation Barbarossa. Hitler sent millions of men eastward in Their Reich’s offensive against erstwhile Soviet allies. As the Führer saw it, Barbarrosa would be over by autumn; German infantrymen were not issued winter uniforms because, well, why would they ever need them? The last surviving Germans soldiers, about 5000 of them, did not return until the mid-1950s. Yes, you read that correctly. Stalin kept many German POWs for years after the war’s end; Khrushchev and Eisenhower finally worked it all out during a thaw in the Cold War after Stalin’s death.

It is often lost on us today the extent to which the Germans and Soviets had been allies before Hitler’s surprise attack. For nearly two years, from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 23, 1939 until June 22, 1941 they were allies. That is nearly two years of sharing supplies, intelligence, and more. Stalin was caught totally off guard by the German offensive and thought his aides were there to kill or arrest him when they brought him the news of Barbarossa. If one thinks about it, it is pretty extraordinary that the Soviet leadership could not have known something was up when division after division were lining up facing eastward on the border in the days and weeks beforehand. The military historian Max Hastings once wrote that the war turned Hitler into a fantasist and Stalin into a realist. Stalin was rendered incapacitated for at least several days, if not longer, but recovered quickly. It all seems so long ago and yet the repercussions are still playing out today.

(map/U.S. Army Carlisle Barracks)



Villa on the Hudson, Near Weehawken, illustration for Nathaniel Parker Willis’s book American Scenery

I spent the morning tweaking the outline and adding to the King family tree for my book project about the Rufus King family. Keeping the names and dates straight is key because I am covering from the early 1700s through the 1930s and death of Charles King. This morning I came up with a working title for the manuscript: “The Kings in America: One Family in the Forging of a Nation.” In my research today I also came across this 1838 hand-doored engraving and thought I would share. Here we see hikers enjoying the scenery along the Hudson River near Weehawken, New Jersey. It is striking how rural the scene is. This is also the spot where Vice President Aaron Burr mortally wounded Alexander Hamilton in their 1804 duel. The building atop the bluff is Highwood, the home built in the early 1830s by James Gore King, a son of Rufus King. It is poignant that James King built his house on this particular spot; his father Rufus was a good friend of Hamilton’s, and James would have known that this was where the duel took place.

James Gore King entertained Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, Daniel Webster, and others here at his Highwood estate in the decades prior to the Civil War. King was a banker and railroad magnate, among other things. A Whig, he served in the 31st Congress with his older brother John Alsop King from 1849–1851 and thus took part in the debates that evolved into the Compromise of 1850.

(image/Yale University Art Gallery)


Juneteenth 2020

Early afternoon yesterday we received news that our institution was closing for today, June 19, in observation of Juneteenth. Until this year this was not a day we received as a holiday. I wrote the post below for Juneteenth last year and am re-upping today.

Update: Just yesterday the National Archives found an original handwritten order from that original Juneteenth 155 years ago today.

Citizens of Austin, TX observe Juneteenth, June 19, 1900. One would imagine these individuals remembered General Granger’s 1865 proclamation.

I was off today and spent a big chunk of the hours preparing for an event that will probably come to pass next month. If/when it does, I will write about it in this space. One of the best things about being off on a Wednesday is that this middle day of the work week is getaway day in Major League Baseball. What that means is that teams often play day games on this third day (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday) of a series before quickly “getting away” to the next town for a weekend series. While working today I had the Astros/Reds game on. During the broadcast they mentioned that today is Juneteenth. I lived in Texas for many years and know what a big holiday this is in the Lone Star and neighboring states. Unfortunately it remained an exclusively regional affair for much of the next century; there is no mention of Juneteenth in the New York Times until 1933, and after that not until 1981. Over the past several decades Juneteenth has become more significant nationally. Awareness was aided by the 1999 publication of Ralph Ellison’s posthumous novel Juneteenth. Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1914.

Gordon Granger, circa 1861-65

Juneteenth began in 1865 and marked the moment when on June 19th of that year Brevet Major General sailed into Galveston Bay and read his General Order #3, which began with the announcement that “The people are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” One must remember that Lincoln’s January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation only applied to slaves within jurisdictions under Federal (Union) control. General Granger spent much of the next six weeks traveling within Texas to spread the news.

Holidays have a funny way of disappearing and coming back. Here in New York we used to have Evacuation Day every November 25. Evacuation Day marked the moment in 1783 when the British, acknowledging defeat, packed up and sailed from New York Harbor back to England. Evacuation Day petered out eventually, presumably because it fell so close to Thanksgiving. It was for Evacuation Day 1883 that they dedicated the John Quincy Adams Ward statue of George Washington on the steps of Federal Hall, then still the New York Sub-Treasury. I would argue that Juneteenth should become a national holiday, or at least a national observance. It is already officially commemorated in forty-five states.

(top image/Austin History Center and the Portal to Texas History; bottom/LOC)