We had a great time on today’s tour of Grand Army Plaza. It is a special place in Civil War memory. In researching the walking tour I came up with leads for future posts, articles, and maybe walking tours. There is a lot hiding out there in plain sight waiting for someone to tell the story. I want to thank the Brooklyn Museum of Art for putting the event together.
I read with sadness yesterday about the death of Greg Allman. He was the second from the Allman Brothers Band to die in 2017. Drummer Butch Trucks committed suicide in January. I am listening to Live at the Fillmore East as I type this. Personally I never thought the band was the same after the 1971 death of Duane Allman in a motorcycle accident. The band was still tight and had its moments but Duane was the true artist. The death of his younger brother is nonetheless sad. Seeing them play during one of their annual month-long stints each March at the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side was something I always thought about but never got around to doing. Now that will never happen.
I was in Green-Wood Cemetery yesterday playing tour guide for a friend. Afterward we had lunch in an Italian restaurant near the 5th Avenue entrance. The cemetery was buzzing with activity. There were at least three funerals happening all at once. Perhaps there were so many because the officials and families usually do not hold burials during the winter months. Instead the departed are kept in a temporary resting place before final interment come spring. I came across the trailer you see above on my way through the cemetery to see my friend. It’s a hearse on motorcycle. I had a ten minute talk with the fellow responsible for the vehicle. He said that about eighty people on motorcycles were to be in the procession. Sure enough, we saw the motorcade go by about an hour later.
Leaving the house yesterday, I ran into my neighbor walking her dog. I explained that I was meeting a friend in the cemetery and that Green-Wood has been a focus of Decoration/Memorial Day observations going back almost a century and a half. I saw teams of Boy Scouts putting flags on veterans’ headstones. One of them even offered me a flag but I said no thank you, figuring the banners were meant for the veterans themselves. I wanted to take a picture of the flag planting but it didn’t seem appropriate. When I got to the other side I saw that cemetery workers had already set up the tents for tomorrow’s Memorial Day program. As I said remembrance events in Green-Wood date back to the Grand Army of the Republic’s call for a Decoration Day in the late 1860s. GAR veterans were joined by soldiers from the Spanish-American War, the Great War, and our other engagements in subsequent decades.
One thing I have always wondered is if there was a drop-off in Memorial Day ceremonies in such New York City places as Green-Wood Cemetery in previous decades. There was a demographic shift from New York City to the suburbs and the Sun Belt in the 1950s-1990s, which took many veterans and their families away from Brooklyn and the other boroughs. It would seem too that the hard years of the 1970s and 1980s would have led to a drop-off in heritage tourism and public ceremony even in gated places like Green-Wood. New Yorkers found their history again in the 1990s when the city itself began revitalizing and became safer. I myself am part of these trends.
Remember that Memorial Day is more than barbecues and a day off.
The fall semester, indeed the entire 2016-17 academic year, started this past Thursday. This term our students are studying Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, with the first few weeks dedicated to the Battle of Brooklyn in order to give students a sense of place. Today my colleague and I were in Prospect Park following the route of George Washington men on this date 240 Augusts ago. I believe there were a few events scheduled for later in the day but I was surprised that no one else was looking at these markers. Here with little comment are a few snapshots from the day.
Author Brent D. Glass spoke about his new book 50 Great American Places this afternoon in the Commanding Officers Quarters at Governors Island. Author talks are not unusual at Governors Island but there was a particular reason Mr. Glass showed up when he did: this August marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. President Woodrow Wilson signed the enabling legislation on August 25, 1916. That signing came in the midst of the presidential election and less than a year before American entered the Great War. Not all of the places about which Mr. Glass writes in his tome are under the auspices of the Park Service; some are state or local concerns, or even in the hands of privately-controlled institutions.
Glass is Director Emeritus of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution and categorized the selections into five themes, which included Democracy, Cultural Diversity, and Military. Among the sites included are the Seneca Falls (NY) Convention, the Statue of Liberty, Mesa Verde, Little Rock Central High School, and Gettysburg. That last one had special resonance for Glass; his father had trained under Eisenhower at Gettysburg’s Camp Colt during Word War I. Glass added that though Eisenhower’s job was to train doughboys in tank warfare, so unequipped was the Army that his father did not see an actual tank until he reached France. I’d read this from others’s accounts of those training exercises.
Summer is winding down but there is never a bad time to explore America’s cultural heritage. There is no substitute for going where history was made, and Brent D. Glass provides a valuable guide for doing just that.
A friend and I took a day trip to Peekskill, New York yesterday to visit the Lincoln Depot Museum. The LDP opened about fifteen months ago and, though small, is a testament to what can be done through good decision-making and a strong sense of purpose. The founders of the museum created something special. We did not quite plan it this way but it proved a good 1,2 punch with the Transit Museum’s satellite space inside Grand Central Station displaying its annual holiday train display. Trains were the theme of the day. And yes it was like Grand Central: packed with holiday-goers. The timing was not entirely coincidental; I was determined to get there in 2015 while the Civil War sesquicentennial is still technically on.
Lincoln was in Peekskill for a whistle stop in February 1861 on his way to Washington City and his inaugural. Four years and two months later his body passed through and stopped in the town once again on its way back to Illinois. I believe the Lincoln Depot Museum is about to close for the season but if one is in New York and has a few hours it is well worth the trek. It is a five minute walk from the Metro North train station with a good bakery and restaurants right there.
I noted with interest today that the city of Liverpool is to build its own immigration museum. This will not be the first museum in Europe dedicated to the mass exodus from the Old World to the New. Antwerp for one has its Red Star Line Museum, which opened in 2013. In my time volunteering at Ellis Island I always stressed that immigration to the U.S. at the turn of the last century was not a one way street and that the human drama was taking place on the other side of the Atlantic as much as it was at Ellis Island, Baltimore, Charleston, and the other port cities of the United States. Anything less is just half the story.
The Liverpool immigration museum seems to be part of city’s larger strategy to emphasize its cultural heritage. Most famously city leaders plug The Beatles and Mersey’s importance to the band’s sound and rise. And why shouldn’t the city do that?; the rough and tumble town was integral to who the group was. Hamburg, itself another port city instrumental to the Beatles development, opened its own immigration museum, the BallinStadt, in 2007. European immigration to the United States crested a hundred years earlier, 1907, but held steady until the onset of the Great War seven years later, when the sea routes were disrupted and Atlantic travel dropped off precipitately.
(image by G-Man via Wikimedia Commons)
The piece is not too extensive but there are so few references to Brooklyn’s Ft. Hamilton that I thought I would pass along this New York Times piece about the Army base. If you have never been, I can attest that this is a great excursion. It’s something to think about especially with fall coming up. Ft Hamilton is in an interesting part of the city; the Verrazano Bridge changed the dynamic when it was completed in 1964, but the neighborhood still has its unique feel. I mention Ft. Hamilton every Sunday in my tours at Governors Island. One can’t understand New York Harbor’s coastal defenses without seeing how each fortification fits into a larger picture. Ft. Hamilton has a very long history. To the best of my knowledge it is the last of the system defenses to remain an active military base. Robert E. Lee was stationed there for five years in the early 1840s, just before the Mexican-American War.
In an episode that presages Prohibition, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted in its September 12, 1918 edition that the War Department closed fourteen saloons adjacent to the base that day. The article adds that saloons throughout Bay Ridge had been shut down for months prior to that. It is not a coincidence that Prohibition came when it did. The Temperance Movement had been making headway for decades and saw the First World War as their golden opportunity. Many states and localities went dry between 1914-18. The Volstead Act came on May 27, 1919 while President Wilson and his Administration were finalizing Versailles.
(image/Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Cropsey house, Ft. Hamilton , Bay Ridge, Brooklyn” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1885 – 1914. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-6cee-d471-e040-e00a180654d7)
I remember reading an article a very long time ago by Alex Haley in which he recounted his experience in retracing the Middle Passage of his African ancestor. In that piece Haley mentioned lying in the hold of the ship in which he was traveling across the Atlantic to re-live, to the extent he could, the crossing. That experience was all the more poignant for Haley because he had served in the U.S. Coast Guard for twenty years and knew the sea. For the past decade and a half museum professional Joseph McGill has been on a similar mission; since 1999 he has traveled to various sites across the country and spent the night trying to re-live the experiences of the slaves who once lived there. This summer he is in New York State.
New York is rich in abolitionist and Underground Railroad history. Harriet Tubman, Gerrit Smith, and Sojourner Truth are just a few of the people who lived at least part of their lives in New York. Slavery existed in the Empire State until 1827. Sojourner Truth was born into bondage here in 1797. Today’s New York Times has more on Mr. McGill and his project. The New-York Historical Society had an outstanding exhibit on slavery in New York a few years ago. Jennifer Schuessler’s article fills in even more of the blanks on this still relatively unknown story.
(image/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “I sell the shadow to support the substance, Sojourner Truth.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1864. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-cde8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)
Late last week I was walking though Brooklyn Heights on my way to meet a friend for lunch when I saw that the gates of the First Unitarian Congregational Society Church were open. I love to visit the many places of worship here in New York City, which depending on the era might have been built by Italian craftsmen who came through Ellis Island or were centers of Abolition during the Civil War Era. No, not all of them have such a dramatic provenance but one gets the idea. I had never been in the First Unitarian before, though I had walked past it dozens of times. The neo-gothic structure dates to 1844 and carries the years well.
I was only there for all of five minutes when, heading toward the door, I noticed a Great War marker on the wall in the vestibule. Of course I took a few pictures to research and submit to the World War 1 Memorial Inventory Project. The plaque itself was nothing out of the ordinary, nor would one expect it to be. With simple dignity it marked the contributions of those from the the congregation who served in war from 1917-18. A few of them made the ultimate sacrifice. I could not find too much information about when the plaque was dedicated. The church leader though turned out to be an interesting individual.
The Reverend Dr. John Howland Lathrop led the First Unitarian from 1911-57. He was against American involvement in the war but when it came in April 1917 he made his own contribution: Lathrop helped bring the Red Cross into the United States Navy. When that initial work was done he led the Red Cross’s WW1 initiative within the Third Naval District. That jurisdiction covered most of the Northeast. He was successful in these endeavors and continued a life of public service until his retirement in the late 1950s. A lot of that work involved cleaning up the mess in Europe that resulted from the chaos and destruction of the Great War.
I intend t do a little more with Lathrop in the coming months. A little digging revealed that his papers are at the Brooklyn Historical Society, which is across the street from the church that he served for nearly half a century.
It was a fun and exhausting day on Governors Island. There was a lot going on, which I will talk more about as the week progresses. You never know who or what you will see. Today there was an old Coast Guard member who had served on the island for twenty years. He was even there on 9/11 as part of the skeleton crew left over after the closing of the base in the late 90s. That would have put him just half a mile rom the Trade Center. One of my favorite things about the island is seeing which flag the Park Service has decided to fly over Fort Jay. It varies depending on the occasion and/or the mood of the personnel doing the hoisting. It is one of those neat little things I like to point out to visitors. Some thought has always gone into it. This week it is the Grand Union flag in recognition for the Battle of Brooklyn, the anniversary of which is in a few days.
I was in Boston earlier in the week visiting relatives and we went to Concord and Lexington. I had never been there before and feel I now have a sense of the Shot Heard Round the World that I did not have previously. As with Civil War sites, one must visit and walk the battle grounds of the Revolutionary War to get a sense of the action. I had a good talk with Park personnel about the hows and whys of the construction of the visitor center in the early Seventies in preparation for the Bicentennial. Over the past few day I have been reading the Cultural Landscape Report for Minute Man National Historic Park. The evolution of historic sites is fascinating in and of itself. I read an article a few years ago, for the life of me I cannot remember where, in which the author argued that New York State lags behind Massachusetts and Virginia in the Revolutionary War tourism industry because the Empire State was late to the game at the turn of the 20th century. It certainly sounds feasible and would explain why New York’s role in the Revolution is under-appreciated. That is why I was glad to see the Grand Union flying today.