Brooklyn, circa 1950

Yesterday morning at work I was going through some boxes of archival images for a presentation tomorrow when I came across these two. These are students at what is now New York City College of Technology in about 1950, when the institution was still known by its original name, the New York State Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences. There was–and still is–a strong veteran presence on campus because we began as a GI Bill school just after the Second World War. This fall I intend to get back to a project about the early years of our college, with a special emphasis on our founder: Benjamin Harrison Namm. I had intended to do it over the summer but the revisions on the latest draft of my Civil War manuscript took longer than I expected.

Namm had been a major in the First World War and returned to run the department store his father founded in Downtown Brooklyn, which he took to new heights. When the Second World War was winding down Namm understood that returning GIs needed the educational benefits and other services not afforded the doughboys of 1917-18 and became determined to do something about it. There was to be no Bonus Army this time around. I’ll leave it at that for now. The dental image is notable because the United States Air Force was one of the leaders in Restorative Dentistry. It was City Tech’s founding provenance that presumably led to the program landing at the school in the late 1940s and early 1950s. And so it remains today. I’ll have more to say on this in the coming weeks.

(images/Urulsa C. Schwerin Library Archives)

Geoffrey C. Ward: “The fun is in the chase.”

I was bemoaning the recent fallowness of the blog to a friend earlier this week. With the semester in full swing I haven’t had the time over the past ten days or so. Last night however a friend and I ventured up to the CUNY Graduate Center to watch Geoffrey C. Ward give the annual keynote for the Leon Levy Center for Biography. The Levy Center was founded by David Nasaw in 2007. While attending the Graduate Center in 2005 I took a class on the Gilded Age with Professor Nasaw in which I learned a great deal. At the time he was just about to release his biography of Andrew Carnegie. I can’t say I really know Professor Nasaw and I doubt he would remember me–I haven’t spoken with him in thirteen years for one thing–but as I understand it he founded the Levy Center because he believed that academics were not receiving professional credit for writing biographies. If that is indeed the case, and I suspect it is, I imagine it’s because tenure and promotion boards see biography as esoteric, which is misguided and unfortunate.

Geoffrey C. Ward, September 2018

Ward is the author or co-author of sixteen books but focused his keynote on his two-volume biography of FDR and his exposé of his great-grandfather Ferdinand Ward. This was of course the swindler who cheated Ulysses S. Grant and so many others in the ponzi scheme that took down Grant & Ward in 1884. Geoffrey Ward told the audience that while working on the book he concluded that his ancestor literally had no conscience and was probably a sociopath. Franklin Roosevelt however proved more inscrutable. Ward explained that when he began researching Roosevelt he wanted to know if the polio that touched Ward’s own life had taken away any of FDR’s optimism or indomitable spirit. Ward never found the answer during his research and writing but the answer may have appeared, he explained, in the diaries and letters of Margaret Suckley that turned up after her death in 1991 at the age of 99. In those pages Roosevelt confessed to his friend and confidante the depression and frustration to which he occasionally succumbed due to his physical impairment.

Ward gave a thoughtful presentation and had the audience’s attention. On the way out of the auditorium we ran into a mutual friend and the three of us talked on the Fifth Avenue sidewalk about the talk. I mentioned FDR’s public persona and compared it to the presentation of self of none other than Duke Ellington My friend look quizzical and so I repeated it. Strange as the comparison may seem, Roosevelt and Ellington in their individual ways presented impenetrable public versions of themselves. Of course everyone does this, especially public figures, but few are able to hold the visage together as tightly and for as long as Roosevelt and Ellington. Many people in their inner circles thought they understood the two men, when in reality the president and jazzman rarely gave all of themselves to any one individual. They both were, and to an extent still are, enigmas wrapped in puzzles. Geoffrey Ward collaborated with Ken Burns on the Jazz documentary twenty years ago and spoke of Ellington’s public countenance. This is entirely speculation on my part but I strongly suspect that when Ward was discussing Ellington he was comparing him to Franklin Roosevelt.

Mayors Mitchel and McClellan

George B. McClellan Jr. tablet, Battery Maritime Building. The son of the Civil War general was one of the most important mayors in the history of New York City and later served in the Great War.

What a great weekend it was for Camp Doughboy on Governors Island. I had not been on the island all summer, working as I have in northern Manhattan at Grant’s Tomb since early June. It was so good to see and catch up with many of the rangers and volunteers I have known for almost . . . nine years . . . now. It is the people you meet and get to know who make it all worthwhile.

I had a good conversation with a friend on the ferry boat over about John Purroy Mitchel, the subject of my talk later in the morning. In the late 1900s, before himself becoming the city’s chief administrator, Mitchel worked with Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. to clean up the city, with a special focus on Tammany Hall. In a small bit of serendipity we noted that the Battery Maritime Building from which the ferry had taken off was itself built by Mayor McClellan in 1908-09, a few years after his split from Tammany. The thousands of people who cross the harbor every week pass the tablet you see above without giving it a second thought. Mitchel was a natural ally for Mac in the endeavor to take down Tammany, and while the two were not wholly successful in taming the Tiger they did put a serious dent in its power and influence. Both former mayors joined the armed services when the United States joined the fight, with Major Mitchel killed stateside in a flight accident and Lieutenant Colonel McClellan going to France.

Rutherford B. Hayes at South Mountain

Rutherford B. Hayes was wounded at the Battle of South Mountain on this date in 1862. South Mountain is not as well known as it should be because it took place three days prior to the Battle of Antietam. Historians, accurately or not, usually interpret it not as its own set piece but as the prelude to the bloody day at Sharpsburg. That is entirely understandable but has also lessened the focus on the events of September 14. Hayes at the time was an officer in the 23rd Ohio. He and his men were eager to avenge the loss at Second Bull Run and were spoiling for a fight. They found it at Fox’s Gap, where Hayes received his wounds early in the morning. Of course he eventually recovered fully and became a general before entering the world of politics after the war.

Rutherford B. Hayes, seen here as a major in 1861, was wounded at the Battle of South Mountain on September 14, 1862.

In August 1885 now former president Rutherford B. Hayes attended Ulysses. S. Grant’s funeral. There too among the many other dignitaries was President Cleveland and former president Chester A. Arthur. I came across an interesting old newspaper article the other day that claimed that Arthur and Hayes were not selected as honorary pallbearers to avoid Hayes’s involvement in such a capacity. I have no idea if that is conjecture or if the writer of that piece in the 1880s had more information to go on. The standard narrative of the funeral is that former high-ranking officers were selected from the North and South as a reconciliationist gesture to aid in the reuniting of the country. Of course Arthur and Hayes had both been Civil War generals in their own right, so that theory would not necessarily preclude them from participating in such a capacity.

Arthur would have been a good fit for honorary pallbearer. he had been a long time Grant supporter, an ally and protégé of Grant ally Roscoe Conkling, and the first leader of the Grant Monument Association. Hayes’s involvement would have been a little more complicated. He had tried remove Arthur as Collector of the Port of New York in 1877 and replace him with Theodore Roosevelt Sr. That did not come to pass, in large part because of the political machinations of Senator Conkling. If the idea was to keep Hayes out then the idea of excluding Arthur would make sense: to ask one ex-president to be honorary pallbearer would mean having to ask the other. Arthur himself was a forgiving sort who rarely held grudges for long. A good illustration of that is that he attended Theodore Roosevelt Sr.’s funeral in February 1878 just weeks after the Collector controversy. So if a decision was made on Hayes it was probably made by someone else. Both former presidents did participate in the funeral, riding in carriages in the procession. The decision-making in how to incorporate Arthur and Hayes into Grant’s funeral is a rabbit hole worth going down. I am sure the answer is out there somewhere in the literature on the Gilded Age.

(image/Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

One Wednesday morning

Yesterday morning a colleague and I opened and assembled a six-panel exhibit our library received from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. We had to inspect it to ensure that there was no damage in transit. This morning we are going to install the panels in our exhibit space. I also intend to create a screen roll of related photographs that will run on a loop on a large screen computer. It has been a privilege to collaborate with The Library of America and Gilder Lehrman Institute these past two years.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Mitchel Square

Yesterday I put the final touches on my upcoming talk this Sunday at Camp Doughboy on Governors Island about John Purroy Mitchel. Later I did a dry run for a friend in my department to work out the kinks. A dress rehearsal always helps with these things in turns of timing, avoiding ambiguity, and just making certain that are sufficiently clear. I am as ready as I am going to be.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney sculpted this doughboy statue in Upper Manhattan in 1923 and later founded the Whitney Museum of Art. Quentin Roosevelt was engaged to her daughter when killed in an airfight in France in July 1918.

In part of the talk I discuss the ways the JP Mitchel is remembered in New York City. Mitchel Square at 168th and Broadway is just one memorial to the Boy Mayor. There too is this beautiful statue that we see above, which was not sculpted expressly for Mitchel himself but for the men on Washington Heights who fought in the war. I happened to be in northern Manhattan a few weeks ago on my way to somewhere else when I stumbled upon it. Yesterday after my walk through my friend and I were discussing Mitchel and breaking down some of the details of his life and times. Color me ignorant but I did not know that the statue in Mitchel Square was designed by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Gertrude was the mother of Flora Payne Whitney, Quentin Roosevelt’s fiancée. Of course Quentin himself died in a military plane incident above France just two weeks after Mitchel was killed in Louisiana two weeks earlier.

Check out the schedule for Camp Doughboy 2018 here.


Sunday morning coffee

I am having my coffee and a bite to eat before heading off to the Tomb. I see it is raining. It is too early to tell how it might effect the event at Sakura Park that runs from 12:00 – 8:00. I am watching the progress of Hurricane Florence as well. In addition to the terrible havoc it might unleash on many lives and communities, it may effect next week’s Camp Doughboy weekend on Governors Island. We will keep our fingers crossed that the Florence, and the storm building behind it, do not turn into major tragedies.

You Can’t Raise Two Flags at Once, Brooklyn Daily Eagle August 9, 1915

I was gathering my notes yesterday for next week’s talk about John Purroy Mitchel and came across this political cartoon which I thought I would quickly share. It is from the August 9, 1915 Brooklyn Daily Eagle and, coincidentally or not, is positioned next to an article about Mitchel’s participation in the Plattsburg training camp that summer. The cartoon shows Theodore Roosevelt explaining the dangers of what he and his supporters called hyphenated-Americanism during the Great War. The United States was not yet in the war when this cartoon was published. This was, however, just three months after the sinking of the Lusitania. The tension between Roosevelt, General Leonard Wood, Mayor Mitchel and other Preparedness advocates against President Wilson was building.

Just a few weeks after this cartoon appeared Roosevelt gave a controversial speech at Plattsburg taking the Wilson Administration to task for what he saw as its poor response to the war. General Wood was in attendance in Plattsburg with Roosevelt and later reprimanded by Secretary of War Lindley Garrison.

John Mitchel, Irish nationalist

Irish nationalist John Mitchel was put on trial in 1848 and eventually sentenced to “transportation” to Tasmania. He escaped to New York City and eventually moved South to support the Confederate cause. Seventy years later his grandson would be killed in a military training exercise getting ready to go to France to fight in the First World War.

Over the past few days I have been drafting the outline for my talk at next week’s Camp Doughboy weekend on Governors Island about John Purroy Mitchel. When I have more details I will share them here. Some may recall that in early July I wrote a piece for Roads to the Great War for the 100th anniversary of his death. Space constraints prevented me from going deeper into the Mitchell family than I would have liked. JP Mitchel was the grandson and namesake of famed Irish nationalist John MItchel. Mitchel the Elder was born in 1815 and put on trial by the British in 1848 when Ireland was in turmoil during the failed European revolutions of that year. He was sentenced to exile–what at the time was called “transportation”–to the Australian outpost Van Diemen’s Land, what we today call Tasmania. There on the Van Diemen penal colony too was Thomas Francis Meagher.

Mitchel and Meagher independently escaped to New York City. Mitchel ended up Brooklyn, living on Union Street and working as a journalist when he wrote his memoir Jail Journal; or Five Years in British Prisons. As the secession crisis heat up he eventually took his family down south, first to Tennessee and as the war went on to Richmond. Mitchel is testimony to the notion that life and humans are complicated; throughout his life he remained engaged in the Irish freedom struggle but was a staunch defender of slavery and the Confederacy. Mitchel was all in for the Confederate cause and all three of his sons served. Ironically two of the boys fought against the Meagher’s Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg in December 1862. One of Mitchel’s sons was killed in Pickett’s Charge near the Codori farm and another died while commanding Fort Sumter in 1864. The third, James, was wounded several times and lost an arm. Mitchel worked as a journalist for several Southern papers supporting President Davis. Ulysses S. Grant because a frequent foil after the general moved east in 1864. As the war wound down Mitchel escaped Richmond with Jefferson Davis’s entourage but was eventually captured and held at Fort Monroe before being released late in 1865. He soon became an editor with Benjamin and Fernando Wood’s New York Daily News, a Democratic vehicle that had given Lincoln much grief during the war and afterward turned it wrath on Reconstruction.

Mayor John Purroy Mitchel (center in top hat) and Cardinal John Murphy Farley reviewing St Patrick’s Day parade, March 17, 1914

John Purroy Mitchell was born in the Bronx in 1879, four years after his grandfather’s death. For reasons that are not clear to me, JP Mitchel was raised Catholic whereas his grandfather had been a Presbyterian. These were not small matters in Irish and Irish-American communities. I am assuming the Catholicism came from his mother’s side; the Purroys were Catholics who had come to New York City from Venezuela. I’m not going to rehash the Mitchel story here, though I probably will go into it more over the coming week as we get closer to Camp Doughboy. By the time he became mayor of New York City in January 1914 John Purroy Mitchel was thoroughly engaged in the Reform movement to clean up government. When war came later that year he was one of the earliest advocated for American Preparedness. It is intriguing to think of Mitchel being so actively engaged in the Preparedness Movement. Many Irish and Irish-Americans supported the Germans because they were fighting the British.

Like his grandfather during the American Civil War however, John Purroy Mitchel was all in for the Allied cause, eventually giving his own life on that Louisiana air field in July 1918. The world is indeed a complicated place.

(top image from The Citizen uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Domer48; bottom, Library of Congress)

A floating Picasso

I hope everyone had a good weekend. I rested up yesterday in preparation for what will now be a busy week. It is supposed to be in the mid 90s here in New York City today also. I’m ready for autumn days.

This video could have been much longer but here is a small piece from the Smithsonian about the dazzle art used on ships during World War One. Remember that the 1913 Armory Show was held in New York City (and reviewed reasonably favorably by none other than Theodore Roosevelt) in 1913, the year before the war’s start. We and some friends and are hoping to take a ride on one of the contemporary WW1-inspired dazzle ships here in the city this fall. Modern art inspired the camouflage worn by soldiers in uniform. The Allied navies incorporated The same principles were used on vessels as well. Cubism in particular into the camouflage painted onto ships. I have never seen such as this one however, where instead of zebra-like colors and angles the innards of the ship art painted on the outside.