D-Day plus seventy-five years

Rally in New York City’s Madison Square on D-Day, June 6, 1944

Good morning, everyone. I could not let the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion go unnoticed. Anniversaries such as this are an opportunity to pause and reflect on what we have gained and stand to lose in our current troubled times. Coalitions are difficult to build and easy to destroy. We would do well to remember the lessons taught to us by Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, Harry Truman, and the many others who helped create the world we cavalierly take for granted today.

Last night one person did mention to me the 75th anniversary of D-Day. We’ll see how many, if at all, do today. Here is a post I wrote in 2011. The major D-Day anniversaries have followed me over the course of my adult life.

There are many striking images of New York City taken on June 6, 1944. People obviously had a need to be out publicly, anxious as they were for news from England and France. D-Day was a lonely time for Eisenhower himself, who by that time had done all he could and thus spent his hours chain-smoking and waiting for news at his headquarters in England. Here in the States, ball games were cancelled, shops closed, and things in general came to a halt as the fate of the war hung in the balance.

(image/photographed by Howard Hollem, Edward Meyer or MacLaugharie for the Office of War Information; Library of Congress)

Whitman at 200

Walt Whitman was born in this farmhouse in 1819. The family moved to Brooklyn four years.

Walt Whitman was born in the farming community of Huntington, Long Island on May 31, 1819, two hundred years ago today. He was the second of what would eventually be nine children, one of whom died in infancy. Whitman had a strong sense of history and always believed he was taking part in a large historical narrative, probably because he was. Whitman and his family feature prominently in my book manuscript “Incorporating New York,” and I just may write a fair bit about the Whitmans over the summer. A friend and I intend to see the exhibit at the Grolier Club in the coming weeks or months. He also lived across the street from where I work, which has always made him seem that much more immediate to me. The Brooklyn printing house where he set the type for the first edition of Leaves of Grass was torn down in the early 1960s to make way for a Robert Moses project. Whitman and his siblings gloried in listening to stories of how their Long Island elders tricked the Redcoats during the British occupation in Revolutionary War.

By the time Walt Whitman was born the second round against the British—the War of 1812—had been over for nearly half a decade. During this Era of Good Feelings there was a feeling of optimism in the young republic, that the country held great possibility. A sense of history was clearly not lost on the parents; three of Walt’s brothers were named George Washington Whitman, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, and Andrew Jackson Whitman. George Whitman became an officer in the 51st New York Volunteers during the American Civil War, serving in the Army of the Potomac. It was after hearing of George’s wounding at the Battle of Fredericksburg that Walt rushed down South. His brother was okay, but what Walt saw in the hospitals horrified him. It was then that he became a nurse in the wards.

The Whitmans’ story is nothing less than the story of nineteenth century America. In addition to the Grolier exhibit I mentioned, there will be a number of other events in New York and elsewhere for those inclined.

(image/Jerrye & Roy Klotz MD via Wikimedia Commons)

Remembering Edmund Morris and Tony Horwitz

I learned yesterday of the recent deaths of both Edmund Morris and Tony Horwitz. It is difficult to process the loss of not just one but two important writers at the same time. Morris’s greatest legacy of course was his three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, which will stand for some time as the source for those seeking a deep dive on the twenty-sixth president. To many people though he is best known as the author of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. For those who may not remember, Dutch was an authorized biography for which Morris had unfettered access to Reagan’s inner circle during the president’s second term. These were monumental years that today seem so far away, when the Cold War was winding down and so much seemed possible. As he did to most others however, Reagan proved inscrutable to Morris and the biographer ended up writing a semi-fictional account of Reagan’s life in which the author inserted himself into the text. That’s the “memoir” part of the title. Needless to say, there was great piling on when the book came out in 1999–twenty years ago. I always try to be charitable, and instead of joining the dog-pile have always regarded Dutch as an experiment gone wrong. For a good take on the thing, read Andrew Ferguson’s piece in The Atlantic.

North-South Shoot, Civil War reenactment, October 14, 1951. Tony Horwitz wrote of the evolution of Civil War culture in Confederates in the Attic.

Horwitz was only sixty years old when he collapsed the other day near his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Horwitz was a journalist and historian who often worked in the vein of travel writer, visiting people and places and then telling his readers how the weather was. His most famous work was Confederates in the Attic, his account of Civil War culture as it stood in the mid-1990s. The book can still be read today with great profit.

As I have written before, many people’s takeaway from this book was Horwitz’s accounts of reenactors and their quest to achieve a “period rush” when out in the field camping and marching in period garb. My own biggest takeaway was the need to examine Civil War historiography in greater depth. Reading Confederates in 1998 also led me to take my first trip to Shiloh that summer. I went again the following year and alas have not been back since. With my father now gone, there hasn’t been much opportunity to get down to the region. I do hope to take the Hayfoot on a Civil War journey sometime in the next few summers, starting at the Lincoln presidential library in Illinois, the Grant home in St. Louis, Forts Henry and Donelson, and then Shiloh.

(image by Adolph B. Rice Studio via The Library of Virginia)


Green-Wood’s Harper Brothers

I hope everyone is enjoying their three-day weekend. Whatever one does today, please remember the true spirit and meaning of Decoration/Memorial Day.

Harper Brothers headstone, Green-Wood Cemetery. James Harper, the oldest of the four, died as the result of a carriage accident in Central Park.

My friend and I had a good time in Green-Wood yesterday. While I don’t want to give away too much right now, we came up with what might be an interesting small summertime project. Over the course of the day, which we split in half with lunch to replenish ourselves and get out of the heat for a bit, we came across this headstone here. I found it striking and could not help but notice that the individual died in 1869, one hundred and fifty years ago. So, we stopped and took the pic you see here. It turns out that James Harper is none other than the oldest of the Harper Brothers, the siblings who two centuries ago founded the publishing empire that still exists today. Their father came to New York from Philadelphia around 1790 and opened a grocery store on Maiden Lane, which means he most certainly knew the Roosevelts, whose hardware concern was on that same Lower Manhattan street. Young James worked with Thurlow Weed for a time before founding J & J Harper in 1817 with his brother John. They brought younger siblings Joseph and Fletcher into the publishing business in the 1820s and eventually named the company Harper & Brothers. All are buried in this Green-Wood plot. Indeed, the other brothers are represented on the other three sides of this monument.

Brothers Fletcher, James (standing), John, and Joseph Harper founded the publishing empire that still bears their name. All are interred today on a quiet hill in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

James Harper was a notorious anti-Catholic who in 1844 successfully ran for New York City mayor on the nativist American Republican ticket. He served one term. His administration is noted for something that did not happen within Manhattan itself. In 1844 nativist riots, sometimes called the Bible or Prayer Riots, took place in Philadelphia ninety miles away. Closer to home there was anti-Catholic in Brooklyn just across the water as well. The fighting there was especially intense, with pitched clashes between nativists and Irishmen. Brooklyn however was still an independent city, and thus beyond Mayor Harper’s jurisdiction. The Nativist Riots caused great concern. Thankfully the violence did not spread to Manhattan, in part because of the vigilance of Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes. The pugnacious cleric met Mayor Harper and warned him in stiff language of potential consequences should goons attack people or churches. James wisely left politics after his one term in office and focused again on the family publishing business, which only grew in the ensuing decades. The brothers’ most important vehicle was of course Harper’s Weekly, which made its debut in 1857.

(bottom image/Library of Congress)



Fiorello La Guardia’s Memorial Days

I hope everyone’s Memorial Day Weekend is going well. I’m meeting someone on the far end of Green-Wood Cemetery in about an hour. We’re going to explore the cemetery and then get lunch before the true heat of late spring kicks in. We submitted final grades the other day but there is still some detail work and mopping up in the coming days as we cap off the academic year. I started John Strausbaugh’s Victory City: A History of New York and New Yorkers During World War II. Last year after completing the manuscript for Incorporating New York I read his 2016 book about Civil War New York. I intentionally held off on reading it until finishing the draft of INY because I wanted to follow my own vision for the narrative and did not want others’ ideas seeping in.

I am profiting greatly from reading Victory City, which voters many of the themes my colleague and I covered with our class this just-concluded semesterOne of the major figures–how could he not be?-of the book is Fiorello La Guardia. I know so much more about La Guardia than I did at the beginning of the calendar year. I thought in recognition of Memorial Day Weekend I would re-up this post from last year.

General Wladyslaw Sikorski (saluting) with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (right) at New York City Hall, 1942

John Purroy Mitchel, New York’s boy mayor, died 100 years ago this coming July. Mitchel was in office from 1914-17, thus overlapping almost entirely with the early years of the Great War. Mitchel was a proponent of Preparedness and as such became a natural ally of Theodore Roosevelt, Leonard Wood, and others advocating for American readiness to join the fight. After Mitchel left office he joined the Army Air Service and was killed in Lake Charles, Louisiana when he fell out of an airplane during a training exercise in July 1918. Friends dedicated a memorial to him in Central Park near 90th Street and Fifth Avenue in November 1928. For years, especially throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the Mitchel monument was a focal point of Memorial Day commemorations in New York City. One regular attendee was Fiorello La Guardia, who over the course of his tenure in office from 1934-45 observed at least nine of twelve Memorial Days at the monument to his mayoral forerunner, Fusion Party associate, and fellow World War 1 aviator.

New York Times, May 31, 1934: La Guardia is second from the right.

The photograph above shows La Guardia at the Mitchel monument on Memorial Day 1934. This would have been just over a year into the FDR Administration and with the Great Depression in full effect. This was also La Guardia’s first Memorial Day as mayor. There were still Civil War veterans marching in New York City’s Memorial Day parades in these years, about 25 this year. In the years after this their numbers dwindled into the single digits.

New York Times, May 31, 1944: La Guardia was pressing for full Axis surrender in the tense days before the Normandy Invasion.

The headline here in which La Guardia advocates for an “aviator’s peace” comes from the 1944 Memorial Day observation. While obviously the public did not know the exact day that the offensive to liberate France would begin, Memorial Day 1944 took place one week before D-Day. Thus we see La Guardia pressing for all out victory. Poignantly, 1944 also happened to be the first year that a Civil War veterans did not participate in Manhattan’s Memorial Day observation. Brooklyn and Queens each had one G.A.R. veteran in the ranks. Spanish-American War veterans, doughboys from the First World War now well into middle age, and active duty servicepersons including WACS, WAVES, and SPARS were all represented.

La Guardia was on hand again at the Mitchel memorial on Memorial Day 1945. He had gotten his “aviator’s peace,” at least in Europe. By Memorial Day 1945 V-E Day had passed and everyone was waiting anxiously to see what would happen in the Pacific.

(top image/NYPL)

Remembering Margaret Suckley

Margaret “Daisy” Suckley aboard the USS Potomac in the Hudson River, 1937. Ms. Suckley was present in Warms Springs, Georgia when Franklin Roosevelt died in April 1945.

Some may remember a year ago March when I wrote about Nora E. Cordingley for the Feminist Task Force of the American Library Association’s Women of Library History page. Cordingley was a librarian at the Roosevelt Memorial Association Library on East 20th Street, working for many years under the direction of Hermann Hagedorn. I knew even at the time that I wanted to write in 2019 for the same venue about Margaret Suckley, a confidante and sixth cousin of Franklin Roosevelt who went to work at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park in 1941. Earlier today they posted that piece. I was very happy with how it came out and see the Cordingley and Suckley articles as bookends of one another. These two did such important work and deserve to be remembered.

In a related note, if you live in the Greater New York area, or will be in the city between now and May 31, it is not too late to see “Affectionately, F.D.R.” This exhibit is a display of over one dozen letters written between President Roosevelt and Ms. Suckley over a ten year period between 1934-44. The letters were recently given to Roosevelt House on East 65th Street by a generous couple. None of the letters has ever been on display until this exhibit. Check out the directions and hours here. I have been to scores of events at Roosevelt House over the years and can attest to what a special place it is.

(image/FDR Presidential Library & Museum)

Robert Moses’s Bethpage

Robert Moses at Bethpage, April 1935

I am sorry about the lack of posts recently. Blogging will continue to be light through next week as the academic year enters its endgame. There are so many things to make happen before submitting grades, which we will probably do a week from today if all goes as planned. I spent a good chunk of today reading and grading papers. I have learned a great deal this year, about not just Robert Moses but local, state, and national history more widely. We intend to keep the energy going. It’s the people you work with who make it all worthwhile.

Way back on the first day of class we were telling students about Moses’s many accomplishments. The course focus is on New York City itself but you must lay the foundation talking about the master builder’s wider legacy. One of those things, I told the class, was Bethpage State Park near Farmingdale, where they played this week’s PGA Championship on the Black Course. Brooks Koepka held on to become the first back-to-back PGA winner since Tiger Woods in 2006-07. The Black Course is a pretty good test of golf; Woods won the US Open there in 2002. It and the four other links that comprise Bethpage were built under the leadership of Robert Moses in the 1930s within his jurisdiction as head of the Long Island State Park Commission. Needless to say, there was some serious sausage-making in turning it all into a reality. The detail-orientated Moses was involved in every aspect of turning the nearly 1,400 acre site into a golf location open to all. He also used New Deal money and men, putting about 1,800 laborers to work.

Moses envisioned Bethpage State Park as a Jones Beach for the middle-class golfing set. Remember, as its name indicates it is a public facility, not a private club. That they play the majors there is testimony to the vision and legacy of Robert Moses. In class tomorrow I’ll talk to the students briefly about it before getting on with the business of the day.

(image/Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

May 1919, the 77th returns

The 77th Division Band plays for its commander, Major General Robert Alexander, Aisne, France, 27 August 1918

They have my article about the return of the 77th Division up and running at Roads to the Great War. This was the piece I alluded to a few weeks back about writing the first draft in a Brooklyn coffee shop one Saturday afternoon. As I say in the bit, by mid-May 1919 most of the troops were stateside. When we think of the bitter peace that soon settled in, this was that period. It’s not a happy topic, but an important one.

(image/Library of Congress)

V-E Day plus 74 years

Stars and Stripes. V-E Day extra from Paris, 8 May 1945

I don’t have much time this morning to write more than a quick note that today is the 74th anniversary of V-E Day. I’m old enough to remember when the observance of the anniversary of Victory in Europe was still more current event than history. Time moves on. It was ever thus. I attended a symposium in the city last night about the New Deal. One of the most unfortunate aspects of the closing days of the Second World War is that Roosevelt did not live to see it, either the “peace” in Europe that May or the surrender on the Missouri in early September.

In many ways the hard was was just beginning. After the war itself came the immediate crises of feeding the starving, relocating refugees, and creating the international order that ultimately brought peace, stability, and prosperity to much of the world for the next three quarters of a century.

(image/U.S. Army Stars and Stripes)

Ranking the presidents at the Roosevelt House

Ranking the Presidents event, The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter Colllege, May 4, 2019

Last night some friends and I ventured up to Roosevelt House on East 65th Street to attend a discussion with Susan Swain and Brian Lamb with Amity Shlaes and Harold Holzer. The event was in recognition of the release of The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best–and Worst–Chief Executives. Swain led off with an introduction about how the book developed and noted that the latest survey of historians is the third such study they have conducted since 2000. Lamb picked it up from there with a discussion/interview of Holzer and Shlaes along with audience Q&A.

Shlaes is the author of a 2013 biography of Calvin Coolidge and 2007’s The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, a reinterpretation of the Roosevelt Era that casts FDR’s New Deal in a less favorable light. I ordered both of these works for the library where I work when they were first released and, while I don’t know if I agree that Calvin Coolidge’s policies in the 1920s were ultimately a good for the nation or that Roosevelt’s Depression Era initiatives harmed us to the degree she seems to believe, I am all for a more nuanced understanding of our history. In class all semester we and out students have been studying the laws of unintended consequences, most notably as it applies to our course with the failures and successes of Robert Moses.

It is no doubt true that the New Deal did not end the Depression; the industrial output necessary to win the Second World War did that. And indeed, as she argues, some of the Roosevelt Administration’s polices aggravated the situation. That said, I find it unpersuasive that Roosevelt’s measures were not the way to go given the historical moment. If you want to Roosevelt’s legacy, look around you. That said, I’m glad Shlaes is offering a well argued counter-narrative and have nothing but respect for her. That is why I ordered her books for our collection. I can’t wait for her book about Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to come out in November. Check out the episode when it is broadcast tomorrow tomorrow, May 5, on C-SPAN.