The Battle of Brooklyn at 240 years

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.







A man in the arena

IMG_3408The other day I received the brochure you see here in the mail. It is for the 11th annual Roosevelt symposium at Dickinson State University in North Dakota. When one thinks of Roosevelt’s legacy the Birthplace in Manhattan and the house in Oyster Bay, Long Island immediately come to mind, along with the Theodore Roosevelt Association too of course. The staff at Dickinson State’s Theodore Roosevelt Center however have been doing an incredible job preserving TR’s legacy. I noted with interest that this year’s focus is Theodore Roosevelt as elective candidate. It is lost on some today how many constituencies to whom Roosevelt had to appeal to in his decades of public service. He entered the arena for the first time in 1884 and remained so more or less continuously until 1912. Like a good politician he could many things to many people: an old Knickerbocker to his Silk Stocking Manhattan neighbors, a Southerner below the Mason-Dixon line through his mother’s side of the family, and a cow poke out West.

In a presidential election year it is easy to see why organizers are focusing on Roosevelt as candidate. Of course his hat was not in the ring 100 years ago; after the fracture of the Republican Party in 1912 he sat out the campaign four years later. He was a perennial thorn in Woodrow Wilson’s backside in the lead-up to the 1916 election. Running on the mantra that he had kept America out of the European war, Wilson defeated Charles Evans Hughes fairly handily. Alas I will not be able to attend the symposium but I do intend to keep an eye on if the TRC will be live streaming the conference, which runs from September 29-October 1.

“We’re in the forever business.”

IMG_3441Author 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.

IMG_3445Glass 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.

Governors Island’s 52nd Street

Swing Street was the scene for New York's jazz clubs and a hangout for GIs.

Swing Street was the scene for New York’s jazz clubs and a hangout for GIs.

I am sorry about the lack of posts recently. This is the time of year when I slow down a bit, relax, and prepare for the coming academic year. I’ve spent much of the past week and a half listening to the Mets lose night after night. Queens’ Major League Baseball Club has not won two game in a row since July 6.

I had an interesting experience at Governors Island last week. I was there this past Thursday to conduct two oral histories with another volunteer. The first one was with a gentleman who worked in the Military Police in the 1950s. I took the opportunity to ask him a question that had long bothered me. Some readers may know that Castle Williams served as an Army disciplinary barracks for many decades. In my reading of many jazz histories and biographies over the years a recurring theme that Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and others repeatedly came back to was the considerable Military Police presence on 52nd Street. “The Street” as it was known–no number was required if you mentioned jazz–was notorious for men in uniform drinking, fighting and causing mayhem. (It is a story for another time, but in retrospect it seems obvious that many of these GIs were suffering from ptsd.)

It was always my speculation that when these servicemen got into trouble the place to which they were usually taken was Governors Island. The Army would have handled such matters, not the civilian NYPD. Still, this was all conjecture on my part; in all my reading on both jazz and Governors Island, I never saw anything in writing that backed up my educated guess. That is, I had no corroboration of this until last week, when during the oral history I asked the interviewee if such was indeed the case. To my great satisfaction he confirmed what I had long suspected: that the uniformed servicemen picked up for making trouble on 52nd Street back in the days of the great nightclubs were indeed brought to Castle Williams on Governors Island. It fits into the narrative of Castle Williams as a minimum security facility. These troublemakers would be brought to be processed, sleep it off, and wait for the next step in the process. I cannot tell you how pleased I was to hear this firsthand from the former MP himself.

(image/William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress)

One man’s Governors Island

Today's interviewee lived in Fort Jay's south barracks during his tenure on Governors Island in the early 1960s. He was stationed here until the Army left and made way for the Coast Guard.

Today’s interviewee lived in Fort Jay’s south barracks during his tenure on Governors Island in the early 1960s. He was stationed here until the Army left and made way for the Coast Guard.

I was at Governors Island this morning, where another volunteer and I interviewed a First Army veteran via telephone. The man was 97 and quite sharp; he remembered his years of service with great eloquence and clarity. It really is a privilege speaking to individuals such as this. I mean, it is unforgettable. This former lieutenant colonel graduated from Gettysburg College in 1941 and served in Europe during the Second World War. He grew up in Gettysburg and told us that when he was sixteen years old Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s motorcade passed his house en route to the ceremony for the lighting of the Eternal Light Peace Memorial at the Gettysburg 75th anniversary in 1938. He even had a job making 50 cents and hour putting up the tents for the aged Civil War veterans in attendance.

One thing that made today’s interview that much more poignant is that we had a young man with us for the first part of the session who himself will be heading off to Gettysburg College in two weeks to begin his freshman studies. That is, this morning we had an 18-year-old young man speaking with a 97-year-old WW2 veteran who once aided Civil War veterans in attendance to see FDR mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in the presence of living Civil War veterans. That’s some crazy stuff. Our subject also recalled seeing General Eisenhower around town in Gettysburg, the president and his wife of course residing there for many years in the only house they ever owned. All in all it was an amazing morning.

Watching movies at Camp Travis

Men of the 165th Depot Brigade on movie night, which may also have included live entrainment performed by the troops themslves

Men of the 165th Depot Brigade on movie night, which may also have included live entertainment performed by the troops themslves

I have spent part of the week researching a project we are hoping will come to fruition this coming Sunday at Governors Island. In my digging I came across this semi-related image of African-American troops taking in a movie at Camp Travis in 1917. It is fascinating on several levels but one thing I find interesting is how aware the entire room is that they are being photographed for posterity. One sees the same phenomenon in pictures of Civil War troops, though in that era photography was still in its infancy. I am guessing that as late as 1917 photography seemed novel to these men. I cannot help but wonder what movies–certainly silent pictures–they would have watched. The original caption hints that in addition to any films being screened there was probably a variety-night aspect to these types of affairs. As a depot brigade these men likely did not see combat in France, but performed the crucial–and back-breaking–function of logistics and supply.

(image/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Movies!’ Building No.1, Army Y.M.C.A., Camp Travis, Texas.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1917.

Sunday mornings in New York

One of the things I like about volunteering at Governors Island on Sunday as opposed to Saturday is that the morning commute is quiet and easy. There are so few people around and one usually has the sidewalks to oneself. It is not unusual to see film crews out-and-about taking advantage of the quiet to shoot commercials, tv segments, and movies. The rest of the week it is usually just not possible. The film industry is a big part of the local economy and I don’t just mean the actors. Carpenters, craft service persons, and others are all necessary to make it happen. I have seen it so many times over the years now that I hardly think of it. This morning at 8:30 however, I could not help but pause when I saw this just south of Wall Street.


Marker hunting in Greater Boston

I visited relatives last weekend and while there my uncle took me to several WW1 monuments, markers, and tablets spread across numerous towns around Boston. It seems that all of the small communities in the area left some kind of marker to remember the events of the Great War. One of them even commemorated a doughboy killed in France in early 1919, a reminder that the danger did not end with the Armistice in November 1918 and that Americans were in harm’s way for some time thereafter. I intend to share these monuments in greater detail over the course of the rest of the summer, but wanted today to show a few pics from last week.

My uncle was extraordinarily kind and generous; he researched all of the monuments himself and drove us to each one, which was no easy task. It was also the hottest weekend of the year with temperatures in the mid-90s on both days. It would have been so easy for us to call it a day at any given point. Still, it was such a good time. Again, I will go more into these in the near future but here are a few snippets from our two excursions.


This is the town square in Hopedale. The statue in the background is General William F. Draper who fought for the Union in the Civil War. The statue is beautiful and was sculpted by none other than Daniel Chester French. Noting this, my uncle and I discussed how the veterans of the North had the financial resources to build these types of monuments to a degree that the veterans of the physically and economically devastated South did not. (Seeing the ghastly Stonewall Jackson statue at Manassas yesterday only drove the point home.) Hiring French cost General Draper’s widow a fortune. Still the Draper family was part of the industrial boom taking place during the Gilded Age and had the means to do it. The WW1 monument we came to see was directly behind where he is standing.



Some of the monuments are small and easy to miss. This one above was dedicated to a particular individual and is in remarkably excellent condition.


You can barely make it out but the marker, again dedicated to an individual, is on the pole just to the right of the small American flag. I imagine that when the marker was dedicated, presumably in the 1920s, there were still a few GAR members around to witness the occasion. This Grand Army of the Republic post is today an animal hospital.


Another town, another WW1 memorial. This one dedicated in 1935. When recording these things, one should always try to put the marker/tablet/memorial into its context and not just capture the object itself. The old New England church across the street adds to the poignancy. On the other side of the street, behind me where I took this picture, was an American Legion post with people coming and going.

These were a great couple of days all the way around, and I look forward to digging deeper into the stories of what we saw and sharing it here.




Bull Run plus 155 years

We were up and out early this morning to attend an event at the Manassas battlefield. When we got there at 7:45 there was only one other person there, a gentleman from Texas who was playing Pokemon Go on his phone sitting on the porch at the Henry Hill house. He and I had a good conversation for about twenty minutes between ourselves while the Hayfoot stayed back at the visitors center. It was so nice being there early before people began showing up to mark the anniversary of the first battle. I could feel he dew scrunching under my feet as I walked along. The rangers and volunteers told me that most of the events are to be held this coming weekend. These images are all from today.




Baptized by Fire, redux

Incredibly I first posted this five years ago today. I remember being in DC, though not Manassas, that Thursday in 2011. The heat index was in the 120s but they still managed to get a sizable crowd for the 150th anniversary of First Bull Run. We were following it online. The sesquicentennial itself. is already receding into memory.

(Kurz & Allison; Library of Congress)

I am writing this from Washington, DC.  Today marks the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run, which took place only about thirty miles down the road.  It was not until I began visiting DC regularly a few years ago that I realized just how close to the capital the Civil War occurred.  Fifty years ago today New York State made some history of its own when it donated one hundred and twenty six acres of Virginia countryside to the federal government.

The monument to the Fourteenth Brooklyn was rededicated on July 21, 1961.  Thankfully it today lies within park boundaries.  (photo by William Fleitz, NPS)

In 1905 and 1906 the New State legislature authorized the purchase of six acres of land for the construction of monuments for the 14th Brooklyn (later renamed the 84th New York), the 5th New York (Duryee’s Zouaves), and the 10th New York (National Zouaves).  Each regiment was granted $1,500, which was the standard rate for such projects at the time.  (The monuments for the latter two regiments were in recognition of those units’ actions during Second Bull Run.)  The three monuments were dedicated together on October 20, 1906, with scores of veterans taking the train from New York City and elsewhere in a pounding rain.

Fast forward to the early 1950s, when New York State officials prepared to give the six acres to the Manassas National Battlefield Park.  The deal became complicated, however, when the legislative Committee to Study Historical Sites realized that encroaching development threatened to cut the three monuments off from the rest of the battlefield.  Chairman L. Judson Morhouse advised the state to buy an additional one hundred and twenty acres to ensure that the Empire State’s units would fall within the parkland.  The state agreed and purchased the acreage in 1952.  Later in the decade the New York State Civil War Centennial Commission, Bruce Catton Chairman, proposed to transfer the land to the Park Service during the 100th anniversary of First Manassas in 1961.  Not surprisingly, the NPS was amenable to this and so fifty years today Brigadier General Charles G. Stevenson, Adjutant General of New York, handed over the deed to Manassas superintendent Francis F. Wilshin.

German-born Corporal Ferdinand Zellinsky of the 14th now rests in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.