Latest from Standing Rock; The WWII Battle of Los Angeles??”; New Smithsonian museum already hits a milestone

A few protesters have remained at camps near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Latest from Standing Rock: the camps were cleared today, and it seems that most of the protestors decided to leave rather than face a violent confrontation. Many did not leave, however, and they are being arrested. I think we are all relieved that so far only a couple of people seem to have gotten hurt, but I think this thing is far from over. The court case is still pending, and another was filed last week by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization. They filed a motion questioning the legality of the Trump administration’s decision to issue the permit he granted for the project to continue. If the court attempts fails, protestors have vowed to use any means to shut down the pipeline. It’s just a heartbreaking situation.

On a lighter note: Ever heard of the WWII Battle of Los Angeles? (If you are a fan of Spielberg’s vastly underrated movie, 1941, you might have). If not, check out this interesting post about the bizarre February 23, 1942 event that was a product of intense paranoia and “war nerves.” And speaking of Spielberg’s movie, it is legendary as his biggest flop and critical failure. Personally, I have never understood that. I’ve always liked it, even back when it first came out. I feel audiences were just not ready for how loud, frenetic and over-the-top it was at the time of its release. It would probably play better today than it did back then. It is big, loud, and comically stupid, but I love it. It recreates wartime LA beautifully, complete with an awesome swing dance scene, and has an all-star cast (Belushi, Akroyd, Ned Beatty, and even Robert Stack and Warren Oates). Yes, it is probably not everybody’s cup of tea, but it is based very loosely on this actual wartime event (exaggerating it of course for comedic effect and throwing in a massive fight scene between the different military branches). So don’t let its reputation keep you from giving it a try.

The Smithsonian African American History and Culture Museum is off to an amazing start. It just welcomed its one millionth visitor in only 4 months of operation. More impressive, the average time that visitors stay there is SIX HOURS or more on weekends, compared with about 75 minutes for other museums. Man, I have got to get there more sooner than later.

Scientists are bringing back the woolly mammoth to fight global warming?; Long lost Walt Whitman novel surfaces; Monticello giving Sally Hemings her due; Trump learns some black history; Hitler’s phone is sold

An illustration of a family of Woolly Mammoths grazing on what is left of the grasses as winter approaches in this ice age scene. (Credit:Aunt_Spray/www.istockphoto.com)

Whoah, did you see this? Some scientists say that through genetic engineering they are close to bringing back the long extinct woolly mammoth. The benefit? It could slow global warming. How so? Check the story out. (Jurassic Park can’t be too far behind).

And speaking of long lost things resurfacing: A complete Walt Whitman novel has been found by a graduate student and is now available online and soon in print. “It’s not a great novel, though it’s not a bad read either,” said David S. Reynolds, a Whitman expert at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Big news from Monticello: they too are uncovering some long lost history. A room that was turned into a bathroom is now believed to have been the room occupied by Sally Hemings. They are working on archeology and historic reconstruction to bring the room back to its origins and to use it interpret her life. The even better news, they plan to focus on her life apart from the alleged sexual connection between her and Jefferson, as well as to reconstruct other slave dwellings on the plantation so that they can more effectively interpret for their visitors the African American presence and accomplishments at Monticello.

And speaking of black history: Trump got across the DC Mall today to check out the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. We can be cynical about this, and point out that he strangely used the occasion to brag once again about the size of his victory (in South Carolina), but perhaps he learned something while he was there (doubtful). He also used the occasion to denounce the recent rise in anti-Semitic violence and threats. (Let’s see if he actually does anything, instead of just talking).

Oh, remember that Hitler phone that went up for auction and was touted as “the most destructive weapon of all time?” Well, it was sold for $243,000 to a bidder that is keeping their name secret. (Hmm, I’ll once again spare you a Trump joke).

Mercy Street 2:5 review: Pinkerton finally talks to the right source and it leads to a “moment of truth.”

Pinkerton finally comes callin’ on Belinda

YES!!

That was my reaction to one scene in this week’s Mercy Street, and if you’ve been reading my reviews, you know which one. If for no other reason, this was my favorite episode. Yet other storylines were well executed too, and  Charlotte Jenkins delivered her best line yet. We even got some battle action thrown in for good measure. I’m definitely high on Mercy Street.

The battle sequence introduced this week’s most interesting patient. The engagement takes place during the Battle of Chantilly (the last action in the Second Manassas Campaign, in which Stonewall Jackson’s attempt to cut off the Union retreat was thwarted). The scene is visually striking, taking place at night with bursting shells illuminating the sight of troops clashing in a bayonet charge. This isn’t totally inaccurate, there was some late evening fighting (though not totally nighttime) and hand-to-hand combat during Chantilly (or Ox Hill), but both were actually rare in the Civil War and thus the scene perpetuates some myths/stereotypes about the war. (We’ll forgive them.) The most disturbing image is of a man burning alive while screaming and lunging for help. We later learn he was left for dead for several days, spent time suffering in a field hospital, and finally arrived at Mansion House. Because he’s badly burned and incoherent, it is unknown whether he is a Reb or Yank. Dr. Foster and staff save his life, while Lisette puts her anatomical sketch talents to use recreating his face so that he might be identified. A group of women come to the hospital searching among the wounded for loved ones. Recognizing her husband in the sketch, one woman rushes tearfully to the victim’s bedside as the hospital watches the emotional reunion. Turns out he’s not a soldier, he’s the Quaker we met earlier in the season and was somehow set afire while on the battlefield bringing water to the the wounded and dying. Yes, the scenario is a bit contrived, but carries an emotional punch.

Other bits of drama play out among our various characters. McBurney gives Hastings the assignment of caring for an old friend that has a toe likely needing amputation. Claiming he has bad luck due to a pocket watch he carries because it is a family heirloom (and which he believes caused the death of other family members), the officer tragically dies when placed under sedation. McBurney is livid, shouting at Hastings that he will now ruin her career. The good news: this means Hastings will stop sucking up to him, instead using her conniving ways to get McBurney out of the hospital, and as the body is carried away, the despicable Silas Bullen steals the cursed watch. Meanwhile, the Chaplain refuses to speak to Emma and she finally confronts him. He explains that in his youth, his temper and rage caused the death of someone, and he made a promise to God to control his impulses and dedicate his life to his faith. Thus, he feels killing the man that shot at them last week broke an oath to God and was precipitated by his feelings for her. Less silly but no less melodramatic are the scenes between Foster and Lisette. Feelings from their past linger, strengthened by the emotional reunion her sketch talents facilitated. Eventually, she invites Foster to her bed, promising that Phinney will never know. Our boy does the right thing and rejects the offer, but takes it to heart when she encourages him to not lose Mary because of his emotional timidity.  Finally, the episode featured yet another death, when Matron Brannan gets a letter she does not have the strength to read, knowing it is about her son. Hastings reads it to her, detailing that he was killed trying to steal alcohol. The scene is a heart wrenching reminder that not all war deaths are honorable.

McBurney causes trouble for more than just Hastings, shutting down the school that Charlotte Jenkins runs in the contraband camp. He did so, Jenkins explains to Samuel, because she “may have mentioned a slave rebellion in Haiti” and thus he feels she is encouraging a violent uprising among the black population. (The event she alludes to, of course, is the Haitian Revolution, perhaps the largest and most successful violent slave rebellion in history, and which was a source of southern white paranoia in the early 19th century). As Jenkins vents her frustration at whites, Samuel reminds her that “some of them are dying for us,” to which she replies, “you can’t really see it that way.” Expressing her doubts as to how the war will actually impact them, Jenkins delivers one of the series’ best lines. “We got to make a change for ourselves,” she asserts, “or all we are going to do is change hands.” This is a reminder that at this point in the war (summer, 1862), emancipation was not assured, and there were thousands of blacks behind Union lines with uncertain statuses. It was still possible the war could end with slavery intact, and thus Jenkins’ call for black agency counters the popular perception that emancipation was something that was simply bestowed upon African Americans. Indeed, their own actions played a crucial role in turning the war into one that served their own purposes.

Inspired, Samuel later gets a chance to reopen the school. McBurney discovers the case study that Hale and Samuel worked on in last week’s episode, and is set to punish them both because it is unthinkable that a black man would be involved in an autopsy of a white. Hale initially wants Samuel to “play the role of the dumb negro” by lying that he added his name to the paper without consent, but the doctor does the right thing and tells the truth to McBurney. Foster saves the day, however, by concocting a doozy. The whole report was a ruse, he tells McBurney, to get Samuel accepted into medical school. Doing so, he argues, would win the favor of influential abolitionists that could write letters to superiors to help McBurney get transferred out of the hospital and back in the field. “A bit Machiavellian,” the head doctor asserts, asking Samuel to do his best to make it happen.  Samuel promises he will, as long as McBurney reopens the contraband school. Nice, but an all the more appropriate scene because it involves a black man, with help from sympathetic whites, playing upon and using the goals of those in power in order to secure his own designs. Emancipation, it could be argued, was secured via similar means.

And then there is the Green family. Junior is out buying a Gatling gun with money he steals from his father, coming up with the idea of transforming the family factory into a munitions facility for the Confederacy (yeah, that’ll work). Meanwhile, Mr. Green attends a reception in DC, and thanks to a British Duke staying in their house (who desperately wants to see a battle and may be a total phony), as well as the beguiling charms of his daughter Alice, he meets with a British ambassador. When the diplomat indicates slavery is likely a sticking point that will keep the brits away from helping the South, Green suggests that they tell the Jefferson Davis administration that gradual emancipation is a condition the Confederacy must meet in order to procure help.  (This reminds me of that ridiculous line in the Gettysburg movie when Longstreet says, “we should have freed the slaves and then fired on Fort Sumter.”) If this storyline continues, I hope it is in the form of the Davis administration making it clear that a plan for gradual emancipation is out of the question, as slavery is exactly what the South is trying to preserve. (It should be noted, that just before the summer of 1862 when this episode takes place, Lincoln tried to entice the Border States into a program of compensated gradual emancipation, which they flatly rejected).

Which brings us to the scene that thrilled me and that I was watched like this:

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As you know, since the start of this season I’ve hoped that Pinkerton’s investigation of the Green family would involve the questioning of faithful family slave Belinda. In actuality, the famed detective heavily relied on information that he gleaned from slaves, runaways, and “contrabands,” and even had an African American operative working for him in the rebel capital. Thanks to their help, he busted spy rings, learned about Confederate fortifications, and even gathered information from a free black man in Virginia that played a role in the planning of the Peninsula Campaign. To a large degree, these facts are unknown and unexplored, even within the community of Civil War scholars and buffs. As the Green family plotted and connived this season, Belinda has witnessed it all while staying devoted to the family. Thus, I hoped that the show would ultimately get around to having Pinkerton question the enslaved woman, and that her information would break the case. Such a development would say much about slave “loyalty” and explore a little known facet of the Civil War.

Pinkerton finally shows up at the house while the family is away, requesting a conversation with Belinda (I almost leaped out of my seat when he did so). She is reluctant, explaining she has known the children their whole life and loves them “like they are my own.” Pinkerton feigns sympathy, but tells her that Lincoln wants to free the slaves. If he is killed (by spies like the ones the family has harbored), the next president might end the war with slavery intact (still a legitimate scenario in summer 1862). If so, all runaways behind Union lines might be returned to their owners, and “things would go back to the way they were before.” Does she really want that, he asks, promising he only wants to catch Frank Stringfellow. This leads to an off camera conversation in which Belinda apparently opens up to Pinkerton. When the family returns, the information he gets leads to catching Mrs Green in a lie, proving the family’s guilt. Thanking Belinda, he promises to come back soon with men to help him make an arrest.

After he departs, the family erupts in an argument in which all their lies, deceptions and animosities get openly aired. Turning on Belinda (whom Alice has repeatedly insulted by alleging that she stole the money missing from Mr. Green), they express shock that she shared information with Pinkerton. Mrs. Green begins to swoon and asks Belinda to bring her the laudanum. This request suddenly rips away the mask that the enslaved woman has worn for years, as she haughtily responds, “get it yourself!” As the family looks on in stunned disbelief, Belinda (channeling Charlotte Jenkins) disdainfully tells them she had wanted to keep them out of trouble, but they were too good at bringing it on themselves. She then storms out.

Mercy Street GIF Recap

Look at those reactions! Beautiful.

Folks, this is perhaps the most real moment that Mercy Street has thus far given us, and one of the better ones ever depicted in a movie or TV show involving slavery. Belinda has not yet fully thrown off her lifetime of deference to a family that she helped raise, but this is her first step toward independence, and it is one that many supposedly “loyal” house servants took by degrees during the Civil War. The letters and diaries of white southerners are filled with descriptions of their slaves becoming more haughty and disobedient as the conflict progressed, leading to their refusal to work and ultimate flight to Union lines if/when the opportunity presented itself. This created a “moment of truth” as historian Eugene Genovese long ago described it, when white masters learned that the enslaved people they had long considered loyal demonstrated that it had all been an act, and that they desired freedom irregardless of how well or poorly they had been treated as slaves. Belinda does not yet seem ready to abandon the family (and in fact at this point in the war she would not have obtained freedom if she did, as Green’s loyalty oath means she would not qualify for emancipation under the Second Confiscation Act), but the Emancipation Proclamation is coming.

This excellent episode ends with Emma Green deciding that her dysfunctional family is no longer where she belongs, as the affirmation she receives at the hospital for her increasing self reliance and initiative is more satisfying than anything she receives at home. She then moves into the Union hospital, leaving behind her southern family. We can hope that Belinda is only one step behind.

Bernstein smells a coverup; Melanie learns some black history; Still looking for Nefertiti; 5 kisses that made history

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Just some odds and ends today:

Is Carl Bernstein on the case or just commenting on it? He says he “smells a coverup” and “we are trying to penetrate that cover up.” Go get ’em! Someone in that inner circle is going to have to break. Flynn was thrown under the bus pretty quickly, if the right pressure is applied, could he be this case’s John Dean? Doubtful, but we can always hope. He is probably just commenting on the situation and not actively investigating, but come on Carl, get someone in that parking garage.

So Melanie Trump and Sara Netanyahu visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture yesterday. Now if only so-called President Trump would get over there, he might learn that not all blacks (other than Ben Carson) live in crime and drug infested neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, across the DC Mall, the Smithsonian American History Museum has a new display that is pretty timely in the Trump era. Using artifacts, it tells the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.

Remember that developing story from last year about the possibility that King Tut’s tomb might have another chamber that contains Queen Nefertiti? What’s the latest? Well, so far, scans have turned up nothing. But they’re still trying.

In other archeological news this past week, researchers discovered a new cave that they feel pretty certain contained more Dead Sea Scrolls, but which have been looted. “This exciting excavation is the closest we’ve come to discovering new Dead Sea Scrolls in 60 years,” said Dr. Oren Gutfeld, an archaeologist at Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology and director of the excavation.

I missed this one on Valentine’s Day, but check out this video from Time featuring “Five kisses that made history.”

Perfect timing for WGN’s Underground; Renaming buildings is “erasing” history?; Who was Logan & what was his act?; Another Watergate or a “witch hunt?”

The debate over Trump’s immigrant policies, as well as the fact that many cities, universities, and churches have announced they will become a “sanctuary,”  has led to a lot of comparisons to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law and local resistance to it. For instance, the piece by Eric Foner, and this one in the Huffington Post by Barbara Krauthamer. It is a legit and instructive comparison, and it illustrates that the timing for the second season of WGN’s Underground couldn’t be more perfect (it premieres March 8). As I have indicated before, I am a little concerned about how the promotions look like an action packed superhero story, but if they do a great job of dramatizing the efforts of both black and white Americans to circumvent the oppressive federal law that was the Fugitive Slave Act, the show will be seen as extremely relevant to current events. Also with perfect timing, they have just released their last and fullest trailer:

Yale’s removal  of John C. Calhoun’s name from one of their buildings has stirred up the whole debate again about these sorts of efforts, and over on National Review they have an opinion piece decrying this “erasing” of history. Similar diatribes are all over the internet today. Look, I don’t know if this was the right thing to do or not, but I am so sick of this argument that it is an erasure of history. This writer is arguing that if we take Calhoun’s name down, we hide the fact that we used to have slavery and that we have progressed away from it. Huh? Just because we remove a name (that most people walk by everyday without even thinking about), it somehow means that we suddenly forget and stop teaching that America was a slave owning nation, or that slaveholders used to be leaders? Come on. Further, this is Yale’s decision, not ours. And it is the decision of every institution,  local community, and state to decide what they want to honor or not to honor. You’d think a publication like National Review would be more sympathetic to local rights.

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, but did you catch Heather Cox Richardson’s excellent post on We’re History, detailing a horrific February 14th in the life of Theodore Roosevelt? (It was actually posted last year)  I’ve always told this story in my classes (in fact I just did so today), because it is the perfect example of how personal tragedies and events can have a major impact on leadership, and by extension, a nation.

So an obscure law called the Logan Act has obviously been in the news lately. But who was Logan, what did he do, and why did it lead to a law that had created another controversy for Comrade Trump?

One more word on the Russian scandal and the Putin Puppet: the similarities and comparisons to Watergate are quickly becoming more credible, which is being pointed out by people like Clinton’s campaign manager,  editorialists in the New York Times, and most interestingly, venerated journalists like Dan Rather. But then people like the nutcase Sean Hannity and other Trump loyalists, insist that it is all a liberal witch hunt, or a fake narrative invented by CNN. When you hear blowhards like this make such statements, just keep in mind that Nixon’s supporters first insisted much the same, arguing it was a fake narrative invented by the Washington Post. Just sayin’ (Come on DeepThroat II, where are you?)

Mercy Street, season 2, episode 4 review: Love and sex are in the air, but so too are some missed opportunities.

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This week, Emma and the Chaplain see some action. In more ways than one!

This week’s episode was a perfect lead-in for Valentine’s Day, given that it featured a romantic first kiss between budding lovers, some scandalous sex, a forbidden love, and a line that was clearly an homage to Casablanca. It also featured scenes that took us farther away from the hospital than ever before and apparently leaped forward a few weeks in time without exploring how an important piece of legislation would have just impacted the lives of the African Americans living in the contraband camps. This was the weakest episode so far this season, but still satisfying.

The forbidden love came in the form of two soldiers fresh from the battles associated with the Second Manassas Campaign (which moves us about a month ahead in time from episode three). One is close to death and is helped into the hospital by a young soldier that seems to have lied about his age in order to enlist. Once again Dr. Foster does some cutting edge research to save the soldier’s life, and is helped by an attractive medical/anatomical sketch artist (who arrived in the previous episode, but somehow is only just now running into Foster) that obviously has a romantic past with Foster. When he first talks to her, he delivers the homage to Casablanca. “This great big war,” he says, “and all these hospitals, and you show up in this one.” (Their previous affair took place in Paris, so the only thing missing is a black musician playing their favorite tune). The artist is named Lisette, and her character is no doubt meant to complicate the Foster/Phinney love story if and when Phinney returns. Anyway, the younger soldier is spotted kissing the other one while he was unconscious, and it sets Foster and others in the hospital off on a tirade against deviancy and “buggery.” Lisette suspects the younger soldier is actually a women in disguise, and is proven correct. This all ends rather melodramatically, with the young lady confessing her deception and love for the soldier, he’s rejection of her, and her returning to the front-lines disguised again as a soldier. Lest we think this is all hokum, there are indeed many well documented cases of women disguising as men in order to enlist.

But the scandalous sex involves Nurse Hastings and the son of hospital Matron Brannan. This handsome, but clearly rakish dude shows up to see his mother in order to avoid the impending Battle of Antietam. He needs a doctor’s note for a feigned medical condition so that he can get a safe job behind the lines (which brings to mind research like that of Lesley Gordon or Kathryn S. Meier on Civil War “shirkers.”) His mother is reluctant and unable to help him, but he quickly seduces Hastings, as she is in need of some relief from the stress of keeping Major McBurney happy. The odd leader is clearly OCD (as I diagnosed him after his first appearance), insisting the hospital’s desserts must have the exact number of peaches in every tart (a problem that literally gives Hastings a pain in the neck and that she solves thanks to the timely arrival of Mrs Green who brings in some pastries for the suffering soldiers). After a satisfying carnal romp with Brannan’s son, Hastings is happy to provide the paperwork he needs with the agreement that he’ll come around more often. Saucy stuff (and though not directly related, reminds me that you should all know about a new book just out from UNC Press, Judith Giesberg’s Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality).

Mrs. Green’s main purpose in showing up was to look for Emma, who hasn’t been home in a while (for reasons we will explore below), but she is not the only family member missing from the roost. Jimmy is in the middle of a plan to use the family business to clandestinely import and distribute guns to the Confederacy (the shortage of which has always been greatly exaggerated by the Lost Cause, as Chief of Ordnance Josiah Gorgas  proved remarkably adept at keeping southern armies well supplied with munitions). His plan has been discovered by two slaves, but rather than murder them as he is encouraged to do, he gives them money and instructions to flee to northern lines. What a guy.  Meanwhile, his father is doing his part for the Confederacy, traveling to Richmond (strangely they take a horse and buggy for the 90 mile trip instead of the train) to meet with Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin in the Virginia state house, which at this point was the rebel capitol. These scenes were filmed in the actual location (using some CGI to remove the modern Richmond city-scape). The beautiful rotunda and statue of George Washington make an appearance (as they also did in Spielberg’s Lincoln), as Green explains “cotton diplomacy” to Benjamin. It is a bit ridiculous for the writers to present this as Green’s original idea, as this policy was already in effect by this point and proving a failure. Yet there is a twist, Green has put together a “collective of cotton growers” who will sell to the British at cheap rates in return for their help in the war. (The actual policy was to NOT sell, thus driving up the price and causing a cotton shortage damaging to the British textile industry. This had been somewhat successful early in the war, but by late 1862 the British were already finding ways to mitigate and solve the problem).

More intriguingly, Alice is along for the trip and takes the time to pick up a document her spy ring has instructed her to retrieve. The family’s most trusted slave, Belinda, disdainfully watches as Alice lies to her father, meets with a shady character in a seedy Richmond tavern, and sees her lie to Federal picket guards to avoid having her handbag searched (the lie involves her menstrual cycle, prompting this interesting blog post from the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Ever wonder how 19th century women dealt with that time of month?). Thus, I am growing ever more hopeful that Belinda will share all she knows with Pinkerton. As I have discussed before, slaves were a source of information that he frequently utilized, and if the show goes down this path it would be a valuable history lesson about slave “loyalty.” Unfortunately, as we learn from Green Jr., Pinkerton has left town by this point and is back at McClellan’s side in the field (accurate). Will he return later this season to continue the investigation? In the meantime, we learn that the document Alice brought back is a list of people that are allegedly working for the Union and thus whom rebel spies should eliminate. Much to Alice’s shock, her brother’s name is on the list. Oh goodness.

Meanwhile, Emma is out of town because she and the Chaplain learn that about 20 wounded Union soldiers are pinned down on the battlefield (apparently Chantilly) and need rescue. The Chaplain is determined to get them, and Emma helps by stealing money from her father to pay for wagons and teamsters to accompany them to the site. Once they get there, the Chaplain himself gets pinned down by rebels, requiring Emma to bravely expose herself to gunfire (knowing that chivalry would cause the Confederates to stop shooting upon the site of a lady), and bravely escort the Chaplain out of danger. All the excitement and adrenaline from their adventure reaches a boiling point later that night, as Emma and the Chaplain finally share a kiss. The moment is interrupted, however, when a rebel takes a pot shot at the embracing couple (I guess he wasn’t too chivalrous), which unleashes a rage in the good reverend that leads him to fight and kill the would-be assassin. Surely this will cause the Chaplain to have a crisis of conscience, but it’s a pretty weak development and story-line. The better one is Emma’s evolution, as she becomes increasingly confident, bold, and decisive. Mrs. Green notices the change too, especially while seeing Emma in action when they return to town with the wounded soldiers. She looks upon her daughter with what is probably a mix of pride in her developing strength, but anger and disgust that it is being used to help Union soldiers. Stay with this story-line writers, please.

So what about the contraband camp and the black characters? Sadly, they get short-shrift in the episode, although there is one scene of Charlotte Jenkins educating the slaves about clock time so that they can manage their own time once they become free laborers. Further, she points out that Samuel is studying to become a doctor, which amazes the black children, but he nicely informs them that he would not be the first African American doctor (true). Meanwhile, Samuel’s lessons with Dr. Hale continue, as they perform an autopsy as a learning experiment and wind up making a medical breakthrough when they discover what really killed the soldier. Samuel’s excitement is dampened somewhat when Hale wants to write the case up for medical journals with both their names on it as attending physicians, but only because people won’t suspect that Samuel is black if he uses “Dr. Samuel Diggs” in the report. This little bit is all we get from the African American story-lines in this episode, and that is a shame.

This disappointment is compounded by the fact that at the time the episode takes place, news of the Second Confiscation Act would have now spread, meaning that runaways in camp that had fled rebel masters were now legally free (but not those with loyal masters, which presumably would include the Green family slaves, since Jr. signed the loyalty oath). Further, a new Militia Act was concurrently passed which called for the recruitment of black men into paid military service (though not yet as soldiers). Surely, this could have led to some interesting story-lines within the camp that would be more compelling than Hastings’s dalliance with the matron’s son, the contrivance of Green’s explaining cotton diplomacy to Judah Benjamin, and even the Chaplain’s killing of a rebel soldier. It would also show that emancipationist federal policies evolved and did not start with the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s a much more complex and interesting story.

This episode again demonstrates that Mercy Street is committed to telling some very nontraditional Civil War stories (women soldiers, shirkers, etc.), but I hope they begin to focus more intently on their African American characters and emancipation. They’re missing some great opportunities. I suspect that with the Emancipation Proclamation around the corner, they will do so, but sadly in a way that will only reinforce the popular perception that the military event we should most connect to emancipation is Antietam.

Perhaps I should have sent a copy of my book to the writers. 🙂

When presidents defy the courts; A good primer on Standing Rock; CNN’s History of Comedy episode one was a bust; British historian Lucy Worsley’s exciting new form of historical documentary

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Trump’s apparently impending challenge to the system of checks and balances over the travel ban order has led many folks to dredge up Andrew Jackson’s defiance and the Trail of Tears. But more than just that lousy president has done it. Jefferson, Lincoln, and Nixon also had episodes of defiance, and FDR strongly considered doing so. This excellent essay soberingly reminds us that with the exception of Nixon, they all succeeded in defying the courts because they had Congress on their side. Uh-oh.  If the Supreme Court rules against him, I think it is highly likely that so-called president Trump will once again reveal his autocratic tendencies. Lets hope he doesn’t cite Lincoln, Jefferson and FDR when doing so. (He would be wise to note that when Jefferson did it, he destroyed the economy with one of the worst pieces of legislation ever, and Jackson’s defiance led to one of the nation’s biggest sins).

And speaking of national sins—more on Standing Rock: I missed this short piece in The New Yorker the other day, but wanted to be sure to pass it along. If you need a quick, short, but detailed primer on what the whole situation is about, where it stands now, and how it looks like we are about to add another chapter to one of America’s most shameful stories, I highly encourage you to take a look.

Did you catch the first episode of CNN’s History of Comedy last night? I thought it was funny and entertaining to watch, but not at all enlightening. The problem was a reliance on mostly comedians talking about comedy history, which means there was little-to-no historical context. The comics mainly just gushed about their heroes. The episode focused on comedians that pushed the boundaries, dragging us into the age when comics can now say pretty much any foul thing that comes to their minds (which I am not so sure is a good thing). There was only slight attention given to burlesque, none given to pre-code Hollywood (I mean Mae West doesn’t even show up!), and nothing about censorship fights with the Hayes office in the 1930s-1960s. Admittedly, the focus was on stand-up comedy, but that was part of the problem. The show’s story did not really begin until Lenny Bruce and Redd Foxx. It was a disappointing start to the series, but lets see where it goes from here.

And speaking of television, I have been meaning to mention this well before now, but just never got around to doing it. While watching Mercy Street, I became a fan of another show PBS had been showing on Sunday nights called Secrets of the Six Wives, a three-part historical reenactment documentary about Henry VIII’s ill-fated women. The history was enlightening enough, but what I really enjoyed was the format. The host was British historian Lucy Worsley, chief curator of Britain’s historic palaces, who has a quirkily charming screen presence. But the neat thing was that when recreating the historic scenes, the show had Worsley dressed in costume and in the scenes acting as a palace servant, quietly observing the action along with us, and then breaking the fourth wall to talk to us about what we were seeing. “I play the part of the most nosy servant in history,”  Worsley recently explained. I found it to be very effective, an exciting way to do a documentary, and way more interesting that just watching some talking head sitting in a chair in an office. (Take note, History channel!) How fun would it be to be a commentator on an series like that? Sign me up! Unfortunately, the series has run its broadcasting course, but I highly recommend looking it up to watch it on PBS.org.