On Robert E. Lee’s “lost orders” & HBO’s upcoming “Confederate.”


Photo Illustration from The Daily Beast, depicting Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

Please allow me to weigh-in on a suddenly hot topic:

Like many of you, I am a huge fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones. So the news about its creators working on a new series called Confederate caught my attention, as it did many others. When the news broke that this is what they are working on, a backlash of reactions appeared on social media.

The new show will create an alternate timeline/universe in which the South successfully seceded, and thus slavery has survived into our current time-period.

HBO says:

The story will follow “a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone — freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.”

Put me down on the side of the people who are outraged about this ridiculousness.

Of course the controversy probably has the creators and producers all the more excited about the project, and in their response to the criticisms one producer called the show’s content “weapons-grade material.”

I think a lot of the criticism of the show is a knee-jerk response. Games of Thrones has had a lot of sexual violence, needlessly gratuitous sex and nude scenes, and a lack of diversity. So, many people immediately felt the show’s premise would create an offensive “wish fulfillment” for Alt-right crackpots and/or Neo-Confederates.

I don’t buy that.

It is clear these guys intend to show why it was important that the United States won the war, ended slavery, and preserved the Union. It actually will probably only anger Neo-Confederates to see it theorized that had the South won, slavery would have continued to thrive—as we know that one of the Lost Cause’s main contentions is that not only did the South not secede to defend slavery, but that they would have gotten rid of it on their own. Hogwash

Lord knows I don’t mind anything that annoys the people that still buy the Lost Cause myth.

I further suspect that the show will theorize that had the Union not been preserved, the colossus the United States became in the 20th century would not have been around to turn the tide of two world wars, and triumph in the Cold War (or did we? Hmm).  I’m guessing in this alternate history, Germany wins WWII, and/or that Russian communism has gone global.

And lastly, it is clear that the show’s creators hope that by creating this alternate world, they will be able to explore racial issues in an open and honest way, making it clear how the legacy of slavery in the US still permeates and defines our society. Surely, Neo-Confederates and Alt-right folks won’t find comfort in that.

So I don’t think these guys have in mind some kind of Harry Turtledove-like nonsense. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt on that.

Yet I am still mad about this, in fact, a bit enraged.

Because this is HBO, and because it’s the creators of Game of Thrones, this show is likely to be pretty good TV, if not great. The studio has enormous resources and a track-record of producing amazing shows. Further, because of the controversy, the audience is likely to be huge.

And THAT is what makes me mad.

Why not use those resources, those talents, and that built-in audience to tell a REAL story about “freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall” to mass audiences in a quality way?

History has enough amazing, untold stories out there, that I simply cannot understand why we need to create an alternate universe to make the point that it is a good thing that the Confederacy lost, that the Union was preserved, that slavery was ended, and yet that its legacy still shapes and defines the political, social, and cultural fabric of modern America.

As you all know, I am a big champion of Mercy Street, and to a lesser degree Underground. Neither show was cancelled because of a lack of audiences, and in the case of Mercy Street, the funding woes of PBS was the primary culprit.

Keep in mind, we still live in an America in which large numbers of people (probably a majority) still have no clue as to what really caused the Civil War (and/or actively deny the facts) and of what went on during slavery. Doesn’t the current national debate over Rebel monuments and flags tell us that we still need more mass education about what the Confederacy stood for? Why explain that to people within the context of a fantasy world?

Imagine if you can, an alternate realm in which HBO uses its creative talents and resources to produce shows like Mercy Street and Underground, telling stories that are all the more compelling and impactful because they are true, reaching far larger audiences than PBS and WGN combined.

It isn’t like HBO does not already have a very fine track record of producing powerfully engaging history movies and mini-series, and in fact have a much anticipated project in the works based on Harriet Tubman. (What’s taking so long on that?)

Further, the Game of Thrones show-runners admit to being “history nerds” that came up with the idea for this new show after reading Shelby Foote’s description of the “lost orders” before the Battle of Antietam. It got them to thinking about the importance of contingency in historical events, and that led to the show’s concept.

But guess what guys, historians have long been arguing for the importance of contingency, and they do it in the context of solid historical facts. So could you. The “lost orders” story was compelling to you BECAUSE IT REALLY HAPPENED.

In fact, I just talked about the lost orders in my Civil War course this summer, and the class all agreed that you just can’t make stuff like that up. I’m guessing the vast majority of Americans have no clue about it.

So here’s what I am saying: Give us a show set in the late 1850s or during the Civil War, filled with real-life characters—or perhaps even better, in the 1870s during Reconstruction. Do your research and you’ll find a treasure-trove of real life events that you could fictionalize into truly compelling and thought-provoking TV, accomplishing all the goals you have in mind for Confederate, and yet it would be all the more powerful because it’s all so true.

All good historians know that the 19th century is filled with “weapons-grade material” still waiting to be told to mass audiences.

PLEASE go mine those stories and drop this inane idea.

Now I am going to the theater to see the new hit movie,  Dunkirk . . . you know, a true story.



Update on the Shaw sword . . . and more questions

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 5.36.10 PM.png

Close-up of Shaw’s sword hilt on the Saint-Gaudens’ memorial (left), and the one newly discovered by the Massachusetts Historical Society (right)

Today the Boston Globe followed up their story of yesterday about Robert Gould Shaw’s sword by posting a time-line and some of the sources that were used to authenticate the relic.

It turns out that the sword Shaw had during the famous Boston parade was not the same one he carried into the Fort Wagner fight. This newly discovered sword was ordered when Shaw took command of the 54th, but did not arrive until the regiment was already in South Carolina—Too late to have been in the parade.

On July 4th, 1863, Shaw wrote to his father that he was sending home his “old sword” now that the new one had arrived. This old sword must have been the one he held during the parade depicted in the memorial standing today on Beacon Hill.

So this opens up new questions!

The Globe story today includes the line: “a replica of [the sword] can be seen on a bronze monument of Shaw and his infantry.” If that is true and not just an inaccurate statement by the paper, the creator of the monument, famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, would have had to have been working with the new sword, not the “old sword” that Shaw actually carried in the parade. Yet just a quick comparison (in the photos above) seems to dispel that.

So what happened to the parade sword? Might it be tucked away in some other family member’s attic?

Further, the Globe story says that in the summer of 1865,  the sword was “reportedly” in the hands of a certain Rebel officer. African American US troops were sent to his home to get the sword, and apparently ransacked the place and found it (the former reb officer wasn’t there). But who was this officer? How did he obtain it? Was he at Fort Wagner and took possession of it immediately off Shaw’s body, or did the thing get passed around?

And then there is the mystery of why the family let it get lost up in an attic. The time-line has a gap of over 150 years when its whereabout are unknown, although it might have hung on a family wall at some point. Who was the family member that relegated it to an attic only to be uncovered in 2017?

Perhaps we will never know the answers.

I’m saddened that this is not the sword Shaw carried in the parade and kissed while seeing his family and new bride for the last time. Now I really want to know where that one is!

Yet this does not detract from the fact that it appears certain this newly discovered sword is the one he used during the Battle of Fort Wagner.

Isn’t this a cool story!??


Thinking about the sword of Robert Gould Shaw


Well, it looks like it is time for another trip to Boston.

The absolutely stunning history news today is that the Massachusetts Historical Society has acquired the sword of Robert Gould Shaw, the first Colonel of the Civil War’s 54th Massachusetts regiment. The institution claims it is the one he was carrying when he was shot down leading his men in their famous attack on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863.

Wow. Just, wow.

“Put it this way,” Anne Bentley, curator at the Massachusetts Historical Society, said, “as a curator, if you’re lucky, once in a lifetime something this significant crosses your desk. This is my once-in-a-lifetime [moment].”

That isn’t hyperbole, I am confident she means it.

If you’re unfamiliar with the history, the 54th is now perhaps one of the most famous Union regiments of the Civil War thanks to the movie Glory (1989). (Here’s a nice 4 minute video lesson on them from the Civil War Trust and historian Kevin Levin).  I’ve written about how that movie inspired my own career, and I’ve also authored a trilogy about the regiment for the New York Times “Disunion” series.  This article is about their recruitment, this one is on their attack on Fort Wagner (and is also published in this book), and this one details their participation in the Battle of Olustee.

Of course I am the least important of the many historians that have written about the 54th, which was the first African American regiment from a northern state and was recruited at a time when whites assumed that blacks could not be good soldiers. Douglas R. Egerton, for just the most recent example, has an excellent monograph about them and their sister regiment, the 55th Massachusetts.

Still, I can’t let them go and have actually been doing research lately on the immediate press coverage they received in the wake of their attack on Fort Wagner. This is for a book chapter I am currently working on, but it will probably find its way into a bigger project on down the road. The standard line on the 54th Massachusetts is that the men’s determination to prove the humanity of their race (and their rightful claim to citizenship), coupled with Shaw’s disciplined leadership, turned the unit into a particularly fine regiment.  They performed gloriously in the Wagner attack, dispelling the racial assumptions of the times, and thus leading to the recruitment and use of the other black regiments that Lincoln proclaimed to have collectively turned the tide of war.

But how much is that image a product of hindsight and/or selective research? I won’t give away the questions that are driving my research at the moment, but let’s just say I have been reading a lot of contemporary mass media reports of, and responses to, the attack on Fort Wagner and the death of Shaw. Our current bombshell headlines have been competing for my attention over the last two months with those of the summer and fall of 1863.

Which is why this news about Shaw’s sword is even more breathtaking to me at the moment. The story from the Boston Globe leaves so many unanswered questions! Shaw’s body was buried on the sandy battlefield of Morris Island, SC., in an area now underwater (although you can still visit Morris Island by boat from Charleston). The rebels that tossed him into a mass grave with his soldiers saw it as an insult, justified by his leading of black troops. Yet his family resisted all subsequent calls for efforts to find and reclaim his remains, insisting there was no more appropriate and holy burial site than where he lay with his men.

No doubt before he was tossed into the grave, some Reb took his sword as a trophy (and there is some documentation of that happening).  But where did it go from there? What documentation do we have for where it has been and how it wound up in a family attic? All we get from the article is this tantalizing info:

“Bentley said the precise whereabouts of the sword, stolen from Shaw’s body shortly after he was killed . . .  have long been a mystery to historians and Civil War buffs. But in March, three great-grandchildren of Susanna Shaw Minturn, Shaw’s sister, discovered the sword in an attic as they cleaned out the family home.” Further, “through meticulous research, headed by Bentley and staff from the society, they were able to piece together a detailed timeline of what happened to the sword and confirm its authenticity, tracing its roots all the way back to England, where it was forged.”

I cannot wait to discover the details of that story and to see the documentation. Let’s hope it comes out in an article or essay made publicly available online.

UPDATE: A local Boston TV news station aired a story that claims the sword was returned to the family in 1865. Still, I am curious as to what happened to it from the moment it was taken, to the time it was returned (who and how) and then why it was lost after that. Again, many questions to be answered.

All kinds of thoughts swirl in my head when I think about one day seeing that sword on display. Some are romanticized images in my mind’s eye of Shaw leading his men forward into the hellish maelstrom of death that they bravely faced in the name of saving the Union, destroying slavery, and establishing respect for their race.

But the image that is haunting me the most tonight is far away from the battlefield.

As they paraded through the streets of Boston just before embarking for the South, the regiment did so before a large throng of dignitaries, supporters, and curious onlookers. By all reports, the men were incredibly impressive that day, with Shaw striking a particularly fine and memorable figure as he pridefully rode at the head of his men on horseback.

This moment, of course, is the subject of the famous August St. Gaudens memorial which stands on the Boston Commons (you may recall that recently, a vandal broke the sword off the memorial):


Knowing exactly where his new wife and his family were watching, the young colonel paused before them just long enough to look to the sky . . .  and to raise up and kiss his sword.

It was apparently an awe-inspiring and emotional sight, but one of his sisters recalled that at the very moment he kissed his sword, she had a premonition of his death.

Indeed, Shaw himself had the same ominous forebodings, and his family and new bride never saw him again as he marched off to give his life for the Union, and to the important mission of the 54th Massachusetts.

Man, I can’t wait to see that sword.


Update on Jamestown and the new power lines

Update on the power lines that are soon to mar the Jamestown experience:

Dominion power has gotten final approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, and will soon begin construction. They still have one more small hurdle to jump over, but will probably clear it with ease.

I am glad to see from the map below, however, that you won’t actually be able to see the lines while on James Island at the site of the original fort (or at the nearby recreated fort). Nor will you see it while crossing the river on the ferry. This is a BIG relief.

However, the historic view at Carter’s Grove will be obliterated, and the now scenic drive along the James River to Jamestown will be forever changed.

If you have been to the area, you know that part of the charm of the experience of going to Jamestown is the drive to and from the site along the river. Based on the map below, once the Colonial Parkway meets the river, you’ll likely see the massive power lines (even though they will be nearly 4 miles away). And upon your return from Jamestown back to Williamsburg, it should be in view much longer.

Still, I have to say, I am very glad to see this map and wish I had well before now. It definitely mitigates some of the biggest fears I had about the project.

Make no mistake, however, this still stinks, and will be a major blight along the beautiful and historic Colonial Parkway.


The Beguiled (1971) vs. The Beguiled (2017). Which one is really a Civil War movie? Which one is better?


Screen Shot 2017-07-03 at 4.35.36 AM.png

Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in The Beguiled, 2017 (left), and Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled, 1971 (right).

Well, I saw Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled, and despite my skepticism about remakes, I really enjoyed it. Yet because it had been many years since I saw the 1971 original, I decided to watch it again to contrast with the new. Not surprising (at least to me) the original is somewhat better. What is surprising, however, is that I believe it is superior because it handles the Civil War and slavery more effectively than the remake.

Warning: I’m going to have as few spoilers as I can, and I will warn you when a big one is coming, but if you want to go into the movie completely fresh (especially if you have never seen the original) you should probably skip this until you have seen it.

The quick summary of both films (which are based on a 1966 novel) is pretty simple:  During the Civil War, a southern school for girls has been reduced to just five students, a teacher, and a headmistress that all have “no better (or safer) place to go” during the conflict. They take in a wounded Union soldier (Clint Eastwood in the original, Colin Farrell in the remake) discovered suffering in the woods nearby. Despite their initial disdain for the “blue-belly,” he slowly charms the women, igniting jealousies and the pent-up sexual frustrations of all the females of different ages living in the house. As a result, some pretty bad things happen.

Coppola’s remake is quite good, largely because of her undeniable directorial skill, the cinematography and perfect lighting, and the film’s hypnotic pacing.  As with other movies I tend to relish the most, it is not in a hurry to tell its story.  There are lingering shots of scenery, mostly slow, quite moments, and few quick edits. It tells its story with visuals that effectively situate the audience in its time and place.

Yet what I appreciated the most was its use of sound. It does not rely on a musical score to tell the audience how they should feel at any given moment, and this silence makes the film’s house and its inhabitants seem all the more authentic, isolated, and vulnerable. One minor exception is a scene when the movie reaches its dramatic shift in tone, featuring some low orchestral music. Yet even here the music is low volume, only adding to the “slow burn” effect of the film.

Instead, most of the music we hear is generated by the characters. There are two scenes featuring parlor music, the best of which has one of the girls playing the beautiful (and popular at the time) “Lorena” on the harpsichord while the others join in singing. (Hopefully Christian McWhirter, an antebellum and Civil War music scholar, will soon comment on the authenticity of these scenes).

Other than that, most of the sounds we hear come from real life: birds, crickets and frogs,  floorboards creaking in the antebellum mansion, and in one particularly important scene, the sound of buttons ripped off a dress and then skittering across the wooden floor (which is way more erotically intense than any musical score could have ever been).

On the other hand, the original film is weakened by a score that sounds like it came from one of those campy Hammer Studios horror films of the 1950s and 60s, or from an episode of Night Gallery. This does ratchet up the creep factor, but gives the movie a campy feel, playing like a surreal nightmare, or an erotic dream gone bad. Coppola’s soundtrack choices more realistically set her film in the real world.

Further, I went into the remake thinking it would probably just be a hyper-sexualized version for 2017 audiences (and the trailer helps create that impression), yet just the opposite actually turns out to be true. The 1971 film is much more vulgar and lurid,  featuring a partially nude sex scene, a dream sequence with a threesome, and an incestuous storyline told through flashbacks—not to mention much more suggestive dialogue.

Coppola commendably opts for a “less-is-more” approach, never exposing more skin than the soldier’s bare chest and quick shots of female outer thighs.  Yet it is still smoldering stuff (perhaps all the more so because of the restraint—Hollywood, please take note), and the pent-up sexual desires let loose by the soldier’s presence are still what drive the horrific things that happen.

And yet, as a history film, the original is superior. It makes clear it is set during the Vicksburg Campaign (although it is less clear whether the house is in Louisiana or Mississippi). Characters talk about General Grant commanding troops driving toward Vicksburg via Champion’s Hill, both armies are nearby and make appearances, and the ladies are stuck in-between. They keep an ever-watchful eye from the rooftop for troops,  expressing fears that at any moment soldiers might come, take what they have, and rape them.

(I was particularly pleased to hear one young girl indicate she thought Yankees had tails. It is a comical line, but an authentic allegation that Southerners used to demonize Union troops, mainly in an effort to make their enslaved population afraid to run to northern lines).

In the original, the women are clearly vulnerable to the lusts of both armies. In one scene, some Rebel soldiers show up at the house late at night, ostensibly to look in on the girls’ safety, but clearly they have more on their minds. The headmistress (Geraldine Page, in a fine performance) defiantly shoos them away to protect the Union soldier she is harboring, but also the young girls in her charge.  The younger girls don’t understand why they should be afraid of their own Rebel troops, and are told that there are bad men in both armies.

That the film features this scene is all the more remarkable given that at the time it was made, Hollywood’s standard Civil War trope (established by movies like Gone With The Wind) was that of Union troops preying on white southern women while chivalric Rebel soldiers (and even their slaves) tried to protect them.

In contrast, Coppola’s movie is set in Virginia in 1864, which is established by an opening subtitle. The ladies also dutifully keep a rooftop eye out for approaching troops, yet the film never makes clear whether or not the events are playing out during the Overland Campaign. Some vague dialogue suggests this to be the case (you’d have to know your Civil War history to deduce it, however), and based on that assumption the school seems to be somewhere between Fredericksburg and Richmond. Yet this is not clear at all. The war’s specific events do not concern Coppola.

Further, the main armies are nowhere to be found (and besides the Union soldier, no other Yankees). This takes away the realistic dynamic that the isolated women are vulnerable to bad men from either army, and thus reverts us back to the old Hollywood trope of the straggling yankee soldier endangering innocent southern women. As in the original, a few Rebel troops come knocking on the door late one night, but they are not lusty men on the prowl, the headmistress (Nicole Kidman, in an Oscar nomination-worthy performance) provides them food, and they leave after having been a threat to just the hidden Union soldier. Coppola’s choice lessens the precarious situation into which the Civil War has placed these isolated women.

***Ok, this next paragraph has a bigger spoiler, skip it if you want to avoid that.

And while we are on Civil War movie tropes–the original features an amputation scene that is not particularly gory by today’s standards, except in how it brilliantly uses sound. Yes, this gives us the stereotypical amputation-without-complete-sedation scene that mars so many Civil War films, but given that the setting is a seminary with limited resources and not a hospital (or even field hospital), it comes across as realistic and carries the movie’s biggest horrific jolt. In contrast, Coppola skips the actual amputation and all we see is the burial of the limb. This is another choice I feel weakens the remake.

The most important distinction between how these two movies handle the Civil War, however, involves slavery. The 1971 version is far superior, if only because it does not ignore the “peculiar institution.” The only way the remake even acknowledges slavery is when early in the film the Union soldier is told the slaves have all run away. This is realistic, of course, especially since the film is set in 1864. But it robs us of all the racial dynamics of the time and place the story is set.

In the original, one of the well-to-do girls refuses to perform field labor because, she says, it is “nigger work,” openly using such language in front of an enslaved woman still with the seminary.  In Coppola’s movie, the young white girl just works poorly because she is bored, and the enslaved character is missing altogether.

True, the original film is not exactly a model of how to effectively interpret the lives of enslaved women.  However, in a scene between the black woman and the soldier, it is made clear she hides her disdain for slavery from her white owner. The film hints at the war’s bigger issues when the Union soldier tells her that the two of them should be natural allies, to which she expresses doubt that northern soldiers were fighting for blacks, one way or the other—a statement he does not challenge. The exchange rings true, (especially since he is a New York soldier, not an New Englander).

Further, we learn she was in love with a man enslaved on the same plantation, but lost him when he ran away after hearing the master intended to sell him.  Later in the film, we discover through flashback that she was being raped by her master.

Thus in just a few small scenes and moments, the 1971 film touches on the causes of the war, the debatable nature of soldier motivations in regards to slavery, the masks of the enslaved, and the rapes and slave sales that tormented enslaved African Americans and separated them from their loved ones. In a film filled with sinfulness, the antebellum South’s biggest sin of all is not totally ignored, as it is in the remake.

It really is a shame that Coppola took the black character and slavery completely out of her movie (especially since they were in the novel). In 2017, the scenes between the enslaved women and the Union soldier could have been written in a truly impactful way, only adding to the film’s strength. With an already strong female cast, a talented black actress would have taken things up another notch. That a 1971 movie did a better job of  dealing with slavery than a 2017 one is a discredit to Coppola’s film, and I have to agree it thus warrants the criticism it has received on this score.

Still, there was much I loved about Sofia Coppola’s reimagining of the The Beguiled (its atmospheric lighting and sound, beautiful cinematography, and less-is-more approach), and from a film-making point of view it is by far the superior film. Not to mention that this cast (Farrell, Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, and the rest of the young girls) is uniformly strong.

(And they don’t have exaggerated and ridiculous southern accents! Praise be! Oh, and unlike in the original they all wear shoes. Not sure why the girls are all running around barefoot in the 1971 version, unless the sight of ankles and feet are supposed to amp up the smoldering Victorian sexuality).

Yet despite the campy feel of the 1971 original, the motivations of every character are much more clear (and the headmistress in particular is a more complex and fleshed out character), slavery is handled better (if only because it is handled at all), and ultimately it is definitely a Civil War film, rather than just a film set during the Civil War. (Despite what historian Gary W. Gallagher maintains in his book, Causes, Won, Lost, and Forgotten).

Why? Well, the best way I can say it without giving too much away is this: In the remake, the Union soldier is ultimately the victim of his own bad decisions, yes, but mainly he falls victim to his emotional response to a traumatic event. In the original, he is definitely a victim of his even more dastardly behavior and reactions, but mainly he is the victim of the perilous position the women are placed into because of the location of troops during the Vicksburg Campaign.

(Oh, and Geraldine Page’s headmistress is one messed up lady. Nicole Kidman’s, not so much.)

See them both! (The original is streaming now on HBO-on-Demand and HBO Go, and is available on Amazon Video).

The magic of Colonial Williamsburg, its restructuring, and “accurate-ish” history


Ah, the proverbial “magic hour” in Colonial Williamsburg

If you have read much of this blog, you know that I am a big fan of Colonial Williamsburg. Like many people, it is a place with which I have a special connection. I’ve visited untold numbers of times over the last 25+ years, building amazing memories with friends and family. (And have had some of my most memorable dates. It’s a town of many romantic charms).

Its historical area is like a playground for those of us that love history.  In original and restored 18th century buildings, you can talk with first-person interpreters portraying colonial Americans of all classes, genders, and races, be on a jury at a witch trial, talk politics with a founding father or mother, catch an 18th century play,  enjoy a night of tavern drinks, songs, and music, or just enjoy watching the sunset on a peaceful evening in a unique environment.

Yes, much of it is cheesy, but if you “suspend your disbelief” and just embrace it,  you can feel yourself being pulled back in time, and can learn a lot. If you can just let yourself go, its nerdy and goofy fun. My friends all recall the time I got so into the moment that I got into a shouting match with Benedict Arnold! After listening to Patrick Henry rail against Britain’s latest injustice, you’ll be inspired by the fife and drum corps to fall into line and march off to defend our God given rights.

I love the place, and in fact it is one of my biggest passions.

That is why I took a special interest in today’s news that the foundation is making some big changes in order to save itself.

It’s a well-known secret that Colonial Williamsburg creates massive debt each year but keeps itself afloat by drawing on an endowment from the Rockefeller Foundation (which has funded the place since its beginning).  Over time, they have gotten directives to figure out how to reduce the debt they create each year, lowering how much they have to draw on the endowment.  Various things have been tried–restructuring, painful budget cuts, shutting down in January & February, changing their interpretive programming, altering ticketing prices and packaging, increasing their marketing campaigns—but none have solved the problem, and the endowment is rapidly depleting.

The current director has been the most aggressive at attacking the problem, but does so in rather controversial ways. There was that incredibly dumb Super Bowl ad that brought a lot of negative attention. They stopped doing interpretive programming at Historic Jamestown. They started doing Halloween programs more fit for commercial haunted houses and amusement parks (featuring a sea witch and pirate zombies, and a storyline that the director described as “accurate-ish”), and hauled in an ahistorical ice-skating rink at Christmastime (which I kind of like, given that it isn’t really in the heart of the colonial area anyway).

Most distressing, they recently restructured in a way that gutted the number of experienced professional historians working on their interpretations and training.  Native American programming is a thing of the past, and their African American programming/historian coordinator was sent packing.

The effect of this has been very noticeable, and it happened rather quickly. In the past, the interpreters in the buildings and in the streets, as well as the “people of the past” (first-person interpreters) were a fine set of well trained guides that knew their stuff. I enjoyed getting into deep conversations with the first-person interpreters to see just how deep their knowledge was, and I was rarely disappointed. I’ve lobbed some tough questions at them over the years, and they usually handled them quite well. Yet, during my last couple of visits after the restructuring, they have not lived up to those standards. It has become obvious that many have a very surface-level knowledge base, at best.

(Not all, however. There are still many old faces around that know their stuff. The gentlemen portraying Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, for just one example, have been around for a long while, and both are simply amazing at what they do.)

Further, the institute cut ties with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture, an organization that was publishing and supporting original and important historical research (they still do, just without help from CW). Most recent, former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina was added to the Colonial Williamsburg Board of Trustees, raising eyebrows in many circles.

To me, the best time of day at Colonial Williamsburg is night, when the streets are alive with torchlight and lanterns, and plenty of evening programs. Sadly, the diversity of these programs, their educational value, as well as the acting talent in them, has been reduced noticeably. And I even feel the quality of the food being served in the wonderful colonial taverns has gone down considerably.

And those ticket prices, particularly for a one-day visit, are still WAY too high. How many people show up, see the prices, and decide to just forgo the tickets and the benefits they bring, (such as actually getting to tour the buildings and enjoy the daily programs), to just simply walk the streets? I am guessing it’s a lot.

Please don’t get me wrong. Colonial Williamsburg is still one of my favorite places to be, and there are still some wonderful and highly educational things going on. One of the neat new things they have done lately, for example, involves being active on social media, and posting short, fun, and sometimes live videos.  It’s just that the bar they set in the past is high, and they are not living up to it lately.

The big news today is that they are outsourcing the management of many of their non-interpretive history operations, such as their golf courses, retail stores, and maintenance. It is hoped this means they will be able to focus all energy and the endowment’s financial resources back on their main mission, which is to maintain and interpret the historical area and museums. It is probably a sound decision. (Though I hate to hear that this means the Kimball Theater is closing its doors).

It sounds great that they are going to focus solely once again on their interpretive and educational mission. Yet,  based on the Halloween goofiness, and lack of professional historians experienced as trainers, I am really worried that when this current director starts putting more of his attention on interpretation, it is going to degrade even more rapidly in quality. Will programs become more about the show, than the history?

Will interpretation become “accurate-ish” in the name of providing entertainment?

Along with their press announcement today, Colonial Williamsburg sent out blurbs from local leaders praising the decision. I think they are all probably correct, this was a tough financial call that had to be made to save the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

But I also have to wonder, if the foundation did go under, would the National Park Service step in? I have more faith in their abilities and focus on interpretation than I do a businessman making decisions based mainly on financial concerns. Of course it is not like the National Park Service has unlimited funds, so I am not altogether certain how feasible that is. But let us not kid ourselves into believing that if the foundation fails, Colonial Williamsburg and its amazing interpretive resources would just vanish. Someone would take things over, and that might be for the better. I dunno.

Anyway, all this is just my two cents from someone that loves Colonial Williamsburg, has spent a ton of money there over the last 25 years, and who wants to see its quality return to the high standards it set in its glory days.

Perhaps this decision will do that. Time will tell.

Viva Colonial Williamsburg!

On The Beguiled, Hollywood, and the Lost Cause



UPDATE: I’ve now seen the film, and have a review here comparing it with the original.

We have a new Civil War movie going into wide release on Friday, June 30, and it has generated a ton of buzz after its premiere at Cannes. Director Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 film, The Beguiled (based on a 1966 novel), earned her the Best Director Award at the prestigious film festival, as she becomes only the second woman to win that particular prize. Reviews have also been strong.

If you have seen the original with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page (and FYI: if you haven’t, it is streaming this month on HBO GO), you know that the story is very strange, teetering somewhere between a perverse dark comedy, a character study, and horror. Pervading it all is repressed and unleashed sexuality, which is smolderingly handled even in the 1971 version (and includes some shocking incest). It is no masterpiece, but it’s a pretty good movie that will give you the creeps.

My sense is that this new version simply cranks up the sexuality for 2017 audiences, so I am going into it with some skepticism, as I almost always loathe remakes of good movies. Further, Sofia Coppola’s work tends to be hit-or-miss with me, though I did like her other stab at history, the unconventional Marie Antoinette (2006). That film featured Kirsten Dunst, as does this one, and she and the rest of the remake’s stellar cast (Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, and Elle Fanning) are getting high praise for their performances, particularly Kidman (based on the previews, if nothing else it sounds like the southern accents were done much better than in most movies). So perhaps it will live up to the hype even for a skeptic like me.

Yet one thing is for sure, the Civil War is not really that much of a component of the film other than the fact that it creates the scenario where a Union soldier has been taken in by a women’s seminary behind rebel lines (Mississippi or Louisiana in the original, Virginia in the remake), where men of a certain age are hard to come by.

Thus don’t expect any battle scenes or another assault on the Lost Cause like we have seen so much of lately from Hollywood (12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Free State of Jones, Birth of a Nation, the Roots remake, Underground, Mercy Street. Wow, that is a really impressive lineup in just a few year’s time).  In fact, the most interesting thing about this movie is that it is getting criticism for not including slavery or African Americans in a story set in the South during the Civil War.

The original includes a black female character that helps the wounded Union soldier, but not in a way that accurately reflects the Antebellum and Civil War experiences of enslaved African Americans. Coppola chose to extract the character from her remake (which was a fairly minor role) because “I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”

This is a shame, and disregards the fact that she could have radically improved the character from the original. Even just one well-placed and well-written scene involving an enslaved women helping an injured Union soldier could have included very meaningful and insightful dialogue. (Or perhaps also a scene of open defiance toward her masters in light of the nearby presence of Union troops. “Get it yourself! Them days are over, ladies!”)  The fact that young girls watch her films is all the more reason to have included a bit of education about slavery and the Civil War, and to take a swipe, no matter how small, at the Lost Cause.

Look, not all Civil War movies have to include the African American experience or make a statement about slavery and the Confederacy (though they probably should). But aside from what I think was a poor choice by Coppola, what is really interesting to me about the controversy is that it is even a controversy at all. Would that have been the case even a decade ago? I’m not so sure.

Hollywood films are one of the most important reasons why the Lost Cause took root and became deeply engrained in our nation’s collective memory of the Civil War and its causes. In an age in which Rebel monuments are coming down, have we now reached the point where it is unacceptable for a Hollywood movie set during the Civil War to not confront and highlight the Confederacy’s fight to preserve the right to enslave African Americans?

If so, I consider that big progress.

I’ll be seeing the movie this weekend, so I will have more thoughts later. Stay tuned.



Visiting Lizzie Borden (and getting creeped out).


The ominous looking house where the infamous Borden Murders went down

A piece on Smithsonian.com reminds us that today is the anniversary of the acquittal of Lizzie Borden in the case of the murder of her father and stepmother.  The article focuses on how she was largely a pariah in her neighborhood after the trial and for the rest of her life.  It is a good short read, so check it out.

You should also check out this essay from last year on We’re History, discussing the little-known fact that in the years after the murder, Lizzie funded an animal rescue shelter, which still reaps financial benefits from the money she left the organization. (I am convinced that one of the things that set her off is that she had a pigeon roost her father hated, leading him to decapitate the animals. Nice guy. That’s enough to piss off any animal lover).

The case is a good window into Gilded Age America. As Steven Cromack points out, “the prosecutors and defense attorneys, representative of the wealthiest Americans, argued over whether wealthy, good-natured, upstanding people are capable of bad behavior. The poor watched bitterly as a rich woman seemed literally to get away with murder. For the nativist residents of Fall River, Lizzie’s actions were the result of immigration, as well as changing demographics and gender norms: Mr. Borden had bought a home in the wrong section of the rapidly changing town and thus, in Lizzie’s eyes, relinquished the family’s status. Feminists would use the trial as a rallying cry for representative juries.”

I visited the Borden house a few years ago with friends because I had long been fascinated by the case. This is due largely to an HBO show called Whodunit: The Greatest Unsolved Mysteries (anyone else remember it?) way back in 1979.  I was just a kid only starting to get interested in history and the case fascinated me, inspiring a trip to the school library to find more about it. Tracking down info about this infamous true crime event was one of my earliest experiences at doing historical research, and was provoked by an HBO show. Ah, just another example of how pop cultural depictions of history can have an inspiring impact. I have no doubt that many of you have similar stories.

Anyway, while on a trip to New England a few years back, I convinced my friends to drive down from Boston to Fall River, Massachusetts, to check out the site of the murder (it was an easy sell).  Unfortunately, we arrived in the late afternoon just as their last tour of the day was leaving.

I was in the final stages of my book’s publication, and discussing some urgent business with my publisher on the telephone just as we arrived. I was only on the phone for a few minutes in the car, but this prevented us from being able to depart with the tour.  Despite being only a few minutes late, we were told that we could not join in.

I would not let it go at that, passionately explaining how I had always been interested in the case, that this was the only day of our trip we could do the tour, we were up from Alabama and had driven all the way from Boston, and would likely never be back in Fall River ever again. The young woman was rather rude, saying that I “must have a crystal ball” and could read the future since I was so sure I’d never be back (can you believe that?). Finally, someone apparently of higher rank came out and said that of course we could join the tour.

We were let in a side door, and instead of just discreetly slipping us in, the employee made a point of interrupting the tour, bringing up the alleged crystal ball, (I kid you not) and asking the guide if we could join in. The most frustrating thing of all was discovering the guide only had two people on his tour (there were four of us).  I can tell you from my years as a park ranger, guides are more than happy to have folks added to a tour when there are such few people on it to begin with.  (Oh, those one or two person tours. Yuck). He gladly welcomed us.

(For years I have been itching to publicly criticize this treatment, so thanks for letting me vent. In retrospect, however, perhaps it was appropriate that we were treated rudely by a young woman at the Borden house!)

The good news is that our guide had just entered the room in which Lizzie’s father was murdered and was only just then discussing it.  So we missed nothing but details about the history of the house prior to the murder. The sofa in the room is not the original one on which Mr. Borden was found (but a perfect replica). We were welcome to sit on it, leading one of my friends to playfully recreate the hatchet murder crime scene. A bit macabre for me. I couldn’t even bring myself to have a seat.


Nope, I’ll stand, thank you.

We were then led upstairs, and I can tell you this was the first moment when the house really started to freak me out. There is a palpable sense of dread and sadness lingering over it and it became oppressive when walking into the bedroom in which Mrs. Borden was found with her face basically pancaked into the floor with an axe.  The guide vividly described the brutal murder while standing in the spot where the body was found. I was taken aback when he told me I was likely standing exactly where the murderer delivered the first of eighteen blows.

Freaky. Get me out of here!


Here’s where Mrs. Borden was found next to the bed

The rest of the tour included Mr. Borden’s bedroom, where someone had stolen money from him a year before the murder (a crime the old man accused Lizzie of committing). We also saw the maid’s bedroom. She was outside washing windows during the murders, later testifying that she heard Lizzie laughing upstairs at around 10:30 AM on the day of the butcherings (Mrs. Borden was killed at around 9:30 AM, and Mr. Borden at about 11 AM). However, many speculate that the maid was in on it, or at least the cover up. Honestly, her room (which is in the attic) felt almost as creepy as the murder rooms. We wrapped up the tour in the kitchen where Lizzie was seen burning a blue dress days after the murder.

Our guide did a good job of covering the details of the crime and the evidence (or lack of) presented in the trial. It is often argued that Lizzie was acquitted due to the gender and class dynamics of the Gilded Age, but in fairness, the prosecution’s case was built largely on circumstantial evidence.

But come on, she did it.

(If you are really interested, read her inquest testimony: she’s clearly lying her butt off, but the whole thing was deemed inadmissible in the trial).

Sadly, the employees (at least when we were there) are not exactly professional historians, and I got the sense the place is being run by folks focused on capitalizing on tourists who are more interested in the supernatural than in history. A quick view of their website seems to confirm this assessment, which is a shame.

Further, the gift shop peddles such things as Lizzie Borden bobbleheads (complete with a hatchet in her hand), mugs with the crime scene photos on them, and hatchet keychains.

Still, the house is a treasure trove, and as powerful an experience as it is to visit, I have to wonder how much better served it would be with professional historians interpreting events within the context of what they reveal about the Gilded Age and our fascination with violent true crime.

The Borden home is also now a Bed and Breakfast, and I have no doubt people love getting to sleep in the bedroom where Mrs. Borden was found. As for me, I was creeped out just by my 45 minute tour.

But if you are ever near Fall River, Massachusetts, do yourself a favor and travel down to see the place. Just don’t expect high quality historical interpretation, and for goodness sakes, make sure you are on time for the tour (the last one leaves at three!)

If not, you better have a crystal ball proving you will never be back that way again.


Is Jamestown about to lose some of its time travel magic?


****UPDATE as of 7/8/2017: The Army Cops of Engineers has given final approval for the project, but perhaps the impact on the site of the fort might not be as big as I’d feared. Still, the experience of traveling there will definitely be changed. ****


As many of you know, there has been a battle going on in Virginia between Dominion Power and a large number of historical preservation groups and public history sites. Today it looks like the forces of preservation are going to lose.

The power company has been wanting to place massive lines and towers across the James River near the site of many historic attractions, most notably Jamestown. They insist that it is necessary to continue to deliver power to the lower Virginia Peninsula, a region that is ripe with extremely important historical sites from Native,  Colonial, Revolutionary, and Civil War America. As far as history is concerned, the whole area of the “historic triangle” (which includes Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Jamestown) is an unparalleled American treasure.

If you have ever visited Jamestown, you know that one of the most magical things about the place is that the view of the river is largely unobstructed by modern clutter. You can stand at the historic site of the first successfully sustained English colony in the “New World,” looking out at the river and pondering what it must have been like to have landed there in 1607 (the fear, the hopes, the curiosity). But it’s not just a lily-white man thing: The first Africans to arrive in the colonies that became the United States arrived here in 1619 as indentured servants. The region was also the domain of the most powerful native confederation of tribes on the eastern seaboard, and you can connect to the perspective of the natives as they saw their beautiful lands invaded by men who only saw it as profit. What must they have thought while looking at those strange ships coming up the river for the first time? If you want a “period rush,” there are few places that can deliver it as well as Jamestown.

When (or if) the lines go up, the view is likely to be changed drastically, spoiling a truly sacred site.

The fight against the lines was placed into the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers, as they had to sign off on the project before it could go forward. Many were hopeful that the corps would squash the whole thing, but when they approved the Dakota Access Pipeline a few months ago despite the Standing Rock protests, things started looking bleak.

(FYI: News today that the Standing Rock fight isn’t over just yet, as the Sioux Tribe won a small legal victory).

Now the Army Corps of Engineers have followed up their dastard decision in Dakota by provisionally approving Dominion’s permit. They still have to jump through a few environmental impact hoops (needing approval from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality).

The good news is that Dominion will be forced to spend a lot of money trying to mitigate the impact on the historic view-shed, and to enhance landscapes and views at many other Virginia Peninsula historic sites. They will also have to donate millions to local native tribes and their efforts at preserving and interpreting sites associated with their land and history.

Such conditions, however, did not satisfy most preservation groups. Sadly, they may have to now start turning their attention to working with Dominion in order to lessen the impact on Jamestown and other James River sites. I’m guessing that is going to be difficult for them to accept.

Shame on the Corps of Engineers, and shame on Dominion Power.

If you have never been to Jamestown, I recommend getting there ASAP. It will always be a very special site, but its current time travel magic may soon be a thing of the past.

In search of slave resistance, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman on Maryland’s Eastern Shore


You guys recall that show, “In Search of” with Leonard Nimoy? What a great series (even though it was probably an inspiration for that later pile of rubbish,  Ancient Aliens).

Anyway . . . more travel blog today:

Last month after leaving Philadelphia (where we visited the new Museum of the American Revolution) our band of history nerds travelled south by going through Delaware and the Maryland Eastern shore. Our ultimate destination was Yorktown’s new American Revolution museum, via the Virginia Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel. This once again allowed us to skip the hell that is I-95 (after we got out of the Philly metro area) enjoying a rather pleasant drive through a mix of suburban sprawl and rural countryside.

The bigger reason for this route, however, was to locate Frederick Douglass’s birthplace, visit some of the sites on Maryland’s Harriet Tubman Byway, and check out the brand new Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor’s Center in Church Creek, Maryland. We stopped for the night at a really well-kept Best Western in Denton, Md. which is very near the neighborhood of Douglass’s early youth.

The site of the famed abolitionist’s birth has long been marked with a roadside historic marker on route 328 near Easton, Md, as well as a nearby bridge dedicated to him.  The marker was probably placed there to catch traffic on the heavily traveled US 50 (and from which a road sign leads you the short distance down route 328 to the marker), but in reality it is 4-6 miles away from the actual spot— which is on a secluded farm with very little traffic (even local). If you’ve stopped at this highway marker before, I hate to tell you, it’s not really very close to the real spot.

Douglass himself visited the area in 1878 looking for his birth site, and indicated it was on a farm near “Tapper’s Corner.”  This is the intersection of Lewistown Rd. and Maryland Rt. 303. At birth, Douglass was owned by Aaron Anthony (or “Captain” Anthony, as Douglass names him in his autobiography, and who might have actually been his father), who had a small farm in the shadow of the enormous nearby Wye Plantation (which dominated the region). Many of the slaves on the Wye Planation were apparently bred on Anthony’s farm and later sold to the larger plantation, which is the case with Frederick Douglass. He was born in his grandmother’s cabin on the Anthony farm.

Census records indicate that if you are standing at Tapper’s Corner looking east, you’re looking at what was Anthony’s farm (today it is called No-No Acres). The northern side of the farm is bounded by a creek that had a grist mill on it (the remnants of which are still highly visible when you drive by). When Douglass was there in 1878, he identified the probable location of his grandmother’s cabin as being at the head of a heavily wooded and un-tillable ravine which runs into the Tuckahoe River (which forms the eastern border of the Anthony farm).

The farm house that stands on the property now was not there when Douglass was born, but was when he visited in 1878. The farm is privately owned, so after getting our bearings at Tapper’s Corner,  we approached the owner and asked if we could walk out to the head of the ravine (which was apparently called “Kentucky” in Douglass’s day). He was a very nice man that has received this request before, so he happily gave us permission. Luckily, he’d recently cut a path all the way around his hay field, so we were actually able to carefully drive a circuitous route around the field out to the head of the ravine.  Nice.

It is important to keep in mind that the identification of the spot is a product of Douglass’s memory as an older man, recalling a farm he lived on only until he was about 8 years old. (And upon which he experienced the only connection to his mother, as she sometimes slipped off at night from another planation twelve miles away just to slip into the cabin and sleep next to her child for a few precious moments before walking back).  Thus, it might not actually be the precise location of the cabin. However, it is still pretty cool to be on the ground that he felt pretty sure was the spot, and even if it’s not correct, these are definitely the fields that his grandmother toiled on as an enslaved laborer. That in itself is pretty amazing to contemplate as you stand in the fields.


“X” marks the spot. Mississippi University for Women Assistant Professor Jonathon Hooks (left) and myself standing near the spot that Frederick Douglass identified as his birth site.

The entire area has changed extremely little from the time Frederick Douglass was enslaved here, and is still very secluded (probably the reason why the marker was never placed in the area), as we saw only one or two other cars (and they were locals) the whole hour that we were snooping around.  (Seeing us pulled off the road, one truck turned around and came back just to see if we were OK). If you want to “feel” the past, this is a remarkable spot for it. It was one of the more emotional experiences that I’ve had while visiting an historic site.

If you’d like to go to the location yourself, I highly recommend viewing this website for information and help. It is invaluable. And PLEASE, keep in mind that this is private property and that you need to ask for permission to get out into the fields.

After this highly moving experience (all the more special because we had to work for it), we drove to the Wye Planation house, which is where Douglass was sent at about age eight. At its peak in the early 1800s, this planation was well over 20,000 acres (some sources say as much as 42,000) and around 750 enslaved laborers toiled on it, making it highly profitable for the white masters (by far the area’s largest slaveholding plantation). It isn’t anywhere near that size now, but is still in the same family, thus it is privately owned and can not be toured. We were disappointed that the house sits at the end of a long private drive that has signs on it clearly discouraging sightseers. Still, it was interesting to be in the heart of a plantation that Douglass memorably wrote about in his autobiography (describing the especial brutality of the overseer as one of his first exposures to slavery’s cruelty), even if he was there only about a year before he was given to the Auld family and forcefully taken to Baltimore.  The countryside around the Wye Plantation house has also changed very little since the antebellum era.

Better still, while traveling through the region we stumbled along another gem (thanks to Maryland’s Civil War Trail signs). We stopped at historic St. Stephens AME Church, about three miles from the Wye house.  Before the war, the area was near a spot where local slaves gathered to worship, and after emancipation they established the church nearby. Naming their community “Unionville,” the formerly enslaved citizens bought land cheaply from local Quakers and began farming.


St. Stephens AME Church in “Unionville,” Maryland

The center of the community was the church, and behind it is a cemetery in which eighteen African American Union soldiers (USCTs) are buried. We couldn’t help but feel it is likely that some of these men had been enslaved on the Wye Plantation, but had “come back fightin’ men” (to quote the movie Glory). As a former park ranger at the Richmond National Battlefield Park, I was interested to see that some of the veterans had fought at New Market Heights, Virginia, where fourteen black soldiers earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Again, the area around the church has changed very little, so this too was a very moving experience, and I left wanting to know more about Unionville and the postwar experiences of its community of U.S. veterans and former slaves.

IMG_20170520_142838317_HDR.jpg   IMG_20170520_143126564_HDR.jpg

Our next destination was the new Harriet Tubman museum, which acts as a visitor’s center for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, 125 miles of roads that connect 45 sites together associated with Tubman and/or the Underground Railroad. Even before finding Douglass’s birth site, we’d already visited a few of these places, including the Caroline County Courthouse where captured runaways and alleged conductors (like Hugh Hazlett) were jailed, the Choptank Riverbank site where a runaway named Daniel Crouse gave the slip to a pack of dogs and crossed in a canoe, and Tuckahoe Neck Meeting House, where local Quakers coordinated efforts to help runaways.

Finally reaching the museum in Church Creek, Maryland, we found this area too is vastly untouched by time, which is one reason the location was chosen near the fields Tubman grew up in as an enslaved child and young adult. The building itself is rather nice and has all the gloss and shine you’d expect from a brand new facility. The small museum features few relics, however, relying on the effective presentation of interpretation. This is nicely done, as I was struck by how successful it was at delivering solid and thought-provoking history, yet also providing kid-friendly interpretation.


Displays offer a solid overview of Tubman’s biography, slavery, and the Underground Railroad, introducing themes explored in more detail at sites along the trail. One display that stands out is a listing of the names of people that Tubman is known to have helped rescue from slavery. Despite its rather out-of-the-way location, we were pleased to find a healthy number of visitors filling the museum and parking lot.


We were sad that the museum’s film is not yet ready for viewing, but we had an engaging conversation with a Maryland park ranger who stuck around even after closing to talk with us about Tubman, and an area in which she herself had grown up. We even got so deep in conversation that we talked with this African American woman about modern race relations, why many blacks are often reluctant to want to learn or talk about slave history, and how many whites refuse to accept that the legacy of slavery still infects and shape’s our society and culture.

Yet the best part of the hunt for Tubman came afterwards.  The farm she grew up on is but a short drive away, and again takes you through fields that are untouched by time. We located the site of the Bucktown Village Store, where a reproduction of the building stands at a crossroads in the middle of farm land.IMG_20170520_180655734.jpg

Here as a young girl Tubman had perhaps her first moment of overt resistance. While she was in the store, an enslaved man that did not have permission to be there was caught by his overseer, who then ordered the young Tubman to help him tie-up the fugitive. She refused (a remarkable act of defiance by a young enslaved girl) and the enslaved man then tried to run. The white man grabbed a two pound weight and threw it at the absconding slave, but struck Tubman instead, gashing her head open. The injury plagued Tubman the rest of her life, as she was prone to blackout spells that came and went unexpectedly, perhaps a reminder of her young act of overt defiance.

We also visited more sites associated with Quakers that helped runaways, and another Choptank River crossing spot on the Underground Railroad. Yet perhaps most emotionally compelling was the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where it is believed that Tubman met with enslaved individuals who were contemplating escape.

It was getting late in the day when we arrived at this spot, a cool breeze was blowing, and it was here that I think I most connected with Harriet Tubman. I imagined her meeting under the cover of darkness and amongst the graves with folks that might have still needed to be inspired by her determination and bravado in order to overcome their legitimate fears. The courage it took to try and escape slavery is more than the average person possesses, and I was moved while standing in a spot in which Tubman infected others with her uncommonly large reservoir of bravery.


Mount Pleasant Cemetery. None of the current headstones date to antebellum America, but it’s still a powerful spot for connecting with Tubman

Once this amazing day came to an end, we all agreed that the travel experience had answered many questions for us about Tubman. Visiting the sites, it becomes abundantly clear that much of her Underground Railroad success was due not just to her, but to a strong and defiant community of both free and enslaved African Americans, as well as a large and active population of white Quakers in the region, who together created a highly efficient and effective network on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and in Delaware.

Those of us that enjoy visiting historic sites know that there is nothing like standing on these spots to help connect with the past, to “feel” the presence of our forebears, and to understand their experiences.

Which points to a truth: We need to preserve more sites like these and interpret them properly. Yes, the fact that we had to work to find Douglass’s birth site, and stumbled upon the Unionville Cemetery,  made the experience all the more special, but sites like these need to be in the hands of more state and national parks. The Tubman Byway and the new Reconstruction Era National Monument park in Beaufort, South Carolina are hopefully just the beginning of efforts to mark and interpret such locations.

Think of all the land that we have that tells the story of the Civil War. What if we had an equal number of sites that interpreted slavery and resistance to it? Or Reconstruction? So much could be learned and “felt” about both topics at even small places like Unionville.  Sadly, most surviving antebellum planation homes are in private or local hands, filled with guides still hashing out romanticized versions of the Old South and the Lost Cause.

While it is true that an increasing number of sites are more fully developing interpretations of slavery (good recent examples are James Madison’s Montpelier, as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and a Nat Turner visitor center and trail is in the works, though progressing slowly), we need more places like the Whitney Planation in Louisiana, where the entire focus is centered on the enslaved community.

With the recent cancellation of WGN’s Underground (by the way, the show’s producers had been at the Tubman museum just a few days before we were there), I’m afraid that Harriet Tubman and the many other heroes of the Underground Railroad will become less highly visible again, as will the plight of the enslaved and their resistance.

Let’s become less worried about tearing down Rebel monuments, and more active in marking, memorializing, and interpreting our sites associated with slavery and emancipation, so more people in more places can have experiences like my friends and I had on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. These stories need to be told and these lives and decisions understood.

I’ve spent untold hours visiting Civil War battlefields and antebellum sites, but this experience of traversing these battlefields of survival and resistance to slavery is one that I’ll long remember.


Forgive my cheesy selfie with Harriet Tubman, but after such a great experience, I just had to.