Thinking about the sword of Robert Gould Shaw

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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):

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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.

 

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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.

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

 

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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

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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

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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?

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****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

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

 

 

Visiting our two new American Revolution museums

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Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution (left) and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown (right)

My “travel blog” continues today. Two of the four brand new museums I recently visited were Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution, and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, Virginia.

My group of history nerd friends headed to Philadelphia after our day in DC (in which I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture), deciding to go via Annapolis and the Maryland Eastern Shore/Delaware route rather than up I-95 North through Baltimore. What a great decision! Anyone that has ever travelled on I-95 north of Richmond (all the way to Boston) will tell you to avoid it at all costs if you can. Not only did our route cut down on the toll charges, but it was a relaxing drive with very little traffic as we came through in the late evening. Having driven the stressful I-95 route many times (which sucks no matter what time of day or night it is), I can tell you, this was an extremely nice alternative. If you are traveling from DC to Philadelphia, I highly recommend it (sorry, Baltimore).

Our hotel was only a short walk from the museum (I also recommend the Wyndham Philadelphia Historic District. I have stayed there twice now and it is easy walking distance from just about everything you want to see in Philly). The new museum is in a great location (the site of the old visitor’s center), across the street from the First Bank of the US, and next door to the historic (and delicious) City Tavern (don’t miss the dining experience there). Before construction began on the brand new building, they found about 82,000 relics from colonial and 19th century Philadelphia while excavating the site.

The new facility is visually appealing on the outside and strikingly beautiful inside, featuring a grand spiraling staircase. The ground floor contains the obligatory introductory movie (honestly I don’t recall much about it), and then you ascend the stairs to the main galleries.

Here you are immediately immersed into the history, as a film projected on a wall around and above you places you in the middle of the pulling down of the King George III statue in New York (an event that took place on July 9, 1776). This first room asks you to question why the colonists came to despise a king that they once celebrated with a monument. I don’t think the museum’s planners intended a connection to our current wave of dismantling monuments, but it is a good reminder that there are precedents for Americans tearing down monuments when they no longer wanted to lionize men that they once did. It seems our revolutionary generation was not against “erasing history.”

The tight hallways then usher you through the exhibits, starting with George III’s coronation and ending with the New Republic. Unlike some museums, there is no guesswork involved in where to go and what to view next, as tight corridors snake through chronologically arranged displays. These are a nice mix of relics, interpretation, and immersive experiences.

The core of the objects on display were first obtained in the early 20th century by Reverend W. Herbert Burk, a collector/amateur historian from Valley Forge who obtained the pieces and later bequeathed the collection to the Valley Forge Historical Society. Some of the objects were then loaned out to other institutions, but most of them sat in warehouses waiting for the organization to build a large facility to display it all. That didn’t come until the early 2000s when the collection was handed over to the planners of the Museum of the American Revolution, who then spent nearly two decades cataloging the relics, planning the museum, raising funds, constructing the 118,000 square foot facility, and finally openings the doors in April 2017.

On display are such items as a pocket bible that was carried by a soldier during the Battle of Bunker Hill, Benjamin Lincoln’s sword, some of Patrick Henry’s law books, remnants of the aforementioned destroyed statue of George III, silver cups used by Washington and his staff, a powder horn used in the Battle of Fort Washington, a wooden plank from Concord Bridge (seriously cool), and a sash that Washington used early in the war to distinguish his rank and which he is seen wearing in the famous portrait painted by Charles Wilson Peale in 1776.

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Washington wearing the sash in the Peale painting (left), and the sash on display

The relic collection is amazing, but the museum is also heavy on exhibits that use technology and carefully constructed sets and life-sized figurines to immerse visitors into the times. For instance, you’ll stand under Boston’s Liberty Tree, smell the tea that was cast into the Harbor, sit in replica chairs in a mockup of Independence Hall, get shot at during a skirmish with British troops, and (my favorite of all) stand among elders of the Oneida Nation as they make the decision to support the Patriots in the Revolution. (It is even way cooler that it might sound, and FYI, the Oneida Nation was one of the museum’s biggest financial contributors).

As the presence of the Oneida Nation suggests, the emphasis is on inclusiveness, and everyone in my group agreed that the Museum of the American Revolution does this exceptionally well. Instead of having a women’s section, or an African American section, or Native American section, etc., those people, their experiences, the roles they played in shaping the Revolution, and (most important) how it effected them, is fully, appropriately, and effectively interwoven into the narrative at nearly every step along the way.

This is the way that I think history should be done, not just in museums, but in textbooks and classrooms. I am not a fan of segregating people that were not caucasian men off in their own museum sections, book sidebars, or separate lectures, because that in itself suggests that they are not included in the mainstream narrative. For instance, I’ll never deliver a lecture titled “African Americans in the Revolution,” or “Women in the Civil War,” because I feel when done correctly, those groups show up in meaningful ways in every lecture. In my mind, the Museum of the American Revolution is now a model for how to do this effectively. Other museums, and teachers, take note.

The crown jewel in the museum’s collection is the exterior section of one of George Washington’s headquarter tents (his office and sleeping tent). Once you have finished your trip through the exhibits, you’ll be sent into a movie-theater-like room where a high tech audio/visual program introduces the history of the tent and its usage during the war. The climax is the reveal of the tent, which you’ll never come anywhere near arm’s reach to, as swelling music and dramatic dialogue dictate exactly how you should feel as you view the relic. I found this presentation to be a bit overly dramatic/cheesy. (“The Republic, like the tent, endures”), but I’ll admit it was effective, leaving you feeling like you have seen and experienced something quite amazing.

Visitors should know, however, that Washington had two campaign tents, and the interior of the other one (the dining and meeting tent for Washington and his officers) is at the Yorktown Battlefield Visitor’s Center at the Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia. Yet not only do they have the interior of the dining/meeting tent, they possess the interior of the sleeping/office tent (the exterior of which is what they are displaying in Philadelphia) as well as its poles. Further, without the stirring music and grandiose rhetoric, the Yorktown display is set up in a way that allows you to walk part-way inside the tent (you are separated from it by glass). Personally,  I like the tent display by the National Park Service in Yorktown much better. It is immersive and powerful without the high tech and overly dramatic fluff.

And speaking of Yorktown, the other new American Revolution museum is there at the site of what was formally known as the Yorktown Victory Center. After 50 million in upgrades, the institution has recently opened a new museum dedicated to telling the story of the whole Revolution. My group visited it two days later (after spending a day on Maryland’s Eastern Shore tracking down Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. More on that in my next posting).

Like the one in Philly, the building is immediately impressive and welcoming, with a brand new smell and shine. First up is once again the obligatory intro movie, but the Yorktown film is far more original than the one in Philadelphia (and most other historic sites). Set in the early 19th century, the film depicts a traveling carnival-type show that uses high tech (for the times) displays and a charismatic barker (“gather round, ladies and gents!”) to tell the story of the American Revolution to a group of enthralled children and adults. I really appreciated the originality of this film’s introduction to the museum’s interpretive themes. You really feel as though you are about to experience something special.

The museum does not disappoint. Honestly, the thing I immediately liked most about it is that it is open and airy, containing far more places to sit down among the exhibits than are available in the Philadelphia museum (for a weary traveler with a strained back and tired feet, this was a godsend).  It too is laid out in mostly easy to follow chronological order (although the drawback to the openness is that in contrast to the tight corridors in Philly, there are a couple of spots where it is not clear where you should go next to maintain the chronological flow. But that doesn’t last for long and is not a major problem.)

The Yorktown museum has less relics (though there are many, and some nice pieces, such as pistols owned by Lafayette), relying mostly on the interpretation and immersive exhibits.

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Two of Lafayette’s pistols on display at Yorktown

Unlike Philadelphia’s museum, Yorktown’s focuses more attention on the “big name” Founders and their influences. For instance, the Enlightenment, the philosophes, and their impact on the Founders is largely missing in Philly, and less attention is paid to the standard pantheon of Founding Fathers. These men get more of their just due in Yorktown.

Yet, while the Yorktown museum also strives for an inclusive story, it commits what I consider the sin of mostly (not exclusively) segregating women, African Americans, and Native Americans into their own separate sections.

In defense of the museum, these exhibits feature solid interpretation and derive from a genuine and non-patronizing effort (there are no “tokens” here). I just think there is a better way.

Further stemming from efforts at inclusiveness, the museum has exhibits on the typical life and the homes of colonial and revolutionary Americans of all classes.  I found this to be an odd waste of space, as Colonial Williamsburg is nearby, and anyone visiting the area will likely be spending time there. (The Philadelphia museum, for instance, spends little time on Benjamin Franklin or even the Continental Congress, presumably because there are famous areas nearby where those stories are explored in detail).

As in Philadelphia, technology is used to draw you into the Revolution, as an especially neat exhibit features a battle simulation game in which visitors can compete against the computer, or each other, and then learn how the real battle played out. Yorktown also has a Liberty Tree exhibit, yet upstages the Philly museum because visitors can type in a message that is quickly posted electronically on the tree’s lanterns. (I may or may not have posted something about being vigilant against tyranny and the need to resist chief executives that obstruct justice and decry a free press).

Far and away, however, the coolest thing I found at either museum was Yorktown’s immersive film on the Battle of the Capes and the Yorktown Siege. It is only about 12 minutes long, but is rather amazing. As you sit surrounded on three sides by film screens, you’ll feel the sea air in your face, smell the coffee being served to troops in the entrenchments (seriously, the coffee), feel the rattle of shell explosions and thunder, and be surrounded by fog and smoke during the Alexander Hamilton-led attack on redoubt # 10. The combat scenes are beautifully filmed and thrilling, yet not gruesomely realistic. Yes, other museums have similar presentations, but this one if by far the best I have ever seen (I watched it three times!) It alone is worth the price of admission.

The Yorktown museum includes a living-history area, where siege lines, military encampments, and even a colonial farm are replicated. My group did not have time to visit this area, and it didn’t seem to be much different than what has long been available at the previous Yorktown Victory Center. Still, it should be noted this alone makes a visit to the Yorktown museum a much different experience than the one in Philadelphia.

In both museums, all the high tech bells and whistles are largely designed to deliver the message that the American Revolution and our experiment in republican government are far from over. The last exhibits in both focus on the fact that our nation’s history is largely the story of increasing freedoms for peoples and groups that our Founders left out when creating a government to protect individual liberties.

Despite powerful and significant opposition, slow and halting progress, and significant times of retrogression, we’ve continually forced the United States to live up to and expand the promises of the Revolutionary generation in ways that the Founders never intended or even envisoned. Instead of canonizing them, their work, and their design for our government as infallible, we’ve honed, expanded, and bettered what they started. It is up to us to continue to do so.  Thus, both museums stress, the Revolution continues, and whatever it becomes is up to our current values and actions, as well as our vigilance and resistance to those that would turn the Revolution backwards.

It may have been because I was rushed at the end of the day through the final exhibits at Yorktown, but I felt the Philadelphia museum delivered this message more powerfully. As you exit the exhibits, you very literally look into the faces of the current generation of revolutionaries. (Hint: it is us).

Bottom line: Both of these new museums are exceptional and dedicated to telling an inclusive story of the American Revolution.  The intro movie is more unique at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, the facility is more comfortable, and the Yorktown battle presentation is by far the coolest and most successfully immersive exhibit at either site. Nevertheless, Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution more effectively tells its inclusive narrative, has more awe-inspiring relics, and more inspiringly delivers its message.

Thus the Philadelphia museum is the superior one, but not by much (and perhaps the outdoor living history displays at Yorktown make the experience there superior in the end).

I highly encourage you to make it a goal to see visit both institutions.

Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood!

Back from vacation!

It has been a while since my last posting, and of course much has happened (Trump and terrorist related), but for the next few days I’m going to turn this into a travel blog, detailing and reviewing the four brand new history museums that I visited on my trip.

I’ll start today with the big one: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Like many of you, I’ve been anxiously awaiting my chance to visit this amazing facility, and I can tell you that despite my high expectations,  I was not disappointed.

It didn’t start out that way. As I am sure you are aware, the only advance tickets at this point must be reserved months ahead of time (they won’t be taking orders again until July, for September visits!). I failed to do so, which means I had to get up at 6:30 AM on the morning of my visit (last Thursday, May 18, 2017) to try and snag some same-day tickets on the internet. Despite the fact that three of us were trying to get the tickets, we all struck out, and they were sold-out for the day in a matter of 15 minutes (or less). We were saddened, but decided to make the best of the day by visiting other DC sites we had never seen, or had not seen in a while. This sent all four in my group scattering in different directions.

There was still one more possibility, however. The museum gives out a very limited number of “walk-up” tickets at 1 PM, and I was the only one in my group that decided to give it a shot despite the odds. I showed up at around 12:30, and the line was already a monster. I had little hope.

But then a miracle occurred. As I took my place at the back of the line, a museum employee was working her way around asking for veterans or first responders. It was not until she made it to two people just in front of me that she found two of them, a married couple. Pulling them out of the line, she said she could take them straight in, as well as two others as their guests. They had no others with them, so one woman spoke up immediately and  uncouthly begged, “take me! take me!” So she was chosen. When asked who else they wanted to take inside as a guest, the couple demurred (we were all strangers, after all), so the museum employee asked where they were from. Would you believe it? They said “Alabama!” (Even better, they were Alabama fans, not Auburn).  I then spoke up and said, “me too!” Which got me chosen as their guest! Yep, I was in the massive walkup line for all of 5 minutes before I got to walk right into the museum. I chalked it up to good karma. 🙂 Roll Tide.

Once inside, I quickly submerged to the underground bottom floors where the museum begins shuffling visitors through a chronologically displayed tour of American history. The design is brilliant, as the early exhibits deal with European history and conceptions of race, as well as the powerful West African kingdoms, in the 1400s. These are laid out in a way that shows the convergence of the two, and at the same time  gradually crams visitors tightly together in the replica hull of a “Middle Passage” ship. It was very dark and cramped, as I viewed slave shackles, original beams and planks from a slave cargo ship, and other Atlantic slave trade relics. It was a powerful and sobering start.

As the timeline-advances from Colonial to Revolutionary America, the rooms get slowly larger as the interpretation takes on the paradoxical nature of the American Revolution and its impact on slavery. Eventually, I emerged into a large room with the opening words of the Declaration of Independence looming massively large overhead and an impressive life-sized statute of Thomas Jefferson presiding over the scene. He stands in front of a wall constructed from bricks representing the number (and names) of the slaves he owned. (The exhibit takes it as a given that he fathered Sally Hemings’ children). Pictures do not do justice to the powerful nature of this interpretation and display design, especially as you enter the large room after being cramped in the tighter spaces.

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From there, the museum takes you through displays covering slave life and resistance (both violent and subtle), abolitionism and sectionalism, the role of African Americans in the Civil War, and finally Reconstruction (embracing Eric Foner’s interpretation of both the failure and the small but extremely important successes of the Reconstruction era). Relic highlights here include Nat Turner’s small bible (awesome), a large cotton gin, a slave master’s whip (on loan from Oprah Winfrey), Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal, first edition copies of slave autobiographies, and most impressively, a full sized slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina (not a reproduction, the real deal).

This first (underground) floor is simply amazing. If the museum were just this first floor, it would still be a remarkable facility.

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Nat Turner’s bible. Just wow.

At that point, visitors climb a ramp up to the second floor, where exhibits focus on the early 20th century/Jim Crow Era, as well as the modern Civil Rights movement. Here, displays and relics focusing on the cultural construction of black stereotypes and their purposes are particularly powerful and well done, as are those that deal with black migration during the world wars. I felt that while the modern Civil Rights movement displays were extensive, they were less than comprehensive. Still,  the Emmett Till exhibit was particularly powerful, especially the viewing of his coffin. (I came in expecting to be shaken up by the sight of it, and I was). This rather morbid display is crucial to what the entire museum is trying to accomplish.

Besides the coffin, relic highlights here include two of the dolls used in the Brown vs. Board of Education case, IMG_20170518_150909466.jpga full sized and segregated railroad car, a bucket that MLK used to soak his feet after the Selma March, and most imposing, a plane used in training the Tuskegee Airmen.

Lastly, the ramp takes you up again to the final chronologically arranged exhibits, using 1968 as its starting point for carrying visitors through the ongoing fight for Civil Rights, culminating with Obama’s presidency.  (I was born in the momentous and eventful year of 1968, so it really interested me to pause and consider the ways that my own life growing up in Birmingham, Alabama played out during, and was shaped by, these more modern events and cultural transformations).IMG_20170518_152719854.jpg

Most interesting to me were the displays dealing with the role that 70s and 80s television and movies played in shaping and changing perceptions of African Americans. Here, Bill Cosby was noticeably missing from the narrative. This is understandable given his current troubles, but I feel The Cosby Show and its creators and cast deserve to have its very important cultural impact significantly explored in the museum.

Some will question the ending of the history lesson with Obama, but I have no doubt the museum will continue to evolve and is not ending the story with our first black president as a means of embracing the concept of a “post racial” society. The last video that we see before emerging on the ground floor contains a clip of Obama’s brilliant speech at the Pettus Bridge in Selma (I am convinced it will go down as one of our greatest presidential speeches), in which he strongly rebukes those that believe there has been no racial progress in this country, yet insists that the artificially and purposely created barrier of race is far from dismantled.

As the museum’s interpretations are largely focused on our artificial construction of race that has prevented us from living up to our greatest founding promises, this ending is appropriate. The museum definitely embraces the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” interpretation of American history, (which is physically conveyed as visitors start in the darkened lowest floor, slowly rising via ramps to more airy and elevated spaces) while still acknowledging that it is our responsibility to fight the powerful and deeply entrenched forces that have and would bend it off course and backwards (hence the importance of uncomfortable relics like slave shackles, whips, pictures of lynchings, and Till’s coffin). It is a sobering presentation and ending, but a clearly hopeful one.

From there, visitors can explore the above ground floors that take you on a less chronological tour through the American past, focusing on the cultural and pop cultural impact of African Americans in the shaping of the United States. I was disappointed by the jazz exhibits, but the TV and film and sports sections were quite good. Highlights included a short film on the transformation of the depiction of blacks in movies, as well as relics like Chuck Berry’s guitar and convertible Cadillac, the track shoes Jesse Owen wore in the ’36 Olympics, the gloves Joe Lewis used in his rematch with Max Schmeling, and Jackie Robinson’s uniform.

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Joe Lewis’ boxing gloves

But these just scratch the surface of what is upstairs (they even have Eddie Murphy’s jacket from the first Beverly Hills Cop movie), as these cultural exhibits are heavier on objects than they are on interpretation (the reverse is true in the below ground, chronological history sections). These exhibits are more fun and certainly entertaining.

I spent a total of about 4.5 hours in the museum, only because I did not get in until 12:30ish. I definitely needed more time.

Besides not having enough hours to do the upstairs portions more justice, I was mostly disappointed by the number of kids and teens frolicking around seemingly oblivious to the remarkable facility’s interpretive power. Don’t get me wrong, I saw a large number of youngsters transfixed and interested in the exhibits (and there are many high tech and “immersive” exhibits meant to draw them in and get them pondering what kinds of choices they would have made if they had been in our past), but those that were treating it like a playground made me feel sorry for all the people that have been trying to get into the museum and were not as fortunate as myself (like the three friends I traveled with). All in all, the museum was not as successful at keeping the attention of children as were the three other museums I saw on my trip (more on those in later postings).

My final assessment: A few quibbles aside, the museum is every bit as amazing as you have heard and read about. I was astounded by the relics, at times numbed by the experience, and inspired by its sobering, yet ultimately hopeful interpretation of United States history.   A+.

Get there ASAP.