Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Lincoln: the International Trailer

I found this video on Youtube today - it's the international trailer for Spielberg's Lincoln, debuting in North America next week.  It reveals a lot of new footage not seen over here.  I can't wait to see it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

RIP George McGovern

A special blog entry today.  This morning, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota passed away at the age of ninety.  He ran as the Democratic candidate for President in 1972 against Richard Nixon, losing badly.  I met him in 2009 at Capitol Books and News in Montgomery where he signed my copy of his Time-Life book on Abraham Lincoln.  Prior to his political career, McGovern taught history, receiving his doctorate from Northwestern University outside of Chicago.

As part of my academic training, I try to travel and seek out the places that I research and teach about.  I've been to many Civil War sites varying from Fort Sumter, Bull Run, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Appomattox, as well as Ford's Theater.  I aim to visit Wheeling, W.V. some day too given its importance in founding the Mountain State.  Meeting Senator McGovern ranks among the rare occurrences when I meet an actual historical figure.  I also met President Jimmy Carter in Plains, GA in 2007.

Rest in peace, Senator.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

O, Antietam!

Tomorrow, September 17th, marks the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.  Historians view it as a pivotal moment in the Civil War and in U.S. history in general.  Along the Antietam creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, Union general McLellan stopped rebel general Lee's attempt to carry the war into the North.  The names associated with the battle became legendary: the Corn Field, Bloody Lane, Snavely's Ford, and especially Burnside's Bridge.  
Burnside Bridge

Widely believed to be a Union victory, the savage, all-day battle became the bloodiest day in the War of the Rebellion.  The official tally states that over two thousand Union soldiers fell, with nearly ten thousand wounded, while fifteen hundred rebels fell and almost eight thousand wounded.  These numbers are being revised upwards with new methods.  Antietam now stands equal with the Attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the September 11th Attacks as the costliest events on American soil.

The battle also gave President Lincoln the opportunity to present his Emancipation Proclamation.  His decree ordered the Army and Navy to free slaves in the rebellious states after January 1, 1863.  It protected those in loyal states, though it encouraged those areas, such as West Virginia, to free them by other means.  In effect, Lincoln tried to ransom the slaves to compel the rebels to quit fighting.  None ultimately took the bait.  The result became the largest slave uprising in history, creating a second front behind rebel lines.  They could not fight both the growing power of Union forces and maintain slavery at the same time.  By including even the partial abolition of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation also deterred Britain and France from intervening in the war - though if you ask me it was highly unlikely in any case.  It was a master stroke from a master politician.  The war would drag on for another three years and cost as much as a million lives, or three percent of the United States population.

I think that there is another international effect that receives almost no attention.  One Canadian-born soldier in the 4th Rhode Island Volunteers ranks among the ten thousand Union wounded at Antietam.  His name was Calixa Lavallee.  Born near Montreal, Quebec, he showed an early musical talent that led him to move to the U.S. as a teenager in the late 1850s.  Aged 18 in 1861, he joined that regiment at the outbreak of the war.  At Antietam, the 4th made the run around the southern flank of the battle at Snavely's Ford as part of General Burnside's IX Corps. [Fun fact: Burnside gave temporary command of his corps to Jacob D. Cox, who like Lavallee was born in Montreal!]  They then ran directly into rebel commander A. P. Hill's men moving along the southern part of the battlefield.  Lavallee would be wounded in the leg during this savage battle.  Later discharged, he returned to Rhode Island and spent the rest of his life moving between the U.S. and Canada.

Calixa Lavallee

Why is Lavallee important?  Many other Canadians fought and died or were wounded in the War of the Rebellion.  He stands out for a tune he composed in 1880.  The Lieutenant Governor of Quebec, Theodore Robataille, asked him to set a poem written by lawyer and orator Adolphe-Basile Routhier to music.  That poem was called O Canada.  This song became Canada's national anthem in the 20th Century.  Had he died facing A. P. Hill's troops on that hot September day in 1862 or afterwards of the leg wound he suffered, one important element of Canadian identity today would be radically different.  Imagine if Francis Scott Key had fallen overboard and drowned off HMS Tonnant in Baltimore harbor in 1814.  We probably wouldn't have The Star Spangled Banner.  Lavallee's example should tell us just how important the Civil War is beyond the borders of the United States.  As I said in an earlier blog entry, and other historians agree on this point, Canadian Confederation would not have occurred when it did without the Civil War.  So, when you sing O Canada with gusto at your next hockey game, remember that it links you with that major conflict.  I'm astonished that so few people know about this.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Lincoln Trailer

Today, Steven Spielberg released the trailer to his long-awaited film Lincoln.  Everyone interested in the Civil War will definitely see this film.

Judging by the footage here, the film focuses on Lincoln's leadership at the end of the war.  He faces two contradictory challenges - victory over the rebels, and the end of slavery.  I like how the film portrays the numerous factions on each side, from radicals (led by Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones), to conservatives (such as Montgomery Blair, played by Byron Jennings), to members of his own cabinet (David Straitharn as Seward) and even Mary Lincoln (a well-cast Sally Field) bombard the stoic Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) who is determined to do his duty.  We shall see how this movie holds up.  I personally can't wait to see the scene where Lincoln goes to Richmond, and the freedmen and women greet him like the Messiah. The film opens November 16th at a theater near you.  I encourage your comments.

h/t to Kevin Levin:

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Neil Armstrong

Hi again!  Looks like I neglected my blog - three weeks have passed since my last post.  I've been busy working on my dissertation.  Yes, seriously!

I mark the passing of a true, genuine American hero, Neil Armstrong.  The first man to walk on the Moon died last week at the age of 82.  This quiet, retiring man may have shunned his fame but no history book since has failed to mention his exploit.  From earliest times, humans looked up at the Moon with amazement.  Yet, in the Twentieth Century, the technology became available to place people on its surface.  Armstrong was the first, Buzz Aldrin the second, and ten more followed in their steps, so to speak.  It was a childhood dream of mine to meet him, and now I'll never get my chance.  Oh well.  One bit of trivia: he visited the town of Langholm in Scotland in 1972, where a law requiring the summary execution of an Armstrong upon entry still existed on the books.

That's all for now.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Hi all!  Sorry for the long pause but July was a busy month.  I helped guide the Moore Center's tour of the Seven Days battlefields around Richmond at the end of June.  While it was HOT, reaching 104 degrees, the tour was a success.  I noticed that the only rebel victory of the battle, Gaines' Mill, was for a long time the only one preserved.  I wonder why!  Only recently has the National Park Service preserved the final and costliest battle, Malvern Hill.  I helped keep everyone organized - we didn't lose anyone, thank goodness - and supplied with water.

August was busy too.  Aside from a trip to Washington, D.C., I spent most of my time researching and writing a paper as part of my fellowship requirements.  My essay dealt with cross-border enlistments in West Virginia.  To my great surprise, many Union soldiers accredited to the future state in fact came from neighboring states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Maryland.  This is separate and distinct from known recruitment in those states.  I concluded that more rebel support existed in West Virginia than previously thought.  I presented these findings to a small audience at Shepherd University on my last day before leaving for home. Thanks to the Center and its excellent staff for a great opportunity.

My trip home included both research and tourism.  I first went to Philadelphia.  The National Archives Mid-Atlantic Office has West Virginia's federal records.  I used one source there in 2006 while researching for my M.A. thesis. It proved so useful that I had to make a second visit.  On this trip, I took a chance of using my digital camera to photograph the records rather than make photocopies.  It worked.  Not only were the images clear, I gathered far more than I originally planned.  Let's hope it pays off like last time.  When not in the archives, I visited many of Philadelphia's historic sights.  I saw Valley Forge, Independence Hall, Benjamin Franklin's grave, the excellent National Constitution Center, and the Museum of Art.

After three days in the City of Brotherly Love, I spend three more days traveling back to Alabama.  On day 1, I went to Annapolis, Maryland to see the lovely United States Naval Academy and its great museum, and the state capital - my twenty-ninth.  I noticed something interesting at the capitol: on one side, they honor black attorney and U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall; on the other, Roger B. Taney, the Chief Justice of that same court who passed the controversial Dred Scott decision in 1857 which denied African Americans any rights at all.  After Annapolis came Dover, Delaware - my thirtieth state capitol.  I've now seen each capitol located east of the Mississippi river save for Augusta, Maine.  I also saw the U.S. Air Force's Air Mobility Command Museum at Dover Air Force Base.  A long drive down the Delmarva Peninsula to Norfolk, Virginia followed.

Day 2: I left Norfolk early for the Outer Banks of North Carolina to see the Atlantic Ocean (literally getting my feet wet!), the Wright Brothers' Memorial at Kitty Hawk, and Fort Raleigh, the site of the lost English colony of Roanoke from 1587.  I later visited Fayetteville, site of the Airborne and Special Operations Museum and the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum at Fort Bragg, before stopping in Columbia, South Carolina for the night.  Day 3 was a simple drive from Columbia to Auburn via Atlanta.  I really wanted to get home after three months away.

I don't have a lot more to report right now.  I saw "Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies," a low-budget (and it shows!) film. Aside from a well-cast actor as the president, it's forgettable.  Civil War specialists will cringe at the deliberate historical errors.  Oh well.  Spielberg's Lincoln comes out on November 9th.

Monday, June 25, 2012

History on the Sly

Look what someone inserted at the Highwater Mark at Gettysburg!  What shall we make of this?  I suspect that a pro-Confederate secretly defiled the Union's most important spot at the battle - the defeat of Pickett's Charge (some call it Longstreet's Assault) on Cemetery Ridge.  For shame.  I suggest that someone put a U.S. flag on a similar rebel spot, like Jefferson Davis' grave - to signify his years of loyal service to the Union before he rebelled.    

Friday, June 22, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Hey again.  I just returned from Martinsburg, W.V., where I saw the new movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Like any Civil War historian, how films and other media portray the war interests and concerns me. I must confess that I have not read Seth Graham-Smith's mash-up novel...yet.  I don't want to spoil the movie for anyone, but I recommend this movie to all.  It does take enormous liberties with Lincoln's life and career.  Most films do (I'm looking at you, Steven Spielberg).  My colleagues may cringe at them, yet there is much to like in the film.  The action scenes are first-rate, which is no surprise coming from Timur Bekmambetov, the director of Wanted (with Angelina Jolie and The Conspirator's James McAvoy.  The cast is a mixed bag.  Benjamin Walker is a good choice as the young and old Lincoln.  However, the stunning - and tall - Mary Elizabeth Winstead doesn't work as Mary Lincoln.  The same goes for Firefly's Alan Tyduk as Stephen Douglas.  Joshua Speed also appears.  Many scenes are CGI, which may distract from the rest of the film.  Cringe-worthy or not, the film is well-cut, moves along at a rapid pace, and is never dull, and nicely photographed by the always reliable Caleb Deschanel (he lensed one of my favorite movies, The Right Stuff, and the only passable thing in The Patriot.)  Remember that it's based on a novel, as was Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, and other films.  I think that my colleagues will enjoy it in spite of themselves.  Now I eagerly await Spielberg's Lincoln due out this Christmas.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War

Hey all!  I've been neglecting my blog.  My responsibilities to my fellowship at the George Tyler Moore Center occupy me.  Each year the center offers a two-month (June-July) position to a graduate student to work for them and do their own research.  Promising historians will appreciate its location in Shepherdstown,  in Jefferson County in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.  It is literally ten minutes drive - or thirty minutes by bicycle if you prefer - from the Antietam Battlefield across the Potomac in Maryland.  Gettysburg and Manassas are each an hour away by car, with Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and the Wilderness within two hours.  The National Archives in Washington, D.C. are also within easy reach.  Mark Snell runs the center.  He teaches Civil War and military history at Shepherd University, a small state school.  I highly recommend taking a battlefield tour with him.  Last week, we went to Gettysburg.  It was a thrill to watch a master scholar and guide put the battle and the war into many different perspectives.  The other staff here, Denise, Tom and Al, are great too.  We're heading to Petersburg at the end of June.

So far - and I'm only three weeks into the program - I've been able to help them and further my own work.  The Shepherd University Library has a substantial collection of microfilm.  Their own resources of primary materials into West Virginia's Civil War have helped me immensely.  I like to joke that at night (fellows live in their building) they surround me with such a wide range of Civil War books that it's like being a kid in a candy store or a graduate student's worst nightmare!  These sources are necessary.  I must produce and publicly present an original paper as part of the program requirements.  Fortunately this will advance my dissertation research a great deal.

The pictures below are of the center itself on Shepherdstown's main street, and only part of the many books in the center's library.  


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Look where I was on Sunday

On the left is a photo I took with my camera phone and uploaded to Facebook while standing on the Burnside Bridge at Antietam.  Isn't technology grand!

On the right is the Bridge itself, a rather good photo too.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Alphabetical Record of the Rebellion

Hi there!  Sorry for the long absence.  I've been busy with dissertation research.  I also presented my first conference paper at the 3rd Annual Society of Appalachian Historians in Morgantown, WV.  Titled "Localism, Occupation and the Civil War in Kanawha County, West(ern) Virginia, 1861-1865," I argued that western Virginians interpreted federal and state laws on emancipation and the status of secessionists according to antebellum local tendencies.  It was well-received by the audience, even though I thought that I spoke too quickly.  I could get used to this conference thing.

Here's an article from the Fairmont National of August 12, 1865:

Alphabetical Record of the Rebellion:

A - Stands for Andersonville, the ghastly monument of the most revolting outrage of the century.

B - Stands for Booth, let his name be swallowed up in oblivion.

C - Stands for Canada, the Asylum of the skedaddlers and the nest in which traitors hatched their eggs of treason.

D- Stands for Davis, the most eminent low comedian, in the female character, of the age.

E - Stands for England, an enemy in our adversity, a sycophant in our prosperity (Music by the band, air Yankee Doodle.)

F - Stands for Freedom, the bulwark of the nation.

G - Stands for Grant, the undertaker who officiated at the burial of the rebellion.

H - Stands for Hardee, his tactics wouldn't save him.

I - Stands for infamy, the spirit of treason.

J - Stands for Justice, give it to traitors.

K - Stands for Kearsage, for further particulars see Winslow's Soothing Syrup

L - stands for Lincoln, we mourn his loss.

M - Stands for Mason (more music by the band, air, "There came to the beach, &c.)

N - Stands for No where, the present location of the C. S. A.

O - Stands for "O dear, what can the matter be?" for an answer to this question apply to Kirby Smith.

P - Stands for Peace, nobly won by the gallant soldiers of the Union.

Q - Stands for Quantrell, one of the Gorillas in the rebel menagerie.

R - Stands for Rebellion, which is no longer able to stand for itself.

S - Stands for Sherman, he has a friend and vindicator in Grant.

T - Stands for Treason, with a halter around its neck.

U - Stands for Union, "now and forever, one and inseparable."

V - Stands for Victory, further explanation is unnecessary.

W - Stands for Washington, the nation is true to his memory.

X - Stands for Xtradition, English papers please copy.

Y - Stands for Young America, who stands for the Union.

Z - Stands for Zodiac, the stars are all there.  (Music by the band - The Star Spangled Banner, O long may it wave, O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.)


The mid-19th Century had a way with words.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Happy Birthday, Ulysses S. Grant

 I had a most interesting encounter yesterday.  As I head north on a long trip, I visited the Ulysses S. Grant Birthplace in Point Pleasant, Ohio - one of several presidential sites I aim to see on this trip.  The day of my visit turned out to have been his 190th birthday.  In commemoration, the local historical societies from Clermont and Brown counties, arranged to have a new signs directing traffic towards this site.  The pictures above show the sign, the two re-enactors depicting Grant and (of all people) Custer (!!!), and the cake they baked for him.  The crowd was somewhat meager - probably twenty people.  While they clearly had an economic motive at stake - the local director gave me a dining suggestion - it was nice to see them take their history seriously.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why the Civil War matters to Canadians.

Someone asked me the other day why the Civil War matters to Canadians.  I had to ponder why this question would be posed.  To me, it is as simple as it gets.  Confederation in 1867 would not have occurred when it did and in the form it took without the Civil War.  The books by Robin Winks and Greg Marquis have made this case beyond reproach.  Yet, despite the qualities of those books, neither appears to have had much effect on Canadian historiography - most definitely in the public realm.  This is, I think, a mistake.  The Civil War was as important to Canadian history as the War of 1812.  

Much of this comes from the perils of writing a 'national' history - crafting a narrative that unites and reassures disparate members of the country.  It seems to me that Canadians have tried to purge any semblance of U.S. influence over the nation’s development, and limit that of the British or French.   The Civil War merits barely a few sentences in textbooks as a causal factor behind Confederation.  While this is true, it is hardly a fair representation.  Such a narrative makes it appear as if the war forced the Canadian population together in fear of a U.S. invasion.  This omits the divided opinion within the colonies on the war, actions in support of both sides, the role of the British government at the time trying hard – and successfully – to avoid greater conflict, as well as the controversial Confederation process itself.  It ties in with the dominant meta-narrative that Canadians appear to have that the U.S. is out to get them.  That the two countries have had extensive interconnections before, during and since the 1860s has failed to budge this idea. 

However, this desire for a ‘national’ history is no excuse for a bad one.  It was impossible for anyone in North America to escape the effects of the largest and costliest war ever fought in this continent.  No one in the United States did, and works on Mexico, the Bahamas, Cuba, the Caribbean, Britain, France, Japan, China, Russia or South Africa testify to its worldwide impact.  Canada felt its effects, and made its effect felt, more than any of these.  I’d like to point out several of these effects:

1)     Somewhere between 18,000 and 50,000 British North Americans served as soldiers, sailors or marines in the Civil War.  Winks and Marquis debate the numbers, but even the low estimate indicates that more British North Americans fought in the Civil War than any other nationality, and even some states.  They also believe that most supported the Union cause rather than the Confederacy.  Many more may have journeyed south to work in factories or on farms in the U.S.  We probably will never know how many made either trip.  It is hard to define or identify them since travel was so common place then.   One of those who fought was Calixa LavellĂ©e, the composer of the music to “O Canada.”  A musician with the 4th Rhode Island Volunteers, he was wounded at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.

2)     Many of these former servicemen returned to Canada or travelled north after the war and established veterans’ association.  The Grand Army of the Republic had eight branches in Canada, four in Ontario, three in Quebec and one in Manitoba.  This was the second such group in Canada, following the Army and Navy Association of British veterans.  The G.A.R.’s impact on Canada remains unknown.

3)     Little is known about the economic support the colonies gave to the U.S. during this conflict, which Canada has done from the First World War up to the Iraq War.  If British neutrality laws did not impair exports, this could have been a major asset to Lincoln.  It is known that an influx of deserters and draft evaders, as many as 20,000, lowered wages in Canada during the war.

4)     The pro-Confederate actions committed by Canadians to impair the U.S. war effort, such as the St. Alban’s Raid, the seizure of the S.S. Chesapeake, and the escape of the C.S.S. Tallahassee, are omitted.  These acts challenge the idea that Canada was a passive actor in the war.  They contributed to legitimate U.S. concerns about their northern frontier.  Fortunately, they saw a greater menace from the French in Mexico than the British in Canada.  The Treaty of Washington resolved these issues for all time. 

5)     Canadians like to take pride in their role in the Underground Railroad, the last stop on the fabled escape route for the enslaved.  This, however, is only half of the story.  Most left after the war, partly because of the promises of racial equality under Reconstruction, and of hostility in Canada.  If the estimated 30,000 to 100,000 African Americans had stayed, its history would have been changed.  Racially exclusive immigration laws kept the black population of Canada would remain below 20,000 until the 1960s.  Had they remained, Canadian race relations could have been very different.  In areas where blacks lived in numbers, such as Nova Scotia or New Brunswick, they faced all the trappings of segregation and marginalization more commonly found in the former Confederacy, and well into the Twentieth Century.

6)     For all the resentment of the U.S. and its system of government, Canada’s constitution resembled theirs in many ways.  First, the fact that they had a constitution.  Second, the federal system which was unknown anywhere in the British Empire at the time – copied in 1901 by Australia.  Canada modified the division of powers to keep authority centralized rather than devolved, a slight contrast with that of the U.S. 

So, here are six reasons why the Civil War matters to Canadians.  The people, more than their leaders, participated in the conflict in a myriad of ways.  Sometimes they supported the U.S., while opposing them at other times.  It was a major event in their history.  If the War of 1812 ensured that the northern part of North America would remain in British hands, the Civil War defined its style of government, its mixed approach to its southern neighbor and, finally, its racial makeup.  More work is definitely needed on this topic.  

Monday, April 9, 2012

Is the Lost Cause unique?

Today, April 9th, is significant to me for two reasons.  First, as a Civil War historian, it is the 147th anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.  This traditionally marks the end of the Civil War, though fighting would continue on until June in Texas and indeed November when the CSS Shenandoah gave up her round-the-world sailing mission against United States shipping.  It is also the supposed start of the Lost Cause, the historical vindication of the Confederate cause.  Lee's statement to his troops that "overwhelming numbers and resources" had bested them rather than any shortcomings in their cause, spirit or materiel.

Secondly, as a Canadian, it makes the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917.  I was told as a youth that this was Canada's nation-making moment.  Canadians seized and held this important point on the Western Front which had resisted British and French attempts to take it.  It combined all four Canadian divisions in France for the first time, was largely planned by Canadian leaders, and executed by well-trained Canadian troops.  Afterwards, the Canadian Corps would be the most feared Allied unit, rivaled by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC)s.  After the war, Canada would stand as an independent nation.

Such sentiments boil my blood.  Each legacy is fundamentally flawed to the point of dishonesty.  To start, many groups did not participate in the same war or at all in the portrayed event.  The Lost Cause obscured the huge divisions in the South over secession.  To cite only the most obvious examples, West Virginians, Marylanders, and Delaware troops stood with Grant at Appomattox, while Marylanders and other Virginians surrendered with Lee.  Also, United States Colored Troops - many of whom had been slaves four years before - also observed their former masters' capitulation.  Lost Cause enthusiasts (I won't call them historians) merely exclude southern Unionists as traitors or non-existent, while maliciously insisting that blacks fought for the same Confederacy trying to keep them in bondage.  They also portray the home front as unified and happy, even dignified before the 'evil Yankees' showed up.  Civil War historians have sought to correct these images with, I'm happy to say, great success if controversy in public circles.

Canada is no better.   The Canadian troops who stormed up Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 were overwhelmingly white and English-speaking.  A handful of First Nations participated, despite efforts by white recruiters to keep them out of the war.  A paltry few Asians or blacks were there too, most of the latter in (of all things) a forestry unit.  Moreover, women and the home front experienced it too, although differently.   Even fewer Quebecers were there, most of them in the 22nd Battalion - now the famous Royal 22nd Regiment or the Van Doos (Vingt-Deux = 22 in French).   They, far more than the others, did not share in feelings of nationhood.  Quebec opposed the war from the start.  They resisted volunteering, or anyone from volunteering. In fact, anti-war feeling ran so high that separatist feeling began and persists to this day.  The memory of the battle, moreover, carried on along these lines.  So, Vimy Ridge can hardly be called a nation-building experience since only part of the country, admittedly the dominant part of it, went through it.  

In this vein, much of Canada's history resembles the Lost Cause.  However, I think all history is like this.  Every society seeks a usable past in order to foster unity, communication and pride.  No one likes being the bad guy.  So, in every society, people write the history that they wish to express.  Sometimes they are careless, other times they have economic interests at heart (what I call the "chamber of commerce" version of history), and sometimes they are malicious in implying unity where it never existed.  Sadly, no matter how many solid, professional-standard histories are produce, this trend will continue.  So, the Lost Cause and Canada's history are reflections of a near-universal trend.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Forget something?

Sorry for the long delay but I've been working on another project lately.

I found this article in the Opelika-Auburn newspaper the other day on my favorite subject: bad history.  The Lee County Historical Society in Loachapoka runs "Pioneer Park", exhibits about what its creators believe 1850s to 1920s East Alabama resembled.  They have a blacksmith's shop, weaving, quilting, spinning, a one-room schoolhouse, a log cabin, an early doctor's office, a dry goods store, and how to do laundry.  They even have a Native American exhibit.

What's missing from this?  The above may have been parts of life in Lee County, but at least half of the population would not have enjoyed their benefits.  Those people were the enslaved workers in the parts of Tallapoosa, Macon, Russell and Chambers counties formed into Lee County in 1866.  Slaves may have worked as blacksmiths, weavers, spinners, laundresses or even in stores, but the above exhibits present them as if they were part of a kinder, gentler age.  They appear as if east Alabama was a self-sufficient, self-reliant area untouched by the outside world.  Well, this is wrong.  The area was, in fact, a major cotton producer and exporter, shipping bales of cotton picked by slaves either by rail to Savannah or Mobile, or by water down the Chattahoochee River to Florida.  Over 100,000 slaves resided in the area, around 50% of the population.  Their lives aren't being presented here.  Where's the auction block or whipping post?

There is a good reason for this, a common one in history: local people prefer an acceptable and tolerable past.  No one likes to be the bad guy in the past, especially in ways they can control.  Lee County is no different than other places that I have seen, such as Russell County Museum in nearby Fort Mitchell, AL, Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta, Heritage Park in Calgary, AB, or Lower Fort Garry in Manitoba.  Each sanitizes the past of conflict, racism, and exploitation in search for a usable past.  Everyone should read Cathy Stanton's The Lowell Experiment for how this worked in a park created from a old Massachusetts mill town.

Sadly, the desire of people to maintain a usable past works against a fuller understanding of history.  It'll be a hard, long fight but it can happen.  I urge patience.

Friday, March 16, 2012

History in Toy Form

Recently, discussions have emerged on several blogs about Civil War-themed toys.  Kevin Levin's Civil War Memory drew his many readers' attention, including mine, to the Andersonville Prison playset.  Many seem mortified by the prospect of children (young and old) using this toy to re-create the horrors of that terrible Confederate prison in western Georgia.  Mr. Levin is quite correct to think this way, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Wooden and metal soldiers have been common for the past two centuries, dating as far back as the Napoleonic Wars.  Their proponents allege that they connect young people with history.  In many cases, the uniforms and equipment are authentically presented.  Famous generals receive their own figures.  Plastic replaced them in the mid-20th century, just in time for kids to have their very own Nazi figures.  Even today, one can get a Utah Beach playset.  I wonder why they didn't have one for Omaha Beach.  I once had an Army Men video game for the Playstation years ago.  It was a great game.  But they all have a darker side:

These toys sanitize the violence inherent in war, and if they do not glorify them, they certainly valorize the conflicts they represent.  They present a totally inaccurate view of the past.  It shows, I think, the tendency by the public to see the past in literary terms: heroes and villains, drama, tragedy, comedy, and the like.  All of these views distort the past for profit - although caveat emptor (buyer beware) because self-control is a responsibility.

When I think of this subject, I'm reminded of this scene from the 1987 movie The Living Daylights where James Bond confronts the villain Brad Whittaker in his toy room while he 'plays' with his Gettysburg battle scenes.  Using a gadget and a statue of Wellington, Bond helps Whittaker meet his Waterloo.  Classic Bond humor.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Who Do You Think You Are?

I recently started watching the NBC series "Who Do You Think You Are?" airing Fridays at 8/7c.  It depicts celebrities' travels through their family history.  Some of the journeys are fascinating, particularly those who encounter the 'tough stuff' of the past such as slavery and the Civil War.  Matthew Broderick discovered his grandfather was a hero in WW1, while his great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, dying outside of Atlanta.  They discovered his heretofore unmarked grave.  Vanessa Williams found out that her Civil War ancestor, an African-American who proudly spread word to the enslaved of the Emancipation Proclamation, lived in Queens, New York with his white wife.  Reba McIntrye was shocked when she learned that a North Carolina ancestor sold slaves, yet showed more grief over that person's life as a teenager cast out of England to be an indentured servant in the American colonies.  Black celebrities such as Emmitt Smith and Spike Lee discover what their slave ancestors endured during and after the 'peculiar institution' ended.  One of my favorite moments: Martin Sheen's response to the revelation that two lines of his Spanish ancestors had clashed in the 1700s - one, a judge, persecuted a young woman.  Their descendants later married.  Amazing.  I haven't seen all of these episodes yet, but I am hooked.

The series is by far the best advertising for which could ask.  I have an annual subscription which has helped my research immensely.  I also like seeing some of the familiar archives and historians who appear in the series.  Keep up the good work.  I understand that there are British (where it began), Canadian, Irish, Swedish and other versions of the show.  I wonder how many of their Canadian celebrities find out to their horror that they have *gasp* American roots.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Captain Confederacy

Having been raised on popular culture, I'm interested in the ways the Civil War appears in other mediums.  I've already blogged about video games and movies, but realm of comic books deserves some attention.  A few weeks back, Kevin Levin blogged about Squidbillies cartoon and The Gunhawks comics from the early 70s.  Keith Harris mentioned Les Tuniques Bleues or The Bluecoats a Belgian comic series now bring published in English about a year ago, based on my suggestion.  In each, the authors and artists join forces to discuss the Civil War.  Though a kids cartoon, the Squidbillies brilliantly mocks the commercialism surrounding Confederate heritage.  The Gunhawks purports to show biracial cooperation between a master's son and a slave during the war and afterwards, a difficult thing to believe.  The Bluecoats follows the antics of two Union soldiers, one dedicated and the other malingering, through the war.

I found another that takes a different approach to the topic: Captain Confederacy.  Written by Will Shetterly and drawn by Vince Stone, the alternate-reality comic first appeared in 1986.  The plot of the first installment, "The Nature of the Hero," follows a fake super hero, Captain Confederacy, and his white female sidekick Miss Dixie, aka the Dixie Duo.  The Captain aims to uphold "justice and the Confederate Way" - meaning paternalism towards African Americans, and the independent slaveholding republic (North America is divided into several countries, including the US, the CS, Mormon-led Deseret, the People's Republic of California, Pacifica, Indian-led Great Spirit Land, Republic of Texas, and the Free State of Louisiana).  The Captain, however, suffers a crisis of conscience when he discovers that he is a tool for government propaganda.  Merely an actor who received the Ultimate Potential serum, his sole job is to maintain the status quo.  His nemesis, Blacksnake (!!!) is also an actor named Aaron Jackson.  He is exposed as fraud and eventually becomes a rebel to the Confederacy.  In the end, the Captain is forgotten and replaced by a new duo, Kid Dixie and a new Captain.

Shetterly produced two other volumes, "Yankee UFO" and "Hero Worship" but neither are as erudite as "The Nature of the Hero" in discussing the war.

Captain Confederacy strikes me as a commentary on the Civil War, racism, gender and the superhero genre. As an alternate-reality idea, it shows what the Confederacy was: a lie.  It was based on a stern, conservative, patriarchal system that resisted change.  Whites and blacks, men and women - as well as a half-Chinese, half-white character named Lee to mess with the narrative - had their places, and one could not stray from those roles.  He and Miss Dixie represent the ideal Confederate (white) man and (white) woman - one strong and virile, the other feminine yet submissive.  Blacks are expected to accept white rule for their own good.  Two black characters, Aaron Jackson (whose father is the 'richest Tom' in the CSA) and Kate Williams, struggle against the system.  Captain Confederacy is forced to reject the system he symbolized.  Readers should call him the anti-Superman - he derives his power from a drug, his reputation exposed as a government plot, and his worst enemy is himself.  In this sense, Captain Confederacy presages the "CSA" documentary by several years.  The two argue that slavery and slaveholding lay at the heart of the Confederate experiment.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lincoln the International Hero

As I said last week ("Lincoln Statue in Canada", February 22nd, 2012), Abraham Lincoln deserves a statue in Canada because of his international reputation.  Indeed there are monuments to him in London and two other British cities, and (of all places) Mexico City.  These indicate the extent of Lincoln's fame and legacy.  I'd like to cite two literary sources that also indicate his status as a great, noble, even sainted figure.

One of the more In the February 7, 1909 edition of the New York World newspaper, famed Russian writer Leo Tolstoy revealed  a story about his encounter with the Lincoln legend.  During a visit the year before to the Caucasus Mountains region of southern Russia, he met local Muslim tribesmen (by his description).  He wrote that they knew little of the outside world, but they knew of Lincoln.  The stories they had heard were mostly myths, but all positive ones.  To quote Tolstoy:

"But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest general and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know something about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses. The angels appeared to his mother and predicted that the son whom she would conceive would become the greatest the stars had ever seen. He was so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life. His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man."

He concluded by saying:

"Lincoln is a strong type of those who make for truth and justice, for brotherhood and freedom. Love is the foundation of his life. That is what makes him immortal and that is the quality of a giant. I hope that his centenary birth day will create an impulse toward righteousness among the nations. Lincoln lived and died a hero, and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives. May his life long bless humanity!”

I must wonder about every part of Tolstoy's story.  First, it is timed for the centennial of Lincoln's birth.  The figures within - the wily Caucasian (no pun intended) and the knowledgeable Russian socialist hero - indicate a huge power vacuum between subject and recorder.  He may also have embellished the story for American readers.  So we must put this into the "Hmm...maybe" category.

A more credible source is from "When Lincoln Died" by Canadian poet Edward William Thomson (1849-1924) from the same year (1909) as Tolstoy.  Thomson was a Civil War veteran, a trooper with the 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry.  He also, interestingly, served in the Canadian Militia during the Fenian Raids of 1866 (normally, the Fenians - those fighting for Irish independence from Britain - are seen as Irish-American veterans of the Civil War; now here's someone on the other side!).  In 1909, he published this poem as a tribute to his former commander in chief.


WE talked of Abraham Lincoln in the night, 
Ten fur-coat men on North Saskatchewan's plain 
Pure zero cold, and all the prairie white 
Englishman, Scotchman, Scandinavian, Dane, 
Two Irish, four Canadians all for gain 
Of food and raiment, children, parents, wives, 
Living the hardest life that Man survives, 
And secret proud because it was so hard 
Exploring, camping, axeing, faring lean. 
Month in and out no creature had we seen 
Except our burdened dogs, gaunt foxes gray, 
Hard-feathered grouse that shot would seldom slay, 
Slinking coyotes, plumy-trailing owls, 
Stark Indians warm in rabbit-blanket cowls, 
And, still as shadows in their deep-tracked yard, 
The dun vague moose we startled from our way. 

We talked of Abraham Lincoln in the night 
Around our fire of tamarac crackling fierce, 
Yet dim, like moon and stars, in that vast light 
Boreal, tannery, shifting quick to pierce 
Ethereal blanks of Space with falchion streams 
Transfigured wondrous into quivering beams 
From Forms enormous-marching through the sky 
To dissolution and new majesty. 
And speech was low around our bivouac fire, 
Since in our inmost heart of hearts there grew 
The sense of mortal feebleness, to see 
Those silent miracles of Might on high 
Seemingly done for only such as we 
In sign how nearer Death and Doom we drew, 
While in the ancient tribal-soul we knew 

Our old, hardfaring father-Vikings' dreams 
Of Odin at Valhalla's open door, 
Where they might see the Battle-father's face 
Glowing at last, when Life and Toil were o'er, 
Were they but staunch-enduring in their place. 

We talked of Abraham Lincoln in the night. 
Oh sweet and strange to hear the hard-hand men 
Old-Abeing him, like half the world of yore 
In years when Grant's and Lee's young soldiers bore 
Rifle and steel, and proved that heroes live 
Where folk their lives to Labor mostly give. 
And strange and sweet to hear their voices call 
Him " Father Abraham," though no man of all 
Was born within the Nation of his birth. 
It was as if they felt that all on Earth 
Possess of right Earth's greatest Common Man, 
Her sanest, wisest, simplest, steadiest son, 
To whom The Father's children all were one, 
And Pomps and Vanities as motes that danced 
In the clear sunshine where his humor glanced. 

We talked of Abraham Lincoln in the night 
Until one spoke, " We yet may see his face" 
Whereon the fire crackled loud through space 
Of human silence, while eyes reverent 
Toward the auroral miracle were bent 
Till from that trancing Glory spirits came 
Within our semi-circle round the flame, 
And drew us closer-ringed, until we could 
Feel the kind touch of vital brotherhood 
Which Father Abraham Lincoln thought so good. 

Thomson also penned "Father Abraham Lincoln," a semi-autobiographical work about his time in the War.  They appear in his 1909 book "When Lincoln Died and Other Poems."  Many of his poems portray the Victorian era's Anglo-Saxon prejudices quite well - about the white man's rule being so benign.  We now know that is far from true.

Nonetheless, I think that both are fascinating examples of 19th Century foreigners mind thinking about Lincoln.  Tolstoy's and Thomson's views are colored by distance, time, and politics.  Yet in each, he is the ideal hero.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies

This year, it seems, will have three Abraham Lincoln movies.  In June, Timur Bekmambetov's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, reaches theaters.  Based on Seth Graham-Smith's novel, it portrays the Great Emancipator as a man with a secret life of killing vampires.  The very premise will make me see it.  Alan Tudyk of "Firefly" fame appears as Stephen Douglas, a historical figure who rarely appears in film.

In December, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln debuts, based on (inspired by is perhaps more accurate) Doris Kearns-Goodwin's book Team of Rivals.  Its distinguished cast includes Daniel Day-Lewis as the President, Sally Field as Mary, David Strathairn as Seward, and Jared Harris as Grant, among many others.  How can any Civil War historian not like what this movie offers?  Ace director, great script (caveat above), and authentic Richmond locations - it's a treasure.

Yet the first to come out is the lesser known Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.  Independent director Richard Schenkman's film comes to theaters on May 22nd and to DVD on May 29th.  Made for $150,000 and shot in Savannah, Georgia, it promises to go unnoticed compared to the other two films.  Clearly, it is derived from the Graham-Smith book.  Still, I'll buy it.

I wonder how many in the Civil War blogosphere know about this.

I hope that the DVD people use the interest from these films to finally release Robert Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois and other Civil War films to the market.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Scandinavians in the Civil War

I have become interested in Scandinavia over the past few years, thanks to my sister's marriage to a Swedish man.  The links between the region and the Civil War are considerable.  Near my hotel at Djugarden in Stockholm, I discovered a monument to naval engineer and inventor John Ericsson.  His creation, the USS Monitor, helped the Union Navy win the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862 against the CSS Virginia.  Here's a picture of it.  

Many thousands of Scandinavians fought in the the war, mostly for the Union.  One of the more notable ones was Colonel Hans Heg.  Originally from Norway, he emigrated to the US.  He commanded the 15th Wisconsin Infantry, a unit comprised of Scandinavian men.  This must have been an interesting arrangement given tensions between Norway and Sweden at the time.  The two countries had been united, unhappily, into a single kingdom in 1814, lasting until 1905.  Danes and Finns had issues with the two as well.  I'm also sure other regiments with Scandinavians had similar situations.  Heg led the 15th wish distinction in the western theater,  Shortly after being promoted to brigade command, he was killed in action at Chickamauga in September 1863.  Here's a picture of his memorial on the battlefield.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lincoln Statue in Canada

This decade marks the 150th anniversaries of the Civil War and of Confederation.   Indeed, the creation of the Dominion of Canada was one of the consequences of the war.  Yet there are few Civil War memorials in Canada, the most famous being one in Kincardine, Ontario to Dr. Solomon Secord.  The great-nephew of War of 1812 heroine Laura Secord served in the Confederate States Army.  But this is to one man.  Otherwise, therefore, almost no reminders exist north of the border of the great conflict in which thousands of British North Americans fought and which spawned their own country.  The time has come for more action.

I propose that a statue of Abraham Lincoln be constructed in Canada, preferably at a prominent site such as Parliament Hill in Ottawa.  As far as I know, only two US presidents have memorials in Canada.  In the wake of his tragic death, ones to John F. Kennedy appeared in several places.  More recently, and much belatedly, Quebec City has one to Franklin D. Roosevelt in honor of the great Allied conference there in 1943.  It appears that there's a certain indifference in Canada to implanting American figures on their landscape, despite nearly two centuries of peace.  In fact, in the 1850s, the town of Almonte, Ontario was named for a Mexican general who fought against the United States.  Surely one of the great Lincoln would remedy this deficit.

I'd select the style like that of the Lincoln monument at Parliament Square in London.  A standing figure, left hand on his lapel, as if he was just about to give one of his famous speeches.  On the front "ABRAHAM LINCOLN: President of the United States of America 1861-1865." On the rear: "Friend to Canada."  On each side, citations from the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural.  An alternative style would be his sitting pose in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.

I'd like for such a monument should spark debate on the importance of the Civil War in Canada as well remind people of the need to maintain the binational relationship carefully maintained since.  For the first half of the 19th Century, cooperation mixed with tension, leading to considerable anti-Union and pro-Confederate sentiment in Canada.  From 1867 onwards, peace has prevailed in North America, to the point where the 49th Parallel has been called 'the longest undefended border in the world.'  Lincoln had a large part in the creation of this situation, one that should not be forgotten or taken for granted.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Politics of Memorialization

Many criticize the United States for whom it honors on monuments.  They point to memorials to Confederate figures such as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and most of all Nathan Bedford Forrest, controversial for alleged massacres of black Union troops.  Even presidents who owned slaves, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, come under attack.  Some of these critics are right: memorials lend themselves towards valorization and glorification of these particular individuals, and their actions as slaveholders including rebellion do not sit well with us today.

Well, you're not the only ones to do this.  Case in point: Many Canadian schools are named for British imperial heroes, some of whom are definitely not 'politically correct.'  I've seen schools up there named for Kings and Queens, but also Earl Kitchener, 'victor' at the Battle (read: Massacre) of Omdurman in 1898, General Gordon school ('hero' of Khartoum), Lord Roberts of Kandahar (won the Victoria Cross in the Indian 'Mutiny'), and most incredibily, Cecil Rhodes.  This one is just as heinous as Nathan Bedford Forrest with one exception: more people criticize Forrest than Rhodes.  Several people to whom I have related this information have laughed in amazement at such a school name.  There are some good ones though: John F. Kennedy High School in Montreal, Nelson Mandela School in Toronto, and Ecole Apollo-XI in New Brunswick.

My other example is Trafalgar Square in London.  A statue of Lord Nelson stands proudly overlooking the city.  Surely he ranks among the greatest of British heroes for stopping Napoleon's fleet off the Spanish coast in 1805, giving his life in the process.  The square, however, also honors other British heroes whom the casual observer may see as approaching Nelson's status.  They are: Charles James Napier, conqueror of the Punjab  (the Sikh part of India) in 1850 and Sir Henry Havelock, who died suddenly in 1857 while fighting the Indian 'mutineers' in 1857.  Are these men still 'heroes' today?  Some will disagree.  Previously a statue to Charles Gordon sat there.

Most astonishingly, but unrelated, a statue to George Washington is also in Trafalgar Square.  I cannot think of another occasion when someone put a monument to their greatest enemy in the very shadow of one to their greatest hero.  Go figure!

I am certain, though, that other countries have their own strange politics of memorialization.  Americans should not feel unique or alone.  I'd say everyone cleanses and purifies their past to make it palatable, regardless of the damage it does to public consciousness.

Monday, February 20, 2012

General Grant Car

I saw this on Brooks Simpson's blog Crossroads yesterday.  Someone in the video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" came up with a different take on the car from the 1980s TV series The Dukes of Hazard.  Rather than an orange car called the General Lee, sporting the Confederate flag on the roof and playing "Dixie" on the horn, "The General Grant" is blue, has the American flag on top and its horn plays "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."  Classic.  Now answer this: to what do the numbers "01" refer for the General Lee.  The numbers "76" appear on the General Grant, a link to the Revolution of 1776.

Much has been said about Civil War movies, but little about a more recent development: Civil War video games.  Since the 1980s, many titles have appeared on a number of different computer systems from the Nintendo ES to the PC.  I recall playing "North and South" for the NES in the early 90s, but it wasn't very good.  Better designed were Sid Meier's Gettysburg and Antietam.  I used to play Age of Rifles which allowed one to recreate any late-19th century battle including ones for the Civil War.  These games, and many others which I have not played, involve a chess-like format where one moves around the battlefield in a certain number of spaces at a time.  That comes close to how Civil War battles were fought, though these games are always at a tactical level rather than the theater-wide level.

More recently, the trend in games has been towards "First Person Shooters" where the player serves as an individual soldier using his weapons.  Titles like Medal of Honor and the Battlefield series (1942, Vietnam, 2 and now 3), and Call of Duty (WW2 and Modern Warfare) are intense, frantic action using automatic weapons.  This does not lend itself towards the Civil War where single shot rifles slow down the action.  The one attempt to do so, a movie tie-in with Gods and Generals, failed spectacularly.  Gamespot, a game reviewing website, gave it a 1.2 out of possible 10 point rating, its lowest ever.  Watch the video, it's not hard to see why.

Hopefully someone comes up with a better game, though admittedly the slavery issue will not be addressed - it's simply too controversial.  Could you imagine a slavery video game?  The NAACP and SPLC would have a few things to say about that.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lt. Simeon Cummings, CSN

 One of my favorite stories from Civil War Memory is that of Lt. Simeon Cummings of the Confederate States Navy.  He holds the unique distinction of being the only Confederate serviceman to be buried abroad during the war - others may have been buried at sea.  Cummings, born in Connecticut, raised in New York and lived in Louisiana when the war began, died as a result of an accidental gunshot wound while hunting.  His ship, the raider CSS Alabama, was in South Africa at the time.  (See my previous blog "Daar Kom die Alibama" for more on that.)  His remains were buried him in a local family plot near Saldanha, north of Cape Town.

And there he lay for the next 130 years, until some American neo-Confederates discovered this 'forgotten' kin of theirs.  In 1992, they arranged with the then-Apartheid government of South Africa to disinter Cummings' remains and 'repatriate' them back to his country.  With an honor guard provided by the South African Navy, these people extracted him from his grave, transported him first to Cape Town Airport, then to Columbia, Tennessee.  Why there?  He wasn't from there.

According to a debate held earlier this year on Kevin Levin's blog, the Sons of Confederate Veterans did so because they found no survivors of Lt. Cummings.  This may be true, but it hardly justifies their actions.  I say that the whole exercise was simply to expand the neo-Confederate agenda.  They dishonored this poor man's remains in order to show how 'honorable' they were toward those who served the rebel cause.  Truly shameless.  They're intent on their narrow perspective on the war, and dismiss any other as "liberal" or "leftist" or "revisionist."  While they're not as strong as in years past, the neo-Confederate program is eroding under the weight of its massive contradictions.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Great Rebellion in India and the American Civil War

Last year, I purchased a book titled A Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 and the American Civil War by Rajmohan Gandhi.  This professor at the University of Illinois is the grandson of the great Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi.  I have taken an interest in the Great Rebellion in India because of its place in the history of the British Empire.  The uprising of Hindu and Muslim soldiers in the British Indian Army in early 1857 sparked the largest revolt against British rule since the American Revolution.  But there was more.  Massacres of whites, particularly women and children at Cawnpore (Kanpur) in July, provoked such fury from the British population that reprisals became especially vicious.  White and loyal Indian soldiers (Sikhs, Gurkhas and others) killed as many rebels as possible. 

Charles Dickens typified the British reaction.  The great author whose novels spread word of the plight of the poor in Industrial Victorian Britain spared no mercy for the Indian rebels.  He wrote to Miss Burdett Coutts in October 1857 what he would do if in command in India:

"The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental race with amazement (not in the least regarding them as if they lived in the Strand, London or in Camden Town), should be to proclaim to them, in their language, that I considered my holding that appointment by the leave of God to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of of the late cruelties rested."

Forceful words.  Yet Mary Chestnut managed to best Dickens' words.  The famed South Carolina diarist who book ranks among the most important primary sources on the Confederacy, actually started it before the war.  She had this to say about the Indian rebellion after reading William Howard Russell's dispatches:

"Read Russell's India all day.  Saintly folks those English when their blood is up.  Sepoys and blacks we do not expect anything better from, but what an example of Christian patience and humanity the white "angels" from the West set them." 

Yikes. Sadly, the myopia extends to this day.  Canadians proudly say how a black man was one of their first recipients of the Victoria Cross, the British Empire's highest decoration for bravery.  They ignore where William Hall won it: the Siege of Lucknow in 1858.  He won it oppressing others.  There truly are two sides to every story.

Gandhi's book, sadly, doesn't work.  He's comparing two different events that have little to do with each other.  At length he discusses Indian intellectual leaders that only specialists could know about.  American readers would be lost in this morass.  Actual connections between the two, like Mary Chesnut's quote above and Russell's dispatches, are cited rarely.  I would have liked to see accounts of soldiers who fought in both conflicts, surely there were a few.  The issue of race also could have been addressed since both the Civil War and the Great Rebellion hinged upon it.  In this sense, Kanpur and Fort Pillow are linked.  The book is also written in a dense format typical among Indian intellectuals whose grasp of English still holds Victorian-era concepts within it. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Canada and the War of 1812

As the United States is in the midst of the sesquicentennial of its Civil War, its northern neighbor has its own public history event at the moment.  Canada is revisiting the War of 1812, during which its population faced US troops attempting to annex its territory.  Many so-called 'nationalists' (more like anti-US racists) are using the occasion to show how grateful they are not to be 'American.'  This poll from CTV News shows as much:

It is true that US troops failed to overcome small armies of British regulars, white militia, some Indians and even a few black soldiers.  It is also true that British soldiers and sailors attacked and burned Washington DC to the ground.  The war also ended in a stalemate that left the northern part in British hands, later to be handed over to the new Dominion in 1867, while the southern part stayed in United States control.  The real losers in the War of 1812 were the Native Americans, whom both countries marginalized to the point of annihilation to make way for more European settlers.

Yet these 'nationalists' completely ignore what happened in between then and now.  Since then, the two countries have coalesced and generally cooperated in virtually every sphere of activity.  As Britain and the US began to ally in the late 19th- century, so did too Canada.  All three became allies in the 20th and now 21st centuries, in each other's wars - from the Spanish-American and Boer Wars, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, both Gulf Wars, Afghanistan and Libya - and goodness knows where else.  Yes kids, Canada was involved in Vietnam and the Second Gulf War.

Economically, it is no longer tenable to see Canada and the US as separate markets - they are one, and both have prospered because of it.  The two live virtually identical lifestyles in urban, suburban and rural ways, shop for the same goods in the same ways, and enjoy the same TV shows, movies, music and literature.  Variations on these themes do exist, such as language (French in Quebec, Spanish in parts of the US, many others), region (American South, Canadian West, etc) and race, but I argue the general trend stands firm.  Notions that the US is 'coming for' Canada are ridiculous for two simple reasons: 1) they already have you; and 2) your own population handed themselves over to them. 

Indeed, I'd say that Canadian views of their history are shaped by American influences, though in misleading ways.  "Confederation" in 1867 becomes Canada's independence day - even though it's still not independent from the British Crown.  That the two days fall close together - July 1 for Canada, July 4 for the US - adds to the confusion.  "The Fathers of Confederation" become equivalent in status and reputation as the "Founding Fathers."  How someone like Sir John A. MacDonald becomes the George Washington of Canada is beyond me.  Having lived in both countries myself for prolonged periods, I appreciate just how good the US is at heart despite the heavy burdens placed upon it - providing for a huge population while preserving world peace is not easy.  So, to these 'nationalists', I say "Read some real history."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Lincoln in Canada

A little known fact is that Abraham Lincoln visited Canada twice in his life.  In 1848, he visited Detroit and crossed over to Canada West (modern Ontario) for undisclosed reasons.  In 1857, he and Mary visited Niagara Falls for part-vacation and part-work.  Exactly what he thought of the British colonies to the north is unknown.

Jefferson Davis also visited Canada upon his release from Federal prison in mid 1867.  His family had been living there during that time, so he went north to visit them.  He arrived in late June of that year, just in time to see Canada's Confederation start on July 1.  It was as close as he would ever get to seeing his independent Confederacy, albeit without slavery.

Happy 203rd Birthday, President Lincoln!

On this day in 1809, the American Messiah entered the world.  Hodgenville, Kentucky may not be Bethlehem, and no three Magi came to see the newborn child, but they might as well be given the reputation Abraham Lincoln enjoys in history.  I am well aware of the literature about his life and presidency, from Lerone Bennett's furious attacks on his racial views, Barbara Fields' more measured criticism of his emancipation policies, Stephen B. Oates' and David Donald's biographies, to Merrill Peterson's brilliant analysis of the changing view of Lincoln in memory.  Yet I cannot help but admire the man who, as if by miracle, emerged from obscurity to save the Union in the War of the Rebellion. Little in his background could suggest that he would amount to much.  Becoming a lawyer was itself a major achievement for someone of such humble beginnings.  He was a Whig in a strongly Democratic state; his one term in Congress was as much a payoff to his party as an endorsement of him.  After two years in Washington, he abandoned politics for several years until the Kansas-Nebraska Act propelled him back into the fray.  All those years as a rival to Stephen Douglas paid off.  Though losing the 1858 Illinois Senate race, Lincoln's national reputation as a critic of the expansion of slavery rose to make him a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.  And yet, as the dark horse candidate, he prevailed over better known (and more controversial) men for that post.  That he won owed more to the sectional crisis developing over the past decade.  That he succeeded in that office is nothing short of a miracle.

The story of the Lincoln presidency is well known.  He had to contend with numerous, dangerous and overlapping issues at the same time.  Not only had seven, and later eleven, states seceded from the Union, but even the loyal viewed him with disdain if not hostility.  Even his own cabinet, termed the "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, had their reservations.  Yet Lincoln pressed on to assert his way on others.  Working eighteen hours a day, he sought to deal with people directly.  Sometimes they worked, other times not so.  Lincoln's search for winning generals lasted for years, particularly the troublesome George McLellan, but he ultimately found them.  He wavered on slavery, famously saying to Horace Greeley in August 1862 that

"I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be "the Union as it was." If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views."

Doing so required multiple policies, first protecting slavery everywhere, then punishing the disloyal by seizing them.  The enslaved themselves, inspired by their view of the war as a struggle over their condition, influenced his actions.  The Emancipation Proclamation had only a partial effect, ending slavery only in areas not under Union control.  That said, Lincoln encouraged exempted areas, like West Virginia for example, to abolish slavery on their own terms.  I argue that West Virginia's slaves had already ended it by self-emancipation, but other areas like Kentucky had a much harder time with it.  And yet many say that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery!  After four years of struggle and devastation, the Union won the war.  My personal favorite moment in the entire history of this important era is Lincoln's visit to Richmond on April 4, 1865.  While whites closed their doors to avoid seeing him, the freedmen greeted him like he was the Messiah - a true Biblical moment come true.  Yet it was not to last.  Five days later, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, starting the end of the war.  And five days after that, Lincoln made his fateful trip to Ford's Theater where he became the great martyr for the war.  It is unsurprising that the Reverend C. B. Crane of Hartford compared Lincoln to Christ Himself in a sermon delivered on April 16.  Since then, Lincoln's very name has become synonymous with honesty, tolerance, and the democratic ideal.  There are statues to him in London and Mexico City, streets and places in other parts.  The Lincoln Memorial in Washington is my personal favorite monument where above the grand statue of the man is etched into the wall:


Yes, I admit to hero worship here, with good reason.

Here's my Lincoln joke.  Lincoln's last Tweet, Facebook post or Text message was: "OMG why does Mary make me come to these boring plays!  FML!  Somebody shoot me." 

A good friend of mine called it "Hilarious and totally perfect, but wrong."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Grand Army of the Republic in Canada

It's a little known fact that the first veterans organization in Canada was not Canadian at all.  Instead it was the Grand Army of the Republic, the association of those who fought in the United States Army during the Civil War.  As far as I know, veterans of the War of 1812 did not organize this way, if at all.  Also, British veterans of imperial wars, everything from Napoleonic Wars through the Crimean War, the Great Rebellion in India, up to Northwest Rebellions in the Canadian west, do not appear to have organized in Canada.  The GAR had a significant presence, with eight posts in all, each associated with a US state organization.  Four were in Ontario, the William Winer #77 in Hamilton, the Hannibal Hamlin #652 of NY in London, the W. W. Cooke #472 of NY also in Hamilton, and the J. S. Knowlton #532 of NY in Toronto.  Quebec had three, the Joseph Bernard #77 of New Hampshire, the General Hancock #73 of Vermont in Montreal, and the Quebec #117 also of Vermont in Quebec City.  Winnipeg, far out in the west, had the Manitoba #592 of Pennsylvania.  While these constitute just .1% of the 8,000+ GAR branches in the US, and two more abroad in Mexico and Peru, they nonetheless indicate the extent that the Civil War had on North America. 

To my knowledge, no research has been done on these posts or the men who belonged to them.  Were they Americans who came north or Canadian veterans who returned home?  Were any black, or English or French?  What about any Confederate veterans since no branches of the UCV existed outside of the United States or even the South?  It would be interesting to see how their presence and public role affected the society around them.  Nineteenth Century Canada had a strong anti-American sentiment in it.  While Civil War veterans spread around the world, they did not organize in the same way as in Canada, Mexico and Peru.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Commenting now working

Commenting is now available on my posts.  All are subject to moderation and approval by yours truly.

Daar Kom Die Alibama

Here's an interesting find from South Africa.  Down there, a popular song is "Daar Kom Die Alibama" or "Here Comes The Alabama".  It appears that the Cape Malay population, brought from Indonesia by the Dutch in the 18th Century, started this song when the Confederate raider CSS Alabama visited Cape Town in 1863.  It became commonplace to the point it is in today's South African Manual of Scouting ( complete with endorsement from Nelson Mandela himself.  This song says a lot about the implications that the Civil War wrought on the rest of the world.  Here are the lyrics, first in Afrikaans and then in English.  Here's a Youtube video of an American choir, the Choralaires singing the song.  (

•Daar kom die Alibama,
•Die Alibama, die kom oor die see,
•Daar kom die Alibama,
•Die Alibama, die kom oor die see...

•Nooi, nooi die rietkooi nooi,
•Die rietkooi is gemaak,
•Die rietkooi is vir my gemaak,
•Om daarop te slaap...

•O Alibama, die Alibama,
•O Alibama, die kom oor die see,
•O Alibama, die Alibama,
•O Alibama, die kom oor die see...

•There comes the Alabama,
•The Alabama, it comes o'er the sea,
•There comes the Alabama,
•The Alabama, it comes o'er the sea...
•Lass, lass, the reed bed calls,
•The reed bed it is made,
•The reed bed it is made for me,
•To sleep upon...
•Oh Alabama, the Alabama,
•Oh Alabama, it comes o'er the sea,
•Oh Alabama, the Alabama,
•Oh Alabama, it comes o'er the sea...