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Historians are tasked with recreating days past, setting vivid scenes that bring the past to the present. Mark M. Smith, author of The Smell of Battle, the Taste of Siege: A Sensory History of the Civil War, engages all five senses to recall the roar of canon fire at Vicksburg, the stench of rotting corpses in Gettysburg, and many more of the sights and sounds of battle. In doing so, Smith creates a multi-dimensional vision of the Civil War and captures the human experience during wartime. Here, Smith speaks to how our senses work to inform our understanding of history and why the Civil War was a singular sensory event.
With this week’s epochal news that the Marvel Cinematic UNiverse will be adapting the Civil War event storyline, many are wondering…why? Few of the superheroes introduced in the MCU even have secret identities—which were the crux of the kerfuffle between Iron Man and Captain America. Some just think it’s a bad idea on other terms.
Noelle Stevenson, of Lumberjanes and Nimona fame, is one of the sharpest commentators on Twitter, with incisive character analysis delivered in short 140-character bursts. Her thoughts on Avengers characterization are below.
Let’s be real: Civil War was a hamfistedly allegorical post-9/11 pseudo-intellectual machoist posturing slapfight between Tony and Steve.
Okay, maybe I’m editorializing a bit. But it is true that Civil War has long been one of the most contested and disliked events in Marvel history, with the major critique being that the behavior of all the characters involved was way off the map and that it dismantled years of continuity for what ultimately was not that compelling of a story. In my experience as both a fan and a retailer, Civil War is often cited as the reason a lifelong reader dropped Marvel for a while.
Variety has all the details. It seems RDJ was negotiating for Iron Man 4, and a smaller role in Cap 3, but now it’s war:
The new pact is significant for the Marvel cinematic universe considering the plot will pit Stark against Captain America’s alter-ego Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans, as they feud over the Superhero Registration Act, which forces anyone with superhuman abilities to reveal their identities to the U.S. government and agree to act as a police force for the authorities.
Stark supports the program, but Rogers does not, saying it threatens civil liberties, causing sides to be taken and Rogers, among others, to go on the run to avoid arrest. The moral question and battle with his Avengers teammate essentially makes Stark a villain of sorts in “Captain America 3,” providing Downey with a meaty role he could play out into future Marvel films, including a fourth “Avengers.”
Captain America 3 comes out on May 6, 2016.
According to Variety, Downey’s larger role in Cap 3 riled up Ike Perlmutter, who didn’t want to pay Downey a hefty salary. Ike ordered Iron Man written out of the script completely, until Kevin Feige insisted on staying the course with his plans for the MCU.
It’s worth noting that RDJ is th eonly person in Hollywood who is brave enough to publicly call Ike out, as he did over the summerwhen commenting on negotiations for his return.
“It’s down to Kevin [Feige, Marvel Studios president] and Ike [Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel Entertainment] and Disney to come to us with what the proposal is, and that’s on us to agree or disagree,” Downey said. “When things are going great, there’s a lot of agreement.”
Devin Faraci at Baddass Digest has more on the story, including how the Russo Brothers will not only direct Cap 3 but are the favorites to pick up Avengers 3 and 4 which will continue the Ultron and Civil War storylines.
I’m not clear on how the Civil War story will play out, since the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t have secret IDs to reveal, but I can tell you this: the fallout of Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to be huge in this movie. There is a lot of destruction in that film. It makes an impact.
More than that, Marvel is looking at Cap 3 as Avengers 2.5. It’s going to be another ensemble picture, and it could feature Cap’s new team from the end of Age of Ultron. Last I heard (and they haven’t shot this scene yet, so it could change) that team is Falcon, War Machine, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch and Black Widow, as well as probably The Vision (although I have been told Black Widow will not be much of a presence in Cap 3). And once again the events of a Captain America movie will reshape the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Could the Marvel Cinematic Universe get any more like a comic book?
As I noted in my previous piece, Civil War, in which Iron Man and Cap butt heads over whether individual freedom should be surrendered for the greater good, is very much a product of the post 9/11 mindset, but the comic itself remains a Marvel best seller. t would certainly make for an interesting movie storyline, although it would be interesting to see how the context changes.
Not content to resurrect Secret Wars, their most successful mega-event ever, Marvel just sent out a Civil Wars teaser image showing Iron Man and Captain America once again battling for the soul of Spider-Man, as he was in the 2005 Civil War event. The cover image is by Adi Granov.
Civil War the original event was written by Mark Millar and drawn by Steve McNiven. It ran for seven issues from 2006-7 and had the tagline “Whose side are you on?” It was the waning years of the Bush administration and Milar’s story played into the still fresh wound of 9/11 with a story in which Iron Man and Captain America took different sides on the eternal debate over freedom vs safety. The book was well written and had a larger subtext that just who was fighting who and really tied into the Zeitgiest. Perhaps by no coincidence it remains the ONLY event book which still sells in collected edition form (at this very moment it’s Marvel’s #6 book on Amazon.)
In the original, Spidey switched sides from Iron Man, who favored the Superhero Registration Act, to Cap, who believed such an act violated our civil liberties. Spider-Man was given an Iron Spidey costume however which reappears on this teaser.
Bringing back old concepts to boost sales isn’t exactly the most creative or reassuring move on Marvel’s part, but you always knew the villain or hero would come back even if they looked dead; these day’s its the story concepts that come back.
PS: a number of people have been wondering if the original Civil Wars storyline would show up in the Marvel Cinematic U. A site called Movie Pilot lays out the pros and cons for that.
The Reconstruction era was a critical moment in the history of American race relations. Though Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made great strides towards equality, the aftermath was a not-quited newly integrated society, greatly conflicted and rife with racial tension. At the height of Radical Reconstruction, in June 1870, seventeen-month-old Irish-American Mollie Digby was kidnapped from her home in New Orleans — allegedly by two Afro-Creole women. In The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law, and Justice in the Reconstruction Era, Michael A. Ross offers the first ever full account of this historic event and subsequent investigation that electrified the South. The following images set the scene of New Orleans during this time period of racial amalgamation, social friction, and tremendous unease.
The Diverse New Orleans Population
A depiction of the diverse population of New Orleans. (Louisiana Image File, LaRC, Tulane University.)
Canal Street in New Orleans during Reconstruction. (Louisiana Image File, LaRC, Tulane University.)
Diversity in the Marketplace
Citizens of all classes frequented the public markets. (Louisiana Image File, LaRC, Tulane University.)
A crowd waiting for a Mardi Gras parade. From Edward King, The Great South: A Record of Journeys in Louisiana, Texas, The Indian Territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1875, pg. 42.)
Creoles Strolling After a Matinee. (Louisiana Image File, LaRC, Tulane University.)
Policing the Streets
A Black Police Officer Addressing a Crowd. (Louisiana Image File, LaRC, Tulane University.)
An Afro-Creole Nanny with a White Child
African American nannies escorting white children was a common site in New Orleans. From Edward King, The Great South: A Record of Journeys in Louisiana, Texas, The Indian Territory, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1875, pg. 30.)
Depiction of a Voodoo Ceremony. E.W. Kemble, “Voodoo Dance” from Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, November 1885 to 1886 (New York: The Century Co., vol. XXXI, New Series, Vol. IX, p.807.)
In this satirical cartoon, Reconstruction in Louisiana under President Grant and the Radical Republicans is depicted as a Greek tragedy. (Louisiana Image File, LaRC, Tulane University.)
Democratic periodicals regularly printed cartoons mocking the biracial Reconstruction legislatures in the South. This cartoon depicts a debauched Louisiana Legislature run by African Americans and poor “scalawag” southern whites. (Louisiana Image File, LaRC, Tulane University.)
Featured image: The City of New Orleans, Louisiana, Harper’s Weekly, May 1862. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Harriet Ross Tubman’s heroic rescue effort on behalf of slaves before and during the Civil War was a lifetime fight against social injustice and oppression.
Most people are aware of her role as what historian John Hope Franklin considered the greatest conductor for the Underground Railroad. However, her rescue effort also included her work as a cook, nurse, scout, spy, and soldier for the Union Army. As a nurse, she cared for black soldiers by working with Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who was in charge of front line hospitals. Over 700 slaves were rescued in the Tubman-led raid against the Confederates at the Combahee River in South Carolina. She became the only woman in U.S. history to plan and lead both white and black soldiers in such a military coup.
It is the latter activity which caused black feminists in Roxbury, Massachusetts to organize themselves during the seventies as the Combahee River Collective. When Tubman died, she was given a military burial with honors. It is also Tubman’s work as an abolitionist, advocate for women’s suffrage, and care for the elderly that informs black feminist thought. It is only fitting that we remember the life of this prominent nineteenth century militant social reformer on the 165th anniversary of her escape from slavery on 17 September 1849.
Tubman was born into slavery around 1820 to Benjamin and Harriet Ross and given the name Araminta. She later took her mother’s name, Harriet. As a slave child, she worked in the household first and then was assigned to work in the fields. Her early years as a slave on the Eastern Shore of Maryland were traumatic and she was sickly. An overseer threw an object that accidentally hit Tubman in the head. The head injury she sustained caused her to have seizures and blackouts all of her life. She even had visions and this combined with her religiosity caused her to believe that she was called by God to lead slaves to freedom. It is believed that her work in the fields gave her the physical stamina to make her rescues. She was married in 1844 to John Tubman, a free black man, but her anxiety about being sold caused her to run away to Philadelphia and leave John behind. Runaways were rare among slave women, but prevalent among slave men.
Between 1846 and 1860, Tubman successfully rescued close to 300 family members and other slaves. She became part of a network of prominent abolitionists who created escape havens for passage from the South to Northern cities and then on to Canada. The recent award winning film, Twelve Years a Slave reminds us that even free blacks were subject to being turned in as a runaway after passage of The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Tubman was bothered by this new law and was eager to go directly to Canada where she herself resided for a time. She made anywhere from 11 to 19 rescue trips. The exact count is unclear because such records were notkept in this clandestine social movement. Maryland plantation owners put a $40,000 bounty on Tubman’s head. She was never caught and she never lost a passenger. Like Patrick Henry, her motto was give me liberty or give me death. She carried a pistol with her and threatened to shoot any slave who tried to turn back. The exodus from slavery was so successful that the slaves she led to freedom called her Moses. She was such a master of disguise and subterfuge that these skills were used after she joined the Union Army. It has also been reported that the skills she developed were so useful to the military that her scouting and spy strategies were taught at West Point. She purchased a home in Auburn, New York where she resided after the Civil War. Her husband, John Tubman, died after the war, and she married Nelson Davis, another Civil War veteran. From her home in Auburn, she continued to help former slaves.
The Social Reformer
Historian Gerda Lerner once described Tubman as a revolutionist who continued her organizing activities in later life. Tubman supported women’s suffrage, gave speeches at organizing events for both black and white women, and was involved in the organizing efforts of the National Federation of Afro-American Women. After a three decade delay, Tubman was given $20 a month by the government for her military service. Tubman lived in poverty, but her mutual aid activities continued. She used her pension and money from fundraising activities to provide continued aid to freed slaves and military families. She died in 1913 in the home she established for the elderly and poor, the Harriet Tubman Home for Aged and Indigent Colored People, now a National Historic Monument.
Harriet Ross Tubman escaped from slavery, but remembered those she left behind. She was truly an historic champion for civil rights and social justice.
Heading image: Underground Railway Map. Compiled from “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” by Willbur H. Siebert Wilbur H. Siebert, The Macmillan Company, 1898. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Are your tweens and teens clamoring to see the soon-to-be-released Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter movie, opening on June 22? If you're hoping they'll be interested in learning something about this great American, beyond what's offered in the hilariously satirical novel on which the movie is based, you could do worse than to steer them to a new book on Lincoln and the great African-American hero Frederick Douglass by Russell Freedman.
Russell Freedman is one of our best nonfiction writers for young people; an earlier biography he published on Abraham Lincoln won the Newbery award many years ago. Anyone with an interest in American history will be sure to enjoy his newest book, which comes out on June 19. It's a joint biography of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. The book opens with Douglass waiting to see Lincoln in the White House in 1863, the only black man in a waiting area crowded with people waiting to see the president. Freedman then presents the life of stories of these two great men in alternating chapters. Toward the end of the book, their stories merge as the Civil War breaks out. They only met on a few occasions, but they had much in common, and shared a common purpose--ridding the United States of slavery. The book is abundantly illustrated with photographs, drawings, and paintings, and includes a selected bibliography, notes, and picture credits. At just over 100 pages, it's a relatively quick read, and an excellent introduction to the lives of both of these important icons in American history.
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No Easy Day, the new book by a member of the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden on 30 April 2011, has attracted widespread comment, most of it focused on whether bin Laden posed a threat at the time he was gunned down. Another theme in the account by Mark Owen (a pseudonym) is how the team members openly weighed the political ramifications of their actions. As the Huffington Post reports:
Though he praises the president for green-lighting the risky assault, Owen says the SEALS joked that Obama would take credit for their success…. one SEAL joked, “And we’ll get Obama reelected for sure. I can see him now, talking about how he killed bin Laden.”
Owen goes on to comment that he and his peers understood that they were “tools in the toolbox, and when things go well [political leaders] promote it.” It is an observation that invites only one response: Duh.
Of course, a president will bask in the glow of a national security success. The more interesting question, though, is whether it translates into gains for him and/or his party in the next election. The direct political impact of a military victory, a peace agreement, or (as in this case) the elimination of a high-profile adversary tends to be short-lived. That said, events may not be isolated; they also figure in the narratives politicians and parties tell. For Barack Obama and the Democrats in 2012, this secondary effect is the more important one.
Wartime presidents have always been sensitive to the ticking of the political clock. In the summer of 1864, Abraham Lincoln famously fretted that he would lose his reelection bid. Grant’s army stalled at Petersburg after staggering casualties in his Overland campaign; Sherman’s army seemed just as frustrated in the siege of Atlanta; and a small Confederate army led by Jubal Early advanced through the Shenandoah Valley to the very outskirts of Washington. So bleak were the president’s political fortunes that Republicans spoke openly of holding a second convention to choose a different nominee. Only the string of Union victories — at Atlanta, in the Shenandoah Valley, and at Mobile Bay — before the election turned the political tide.
Election timing may tempt a president to shape national security decisions for political advantage. In the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt was eager to see US troops invade North Africa before November 1942. Partly he was motivated by a desire to see American forces engage the German army to forestall popular demands to redirect resources to the war against Japan, the more hated enemy. But Roosevelt also wanted a major American offensive before the mid-term elections to deflect attention from wartime shortages and labor disputes that fed Republican attacks on his party’s management of the war effort. To his credit, he didn’t insist on a specific pre-election date for Operation Torch, and the invasion finally came a week after the voters had gone to the polls (and inflicted significant losses on his party).
The Vietnam War illustrates the intimate tie between what happens on the battlefield and elections back home. In the wake of the Tet Offensive in early 1968, Lyndon Johnson came within a whisker of losing the New Hampshire Democratic primary, an outcome widely interpreted as a defeat. He soon announced his withdrawal from the presidential race. Four years later, on the eve of the 1972 election, Richard Nixon delivered the ultimate “October surprise”: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced that “peace is at hand,” following conclusion of a preliminary agreement with Hanoi’s lead negotiator Le Duc Tho. In fact, however, Kissinger left out a key detail. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu balked at the terms and refused to sign. Only after weeks of pressure, threats, and secret promises from Nixon, plus renewed heavy bombing of Hanoi, did Thieu grudgingly accept a new agreement that didn’t differ in its significant provisions from the October version.
But national security success yields ephemeral political gains. After the smashing coalition triumph in the 1991 Gulf War, George H. W. Bush enjoyed strikingly high public approval ratings. Indeed, he was so popular that a number of leading Democrats concluded he was unbeatable and decided not to seek their party’s presidential nomination the following year. But by fall 1992 the victory glow had worn off, and the public focused instead on domestic matters, especially a sluggish economy. Bill Clinton’s notable ability to project empathy played much better than Bush’s detachment.
And so it has been with Osama and Obama. Following the former’s death, the president received the expected bump in the polls. Predictably, though, the gain didn’t persist amid disappointing economic results and showdowns with Congress over the debt ceiling. From the poll results, we might conclude that Owen and his Seal buddies were mistaken about the political impact of their operation.
But there is more to it. Republicans have long enjoyed a political edge on national security, but not this year. The death of Osama bin Laden, coupled with a limited military intervention in Libya that brought down an unpopular dictator and ongoing drone attacks against suspected terrorist groups, has inoculated Barack Obama from charges of being soft on America’s enemies. Add the end of the Iraq War and the gradual withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and the narrative takes shape: here is a president who understands how to use force efficiently and with minimal risk to American lives. Thus far Mitt Romney’s efforts to sound “tougher” on foreign policy have fallen flat with the voters. That he so rarely brings up national security issues demonstrates how little traction his message has.
None of this guarantees that the president will win a second term. The election, like the one in 1992, will be much more about the economy. But the Seal team operation reminds us that war and politics are never separated.
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Recommended for ages 12 and up. Laurie Halse Anderson once wrote in her blog that she preferred to call her historical books "historical thrillers" rather than "historical fiction," given that many kids and teens associate historical fiction with BORING. However, it's not every historical fiction title that can be justly called a "thriller." With A Soldier's Secret, Marissa Moss definitely joins the club of historical thriller writers for teens. Based on the true story of Civil War hero Sarah Edmonds, who enlisted in the Union Army as Frank Thompson, this is one story so full of incredible twists and turns that readers will be compelled have to finish it just to find out what happens.
In this novel, Moss returns to explore in greater depth Sarah Edmonds' life, which she portrayed in the lively 2011 picture book biography Nurse, Soldier, Spy. When we meet Sarah at the opening of this novel, it's the spring of 1861, and she has been living as Frank Thompson, a traveling book salesman, for more than three years. Writing in the first person, Sarah fills the reader in on her back story growing up on a farm in New Brunswick, Canada, with a cruel and abusive father; when her father is about to force her into an unwanted marriage, Sarah cuts her hair, dresses as a boy, and runs away, ending up in the United States.
But when the war breaks out, the teenaged Sarah wants to be a part of history, and enlists in the Union Army as Private Frank Thompson, Army nurse. An accomplished shot and rider, she is especially skilled at hiding her female parts when she "does her business," and no one questions her sex or her ability as a soldier. Moss does an excellent job portraying the tedium and occasional terror of a soldier's existence through Sarah's eyes, as she wonders if she will be able to measure up in battle. When the Union loses the first Battle of Bull Run, Sarah/Frank no longer needs to wonder; she's running around helping the doctors amputate limbs, writing letters to loved ones, and carrying out the last wishes of dying soldiers, as the reader gets a close-up view of the primitive nature of medical care in the 19th century.
But of course Sarah is a woman, and living in close proximity with so many eligible young men, the inevitable happens--she develops romantic feelings for a fellow soldier, fantasizing about him. Eventually her feelings are so strong, she asks for a reassignment, next serving as a postmaster delivering letters to the troops. Soon she is recruited as a Union spy, where her skill at disguises comes in very handy. She even "disguises" herself as a woman for one of her assignments!
While there are hundreds of documented cases of women disguising themselves as men to fight in the Civil War, Sarah was the only woman to be recognized by Congress as an honorably discharged soldier, with rights to back pay and pension, and the only woman allowed to join the association for Civil War veterans. At her death she was granted a military funeral and buried in a cemetery for Civil War veterans.
Moss' well-researched novel is based in part on Sarah Edmonds' own memoir, as well as many other sources on women in the Civil War and the Civil War in general. Moss includes extensive back matter, including background on Sarah Edmonds, brief biographies of Union Army officers, a brief Civil War timeline, which includes annotations for battles in which Frank/Sarah participated, and selected bibliography.
This is a terrific novel for middle schoolers or high schoolers, male or female. It offers great action, suspense, twists, and star-crossed romance that should intrigue even reluctant readers of historical fiction.
But you don’t have to be a teacher to sigh happily over Finding My Place. There’s plenty for everyone to like in Dill’s authentic and plucky thirteen-year-old protagonist, Anna Green, and her riveting story about the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg. In Anna’s Civil War tale, we’re grabbed from the first page and taken on a journey beyond the battlefields where Rebels and Blue Bellies fight. Anna brings readers to the emotional heart of life during the War Between the States.
Finding My Place literally starts with a bang. Grant’s army is desperate to take the advantageously-situated city of Vicksburg, and so the local citizens have retreated to caves built in the surrounding soft clay hills to escape constant shelling. We feel Anna’s anguish as she, along with her mother and siblings, rush to take cover and wait to see what their future will be. We learn that Anna fears for the safety of her older brother and father, who are fighting in General Lee’s army.
And then unbearable tragedy strikes, and Anna is forced to somehow find a way to keep her hurting family together, all the while trying to find her own place in this new and harrowing world that used to be home.
I so love this young heroine, Anna. She’s courageous, yes, but she struggles with her fears and the deprivations of siege conditions in the way that any thirteen-year-old would. She’s challenged by constant doubts, and yet she finds the determination to do what needs to be done. Anna’s voice carries the story with adolescent honesty, whether she’s describing the horrors of a Civil War hospital, the possibility of eating rats, the inhumane treatment of a neighbor’s slave, or the awakening of feelings she has for a certain handsome young man.
I’m a big fan of historical fiction. I love finding gems of information, the fascinating tidbits left out of the history books. And I especially like when a well-crafted, believable story brings history alive for me. Margo L. Dill has done a great job of providing both in her debut novel, Finding My Place.
Educational resources are included, making this novel an excellent addition to the classroom library as well as the home library. It’s an adventurous read with true-to-life characters and compelling Civil War history that middle-schoolers, boys or girls, will enjoy. And P.S. Even the rather mature way-beyond-middle-schoolers who love history can learn something new in Finding My Place!
If Margo L. Dill sounds familiar that's because she's contributing editor of WOW! Women On Writing, as well as a columnist, blogger, and instructor. We're so excited about her debut novel, and she graciously provided a copy for giveaway! Enter the Rafflecopter form below for a chance to win. Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg makes a great gift for middle-schoolers this holiday season. The contest closes December 6th. If you don't win, you can pick up a copy at Amazon or an autographed copy on her website. Good luck!
Emancipation was problematic, indeed disastrous, for so many freedpeople, particularly in terms of their health. What was the connection between newfound freedom and health?
I would not say that emancipation was problematic; it was a critical and necessary step in ending slavery. I would first argue that emancipation was not an ending point but part of a protracted process that began with the collapse of slavery. By examining freedpeople’s health conditions, we can see how that process unfolded—we can see how enslaved people liberated themselves from the shackles of Southern plantations but then were confronted with a number of questions: How would they survive? Where would they get their next meal? Where were they to live? How would they survive in a country torn apart by war and disease?
Due to the fact that freedpeople lacked many of these basic necessities, hundreds of thousands of former slaves became sick and died.
The traditional narrative of emancipation begins with liberation from slavery in 1862-63 and follows freedpeople returning to Southern plantations after the war for employment in 1865 and then culminates with grassroots political mobilization that led to the Reconstruction Amendments in the late 1860s. This story places formal politics as the central organizing principle in the destruction of slavery and the movement toward citizenship without considering the realities of freedpeople’s lives during this seven- to eight- year period. By investigating freedpeople’s health conditions, we first notice that many formerly enslaved people died during this period and did not live to see the amendments that granted citizenship and suffrage. They survived slavery but perished during emancipation—a fact that few historians have considered. Additionally, for those that did survive both slavery and emancipation, it was not such a triumphant story; without food, clothing, shelter, and medicine, emancipation unleashed a number of insurmountable challenges for the newly freed.
Was the health crisis that befell freedpeople after emancipation any person, government, or organization’s fault? Was the lack of a sufficient social support system a product of ignorance or, rather, a lack of concern?
The health crises that befell freedpeople after emancipation resulted largely from the mere fact that no one considered how freedpeople would survive the war and emancipation; no one was prepared for the human realities of emancipation. Congress and the President focused on the political question that emancipation raised: what was the status of formerly enslaved people in the Republic?
When the federal government did consider freedpeople’s condition in the final years of the war, they thought the solution was to simply return freedpeople to Southern plantations as laborers. Yet, no one in Washington thought through the process of agricultural production: Where was the fertile land? (Much of it was destroyed during the war; and countless acres were depleted before the war, which was why Southern planters wanted to move west.) How long would crops grow? How would freedpeople survive in the meantime?
Meanwhile, a drought erupted in the immediate aftermath of the war that thwarted even the most earnest attempts to develop a free labor economy in the South. Therefore, as a historian, I am less invested in arguing that someone is at fault, and more committed to understanding the various economic and political forces that led to the outbreak of sickness and suffering. Creating a new economic system in the South required time and planning; it could not be accomplished simply by sending freedpeople back to Southern plantations and farms. And in the interim of this process, which seemed like a good plan by federal leaders in Washington, a different reality unfolded on the ground in the postwar South. Land and labor did not offer an immediate panacea to the war’s destruction, the process of emancipation, and the ultimate rebuilding of the South. Consequently, freedpeople suffered during this period.
When the federal government did establish the Medical Division of the Freedmen’s Bureau – an agency that established over 40 hospitals in the South, employed over 120 physicians, and treated an estimated one million freedpeople — the institution often lacked the finances, personnel, and resources to stop the spread of disease. In sum, the government did not create this division with a humanitarian — or to use 19th century parlance, “benevolence” — mission, but rather designed this institution with the hope of creating a healthy labor force.
So, if an epidemic broke out, the Bureau would do its best to stop its spread. Yet, as soon as the number of patients declined, the Bureau shut down the hospital. The Bureau relied on a system of statistical reporting that dictated the lifespan of a hospital. When a physician reported a declining number of patients treated, admitted, or died in the hospital, Washington officials would order the hospital to be closed. However, the statistical report failed to capture the actual behavior of a virus, like smallpox. Just because the numbers declined in a given period did not mean that the virus stopped spreading among susceptible freedpeople. Often, it continued to infect formerly enslaved people, but because the initial symptoms of smallpox got confused with other illnesses it was overlooked. Or, as was often the case, the Bureau doctor in an isolated region noticed a decline among a handful of patients, but not too far away in a neighboring plantation or town, where the Bureau doctor did not visit, smallpox spread and remained unreported. Yet, according to the documentation at a particular moment the virus seemed to dissipate, which was not the case. So, even when the government, in the shape of Bureau doctors, tried to do its best to halt the spread of the disease, there were not enough doctors stationed throughout the South to monitor the virus, and their methods of reporting on smallpox were problematic.
You draw an interesting distinction between the terms refugee and freedmen as they were applied to emancipated slaves at different times. What did the term refugee entail and how was it a problematic description?
I actually think that freedmen or freedpeople could be a somewhat misleading term, because it defines formerly enslaved people purely in terms of their political status—the term freed places a polish on their condition and glosses over their experience during the war in which the military and federal government defined them as both contraband and refugees. Often forced to live in “contraband camps,” which were makeshift camps that surrounded the perimeter of Union camps, former slaves’ experience resembled a condition more associated with that of refugees. More to the point, the term freed does not seem to jibe with what I uncovered in the records—the Union Army treats formerly enslaved people with contempt, they assign them to laborious work, they feed them scraps, they relegate them to muddy camps where they are lucky if they can use a discarded army tent to protect themselves against the cold and rain. The term freedpeople does not seem applicable to those conditions.
That said, I struggle with my usage of these terms, because on one level they are politically no longer enslaved, but they are not “freed” in the ways in which the prevailing history defines them as politically mobile and autonomous. And then on a simply rhetorical level, freedpeople is a less awkward and clumsy expression than constantly writing formerly enslaved people.
Finally, during the war abolitionists and federal officials argued over these terms and classifications and in the records. During the war years, the Union army referred to the formerly enslaved as refugees, contraband, and even fugitives. When the war ended, the federal government classified formerly enslaved people as freedmen, and used the term refugee to refer to white Southerners displaced by the war. This is fascinating because it implies that white people can be dislocated and strung out but that formerly enslaved people can’t be—and if they are it does not matter, because they are “free.”
Based on your understanding of the historical record, what were Lincoln’s (and the federal government’s) goals in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation? Do you see any differences between these goals and the way in which the Emancipation Proclamation is popularly understood?
The Emancipation Proclamation was a military tactic to deplete the Southern labor force. This was Lincoln’s main goal—it invariably, according to many historians, shifted the focus of the war from a war for the Union to a war of emancipation. I never really understood what that meant, or why there was such a fuss over this distinction, largely because enslaved people had already begun to free themselves before the Emancipation Proclamation and many continued to do so after it without always knowing about the formal proclamation.
The implicit claim historians make when explaining how the motivation for the war shifted seems to imply that the Union soldiers thusly cared about emancipation so that the idea that it was a military tactic fades from view and instead we are placed in a position of imagining Union soldiers entering the Confederacy to destroy slavery—that they were somehow concerned about black people. Yet, what I continue to find in the record is case after case of Union officials making no distinction about the objective of the war and rounding up formerly enslaved people and shuffling them into former slave pens, barricading them in refugee camps, sending them on death marches to regions in need of laborers. I begin to lose my patience when various historians prop up the image of the Union army (or even Lincoln) as great emancipators when on the ground they literally turned their backs on children who starved to death; children who froze to death; children whose bodies were covered with smallpox. So, from where I stand, I see the Emancipation Proclamation as a central, important, and critical document that served a valuable purpose, but the sources quickly divert my attention to the suffering and sickness that defined freedpeople’s experience on the ground.
Do you see any parallels between the situation of post-Civil War freedpeople and the plights of currently distressed populations in the United States and abroad? What can we learn about public health crises, marginalized groups, etc.?
Yes, I do, but I would prefer to put this discussion on hold momentarily and simply say that we can see parallels today, right now. For example, there is a massive outbreak of the flu spreading across the country. Some are even referring to it as an epidemic. Yet in Harlem, New York, the pharmacies are currently operating with a policy that they cannot administer flu shots to children under the age of 17, which means that if a mother took time off from work and made it to Rite Aid, she can’t get her children their necessary shots. Given that all pharmacies in that region follow a particular policy, she and her children are stuck. In Connecticut, Kathy Lee Gifford of NBC’s Today Show relayed a similar problem, but she explained that she continued to travel throughout the state until she could find a pharmacy to administer her husband a flu shot. The mother in Harlem, who relies on the bus or subway, has to wait until Rite Aid revises its policy. Rite Aid is revising the policy now, as I write this response, but this means that everyday that it takes for a well-intentioned, well-meaning pharmacy to amend its rules, the mother in Harlem or mother in any other impoverished area must continue to send her children to school without the flu shot, where they remain susceptible to the virus.
In the Civil War records, I saw a similar health crisis unfold: people were not dying from complicated, unknown illnesses but rather from the failures of a bureaucracy, from the inability to provide basic medical relief to those in need, and from the fact that their economic status greatly determined their access to basic health care.
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Everyone knows Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., but there are many other African Americans who have contributed to the rich fabric of our country but whose names have fallen through the cracks of history.
We’ve asked some of our authors who chose to write biographies of these talented leaders why we should remember them. We’ll feature their answers throughout Black History Month.
I was inspired to write about Robert Smalls because he played a very important part in the Civil War, but his role has received little recognition. He showed exceptional bravery, skill, and intelligence in stealing a gunboat from right under the eyes of the Confederates and sailing it through South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor to Union lines. I felt he was a great role model for anyone facing challenges. Also, I was riveted by his heart-thumping escape, and I thought kids would be, too. It was a great adventure story, just waiting to be told.
Robert Smalls and countless other African-Americans played important roles in helping to win the Civil War. In the past, not many of these stories have been included in history books. I feel it’s important for all Americans, and especially for African-American children, that the entire story be told. All children need role models that look like them.
Robert Smalls’ achievements deserve recognition for many reasons. During slavery, many people considered blacks incapable of ever measuring up to whites. Robert Smalls’ bravery and intelligence helped to prove this idea wrong. Robert Smalls was so popular after his escape that Union military officers in South Carolina sent him North to speak and raise money for the many newly freed men, women, and children streaming into Union camps. He also met with President Lincoln and helped to convince him to let African-Americans enlist in the Union army.
After Robert Smalls’ escape to freedom, he had a distinguished career as a civilian ship pilot for the Union. He was the first African-American named a captain of a United States ship. After the war, he helped write a new state constitution, which included his proposal for the creation of South Carolina’s first free system of public schools for all children. He went on to serve five terms in Congress, working for equal rights for all people. Robert Smalls was so popular in his hometown that he was called the “King of Beaufort County.”
Today represents a red letter day — and a black mark – for US cultural history. Exactly 98 years ago, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation premiered in Los Angeles. American cinema has been decisively shaped, and shadowed, by the massive legacy of this film.
D.W. Griffith (1875-1948) was one of the more contradictory artists the United States has produced. Deeply Victorian in his social outlook, he was nevertheless on the leading edge of modernity in his aesthetics. A committed moralist in his cinematic ideology, he was also a shameless huckster in promoting his movies. And a self-avowed pacifist, he produced a piece of work that incited violence and celebrated the most damaging insurrection in American history.
The source material for Birth of a Nation came from two novels, The Leopard’s Spots: A Romance of the White Man’s Burden (1902) and The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), both written by Griffith’s Johns Hopkins classmate, Thomas Dixon. Dixon drew on the common-sense version of history he imbibed from his unreconstructed Confederate forebears. According to this master narrative, the Civil War was as a gallant but failed bid for independence, followed by vindictive Yankee occupation and eventual redemption secured with the help of organizations like the Klan.
But Dixon’s fiction, and the subsequent screenplay (by Griffith and Frank E. Woods), was a literal and figurative romance of reconciliation. The movie dramatizes the relationships between two (related) families, the Camerons of South Carolina and the Stonemans of Pennsylvania. The evil patriarch of the latter is Austin Stoneman, a Congressman with a limp very obviously patterned on the real-life Thaddeus Stevens. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Stevens comes, Carpetbagger-style, and uses a brutish black minion, Silas Lynch(!), whose horrifying sexual machinations focused, ironically and naturally, on Stoneman’s own daughter are only arrested by at the last minute, thanks to the arrival of the Klan in a dramatic finale that has lost none of its excitement even in an age of computer-generated imagery.
Historians agree that Griffith, a former actor who directed hundreds of short films in the years preceding Birth of a Nation, was not a cinematic pioneer along the lines of Edwin S. Porter, whose 1903 proto-Western The Great Train Robbery virtually invented modern visual grammar. Instead, Griffith’s genius was three-fold. First, he absorbed and codified a series of techniques, among them close-ups, fadeouts, and long shots, into a distinctive visual signature. Second, he boldly made Birth of a Nation on an unprecedented scale in terms of length, the size of the production, and his ambition to re-create past events (“history with lightning,” in the words of another classmate, Woodrow Wilson, who screened the film at the White House). Finally, in the way the movie was financed, released and promoted, Griffith transformed what had been a disreputable working-class medium and staked its power as a source of genuine artistic achievement. Even now, it’s hard not to be awed by the intensity of Griffith’s recreation of Civil War battles or his re-enactments of events like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
But Birth of a Nation was a source of instant controversy. Griffith may have thought he was simply projecting common sense, but a broad national audience, some of which had lived through the Civil War, did not necessarily agree. The film’s release also coincided with the beginnings of African American political mobilization. As Melvyn Stokes shows in his elegant 2009 book D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the film’s promoters and its critics alike found the controversy surrounding it curiously symbiotic, as moviegoers flocked to see what the fuss was about and the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People used the film’s notoriety to build its membership ranks.
Birth of a Nation never escaped from the original shadows that clouded its reception. Later films like Gone with the Wind (1939), which shared much of its political outlook, nevertheless went to great lengths to sidestep controversy. (The Klan is only alluded to as “a political meeting” rather than depicted the way it was in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel.) Today Birth is largely an academic curio, typically viewed in settings where its racism looms over any aesthetic or other assessment.
In a number of respects, Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is a repudiation of Griffith. In Birth, Lincoln is a martyr whose gentle approach to his adversaries is tragically severed with his death. But in Lincoln he’s the determined champion of emancipation, willing to prosecute the war fully until freedom is secure. The Stevens character of Lincoln, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is not quite the hero. But his radical abolitionism is at least respected, and the very thing that tarred him in Birth — having a secret black mistress — here becomes a badge of honor. Rarely do the rhythms of history oscillate so sharply. Griffith would no doubt be bemused. But he could take such satisfaction in the way his work has reverberated across time.
For Jim Cullen’s selection of films all history and film buffs should see, watch his video syllabus.
“The scene is the center of the American line. Most of the attacks on the flanks have been repulsed by now, or nearly so, and the sun is near to setting. The American lines are now almost set into the famous ‘fish-hook’ formation that one can find on so many maps. But the operative word is ‘almost.’
“In the center, there is a gap…”
The writer is Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, and his recounting of the events in the weeks leading up to Gettysburg has had me enthralled for days. I’ve followed him from Fredericksburg, Virginia—the town, incidentally, where I graduated from college, and where I met Scott—north to Pennsylvania, his posts spanning the months of June and July, 1863, just over 150 years ago. I don’t particularly want to be in Gettysburg right now; my attention ought to be far to the south, in Alabama. But I can’t look away. Lt. Col. Bateman’s account is riveting.
“In the center, there is a gap because one American Corps commander took it upon himself to move well forward earlier in the fight. The rebels are now finishing crushing that Corps. But ever since that audacious Union Corps commander created that gap in the first place, a succession of recently arriving units have been fighting to keep the middle from collapsing. Now, as the sun sets over Seminary Ridge, the game is almost over. But there is a half-mile opening in the remaining American line, and two whole rebel brigades are headed straight to it.”
You’ll have to read the entire post to get the full thrust of what’s on the line in this moment—heck, you ought to read the whole series—but some of you will understand why this next passage made me gasp.
The American Corps commander now in charge of the section of the line closest to the hole, a fellow named Hancock, sees what is about to happen. The rebels are moments away from breaking the center of the Union line. His own Corps line ends several hundred yards to the north. The next American unit to the south is a quarter mile away. Hancock can see the reinforcements he has called for, as can others on the crest of the hill. Those troops are marching at full speed up the road. By later estimates, the relieving troops are a mere five minutes away from the ridgeline. But the Confederates are closer.
I talked about psychology yesterday. I wrote about how sometimes something that can only be described as moral ascendency (or perhaps morale ascendency) can make it possible for a smaller force to defeat a larger force — first emotionally, then physically. Rufus Dawes and his 6th Wisconsin Infantry pulled that off on the First Day, albeit at a horrendous cost. General Hancock understands in an instant the bigger picture. This is not some small slice of the field. He sees that if the rebels make it to the ridge, they might gain the psychological advantage over the whole Army of the Potomac, much of which is still arriving. So the rebels must be stopped. Now. Here.
And now, what I am about to describe to you transcends my own ability to explain. Hell, it is beyond my own understanding, and I have been a soldier for decades.
General Hancock sees a single American regiment available. But, though it is a “regiment,” this is in name only at this point. A “regiment,” at the beginning of the war, would be roughly 1,000 men. Before Hancock stand 262 men in American blue. Coming towards them, little more than 250 yards away now, are two entire brigades of rebels. Most directly, half of that force — probably about some 1,500 men from a rebel brigade — were coming dead at them. Perhaps a thousand more, at least two entire additional regiments, were on-line with that main attack, though probably unseen by Hancock. But what does that matter? The odds were, already, beyond comprehension.
“My God! All these all the men we have here…What regiment is this?” Hancock yelled.
“First Minnesota,” responded the colonel, a fellow named Colvill.
That’s right, Lovelace readers. The very regiment Emily Webster’s grandfather fought in, the one Carney’s Uncle Aaron (her great-uncle, surely) died in—in that charge on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
“When Colonel Colville told us to charge,” [Grandpa] said, nobody ran out on that field any faster than Aaron Sibley.”
“You ran fast enough to get a bullet through your arm.”
“Only winged, only winged,” he answered impatiently. “It might have been death for any one of us.”
It was for a good many of them, Emily remembered. She had heard her grandfather say many times that only forty-seven had come back out of two hundred and sixty-two who had made the gallant charge.
Every single man of the 1st Minnesota,” writes Lt. Col. Bateman,
“placed as it was at the crest of the gentle slope, could see what was going on. All of them were veterans, having fought since the beginning of the war. Each of them understood the exact extent of what they were being asked to do by General Hancock. And, it would appear, that they all understood why.
“On this day, at the closing of the day, there was no illusion that they might win. There was not any thought that they could throw back a force more than seven or eight times their own size. Not a one of them could have entertained the idea that this could end well for them, personally.
“I suspect, though of course nobody can actually ‘know,’ that there was only a silent, and complete, understanding that this thing must be done. So that five minutes might be won for the line and the reinforcements and that their widows and children might grown up in a nation once more united, they would have to do this thing. Then, as men, the 262 men of the 1st Minnesota followed their colonel as he ordered the advance, leading them himself, from the front.
“They charged, with fixed bayonets, to win 300 seconds for the United States. Union and Confederate sources agree on this next point: There was no slacking, no hesitation, no faltering. The 1st Minnesota charged, en masse, at once alone and together. One hundred and fifty years later, those 300 seconds they then won for the United States have proven timeless. Because it worked. They threw a wrench into the rebel attack, stalling it, before the inevitable end.
“And, as Fox’s Compendium pointed out in cold, hard numbers, it only cost 82 percent of the men who stepped forward.”
Grandpa Webster and Aaron Sibley are fictional characters, but they are based on real people, just as Emily and Carney were. In the afterword to HarperPerennial’s 2010 edition of Emily of Deep Valley, Lovelace historian Julie A. Schrader tells us that Grandpa Cyrus Webster represented a man named John Quincy Adams Marsh, the grandfather of Maud’s classmate Marguerite Marsh, the “real” Emily. He was not, however, a Civil War veteran. Schrader writes,
“Maud appears to have based Grandpa Webster’s experiences on those of Captain Clark Keysor (Cap’ Klein)…. General James H. Baker, a veteran of the Dakota Conflict and the Civil War, was the basis for the character of Judge Hodges. In 1952 Maud wrote, ‘Old Cap’ Keysor and General Baker used to visit the various grades on Decoration Day to tell us about the Civil War…’”
Emily is, as I’ve often mentioned, not only my favorite Maud Hart Lovelace book, it’s one of my favorite novels period. Grandpa Webster is very real to me. I can’t describe my astonishment to find him there, suddenly, in Lt. Col. Bateman’s account, rushing unhesitatingly toward that gap in the line. 262 men made the charge. 47 survived. One of them was Cap’ Clark Keysor, who visited Maud’s school classrooms and told her stories she never forgot. Nor shall I.
“Children and adults under the age of 40 are forgetting about the Pullma Porter. They were very important figures in the history of America. This book will teach children and adults who the porters were and why they were so important in our history. Porters worked in early train cars, they would look, listen and learn from their predominantly white passengers. They would read the newspapers passengers left behind, listen to conversations and begin to talk to one another. The Porter learned how important education was for children and how important it was to take this message home to his children. He eventually landed at the forefront of the civil rights movement”
“Who was the most important African-American in the 100 years following the end of the Civil War in 1865?”
Railroads came to be important ways to travel in early America, starting with its inception in 1830. The ride was not accommodating. Travelers were uncomfortable and dirty, and ate only if they brought their own food. George Pullman changed all that. He built The Pullman Sleeping Car. It had fancy sleeping and dining cars. Those who could afford it ate fine meals and slept on mattresses dressed in fine linens. Pullman heated the trains and put in lights (candlelight).
The Civil War freed slaves and Pullman hired the best and smartest to work as train porters. Porters had numerous jobs; from maid to shoeshine boy, and both nurse and nursemaid. Porters carried rulebooks that spelled out how to handle every possible situation they could encounter, but their main role was making beds at night and turning them back into seats the next day. A passenger could fall out of bed, tossed by the train, if the porter made the bed incorrectly.
A porter’s appearance had to be “porter-perfect,” including the uniforms, which they had to buy. Porters earned little, depending more on tips earned by giving extra attention to, and doing extra things for, the customer. Most riders simply called the porters “George” after Mr. Pullman. Rarely did they bother to learn a porter’s real name. Pullman Porters worked 240 hours a month for as little as $10.
By 1925, the porters began unionizing, thanks to A. Philip Randolph, another porter. Twelve years later, in 1937 the union, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, became reality. Better wages and working conditions were the result. In 1956, Pullman Porters held the Montgomery Bus Boycott, starting the civil rights movement. A. Philip Randolph introduced Martin Luther King at the Washington rally on August 28, 1963 and gave Mr. King the reigns to the civil rights movement. It was a porter, E. D. Nixon, who asked Rosa Parks to refuse a seat in the back of the bus.
By late 1960, Americans preferred to travel by airplane and the Pullman Porters began fading out. Pullman porters are important to America’s history. They struggled for equal rights, civil rights, and helped the exploration and settlement of the United States.
The Pullman Porter: An American Journey tells the story of the Pullman Porters who worked hard making train travel comfortable for Americans exploring the United States. The book is a comfortable weight, with thick cream pages border in brown. The digitally finished paintings together became a book of realistic illustrations. Every page is a brown tone. The porters are meticulous in appearance.
The text is long for a picture book. Most young children will not sit through the story, but many would love the illustrations. The Pullman Porter makes a great elementary adjunct textbook. It seems Ms. Oelschlager did not leave any details out of her book. Elementary kids will learn this history thanks to the straightforward text and the realistic and engaging illustrations. Teachers can utilize The Pullman Porter in classroom discussions of the American West, early train transportation, the civil rights movement, and the early freedom of the African-American. The Pullman Porter, not being a dry textbook, will hold children’s attention and help them remember the lesson.
I like The Pullman Porter and was instantly attracted to the cover. Inside are many little bits of information a normal textbook will not tell you. Things like Whoopi Goldberg and Thurgood Marshall being descendants of Pullman porters. The porters being the catalyst for the civil rights movement is a fact I did not learn in any American History class. The Pullman Porter will entertain adults interested in American history or trains in general. I think kids from fourth grade up through middle grade will enjoy The Pullman Porter. Schools should make this book available on the shelves of their libraries. History comes alive between the pages of The Pullman Porter: An American Journey.
Just east of downtown Tallahassee, Florida, there is a small city park known as “Old Fort.” It contains precisely that – a square of softly eroding earthworks (all that’s left of the fort) along with a few benches placed benignly in the shade of nearby oak and pine trees. The historical marker in the park offers some explanation:
“This earth work located on ground once part of the plantation of E.A. Houston…who commanded the Confederate artillery at the Battle of Natural Bridge, is a silent witness of the efforts of the citizens of Tallahassee to protect the capitol of Florida from capture when threatened by federal troops under General John Newton. Newton’s force landed at St. Marks light house [sic] and advanced up the east side of the St. Marks River, only to be decisively repulsed at Natural Bridge on March 6, 1865, by a hurriedly assembled Confederate force commanded by General Sam Jones, which included a company of cadets from the West Florida Seminary, now Florida State University.”
Civil War marker in Old Fort Park, Tallahassee, Florida. Photo by Jessica H. Clark. Used with permission.
So the marker claims the park as a victory monument of sorts. It was here in 1865 that soldiers of the army of the Confederate States of America waited for an invading force that never came. The interpretive marker is genteel and uncommitted, allowing for assumed knowledge on the part of its reader to complete the story it would rather not to tell. So in some ways, the work of remembering our Civil War is not unlike dinner at Downton Abbey — words need not match their meanings to be perfectly well understood, if understood differently, by those who hear them.
The Romans knew that remembering was never that simple. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote a wonderful piece describing events in the year 69 or 70 C.E., which illustrates what we risk when we try to make the ground bear witness to a convenient past. According to Tacitus’s account, a man named Julius Civilis was leading a rebellion against Roman occupation east of the Rhine. He attacked two Roman legions and forced them back to their camp at Vetera (modern Xanten), and eventually convinced them, after a lengthy siege, to surrender in exchange for their lives. However, several of Civilis’s allies broke the truce and ambushed the retreating Romans, killing many and driving the rest back to Vetera. Civilis and his men finished off these unarmed Romans and burned the camp to the ground.
Table-top model of Roman Xanten (Castra Vetera), Archäologischer Park Xanten. Photo by Аlexej Potupin via Wikimedia Commons.
Not long afterwards, as Civilis and his men prepared for another battle at Vetera, Tacitus describes him giving a speech to his men in which he “[calls] the site of the battle a ‘witness to valor’” and that “they stood on footprints of glory, walking on the ashes and bones of legions.” But Civilis errs; having flooded the original battle site to disadvantage the Roman legions, Civilis knows that his speech does not match reality. A poor student of history, he is too eager in his facile assumptions of the relationship between physical remains and the memory of war.
The sense of physical connection is important, though, and so in place of real ashes beneath their feet, he gives his men the next best thing. He asks them to imagine the bones of their enemies, just as their commander imagines that their bloody indiscipline could be monumentalized into a glorious victory. Tacitus creates a striking metaphor for civil war commemoration: imaginary monuments invoking false memories, inspiring fictive reinterpretations of a better past that never was.
This, of course, never does anyone any good. Civilis was bound to fail because he did not learn from his mistakes, and did not learn from them because he chose, instead, to tell a story where they had no place.
Thus can the lies we tell ourselves about our wars exact a higher price, in the long term, than the conflicts themselves. This isn’t just ancient news, either; as recently as 2000, the US Congress asked the Department of the Interior to “compile a report on the status of our interpretation of battlefield sites.” The National Park Service conducted an investigation and concluded that it was time to “develop a new paradigm” for the national commemoration of the American Civil War. The report sets forth, as an exemplar, Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where (what is often seen as) a pro-slavery monument was restored but matched by an interpretive plaque commemorating, effectively, the ways in which the stories we tell now are different from those we have told in the past.
This monument in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, which commemorates free black man Heyward Shepherd — killed during John Brown’s raid in 1859 — for his “faithfulness” to the Confederacy, has been the subject of debate for several decades. CC BY-NC 2.0, photo by Slave2TehTink via Flickr.
The pairing of monument and plaque, unsurprisingly, caused enormous controversy. And what it underscores is, I think, one of Tacitus’s points for the preservation of civil society: the very aspects of the past that threaten our foundational illusions are the ones that have the most to offer our future.
The marker at the Old Fort in Tallahassee calls the earthwork a “silent witness,” an idea also deployed with great force in Eric Bogle’s 1976 World War I song “No Man’s Land”:
But here in this graveyard that’s still No Man’s Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation that was butchered and damned.
In March of 2014, President Obama spoke at Flanders Field American Cemetery. While some parts of his remarks were deeply moving, at one point he invoked the hundreds of thousands of dead who lay beneath that ground: “Belgian and American, French and Canadian, British and Australian, and so many others…while they didn’t always share a common language, the soldiers who manned the trenches were united by something larger — a willingness to fight, and die, for the freedom that we enjoy as their heirs.”
Robert Vonnoh (American, 1858-1933), “Coquelicots” (“Poppies”), 1890; retitled in 1919 as “Flanders – Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow.” Butler Institute of American Art, photo from Exhibition Catalogue Americans in Paris, Metropolitan Museum via Wikimedia Commons.
Those soldiers presumably would have died for freedom, as would the “so many others” (better known to history as Germans), had they been called to do so — but the First World War was not about that. We make false witness of the past and then wonder why it does not teach our children the truth; and while we may take some comfort from our consistency, Tacitus and the Park Service should remind us that we can do better.
Title: The Girls of Gettysburg Written by: Bobbi Miller Published by: Holiday House, September 2014 Themes: Mighty girls, The Battle of Gettysburg, Civil war Ages: 8-12+ Historical Fiction Opening Lines: Annie sank lower in the water, like a frog in … Continue reading →
The Washington of April 1861—also commonly known as “Washington City”—was a compact town. Due to the cost of draining marshy land and the lack of reliable omnibus service, development was focused around Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and White House. When the equestrian statue of George Washington was dedicated at Washington Circle in 1860, its location—three-quarters of a mile west of the White House, where Twenty-Third Street intersects Pennsylvania Avenue—was described as out of town. Several blocks north of the White House, at L Street, the land was countryside. “Go there, and you will find yourself not only out of town, away among the fields,” wrote English novelist Anthony Trollope in his travel account, North America, after his 1861 visit, “but you will find yourself beyond the fields, in an uncultivated, undrained wilderness.” A writer for the Atlantic Monthly, writing in January 1861, deemed Washington a “paradise of paradoxes,” foremost because it was both “populous” and “uninhabited” at once. Noting another paradox, he observed that the capital was ‘[d]efenceless, as regards walls, redoubts, moats, or other fortifications”—though the only party to “lay siege” to the city of late were the unyielding onslaught of politicians and office seekers, not soldiers.
Travelers arriving from northern cities caught a glimpse of the city’s grandeur and squalor as their train pulled into the B & O Station at the foot of Capitol Hill. “I looked out and saw a vast mass of white marble towering above us on the left . . . surmounted by an unfinished cupola, from which scaffold and cranes raised their black arms. This was the Capitol,” wrote Times of London correspondent William Russell, who arrived in Washington at the end of March 1861. “To the right was a cleared space of mud, sand, and fields, studded with wooden sheds and huts, beyond which, again, could be seen rudimentary streets of small red brick houses, and some church-spires above them.”
From the B & O Station, most carriages and hacks headed westward down Pennsylvania Avenue, the city’s main artery. The Avenue was the traditional route for grand parades between the Capitol and the White House, and by the mid-nineteenth-century, its north side was the location for the city’s finest hotels and shops. Yet many visitors, particularly those from leading cities like New York or London, were unimpressed by its pretensions to grandeur, and found the cityscape a formless jumble. Pennsylvania Avenue, observed Russell, was “a street of much breadth and length, lined with ailanthus trees . . . and by the most irregularly-built houses [and commercial buildings] in all kinds of materials, from deal plank to marble—of all heights.”
At the corner of Fourteenth Street, one block before Pennsylvania Avenue made its northward turn at the Treasury before continuing west past the White House, stood Willard’s Hotel. The hotel, favored by Republican Party leaders, was the center of Washington’s social and business life under the new administration. Willard’s contained “more scheming, plotting, planning heads, m
Abraham Lincoln is a source of endless fascination to Americans of all ages; more books have been written about him than any other figure in American history. This new biography for young people by Lincoln expert Harold Holzer is a worthwhile addition to the pantheon of Lincoln books, and could be enjoyed by young people and adults alike.
The outlines of Lincoln's life are well known to most of us; this volume concentrates on Lincoln's personality as a father, the lives of his four sons, and what happened to the two sons that survived him and to their descendants, a story that most people are less familiar with.
Although Lincoln was famous for his wit and love of telling jokes, his private life was as imbued with personal sadness as his presidency was full of grief and sorrow for most U.S. citizens, a huge percentage of whom lost family members during the Civil War. Holzer chooses to begin his story with the death of Abraham Lincoln II, known as Jack--Lincoln's only grandson. Like three of Lincoln's own sons, Jack died tragically at a young age, succumbing to blood poisoning at the young age of sixteen.
Lincoln with his son Tad
Holzer then turns his attention to the Lincolns who came before Jack, as the authors puts it, "the story of the clan that might have become America's royal family but instead became America's cursed family--and then disappeared altogether." We learn about Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln's courtship, their early married life (in which they initially lived in one room in a boarding house--quite a shock for Mary Todd who came from a wealthy family). Their first son, Robert, was followed a few years later by Eddie, who was a sickly child and died shortly before his fourth birthday. Death of children was common in the 19th century; nonetheless, his parents were devastated. Lincoln cried openly, and Mary was in such despair that Abraham was forced to remind her, "Eat, Mary, for we must live." Although they never got over his loss, Mary was soon pregnant again, giving birth to Willie and then to Thomas, quickly nicknamed Tad, when his father remarked he looked like a baby frog, or tadpole.
The book is full of colorful anecdotes about the Lincoln boys and their family life, including for example, excerpts of a charming letter little Willie wrote to a friend while on a trip with his father to Chicago in 1859. We also learn about their schooling; Robert Lincoln failed his first exams to get into Harvard, and Tad had such difficulty sitting still and learning to read that today he would probably have been diagnosed with learning disabilities. The Lincolns were incredibly indulgent parents, especially for their day, when children were expected to be "seen and not heard,"
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Published by Annick Press July 2010 208 pages/Non-fiction/Grades 8 and up Slavery/Ethiopian Jew/Refugee/Abuse/War
Once again I've read a story I'd not heard of before. The true story of Jewish refugees fleeing the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple that traveled and settled in Ethiopia. These Jewish Ethiopians lived in their own communities for a long time, waiting until they could settle back in the land of their father's. They called themselves Beta Israel or House of Israel. When Israel became a statehood in 1948 they waited patiently for the ability to resettle there. In the 1980's Ethiopia became ever more hostile to them and they began fleeing to Sudan to await a hopeful flight out of Sudan and to Israel. While waiting in these refugee camps in Sudan the abuse, neglect, starvation, and disease was horrifying and rampant. Families were torn apart literally, some never seeing each other again. Others were parted for long periods of time. More than 4,000 would die. There are120,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel now. Cry of the Giraffe is the story of Wuditu a young girl living in a village in Ethiopia with her brother Dawid and mother. Their mother was the first wife of their father Berihun. He had a second wife and several daughters with her. Each of the wives lived with their own children in separate houses. This family early in the book began to leave Ethiopia walking with a guide all the way to Sudan. After reaching there the
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In a vague way, most of us have heard of John Brown and his famous raid on Harper's Ferry that preceded the Civil War. Best-selling nonfiction author Horwitz points out that the event merits a mere six paragraphs in his son's 9th grade history textbook. In this compelling new work, Horwitz examines not only John Brown's own history and background but the forces in society that led to his carefully plotted conspiracy.
A descendant of the Puritans, Brown was a committed abolitionist who was not afraid to use violence to help overthrow slavery in the United States. He and his many sons participated in the pre-Civil War fighting between abolitionists and pro-slavery forces in Kansas, before spearheading the formation of a private army. His ultimate aim--no less than seizing the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, and freeing all the slaves. How this conspiracy developed and its high profile aftermath is the subject of Horwitz' riveting new work.
Through contemporary eyes, Horwitz notes, we are tempted to see John Brown as an al-Queda type of terrorist, a "long-bearded fundamentalist, consumed by hatred of the U.S. government...in a suicidal strike on a symbol of American power." In this book, Horwitz paints a much more complex picture of a charismatic leader of a large family, a man who mixed with prominent industrialists who supported him financially as well as intellectuals such as Frederick Douglass and Henry David Thoreau. He examines John Brown's early life and the events which led to his taking up arms against his own country.
Although the insurrection was quickly put down by future Civil War leader Robert E. Lee, the case mesmerized the nation, polarizing North and South, abolitionists and those who supported slavery. He became a hero to many in the North and a traitor to those in the South. Horwitz remarks "Harpers Ferry wasn't simply a prelude to secession and civil war. In many respects, it was a dress rehearsal. "
I have been a fan of Horwitz since reading his earlier book Confederates in the Attic, inwhich he tries to understand Americans' ongoing obsession with all things Civil War. Unlike many of his earlier works, which merge personal narrative with historical passages, this book about John Brown is more of a traditional narrative non-fiction history work. Horwitz' elegant prose reads like a novel, and this book offers an in-depth and fascinating portrait of one of history's pivotal characters, and an important epoch in American history. While this is an adult title, I would highly recommend it to high school students with a strong interest in history as well.
Our house has a fairly large wrap-around porch and Alison and I love to use it whenever we can. We watched New Year's Eve fireworks from it this year and have used it in the past to view parades and bicycle and foot races. But just sitting in a wicker chair as the night wears along is a peaceful joy. Traffic dies down at 11 PM and the world becomes very still and deep. When leaves are present, when they surround and embrace the porch, very little light -- whether from street or porch lights or the moon -- disrupts the dark shadows. It becomes a refuge, a haven to escape the day-to-day pressures and responsibilities, a place where I often find myself thinking of the past.* * Sitting there I sometimes wonder if the original owners of our house sat out at night as we do? The house was built in 1905 and our town of Maplewood was just beginning to grow and change, with new streets being carved through old apple orchards, sturdy wood frame houses slowly rising up. What did those first owners hear at night? The lonely clip-clop of horse's hooves? The huff and chug of the steam train from Newark? And when did the first automobile make its way past the house? * * And what about other owners through the years? What was it like to sit in the absolute quiet of a dark night when the world wars were raging? Did someone bring a radio out to listen to the latest reports from Europe or the Pacific? Did anyone sit on the porch during a heavy snow fall (as I often do) to be surrounded by cold and white and gusting winds? Or stay out when a summer thunderstorm came rumbling through? Yes, I have been known to experience all sorts of storms out there.* * And, of course, there are those strange, sometimes unsettling moments, especially after midnight. Twenty years ago we often heard the distant voice of a young girl calling plaintively in the night: "Mommy... Mommy... Mommy..." We nicknamed her the Ghost Child and dispite going out to make sure everything was okay and despite asking neighbors, it was years before we found out the truth. It was indeed a young girl and she was searching for a loved one -- her cat, which escaped regularly and was named Monty!* * That was a disappointing end to the story. We had hoped for something a little more, shall we say, picturesque. But the Ghost Child has been replaced these days by the Night Rider. Late at night, usually after midnight, we can hear the thrum of a skateboarder making his or her way up Maplewood Avenue toward our house. The sound gets louder and louder until they get to the corner that borders our house where the rider turns and pushes hard to sail up the side street. We have never actually seen the rider, it's that dark. Just a quick glimpse of moving shadow and then the sound of the wheels fades away into the night. Who is the Night Rider? Where did they come from and where are they going? Will they be safe?* * These are decidedly small bits of history. Incidents really that usually aren't recorded because they're, well, so every day and common. But I believe that much interesting history begins with the ordinary. Take what happened to Corporal Barton Mitchell and his friend on September 13, 1862. When the 27th Indiana Infantry halted their march just outside of Frederick, Maryland, Mitchell and his pal went over to rest in the shade and happened to spot a rolled-up piece of paper in the tall grass. It turned out to be Special Order No. 191 (where Robert E. Lee divided up his army). If these two soldiers hadn't found the paper and hadn't realized it was important, there would have been no Battle of Antietam, Lee would have probably been able to reunite his forces, and that would have meant a far different battle between Lee and McClellan than Antietam (and who knows when or even if the Emancipation Proclamation would have been issued!).* * Finding those orders was pure dumb luck, but it resulted in an historic battle that changed the course of the war and the world. A tiny bit of history, a mere moment really, that had profound e
Recently I shopped at Barnes and Nobles. Browsing through the children's area I came across several great historical books. Behind Rebel Lines is the first book I've read and am reviewing from this shopping trip. Soon I'll be reviewing other history books on westward expansion, traveling in a covered wagon, Colonial America, and the Titanic. It has been nearly 100 years since the sinking of the Titanic. I noticed at Barnes and Nobles they have several choices in books for young readers. I may make a trip back to browse more from this subject.
Sarah Emma Edmonds had left Canada at a young age and relocated to Michigan where she worked as a farm hand. She was physically hardy, independent, brave, bold. When the Civil War began she enlisted in the Union Army as a man, her new identity was Franklin Thompson. Thankfully she was able to work as a nurse, which meant she was able to have more privacy in her living quarters, "instead of a crowded company tent.". Later she interviewed for and got a job as a spy. Several times she crossed Rebel enemy lines disguised as a black slave man or woman. She also disguised herself as an Irish peddler woman. She made 11 spying missions for the Union. She was apparently a talented actor and master disguiser.
I loved reading this book! It is a story I'd not heard before. I learned that there were over 400 women during the Civil War that disguised themselves as men in order to fight in the war. Emma Edmonds was a gutsy woman. She certainly had no qualms about rebelling against society and culture standards for her day. She made a decisive and brave choice to fight for her country. Her personality was such that she was not an impulsive dreamy person. She was instead intelligent, perceptive, wise.
Freedman, Russell. 2012. Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The date is August 10, 1863. Frederick Douglass has arrived at the White House, taking a seat on the stairs, determined to speak with President Lincoln. Many others are waiting as well. Douglass stands out in the crowd, not just for his size. All the other petitioners are White. Douglass, a freed Black is an outspoken critic of Lincoln. The two men have never met. Douglass has no appointment. He is prepared to wait.
He does not wait long, however. The President does see Frederick Douglass on August 10, 1863; and in Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglass: The Story Behind an American Friendship, award-winning author, Russell Freedman tells us why.
Freedman is a master writer, and ingeniously sets up this story of friendship. Chapter One, "Waiting for Mr. Lincoln," sets the stage. The next three chapters detail the life of Frederick Douglass before his meeting with Lincoln. Three subsequent chapters do the same for the President. The final three chapters highlight the collaboration of the two men in pursuit of their mutual interest, abolition.
The extensive use of period photographs and artwork, as well as images of period realia (election poster, paycheck, editorial cartoons and the like) add interest to an already compelling story. The depth of Lincoln's regard for Douglass is cemented by the revelation that Mary Todd Lincoln sent Douglass a memento after Lincoln's death, knowing that Lincoln had "wanted to do something to express his warm personal regard" for Douglass.
Appendix: Dialogue Between a Master and Slave, Historic Sites, Selected Bibliography, Notes (on the sources of more than one hundred quotes) and Picture Credits (including many from the Newbery Medal-winning Russell Freedman book, Lincoln: A Photobiography) round out this extensively researched book.
The Contents page indicates an Index beginning on page 115, however, it was apparently not completed in time for the printing of the Advance Reading Copies.
Abraham Lincoln & Frederick Douglas is suggested for Grades 4-7, and is due on shelves June 19, 2012. It is a fascinating look at two of the most influential men of their time by one of the great children's authors of our time. Highly recommended.