Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Harper's Ferry Sword

On this day, 145 years ago, the Commonwealth of Virginia executed abolitionist John Brown for treason.  Six weeks before, he had led raid on the United States Federal Arsenal on Harper's Ferry in Jefferson County, Virginia (now in West Virginia). This act shook a country already in turmoil after a decade of tension over the future of slavery. 

Many historians cite a particular artifact from the raid.  The United States Marines who put down the raid captured numerous muskets and pikes that Brown intended to give to aid the slave revolt.  The item in the picture above stands out.  They found a sword belonging to none other than George Washington himself.  It was given to him by King Frederick the Great of Prussia.  In the Seven Years' War in the 1750s and early 60s, his small yet effective army defeated most of Europe's great powers, albeit at great cost.  When the Prussian king head of Washington's victory at Trenton on Christmas Day 1776, he called it "one of the great victories of the age" - high praise from the man whose victories two decades earlier impressed his enemies, and even garnered Napoleon's respect.  As a token of esteem, Frederick sent Washington one of his swords with the phrase "from the oldest general in the world to its greatest."  The President handed the weapon down through his family, from which his grandnephew Lewis Washington received them.  His descendants in turn handed it over to the New York State Museum where it remains today.  While a fire in 1911 damaged it, the archivists have restored it to its original state.

I find this sword to be fascinating.  It symbolizes so much of American history.  Starting with the Revolution and its promise for independence, it represents the international esteem that Washington held around the world.  Yet it also stands in the middle of the antebellum strife over slavery that would tear the country apart in the Civil War.  Passing from the president's hands to his descendants, all of whom owned slaves, it ended up in the hands of its foes.  As such, it is a important artifact. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I'm Back!

Hello everyone!  I'm back after a long hiatus.  I have been busy since my last post.  Since my convocation on August 2, I have moved from Auburn back to Canada.  My week-long drive took me to several states including Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota.  Along the way, I visited Civil War sites including Fort Donelson in Tennessee, Pea Ridge in Arkansas, and Wilson's Creek in Missouri.  I believe that I have now visited every major Civil War site as preserved by the National Park Service.  I also saw the Little Rock Central High School which marked a significant moment in the Civil Rights Movement. 

Since returning, I have carried on my work.  I submitted a chapter of my dissertation to a prominent journal and wrote a book review for another.  I also went to the Southern Historical Association conference in Atlanta to discuss publishing opportunities with several presses.  Future projects include re-writing the dissertation to suit their needs, reworking another article, and a forthcoming book review.  I have also applied for numerous jobs in the U.S.  Fingers crossed on those.  I currently have a real job here in Canada.

Here are the latest additions to my library - including several acquired at the SHA.

Mark W. Summers, Ordeal of Reconstruction: A New History of Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

James J. Gigantino II, The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1776-1865 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

Michael B. Graham, The Coal River Valley in the Civil War: West Virginia Mountains, 1861 (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2014).

Jonathan W. White, Emancipation, the Union Army, and the Re-election of Abraham Lincoln (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014).

Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: The Struggle over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013).

Jennifer M. Murray, On a Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2012 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014).

M. Keith Harris, Across The Bloody Chasm: The Culture of Commemoration among Civil War Veterans (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014).

David Zimring, To Live and Die in Dixie: Native Northerners who Fought for the Confederacy (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014).

Friday, June 6, 2014

Dissertation Completed!

Hi there!  It's been almost a year since my last post.  I have a good reason: I've been researching and writing my dissertation.  My work took me to four states - West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, as well as the District of Columbia - as well as extensive online research.  I read 24,000 pages of newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s.  Anyone who says our media today in the 21st century is biased ought to read a 19th century newspaper.  They make contemporary sources look medical in their objectivity.  Anyway, after months of work, I printed it off and submitted it to my committee this week.  I defend it before them on June 17.  Am I nervous about it?  Yes, naturally.  But I will prepare for it.  Wish me well.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Happy Birthday, West Virginia!

Hi there, sorry for the long delay since my last post.  I've been busy researching and writing my dissertation.  I should finish it by the end of the year. 

Today, June 20th, 2013, marks the 150th anniversary of the entry of West Virginia into the Union as the 35th state.  Its tortuous creation occurred when elements in the population rejected the secession of Virginia in 1861 and desired to form a new state based around northern principles and a solid rejection of slavery. Many viewed this notion as collaboration with the hated abolitionists, leading to the heavy divisions within the future state.  These feelings persisted for years after the war.  Nonetheless, happy birthday to West Virginia!

A few weeks back, I took a prolonged trip for research, a conference, and some sightseeing.  It took me to Tennessee, Virginia, briefly Kentucky, North Carolina, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.  It was quite productive, but you'll have to read my book in a few years to find out what I found.  On June 2, I came across the re-enactment of the Battle of Philippi in Barbour County.  I swear that I did not know this event was on this day, nor did I plan on showing up just a few minutes before it happened.  Yet, I came prepared.  I used my digital camera to record the re-enactment as it moved from the covered bridge over the Tygart River all the way down Main Street.  I saw Union "troops" drive rebel "troops" from the town, capturing the Confederate flag from the courthouse along the way.  It was a interesting to see it first hand. 

The video is below, thanks to YouTube.  

Battle of Philippi Re-enactment

Until next time, the Mountaineers shall always be free.

Friday, February 15, 2013

What if? The American Invasion of British North America in 1865

I recall my Canadian high school social studies teacher saying that the American threat formed the basis of national unity.  Confederation, the forging of a national government from the British North American colonies, occurred in 1865 due to the threat of a U.S. invasion after its Civil War.  This legacy of American encroachment, they told me, continued on to the present day by corporations, media, culture, consumerism, and others in a long list of negative influences.  This made sense to the young me, who knew no better.  I know now that this narrative is grossly flawed, misleading and downright insulting to my understanding of the Canada-U.S. relationship.  The only plausible part is the menace posed after the American Civil War.  The potential certainly existed for conflict.  Had it occurred, Canada would have been erased from history.  At the same time, it could not have happened for a variety of reasons.  Since then, the two countries mended their differences and have become a model for international relationships.  But it may not have been that way had the mighty United States armies turned their attention northward in 1865.

The end of the Civil War marked the best opportunity for an American attempt to conquer British North America.  Previous attempts in 1775-1776 and 1812-1814 failed for two reasons.  First, the terrain impaired movement between the northern colonies and the Eastern Seaboard.  Long distances, forests, few rivers, and hostile Native American nations reduced mobility.  Any army – British or American – would have encountered these difficulties.  Anglo-American forces fought the French and Indians in this territory – modern New York and Pennsylvania – only with the help of friendly Natives, even then with difficulty.  Americans found out at Quebec in 1775-76 the perils of the terrain.  Their armies attacking the Niagara peninsula in 1812-13 exhausted themselves before reaching the area.  The refusal of some state militias to deploy out of the country stemmed from their physical condition as well as political attitudes.  The small numbers of British regulars and weak Canadian militia easily defeated them but progressed no further than the shores of the Great Lakes.  The only practical route was the Hudson Valley and Lake Champlain corridor.  The British found out twice that sufficient American resistance as at Saratoga in 1777 and Plattsburg in 1814 could stop any invasion attempt cold.  It also led to the inability to reinforce western units at Detroit or Chicago.  All this had changed by 1865.  Railroads linked the coast and the major population centers north and south as well as east and west.   Whole armies, tens of thousands strong, could mass and/or redeploy along the northern border quickly and easily.  They would have had a much easier time waging war on the colonies than their predecessors had.

Second, the United States Army in 1865 differed from its forbearers.  Hundreds of thousands of men served in it, the largest it had ever been up to that point and the largest it would be until the First World War.  Sheer numbers alone could have crushed the British regulars and Canadian militia in that year.  Any experience the former gleaned from its observations of the Civil War, or participation in the Crimea, the Indian Rebellion of 1857-1858, or China in 1860 would have been of limited value against an experienced, rapidly approaching foe.  Yet the U.S. Army had also learned how to wage “hard war.”  Stubborn rebel resistance compelled them to change tactics from winning secessionists back to their original allegiances into punishing the civilian population for supporting the Confederacy.  In 1861 and1862 Union soldiers received orders to respect civilian property, including slaves.  When this failed, indeed encouraged the rebels to continue fighting, commanders in the field adopted harsher measures.  They destroyed anything that may aid Confederate resistance, including enlisting slaves as soldiers or laborers.  The Army also demonstrated its ability to march through the heart of rebel territory with impunity, best exemplified by Sherman’s March to the Sea and Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign, both in 1864.  Both, along with the loss of so many men, helped to destroy the Confederacy by April 1865.  The Army would have employed the same tactics on the Canadian colonies as the best means to end the war rapidly.  Had they invaded, they would have done up north what they had done down South.  

Imagine if you will President Johnson, Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordering General Grant to redeploy the armies to the northern border.  They mass by rail at Detroit, Buffalo, and Burlington, Vermont aiming for Canada West, the Niagara Region and Montreal, respectively.  Another small army made of cavalry forms in Wisconsin with order to move overland on Manitoba.  A fleet carrying more troops sails from Boston for Halifax.  Another gathers at San Francisco to move on the West Coast.  Opposing them are a few British regulars and some militia, no more than thirty thousand and of varying degrees of training.  Ironically, they include Union Civil War veterans their ranks.  The Detroit Army moves eastward, ripping up the recently completed Grand Trunk Railroad along the way as it heads for Toronto.  As local forces move to block them, the Buffalo Army moves in first to capture them from behind along the Niagara front.  The Burlington Army pins down resistance in the Montreal area, the largest population center in the Canadas at the time.  The Wisconsin cavalry force seizes Winnipeg in an epic overland march that catches the defenders completely by surprise.  The East Coast fleet blockades the Atlantic ports and captures its fortifications, much as the West Coast force does on the Pacific.  In a few weeks, the remnants of British North America surrenders after giving limited resistance.  At the resulting peace conference, the British sign their colonies over to the United States.  The population must then decide whether to accept their new government or return to Europe.

None of this would ever happen.  At war’s end, the British went to great lengths to repair relations with the United States.  The tragic death of President Lincoln created great sympathy for them in Britain.  Queen Victoria wrote a very nice handwritten letter of condolence to Mary Lincoln, approved by the cabinet.  The resulting negotiations over damages caused by the raider Alabama and the subsequent Treaty of Washington helped mend a tortured state of affairs.  The status of the Dominion of Canada was also secured for all time.  Moreover, the United States Army all but disappeared within weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.  Its half-million or so men returned to their homes and families.  The Army deployed its few troops left standing to the South to aid with Reconstruction and the Freedman’s Bureau, to the West to fight the Indians and help white migration, and to seacoast forts.  The only special force in being was an army deployed to Texas to deter the French then occupying Mexico. Therein lays one of the great ironies of the original Canadian narrative: the U.S. was more worried about the French to the south than the British to the north.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which the United States would have needed to attack Canada in the narrow time frame where both the need and the means existed for them to do so.  Perhaps an unprovoked British attack on the Eastern Seaboard in 1865 could have convinced the Americans to act, but this is extremely unlikely.  

In sum, the United States posed a real and serious threat to Canada in 1865.  If unleashed, their troops would most certainly have won and wreaked the greatest ruin on their enemies.  Railroads made it possible for them to move quickly and decisively at multiple points simultaneously in contrast to previous efforts.  Their hard war policy and desire to end the matter quickly would undoubtedly have turned the tide against the British and Canadians.  Yet the razor-thin window of opportunity and strong diplomacy prevented this from ever occurring.  Certainly this was well known at the time.  That it continues in the Canadian mindset stems from current concerns with living next to and being allied with the U.S. as a world superpower more than a realistic portrayal of the past.  It confirms my belief that Canadians are as much purveyors of bad history as anyone.  It is not healthy and must be corrected.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Django Unchained

Sorry for the long delay but I've been distracted by numerous things as of late.  I just wanted to chime in on one issue.  Over the holiday I saw Quentin Tarantino's latest film Django Unchained, a violent epic about an escaped slave seeking his wife in antebellum Mississippi.  It's mostly an homage to spaghetti westerns from Sergio Leone, which blunts most of its historicity.  There's no way on earth white Mississippians, or Southerners, or Northerners for that matter, would have allowed a black man to walk around freely carrying a gun.  Not a chance.  They feared slave insurrections more than anything else.  They would have shot him dead at first sight.  That aside, the film gets one thing brutally correct: the horrors of slavery.  Tarantino depicts just how whites treated their enslaved people.  There's no paternalism or patriarchy on those plantations.  It's forced labor, pure and simple, no kindness or gentility at all.  The scene with so-called "mandingo fighting" where two slaves fight each other to the death is especially effective here.  Other moments such as when escaped slave D'Artagnan is ripped to death by dogs sustains this view.  It's a very unsettling movie and not for the squeamish.  It should promote more discussion in public about the relationship between violence and slavery.

It appears that one issue has already been raised and resolved.  Someone decided to make Django Unchained action figures.  Who thought this would be a good idea?  Al Sharpton clearly did not think so.  Thanks to him and others, these dolls have been pulled from the stores.  Thank goodness.  Here's a link:


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.