Stowe’s Civil War

I had some writer’s block the other night, and, as always, I turned to narrative historian David McCullough for some inspiration. One book in particular always re-energizes my creative energy, “Brave Companions: Portraits in History.”

I had some writer’s block the other night, and, as always, I turned to narrative historian David McCullough for some inspiration. One book in particular always re-energizes my creative energy, “Brave Companions: Portraits in History.” His incredibly diverse collection of historical essays and articles is probably one of my all-time favorite books. Among the best are illustrations of Alexander von Humboldt, Louis Agassiz, Frederic Remington, and the U.S. Congress, along with a brilliant tour guide for Washington D.C. and a musing on a special clock that tracks more than just the time.

One of the pieces is about Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the 1852 novel that made her an international celebrity overnight. As I bask in the resurgence of public interest in the Civil War, I’ll share with you what McCullough writes about Stowe during the war:

“When war came, everyone told her it was her war, and she thought so too. In South Carolina, as the war commenced, the wife of a plantation owner wrote in her diary that naturally slavery had to go, but added, ‘Yes, how I envy those saintly Yankee women, in their clean cool New England homes, writing to make their fortunes and to shame us.’

“Harriet Stowe never saw the Civil War as anything but a war to end slavery, and all her old Beecher pacifist principles went right out the window. ‘Better, a thousand times better, open, manly, energetic war, than cowardly and treacherous peace,’ she proclaimed. Her oldest son, Frederick, put on a uniform and went off to fight. Impatient with Lincoln for not announcing emancipation right away, she went down to Washington when he finally proclaimed that the slaves would be free, and was received privately in the White House. The scene is part of our folklore. ‘So this is the little woman who made this big war,’ Lincoln is supposed to have said as he shook her hand.

“She was sitting in the gallery at the Boston Music Hall, attending a concert, on January 1, 1863, the day the Emancipation Proclamation became effective. When an announcement of the historic event was made from the stage, someboday called out that she was in the gallery. In an instant the audience was on its feet cheering while she stood and bowed, her bonnet awry.”


My poolside soundtrack for today included:
1. IN THE CLUB 50 Cent
5. LET IT RIDE Dr. Dre
6. GIN & JUICE Snoop Dogg
7. BREAK U OFF Kool Keith
8. YOU CAN DO IT Ice Cube
9. NUTHIN’ BUT A G-THANG Snoop Dogg & Dr. Dre
10. LOSE CONTROL (Stonebridge mix) Missy Elliott, Ciara & Fatman Scoop

‘Youth is the weapon’

The cost of youthful idealism, the history of Iraq, some useful writing tips, notable books and journals I’ve recently received, and the soundtrack for a Beautiful Blues Friday.

Deadly idealism

The New York Times recently reminded me of an aspect of story of African and Middle Eastern uprising I hadn’t thought about before: how this revolutionary and reformatory fervor must appear to Iraqi youth politically suffocated by the limping government.

Supplementing their article, the At War news blog offered quotes from Iraqis collected during the reporting, “a sampling of their comments on three topics vital to the country’s future: democracy, faith and the future of the young generation.” Sherzad Omar Rafeq, a Kirkuk attorney: “The youth is the weapon of the next change in Iraq, and especially in the Kurdistan region, through demonstrations and sit-ins that are forcing change and overthrowing corrupted people.”

Youthful idealism has always frightened me, if only because history has showed me so many dreams of change end up in the gutters of geo-political reality, especially after U.S. force is utilized to take down those “corrupted people.” I used to condemn my own cynicism. I don’t anymore. I just remind myself to check particular numbers on a particular list to see the price of idealism. I don’t want to ever see any more lists like that one, especially if they’re the consequence of anyone’s youthful idealism, conceived on the streets of Baghdad or behind the desk in the Oval Office.

Speaking of Iraq, take a moment to listen to PRI’s stunning three-part series on the history of Iraq, the torturous British legacy and its bloody history with the United States.

Beautiful Blue Friday

My soundtrack for today included:
2. BLOOD AND SNOW The Melissa Ludwig Band
3. TAKE ME Mable John
5. LAST NIGHT Little Walter
7. I’M A MAN Bo Diddley
8. THAT’S ALL RIGHT Mighty Joe Young
10. DEATH LETTER Cassandra Wilson

Writing tips

Over at the Guardian’s Punctuated Equilibrium blog, Henry Gee contributed his 10 tips for good writing. I feel better, knowing I already follow “the first six.” Check it out here.

Journals and books recently received

1. “The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power” by Sean McMeekin. Belknap Harvard. $29.95
2. The Journal of Military History. April 2011, Vol. 75, No. 2
3. “The Union War” by Gary W. Gallagher. Harvard.
4. The Journal of the Civil War Era. March 2011. Vol. 1, No. 1
5. Civil War History. March 2011. Vol. 57. No. 1

The Handbook of Civil War Texas is unveiled

Thrilling news (for me, anyway) arrived in my email today. The Texas State Historical Association, which produces the magnificent Handbook of Texas, has unveiled the Handbook of Civil War Texas, a collection of “more than 800 entries, including some 325 new articles about Texas people, places and events in the Civil War.”

Thrilling news (for me, anyway) arrived in my email today. The Texas State Historical Association, which produces the magnificent Handbook of Texas, has unveiled the Handbook of Civil War Texas, a collection of “more than 800 entries, including some 325 new articles about Texas people, places and events in the Civil War.”

The editors have essentially pulled together all the Handbook of Texas articles with any link to the Civil War and then supplemented the collection with the 300+ new pieces. Also sprinkled among the articles are beautiful Civil War-era images from two Southern Methodist University photo collections.

It’s an impressive achievement, and it’s sure to be a lasting one. Begin your journey into Civil War-era Texas here.

Grant in 3-D, Fort Moultrie, and the blame for the first shot

What an embarrassment of riches … so many great articles, essays and interactives exploring the beginning of the Civil War. Here are few of my favorite pieces from the last few days.

What an embarrassment of riches … so many great articles, essays and interactives exploring the beginning of the Civil War. Here are few of my favorite pieces from the last few days:

(Photo credit: Matt Raymond, Library of Congress)

1. Civil War-era photos in 3-D. Sound strange? Let the Library of Congress explain: “Although 3-D technology seems new, stereo photography first became popular around the time of the Civil War. In fact, many Civil War photographs were made specifically to be viewed in 3-D. To bring the historical and modern 3-D methods closer together, the Library of Congress is featuring images of original Civil War stereographs in Flickr along with recently acquired digital anaglyphs made from several of the stereo views. Anaglyphs are those blurry images that pop into 3-D with the help of special glasses that have one red and one blue lens.”

2. “Civil War 150 Years” The Charleston Post and Courier has pulled together an impressive online package of interactive timelines and maps, slideshows, videos, a 20-part series on Charleston’s brutal wartime experiences, reader stories, and links to other sesquicentennial coverage from all over the web.

3. What about Fort Moultrie? Every April 12, Fort Sumter gets all the commemorative glory. But before South Carolina seceded, Maj. Robert Anderson and his Federal troops were stationed at Moultrie. The National Park Service website offers a fascinating history of the installation. I didn’t know Moultrie was used right up until the end of World War II. Also, don’t forget to check out the Online Documents section, where they’ve posted historical studies of Fort Moultrie’s battles by famed historian Edwin C. Bearss.

4. Fort Sumter history: C-SPAN 3 just posted a six-minute video of National Park Service Historian Rich Hatcher providing a snappy and informative briefing on how and why Sumter was built, how it was armed, and why, in the end, it was surrendered. Great little history.

(Photo credit: Library of Congress)

5. Who is to blame for first shot? The Washington Post pulled together a fantastic array of historians to argue over Abraham Lincoln’s decision to re-supply Fort Sumter and his underlying motivations, if any. Did he purposely provoke the Confederates into firing on the fort, thereby placing the blame for the start of hostilities on their shoulders? Was he simply following the example set by his predecessor, Democrat James Buchanan? Did Lincoln just hope for the best, hope for “cooler heads” to take charge of Southern secessionist passions? Read and find out.


Eclipsed by all my gleeful excitement over marking Civil War events from 150 years ago is another seminal event from only 50 years ago: Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space.

Eclipsed by all my gleeful excitement over marking Civil War events from 150 years ago is another seminal event from only 50 years ago: Yuri Gagarin becomes the first human in space.

The Associated Press recently moved a wonderful story about the man, the mission, and the race to the moon his achievement provoked (beautifully explored by one of my favorite miniseries). “Gagarin’s flight on the Vostok was entirely automated,” reporter Vladimir Isachenkov writes, “yet simply by having the courage to face the unknown, he taught his fellow humans a vital lesson: that they had a future in space.”

Keep an eye out for more stellar (pun intended) Gagarin coverage this week. As always, BBC News is a great place to start. (Photo: Associated Press file)


My soundtrack for today included:
1. CAN’T YOU HEAR ME KNOCKING The Rolling Stones
2. DEEP DARK TRUTHFUL MIRROR (Unplugged) Elvis Costello
4. GIMME SHELTER The Rolling Stones
7. MUSIC Madonna
8. AND I LOVE HER The Beatles
9. SHE’S WAITING Eric Clapton
10. HEY JOE Jimi Hendrix

Nazi belt buckles, sunset at Gettysburg … and Rod Stewart, baby

Some interesting historical items caught my eye today.


1. The British newspaper The Telegraph recently published a fascinating report on MI5 files from World War II, warning Allied forces that special Nazi agents planned to infiltrate liberated areas of Europe with poisoned aspirin pills, a gun hidden in a belt buckle and an arsenal of other clever weapons in order to spread paranoia, damage morale and murder high-ranking officials.

“The information came from a four-strong unit of German agents,” the article said, “including one woman, who were parachuted into Ayon, near St Quentin in France in March 1945, two months before the end of the war. They had been flown from Stuttgart in a captured B17 Flying Fortress, which dropped them behind enemy lines before getting shot down.”

Don’t forget to check out a photo of the very cool belt-buckle pistol, which is paired with the main Hitler photo at the top of the story. Can’t miss it. This online article is part of a larger Telegraph special report on all things World War II, including links to other fascinating pieces on Adolf Eichmann’s regrets, plans for a post-war “Fourth Reich”, and a plot to kill Winston Churchill, along with slideshows on wartime posters, wartime London and Iwo Jima. Great little package.

2. That reminds me of one of my favorite shows, “Secrets of the Dead,” which took a closer look at Winston Churchill’s cold, calculated decision to destroy the French fleet (and kill any French sailors that stood in his way) after France surrendered to the Nazis. He didn’t want the fleet, which was based at Mers El Kébir in French Algeria, used in the German attempt to invade England. It’s a stunning story.


1. As time runs out for reasonable compromise to avoid another ridiculous government shutdown, the Associated Press recently updated its list of ways the shutdown would affect regular American life, including the festivities marking the beginning of the Civil War at Fort Sumter. Like I said, ridiculous.

2. The Washington Post‘s wonderful “Five Myths” series recently included two items from the Civil War arena: Why the South seceded (states’ rights or slavery?) and Abraham Lincoln (Was he gay? Was he depressed?). Keep an eye on this series for more Civil War topics as the anniversary dates roll past.

3. Columbia, S.C.’s reported this week that, celebrating Civil War festivites in its own way, will allow one week of free access to its 1860 and 1870 census records. The article explains, “The 1860 census is helpful for determining which family members might have served in the Civil War. The 1870 census is the first that detailed many free former slaves.” The free week of access starts today, Thursday, April 7. Thanks to my friend, the attorney Jim Dedman, one of the authors of the legal blog Abnormal Use, for sending this piece my way.

4. Also from the Palmetto State, Charleston Magazine offers A Civil Discourse, a collection of short essays from lawyers, historians and politicians, all reflecting on what the Civil War means to them and to their lives. The last line of the last essay said it best, “It is only by discussing the war truthfully and recalling its lessons with humility, courage, and grace that we will continue to heal and prosper.” The sentiments were truly touching. Are those quivers of hope and optimism I’m feeling in my withered, cynical heart?

5. Thanks to my friend Kathleen Hendrix for sending me this gem: The Washington Post recently reported that on April 12 the Library of Congress opens a new exhibit of photos of men who fought on both sides of the war. “Titled ‘The Last Full Measure: Civil War Photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection,'” the article says, “the exhibit features 400 haunting pictures of the average Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs. …”

Check out the Library’s entire collection here.

6. The Baltimore Sun recently assembled a great slideshow celebrating “some of the best and most memorable works from and about the Civil War.”

Appropriately, the slideshow includes film classics like “Gone with the Wind,” “Roots,” and “North and South.” Some recent films included were “Glory” (charge!), “Cold Mountain” (>yawn<), and my personal favorite, “Gettysburg” (“Gen. Lee, I have no division!” God, I love that movie.) Thankfully, the historical and artistic travesty “God and Generals,” the prequel to “Gettysburg,” was ignored. Personally, I would have included on this list the excellent films “The Hunley,” “Ride with the Devil,” (a new Criterion Collection edition!) and “Andersonville” (the TNT version).

The slideshow also included authors Stephen Crane, Michael Shaara and Bruce Catton. If I have to explain why, let’s just part ways as friends right now. My own slideshow also would have included Gordon Rhea’s great series on the 1864 Overland Campaign, Gary W. Gallagher’s “Lee: The Soldier,” Shelby Foote’s entire Civil War narrative history, James McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln,” and, of course, U.S. Grant’s memoirs.

Thanks to my old friend David D. Robbins Jr., editor of the fantastic blogs The Fade Out, Their Bated Breath and Rustle of Language, for pointing out the Sun‘s slideshow to me.

7. Speaking of Civil War films, Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator” premieres on April 15. Its Facebook page describes the film: “In the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, seven men and one woman are arrested and charged with conspiring to kill the President, the Vice-President, and the Secretary of State. The lone woman charged, Mary Surratt, 42, owns a boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and others met and planned the simultaneous attacks. Against the ominous back-drop of post-Civil War Washington, newly-minted lawyer, Frederick Aiken, a 28-year-old Union war-hero, reluctantly agrees to defend Surratt before a military tribunal. As the trial unfolds, Aiken realizes his client may be innocent and that she is being used as bait and hostage in order to capture the only conspirator to have escaped a massive manhunt, her own son. A suspenseful thriller with action throughout, The Conspirator tells the true story of a woman who would do anything to protect her family and the man who risked everything to save her.”

Could be good. We’ll see. Watch the trailer here.

8. Historian Thomas Connelly, writing in the Wall Street Journal, urges people who want to understand the true complexity and drama of the battles to walk the fields, hills and lanes on which they were fought. “Many Civil War battlefields have their ‘bloody lanes’ or ‘stone walls’ ” he writes. “A supposedly impregnable defense or irresistible attack could give way in the blink of an eye, resulting in slaughter. It is hard to imagine how this could happen until you see the ground itself. But once you see it, those quick shifts in the tide of battle become chillingly vivid.”

I certainly agree with him. I remember almost exactly 12 years when I visited the Gettysburg battlefield for the first time. I arrived late in the afternoon, too late to do any real exploring. That would have to wait for the next day (which was amazing). But I knew I had just enough time to make it to Little Round Top. I poked around, parked the car, dodged a squadron of bikers racing down the shaded street, and somehow found my way up to the summit. I stood next to a statue of Union Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, one of the heroes of the battle. All around me were men and women re-enactors, beautifully dressed, saying nothing. The air was still, the birds quiet. Not even the leaves rustled. We all stood silent, transfixed by the beauty of the setting sun. The ridges below, the infamous pikes and ridges, the thickets, the monuments, and that terrible field where Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s doomed men charged — it was all bathed in a strange, red-orange haze.

It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. I opened my cell phone to call Ayse, my then-girlfriend, to share it with her. I dialed the number, listened to it ring, and then she answered.

“Hi, darling,” I said. “I’m standing — ”

“Hold on, let me call you back.” She hung up.

I stood there in momentary disbelief. As I waited, I imagined the horrific Confederate attacks on this small hill, its desperate Union defenders somehow fighting off one attack after another. Every rock, twig, leaf, and branch must have been glistening with blood. The ground must have been soaked with it.

The phone rang. I answered.

“Sorry!” she said. “The Spurs were kicking some ass. Game just ended. What’s up, honey?”

“Oh, nothing,” I said, sighing to myself, watching the sun sink into the western horizon. The moment was gone.


My soundtrack for today included:
1. GROWING UP Peter Gabriel
3. GLORIA Van Morrison
4. TINY DANCER Elton John
5. RIVERS OF BABYLON The Melodians
6. SOUTHERN CROSS Crosby, Stills & Nash
7. THAT CERTAIN FEMALE Charlie Feathers
9. RUNNING ON FAITH (Unplugged) Eric Clapton
10. I’M LOSING YOU Rod Stewart

A moment to dream

I can only hope that my work someday becomes required reading for students, even if only because they look cool with my name — with what it symbolizes — under their arms.

I just listened to Daniel Alarcon read Roberto Bolano’s short story “Gomez Palacio” on the New Yorker’s Fiction podcast. The host, Deborah Treisman, asked Alarcon if he was aware of Bolano’s work before it was translated into English. Alarcon responded, “I’d heard of him. He was one of those writers that was sort of starting to become very, very well known. … Two years later he was one of those writers that every university student had a copy of his book under their arm. …”

I can only hope that my work someday becomes required reading for students, even if only because they look cool with my name — with what it symbolizes — under their arms. I hope my words relax them, my imagination excites them, my ideas inspire them.

I don’t mind becoming part of civilization’s background noise. I don’t mind being obscure or forgotten, eclipsed or rejected. Someone somewhere at some time will find what I write fascinating, exciting or comforting. For that one person, at least, as well for myself do I write the chapters of these novels, the lines of these short stories, and the endless outlines cleverly tying it all together to the same universe. In 50 or 100 years, the work will live on, and so will I, like the Voyager spacecraft hurtling through the great expanse of incomprehensible time and empty space.

“Greetings, mankind. Meet Fernando Ortiz Jr., a writer who once loved, laughed and lived. Read what you hold in your hands. It’s beautiful and timeless. It’s wise and strange. It’s about your loves, your laughter and your lives. Enjoy it, and remember him with a smile.”


My soundtrack for today included:
1. SAMBA PA TI Santana
2. YOUNG LUST Pink Floyd
3. FAREWELL RIDE Beck (once used in a powerful teaser for the last season of “The Shield”)
6. 6 UNDERGROUND Sneaker Pimps
7. THE FORGOTTEN PEOPLE Thievery Corporation
10. THRU AND THRU The Rolling Stones

Doomed astronauts and doomed Romans

I’m ending my night with this chilling gem from the November 2003 edition of Atlantic Monthly, “Columbia’s Last Flight” by William Langewiesche.

This was Langewiesche’s first piece after his multi-part report from the World Trade Center site, one of my favorite pieces from the magazine. Find more of his work here.

Also, check out one of my favorite shows, “Secrets of the Dead,” which took a closer look at what really happened at the Roman city of Herculaneum when Mount Vesuvius exploded, burying it and Pompeii for centuries. Later, the series explored the recent discovery of Roman cargo ships near the beautiful Italian island of Ventotene. Why they were there and why they sank has been a famous mystery, until now.

Party like it’s 1861

We’re little more than a week away from the 150th anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, a Federal military installation in Charleston Harbor, where, our history books tell us, the American Civil War officially began.


Until now, legions of commemorative tweets, blogs, multimedia and special anthologies have been busy celebrating and studying the fascinating events of 1859, 1860 and early 1861, which saw brutal fighting in Kansas, John Brown’s doomed raid at Harper’s Ferry, Va., the 1860 presidential victory of Republican Abraham Lincoln, the stunning first and second waves of Southern secession, the inauguration of Jefferson Davis and the birth of the Confederacy. I’ve studied the Civil War era for 20 years, and the public’s recently re-energized enthusiasm for — and for some rediscovery of — the era has made me very happy. It’s been just so damn fun.
Disunion, the excellent blog from the New York Times, has used diary entries, photos and other primary sources — coupled with mostly very good historical articles — to examine day by day the thinking of intellectuals, journalists, politicians, men and women alike, watching alongside them as the world they knew slowly crumbles all around them. The short essays, soldier profiles and stories in the 21st century capture with heartbreaking beauty what must have been an excruciating 19th century sense of hopelessness and terror, excitement and determination, dreams of a better world or grim resolve to preserve what had existed for generations.

The Associated Press has pulled together a package of multimedia, interactives, historical coverage and contemporary analysis of the events and the era. Much if not all of it should be available on their special Facebook page. Keep an eye on my Civil War Facebook group for interesting links to articles, essays and interactives. Crossroads and Bull Runnings are two great blogs by Civil War historians that never fail to enlighten me. In March, Kent State University Press unveiled the new editorial staff for the journal Civil War History, and University of North Carolina Press premiered The Journal of the Civil War Era. The latter is edited by William Blair, who just recently was editor of the former. I’ll be a faithful and passionate reader of both journals and note on this blog anything particularly interesting from their pages.

Forget the History Channel when it comes to Civil War documentaries. Full disclosure: The only thing I’m stupidly snobbish about is historical documentaries. Tip: If what you’re watching has commercial breaks, it’s not a real documentary. PBS is still the gold standard when it comes to intelligent exploration and analysis of the Civil War era, and they jumped into commemoration party with a rebroadcast of “The Civil War,” the factually flawed but otherwise gorgeous Ken Burns miniseries. But don’t stop there. Over the past decade, “American Experience” has produced a treasure chest of excellent pieces on the aforementioned psychotic John Brown, Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Lincoln’s murder and its aftermath, the poet Walt Whitman, on U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, on the industrial economy over which they fought, and on the endlessly fascinating and horrific Reconstruction era.

But for some the real fun begins on April 12 at 4:30 a.m., the moment the rebel guns opened fire on Fort Sumter and the Federal troops inside. Fresh studies of the 1861 battles are sure to follow, along with examinations of the early Civil War careers of Grant, Lee, George McClellan, William T. Sherman, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Braxton Bragg, George H. Thomas and others destined for star performances on the bloody stage. Finally, watch for some new book criticism from me as long-ago pre-ordered Civil War books are finally delivered, including Gary W. Gallagher’s “The Union War.”

Save me a seat and a cigar. I’ll definitely be at this party.

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Melora Johnson's Muse

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