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

April 8, 2011

Some interesting historical items caught my eye today.

WORLD WAR II

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.

THE CIVIL WAR

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 TheState.com reported this week that ancestry.com, 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.

TUNES

My soundtrack for today included:
1. GROWING UP Peter Gabriel
2. KNOCKIN’ ON HEAVEN’S DOOR Bob Dylan
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
8. EVOLUTION REVOLUTION LOVE Tricky
9. RUNNING ON FAITH (Unplugged) Eric Clapton
10. I’M LOSING YOU Rod Stewart

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