Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: Havana’s neon past / 48 hours that almost destroyed Trump / The myth of nice-guy Gen. Lee / The voice of a Ken Burns documentary film / Women on the edge of the ‘glass cliff’

This week: Havana’s neon past / 48 hours that almost destroyed Trump / The myth of nice-guy Gen. Lee / The voice of a Ken Burns documentary film / Women on the edge of the ‘glass cliff’

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism. Learn more about my academic background here.

1. In Search of the Brain’s Social Road Maps
By Matthew Schafer and Daniela Schiller | Scientific American | January 2020
“Neural circuits that track our whereabouts in space and time may also play vital roles in determining how we relate to other people”

2. Inside the restoration of Havana’s 20th-century neon signs
The Economist | January 2020
“After the Cuban revolution, much of the signage was destroyed or fell into disrepair. One artist has made it luminous again.”

3. Do women feel guilt after having an abortion? No, mainly relief
By Suzanne Moore | The Guardian | January 2020
“Most women don’t regret their decision to have a termination — and that outlook could help us protect reproductive rights”

4. Is this the most powerful word in the English language?
Helene Schumacher | BBC Culture | January 2020
“The most commonly-used word in English might only have three letters — but it packs a punch.”

5. ‘Mother Is Not Going to Like This’: The 48 Hours That Almost Brought Down Trump
By Tim Alberta | Politico Magazine | July 2019
“The exclusive story of how Trump survived the Access Hollywood tape.”

6. The Myth of the Kindly General Lee
By Adam Serwer | The Atlantic | June 2017
“The legend of the Confederate leader’s heroism and decency is based in the fiction of a person who never existed.”

7. The Golden Voice Behind All Those Ken Burns Documentaries
By Tim Greiving | Vulture | September 2019
” His calm, cowboy-around-a-campfire timbre is basically the voice of America, at least within the orbit of PBS.”

8. The ‘glass cliff’ puts women in power during crisis — often without support
By Traci Tong | PRI :: The World | March 2019
“It’s the phenomenon of women in leadership roles — CEOs or political figures — who are far more likely to ascend to leadership roles during a crisis, when the risk of failure is highest.”

9. What Survival Looks Like After the Oceans Rise
By Andrea Frazzetta | The New York Times Magazine | April 2019
“At the site of a Bangladeshi town lost to devastating storms, locals make do by scavenging what remains.”

10. Slavery and Abolition
By Brooks Winfree | Not Even Past :: UT Austin Department of History | April 2018
“Who were abolitionists How did they organize What were their methods And, considering that it took a Civil War to put an end to slavery, did they have any real effect”

Amerikan Rambler: ‘A Great and a Terrible Day’: The Battle of Antietam

From Nov. 2013: “The story of the Army of the Potomac from late-1861 to late-1862 is the story of an internal battle between the ‘Young Napoleon’ and the Lincoln Administration.”

Lee got lucky to have fought the North to a draw in Maryland. However, despite being outnumbered 2:1, Lee held a psychological advantage over McClellan that allowed him to fight a better battle tactically. McClellan always thought Lee had more men, and it was this delusion that gave Lee confidence that he could carry the day.

via “A Great and a Terrible Day”: The Battle of Antietam — Amerikan Rambler: Everybody Has a Story

Amerikan Rambler: Podcast, Episode 4: Robert E. Lee and the Politics of Historic Preservation

From Dec. 2015: “Colin talks about the recent efforts to remove statues of Confederate leaders, including one of Robert E. Lee, in New Orleans. Is this a good idea? And if so, by what criteria do we measure historical figures?”

In this episode, Colin talks about the recent efforts to remove statues of Confederate leaders, including one of Robert E. Lee, in New Orleans. Is this a good idea? And if so, by what criteria do we measure historical figures?

via Podcast, Episode 4: Robert E. Lee and the Politics of Historic Preservation — Amerikan Rambler: Everybody Has a Story

Recommended reading / viewing / listening

This week: The myth of Robert E. Lee / The liberalism of Islam / Comey’s intellectual history / Trump’s credibility / Writing in a library

This week: The myth of Robert E. Lee / The liberalism of Islam / Comey’s intellectual history / Trump’s credibility / Writing in a library

Most of these great items come from my social media networks. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and Facebook for more fascinating videos, photos, articles, essays, and criticism.

1. The Myth of the Kindly General Lee
By Adam Serwer | The Atlantic | June 4
“Lee had beaten or ordered his own slaves to be beaten for the crime of wanting to be free, he fought for the preservation of slavery, his army kidnapped free blacks at gunpoint and made them unfree — but all of this, he insisted, had occurred only because of the great Christian love the South held for blacks.”

2. There Is No Better Place to Write than the Library
By Joe Kanon | Atria :: LitHub | June 8
“For over twenty years I have been writing in the New York Public Library — eight novels and a ninth underway — and I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”

3. In defense of ‘The Skimm’
By Kaitlin Ugolik | Columbia Journalism Review | June 6
“Yes, the news is often complicated. Yes, we should encourage readers to pay attention for more than a few minutes each day. But when we imply that there is only one ‘right’ way to consume the news, or to be informed, we exclude people who don’t — or can’t — fit that mold.”

4. NASA Jobs: The Application, Selection Process For How To Become An Astronaut
By Nina Godlewski | International Business Times | June 7
“There’s no set schedule for how frequently NASA puts out a call for applicants. Since 2000 it has announced classes in 2004, 2009, 2013 and now 2017. … So if you’ve been dreaming of space, you may have to wait a few more years to get your next shot at the stars.”

5. James Comey’s Intellectual History
By Nicholas Schmidle | The New Yorker | June 7
“After graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, in 1985, Comey clerked for Judge John Walker, Jr., George H. W. Bush’s cousin, in the Southern District of New York. Comey became a Republican. In public, however, he portrayed himself as nonpartisan.”

6. ‘The Leftovers,’ Life, Death, Einstein and Time Travel
By Maureen Ryan | Variety | May 2017
“‘The Leftovers’ is about quantum mechanics. Don’t let the sex cults and post-death karaoke distract you. It is essentially a showcase for physics.”

7. The 35 words you’re (probably) getting wrong
By Harold Evans | The Guardian | June 5
“Have you made a flagrant error, in confusing your alternative choices? The legendary Fleet Street editor Harold Evans proscribes this glossary to solve your language dilemmas”

8. AP FACT CHECK: Trump contradicts homeland security secretary
By Calvin Woodward and Jim Drinkard | Associated Press | June 5
“President Donald Trump can’t be counted on to give accurate information to Americans when violent acts are unfolding abroad.”

9. Trump’s dangerous delusions about Islam
By Christopher de Bellaigue | The Guardian | February 2017
“The president and his advisers paint Muslims as enemies of modernity. The neglected history of an age of Middle Eastern liberalism proves them wrong”

10. Governor Struggles to Lead as Texas Republicans Splinter Into Factions
By Manny Fernandez and David Montgomery | The New York Times | June 5
“Mr. Abbott is facing a fundamental question: How conservative is conservative enough for the governor of a state that defines the right in America as much as California defines the left?”

Amerikan Rambler: Stonewall Jackson’s Arm

From June 2012: “Jackson had just helped Robert E. Lee win one of his greatest victories against a northern army that outnumbered the Rebels 2:1. Yet, it was a dearly bought victory.”

Stonewall Jackson was wounded at the battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863 by his own troops while scouting a mission in the dark. Anxious Confederate pickets thought he was a Yankee and opened fire on him and those riding with him.

via Stonewall Jackson’s Arm — Amerikan Rambler: Everybody Has a Story

Loreta’s Civil War: The proper costume of my sex

Velazquez barely escapes a hotel fire, reunites with her missing slave, and returns to Richmond to resume her espionage activities.

KS53

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart will share edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.

You can read the entire 1876 memoir online here. Learn more about Velazquez (and the incredible documentary film Maria Agui Carter made about her) here.

Part 25: Velazquez barely escapes a hotel fire, reunites with her missing slave, and returns to Richmond to resume her espionage activities.

******

In leaving New Orleans I had no very definite plans for the immediate future … but did not doubt of my ability to find a field for the display of my talents ere a great while. I was now more intent than ever upon being employed on detective and scouting duty, for which my recent residence in New Orleans had been an excellent schooling; so excellent, indeed, that I considered myself as well out of my apprenticeship, and as quite competent to assume all the responsibilities of the most difficult or dangerous jobs that might be thrust upon me. …

I judged that matters ought soon to be approaching a crisis somewhere, although exactly what definite aims the belligerents were driving at, if, indeed, they had any just then, I could not comprehend. I resolved, if a grand movement of any kind was coming off, that I must have a hand in it in some shape but that if something of importance was not attempted before a great while I would return to Virginia and see what Fortune had in store for me there. I judged, however, that I would not have much difficulty in finding work to do in the West if I went about looking for it in the right way, and I knew of no better locality in which to seek the information I needed before commencing operations in the field again than Jackson.

To Jackson, therefore, I went … and arrived just in time to witness an occurrence for which I was sincerely sorry. This was the burning of the Bowman House by [Confederate Gen. John C.] Breckenridge’s men, who were infuriated at being told that the proprietor had permitted the Federals to occupy the hotel, and that he had entertained them. … The unfortunate man was in reality not to blame in the matter, for the Federals had occupied his house without his consent. … This incident will serve to show the desperately unpleasant position of the non-combatants throughout this whole region at this and later periods of the war. They were literally between two fires, and no matter how peaceably disposed they might be, they could satisfy neither party and were made to suffer by both. The proprietor of the Bowman House was forced to witness a fine property destroyed before his eyes through the reckless and unthinking anger of men who never stopped to inquire whether he was guilty or not of any offense against them or their cause before taking vengeance upon him. He was reduced to poverty by the burning of his hotel, and I could not help feeling the keenest regret for the occurrence, although I recognized it as one of the inevitable calamities of warfare.

I was, myself, in the hotel when it was fired and barely succeeded in escaping from the building with my life. Not expecting any such occurrence, I had taken rooms and was proceeding to make myself comfortable when, all of a sudden, I found that it was in flames, and that it would be as much as I could do to get out unscathed. The men who fired the building did not give the proprietor an opportunity to make explanations, or if they did, they refused to believe him. …

Several times already had the Federals made attacks of greater or less importance on Vicksburg, which city was now the most important position held by the Confederacy, and commanding the Mississippi River as it did, its possession was considered a matter of the most vital importance. The fall of Vicksburg, everybody knew, would practically give the Federals possession of the river throughout its entire length, and as such a calamity would … be an even greater blow to the Confederate cause than the fall of New Orleans had been. … That sooner or later the Federals would make a more determined effort than they had done previously to take this post appeared to be certain but the natural advantages of the position were such and the fortifications in course of construction were so strong … that the utmost confidence in the ability of the garrison to hold it was felt by every one. …

On my arrival at Jackson I heard of my negro boy Bob for the first time since I had lost him, just after the battle of Shiloh. I therefore proceeded to Grenada, where I found the darkey, who appeared to be heartily glad to see me again after such a long separation. Bob, it seems, had gone plump into a Federal camp, having missed his road, after I had started him off for Corinth but, not liking the company he found there, had slipped away at the earliest opportunity and had wandered about in a rather aimless manner for some time, seeking for me. Not being able to hear anything of me, he had made up his mind that I was dead, and was quite surprised to see me turn up again alive and well. …

From Grenada, I returned once more to Jackson and found the place in considerable excitement over the prospective army movements but as there did not seem to be much for me to do in the particular line of business I desired to take up, I now determined to put my old intention of returning to Virginia into execution, and … I was soon speeding eastward again on my way to Richmond.

I should have mentioned that after leaving New Orleans I resumed male attire at the earliest possible moment and figured once more as Lt. Harry T. Buford. Perhaps if I had gone to [Confederate Gen. Joseph E.] Johnston or some other commanding officer of high rank and frankly stated that I was a woman, giving at the same time a narrative of my exploits, and furnishing references as guarantees of the truthfulness of my story, I would have obtained the kind of employment I was looking for, with permission to use the garments of either sex, as I might deem expedient for the particular errand I had in hand. …

Once past the Confederate pickets, I believed that I could easily reach Washington, and I felt certain that a skillful spy, such as I esteemed myself now to be, could, without great difficulty, find out plenty of things which the Richmond authorities would be glad to know, and for the furnishing of which they would be glad to extend me such recognition as I desired. The military situation in Virginia, too, was more satisfactory than it was in the West, and I had a hankering to be where the Confederates were occasionally winning some victories. Since I had been in the West, I had witnessed little else than disaster, and I greatly desired to take a hand in a fight when the victory would rest with the Confederates, if only for the sake of variety. …

The war had now been in progress nearly two years, and, although the South had not been conquered, affairs were beginning to look decidedly blue for us. All our fine expectations of an easy achievement of our independence had long since vanished, and the situation every day was getting more and more desperate. The country was becoming exhausted, and had not its natural resources been enormous, our people must, ere this, have given up the contest. As it was, with a large portion of the male population in the field, and with heavy drafts being constantly made upon it to fill the ranks of the armies, the cultivation of the ground was neglected, and the necessities of life every day became scarcer and dearer. We were shut out, too, owing to the stringency of the Federal blockade, from anything like regular intercourse with Europe, and all kinds of manufactured articles, and the food we had been accustomed to import, were held at such enormous figures, that they were utterly beyond the reach of any but the most wealthy. The suffering among the poorer classes in all parts of the South was very great, and in those portions which had been devastated by the tramp of the different armies, many of the people were very nearly on the verge of starvation.

It was fast becoming a serious question how long the contest could be prolonged, unless some signal advantage could speedily be achieved in the field by the Confederate forces. It is impossible to express in words how eagerly all classes looked for the achievement of some such advantage, and how bitter was the disappointment, as month after month wore away, and in spite of occasional victories, the people saw, day by day, the Federals drawing their lines closer and closer, and slowly but surely closing in upon them.

We were now entering upon the desperate stage of the war, when the contest was conducted almost against hope, and had the South been inhabited by a less determined race, or one less animated by a fixed resolve to fight to the very last, and until it was impossible to fight any longer, the Federal forces would have succeeded long ere they did in compelling a surrender of the Confederate armies. The men who commanded the armies, however, were not the sort to give up until they were absolutely defeated, and it was starvation, rather than the Federal arms, that at length forced the contest to the conclusion it reached, by the surrender of the armies under the command of [Robert E.] Lee and [Joseph E.] Johnston. …

Richmond … was a very different place from what it was on my last visit to it, as I soon found to my cost. Martial law was in force in its most rigorous aspect. … Beleaguered as Richmond was, every person was more or less an object of suspicion, and strangers, especially, were watched with a vigilance that left them few opportunities to do mischief, or were put under arrest, and placed in close confinement. …

It is not surprising, therefore, that almost immediately upon my arrival in Richmond I fell under the surveillance … as a suspicious character, and was called upon to give an account of myself. My story was not accepted in the same spirit of credibility that some rather tough yarns I had manufactured in the course of my career, for the purpose of satisfying the curiosity of inquisitive people, had been. … There was, evidently, something suspicious and mysterious about me, and, suspicion having once been excited, some lynx-eyed detective was not long in noting certain feminine ways I had, and which even my long practice in figuring as a man had not enabled me to get rid of, and the result was, that I was arrested on the charge of being a woman in disguise, and supposedly a Federal spy, and was conducted to Castle Thunder to reflect upon the mutabilities of fortune until I could give a satisfactory account of myself.

I thought that this was rather hard lines, but as good luck often comes to us in the guise of present tribulation, as matters turned out it was the very best thing that could have happened to me, for it compelled me to reveal myself and my plans to persons who were willing and able to aid me, and to tell my story to friendly and sympathetic ears.

The commander of Castle Thunder was Major G. W. Alexander, a gentleman who, ever since I made his acquaintance through being committed to his custody as a prisoner, I have always been proud to number among my best and most highly-esteemed friends. Major Alexander and his lovely wife both showed the greatest interest in me, and they treated me with such kindness and consideration that I was induced to tell them exactly who I was, what my purposes were in assuming the male garb, what adventures I had passed through, and what my aspirations were for the future. They not only believed my story, but thinking that my services to the Confederacy merited better treatment than I was then receiving at the hands of the authorities, interested themselves greatly in my behalf.

Both the major and his wife … seemed to be shocked, however, at the idea of a woman dressing herself in the garb of the other sex and attempting to play the part of a soldier, and they eagerly urged me to resume the proper costume of my sex again, assuring me that there would be plenty of work for me to do if I were disposed still to devote myself to the service of the Confederacy. The major, however … was urgent that I should abandon my disguise and represented, in forcible terms, the dangers I ran in persisting in wearing it.

To these remonstrances I turned a deaf ear. I had passed through too many real trials to be frightened by imaginary ones, and I did not like to change my costume under compulsion. I accordingly refused positively to put on the garments of a woman, except as a means of gaining my liberty, and with the full intention of resuming male attire at the earliest opportunity. Major Alexander, therefore, finding me fixed in my determination to have my own way, undertook to have matters arranged to my satisfaction without putting me to the necessity of discarding my disguise. …

Kate Stone’s Civil War: Makes us tremble for Texas

Stone at last confirms the Confederate defeat at Vicksburg, three weeks later. In her mind, Robert E. Lee is the only Confederate commander that still holds the torch of hope for final victory.

KS28

From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

Stone at last confirms the Confederate defeat at Vicksburg, three weeks later. She and her mother worry about the vulnerability of Texas to Union forces. More immediately, they’re worried for their family. If Texas is invaded, how much farther west should they go to escape emancipating Union forces? In Stone’s mind, Robert E. Lee is the only Confederate commander that still holds the torch of hope for final victory.

As Stone bemoans the lack of decent shoes, she gets in one more dig at barefooted Texan women.

July 29, 1863

Lamar County, Texas

Vicksburg is taken without a doubt. If our men had held out only one day longer, they might have been relieved, as Gen. Johnston fought the enemy the following day, in ignorance of the fall of the city, taking 5,000 prisoners and winning a decided victory. But that is not an offset to the 20,000 of our men said to have been captured at Vicksburg. How has the mighty fallen, and to give up on the Fourth of July to make it even worse. We wish they could have held on at least one day longer, but we know nothing of the hardships our soldiers have endured there in the last eight months. We are satisfied, however, that the Confederate soldiers held on as long as possible. The fall of Vicksburg makes us tremble for Texas. She can be invaded from so many points that Mamma knows not where to look for a place of greater safety.

Our only hope is in Lee the Invincible. If he has only taken Washington or Philadelphia as we hear he has, we can stand the loss of our Gibraltar, but to lose it and gain nothing in return is insupportable. We will hope for the best. May God defend the right. …

July 31

Mamma has been sick since her return. … Tomorrow we are going up to Paris with Mr. Smith to see if Mamma can get him off from militia duty. He is drafted to go off on Wednesday for six month’s service. We do not see how Mamma can get on without him, and so she is anxious to get him detailed. Mrs. Smith is also anxious to get him off, but their eagerness is as nothing to Mr. Smith’s. I never saw a man with such a dread of the army.

The fruit that Mamma and Mr. Smith collected on their journey and they were most thoughtful is just out. We did so enjoy it. Our fare is not of the best. Mamma bought me a pair of $25 shoes, but unfortunately I cannot wear them. Not anything of a fit, and I must still cling to my calfskin chaussures, homeknit stockings, and brogans, something different from the lace-like clock stockings and French slippers of the olden times. I miss nice things for my feet now more than anything. I feel so slovenly with these horrors on exhibition. But a truce to complaints. I might be dight out in a large hoop and bare feet.

Videos I Love: The ‘Gettysburg’ trailer

‘Gettysburg,’ certainly at times a ridiculously flawed film, mostly succeeds with an elegant force that never fails to stimulate me emotionally and intellectually.

I’m occasionally sharing some light thoughts on a few videos that make me smile, make me think, or preferably do both. Read more from this special series here.

I’ve always thought that “Gettysburg” is an amazing film. Few recent films are as ambitious in scope, as beautifully filmed and scored, with as outstanding acting and stunning battle sequences. So few films are able to bring so many of these elements of greatness together, but “Gettysburg,” certainly at times a ridiculously flawed film, mostly succeeds with an elegant force that never fails to stimulate me emotionally and intellectually. I’ve seen that film at least one hundred times, and I could watch it another thousand times and still find something new and inspirational.

As I’ve written before, this film came along at the perfect time in my life. The trailer captures the film’s heavy-handed we-were-all-brothers sentimentality, but don’t let that dissuade you from watching the four-hour behemoth. If nothing else, let it become merely a visual introduction to “The Killer Angels,” the novel that inspired the film. A novel or a film can change someone’s life. I’m not ashamed to say that “Gettysburg” and “Angels” certainly changed mine, all for the better.

Read the novel. Spend a weekend with reading about the battle, or about the commanders, or about Lincoln. You’ll find it absolutely fascinating.