Monthly Archives: February 2011

Abraham Lincoln Rides Again

Article by Michael Ruane for The Washington Post, February 24, 2011:

“Abraham Lincoln” stepped from the gray Toyota minivan outside the Baltimore train station Wednesday, grabbed his carpetbag and leather valise and put on his stovepipe hat.

He wore a gray scarf and a watch fob and had a pair of gloves stuffed into his overcoat pocket, but he looked rumpled and road-weary. A woman with a cup of coffee brushed past him toward a cab, seeming not to notice him.

“Good morning,” he said to bystanders, smiling and doffing his hat. “So good to see you.” His trip from Springfield, Ill., had been uneventful, he reported: “It has not been marred by any unfortunate incidents, even here in Baltimore.”

So began the federal government’s commemoration of the last leg of Lincoln’s journey to Washington 150 years ago Wednesday, and the National Park Service’s official Civil War sesquicentennialobservance.

Baltimore was his next-to-last stop. He had been on the road for 13 days, having stopped in 17 cities and addressed thousands of people across almost 2,000 miles, aides said.

But soon he would be in Washington, where his inauguration was scheduled for March 4 – 1861.

Wednesday’s event was marked by historical similarities – Lincoln was portrayed by Springfield actor Fritz Klein, 62, who, like Lincoln, stands 6 feet 4 inches tall and sports real whiskers.

Klein even used folksy, Lincoln-like analogies – the tension between the nation’s federal and local power is like a taut clothesline strung between poles: “You don’t ever want to chop one down, or the whole thing collapses,” he said.

But there were incongruities: the minivan, the graffiti on the rail bridge underpasses. Also, the midmorning train trip came under bright blue skies; the secret, high-security 1861 journey happened in thepre-dawn darkness.

The train was met at Union Station by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, in his trademark black cowboy hat, and a mob of reporters. The faux Lincoln was accompanied by National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.

“This is the first, most significant beginning of the Civil War sesquicentennial,” Jarvis said in Baltimore before the trip started. “What we’re using this opportunity for . . . is to really . . . deepen the discussion about the cause of the Civil War.”

Salazar noted that the National Park Service manages Civil War and civil rights sites across the nation. “We have Gettysburg,” he said. “We also have Selma to Montgomery.”

What we’re trying to do is to elevate the dialogue around the issue of slavery as cause,” he said. “And the fact that the struggle for civil rights continues even to today.”

“Lincoln” arrived at Baltimore’s Penn Station at 10:05 a.m., along with Park Service officials and a group of youngsters from Baltimore’s Digital Harbor High School, where he had given a presentation.

“I hope they don’t ask me for a picture ID,” Klein joked as he waited for the train.

“It’s a huge privilege and responsibility,” he said of portraying Lincoln. “To not be silly about it, to really do it seriously but to have fun, too. To be accurate, and to be relevant. It’s sometimes a hard combination.”

Klein said he left Springfield on Feb. 11, just as Lincoln did, and began the journey east.

“It’s an exhilarating experience,” he said. “The reception has been extraordinary, way beyond what we expected. In some of the venues they turned away as many as they were able to take in.”

“In a sort of a misguided sense, people long for the old days,” he said. “Not realizing that nothing really changes. Human nature is pretty much the same. . . . They don’t need Lincoln. All they need to do is look at the things Lincoln did and said and practice” them.

Train No. 185 – with special arrangements courtesy of Amtrak – left Baltimore at 10:45 a.m. Klein, Jarvis and other Park Service experts gathered in the last car and fielded questions from the students.

The train arrived at Union Station at 11:25 a.m. Also there were Karen Barton of Bergenfield, N.J., her son Brendan, 10, his friend A.J. DeBenedictis, 13, and Barton’s husband, Michael.

They had been elsewhere on the train, heard Lincoln was aboard and were hoping for a glimpse.

Karen Barton gasped when he emerged from Car 82518. “There he is, boys,” she said.

The boys maneuvered for a look and, after the excitement had died down, posed with the chief executive while Barton took photos.

Afterward, she thanked Klein, saying Brendan’s teachers would be delighted.

Brendan said being photographed with Abraham Lincoln was “awesome.”





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Reclaiming Civil War Relics

Story by Lisa Rein for The Washington Post, February 22, 2011:

FRANKLIN, TENN. – Among the Civil War buffs wandering through the tables of muskets and faded daguerreotypes of Union soldiers for sale here are four federal agents.

One raids houses and carries a gun. But right now he’s handing out innocuous-looking brochures to the relic hunters walking by, as the sweet smell of glazed nuts wafts from a concession stand. “Does that document belong in the National Archives?” the brochure asks.

The agents have flown to a fairground outside Nashville to the country’s biggest Civil War show to hunt for stolen treasure – robbed right from the nation’s attic.

Whether they know it or not, the dealers may be trafficking in stolen government property. The heist may have taken place in 1865. Or last week. Or a document may not have been looted at all, but made its way into private hands instead of the Archives.

With the Civil War 150th anniversary drawing new interest, the trail could be warm.

“We’re friendly,” says Paul Brachfeld, inspector general of the Archives, who has gotten out of the office this December weekend to see his team in action. For the dealers, “it’s an authenticity thing,” he says. “If you traffic in stolen documents, it taints everything.”

The tactic illustrates the new, more aggressive approach the Archives is taking in an effort to recover treasures that have disappeared from its holdings. Porous security and open access have allowed countless items to slip out of the Archives’ 44 centers and presidential libraries, from the Washington headquarters to the Reagan Library in California.

The missing items include telegrams written by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War; the Wright brothers’ patent for a flying machine; Eli Whitney’s patent for the cotton gin; Lyndon Johnson’s class ring from the Coast Guard; an official portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt; and target maps for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.


‘We were defenseless’

Government auditors have long warned that lax security at the Archives has allowed trusted researchers and employees to sneak past security cameras with priceless treasures, or find ways to destroy or alter government records. The problem was underscored last month when the agency accused a longtime researcher of changing the date on a pardon signed by Lincoln to make it appear more valuable. There were no security cameras at the time.

“For a long time we were defenseless, and senior managers just accepted that,” said Brachfeld, who has assigned eight of his 24 agents to the Archival Recovery Team, a unit devoted to retrieving stolen loot.

“We have people alone with images and artifacts all the time,” Brachfeld said. “The thieves all say how easy it was.” Until not long ago, some researchers were given open access to stack areas with no supervision, officials and researchers said.

Around the time they disclosed that the Lincoln pardon was altered with a fountain pen in full view in the main research room in Washington, Archives officials instituted new security procedures they said would include random body searches as visitors leave the downtown headquarters and the massive records center in College Park.


Many heists have been carried out by insiders. In October, the team discovered one of the biggest caches of documents taken from the repository, a valuable audiovisual collection stored in the Rockville basement of the former department chief in charge of the records.

Led by a tipster, the inspector general’s office raided Leslie Waffen’s house and filled two trucks with boxes. Waffen, a nationally known expert, had run the Archives’ audio and film department for 37 years until his retirement last June.

Waffen has been banned from the Archives. He has not been charged in the matter, although the inspector general’s office is building a case against him that will include evidence that he sold sound and film recordings on eBay. His attorney, Michael Fayad, declined to comment.

Public approach

The challenge of monitoring the collection is enormous. Nationally, the collection includes 10 billion letters, maps and charts, reports, photographs, moving images and sound recordings. The holdings take up 31 million cubic feet, plus hundreds of thousand of artifacts and 6.7 billion electronic records. Right now there is no money for security enhancements beyond the Washington area.

An item-by-item inventory has never been taken. “It would be counting grains of sand, there’s so much,” Brachfeld said.

The Archives allow access to anyone over age 14 who shows proper identification.

“There’s a fine balance between providing access and security and protection for the documents,” said Richard Judson, the Archives’ director of space and security management.

Government auditors described “significant weaknesses” in the Archives’ security last fall, highlighting loose computer access, physical security and clearance requirements for the agency’s 3,000 employees.

On an unannounced visit to a regional research room 11 months ago, the inspector general’s office concluded that the holdings were “at constant risk of theft.” Another investigation last summer revealed that employees were failing to refile records provided to researchers. Too many employees had access to the stacks. There was no way to ensure the records were properly accounted for.

Archives officials say they are devoting more full-time staff to patrol research areas instead of interns and requiring better training of employees who handle original documents.

But it is still possible, officials say, to walk out of a research room with a letter or photograph stashed in a sock or bra and go undetected.

“It would be very onerous to go through a detailed search of everyone’s bag,” Judson said.

That’s where the treasure hunters, as the Archival Recovery Team is known, come in.

Brachfeld, who came out of internal affairs at the Secret Service, assembled his team of criminal investigators five years ago. He pushes an aggressive approach, appealing to the public for help as agents did at the Civil War show.

Hits and misses

Many such efforts turn up nothing; the agents dispatched to Franklin flew home to Maryland with no new leads, but a handful of new contacts.

The outreach builds trust – and generates tips. Tips and leads from document dealers have helped the agents recover about 7,000 missing items that were stolen from the Archives or never made it into the agency’s possession in the first place.

“We see things from our holdings we don’t know if they were stolen last week or if great-grandpa took them,” said Thomas Bennett, the team’s computer crimes expert.

Stolen records often show up for sale on the open market. The “only known copy” of the Potsdam Declaration signed by Harry Truman demanding the surrender of Japan in 1945 is for sale on the Web site of the online auction house Alexander Autographs. The listed price is $100,000 to $150,000. The team did not try to get it back, though. They can’t pursue everything.

Among the office’s highest-profile cases was a theft by former Clinton national security adviser Samuel “Sandy” Berger, who was fined $50,000 after pleading guilty in 2005 to stuffing his coat pockets and walking out of the Archives with classified counterterrorism documents.

Other recoveries include a map of Cuba with John F. Kennedy’s notes in the margin. It was found after a dealer from Catonsville, Md., put it on eBay.

Ronald Reagan’s high school yearbook, stolen from his presidential library in California, was returned by an employee who was exposed by a friend.

A letter Lincoln wrote on behalf of a fired U.S. Mint director five days before the Gettysburg address turned up in a private collection in Arizona before the owner agreed to donate it to where it belonged.

A year after Berger confessed, Jim Thomas was hunting for a birthday present for his brother, Dean, a Civil War buff from Gettysburg, Pa., and found for sale online a series of original letters to the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia, which supplied munitions to the Union Army. Dean recognized the letters from his research at the Archives for his books on Civil War munitions. He called the Archives. The seller turned out to be an intern at the Philadelphia branch. He confessed to smuggling more than 160 documents in the pages of a yellow legal pad. All but three were recovered.

Eighty-one boxes of records with national security value are still missing from the Archives’ storage facility in Suitland, where federal agents discovered them missing last year. Between 2005 and 2007, original records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs were discovered dumped in the trash at the Washington headquarters.

Whether the crime was intentional or an accident is not known.

The FDR portrait is still missing, too. Brachfeld says he thinks he knows who did it, but doesn’t have enough evidence to pursue a case.

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History Becoming the Preserve of the Rich?

Simon Schama, Professor of History at Columbia University, has misgivings about higher education cuts by UK Government that could lead to the decline of history as a field of study and basis of knowledge. Here, in The Telegraph (February 23, 2011), he outlines his concern. See also his November 30, “Views about the Future of History,” in this blog.  Interested in learning more about history in general, then check out our website:

The Government’s new history tsar who was called in by Education Secretary Michael Gove to advise the Government on the history curriculum in schools, also berated academic snobbery among some fellow historians who have worked solely in higher education.

Broadcaster Schama, 66, who is Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University, also made no secret of his fears for what lies ahead for the study of the arts and humanities in British universities.

He said he had deep misgivings about the proposed new financial regimen for higher education.

Schama said he was uneasy that “sciences and subjects, which seem to be on a utilitarian measure useful, have retained their state funding, while the arts and humanities are being stripped of theirs.”

He fears that such a move will have the “unfortunate” effect of channelling students into subjects such as accountancy rather than philosophy or the history of art.

Schama said Britain runs the risk of causing “appalling” damage to culture by making the arts and humanities the preserve only of the well-heeled.

In a thinly veiled attack on PM David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg, Schama said: “It behoves those people who were themselves educated at places like Westminster, and Eton – or in my case, Haberdashers’ – to understand the damage that you can do to British culture by making it essentially a wealthy pursuit.”

He also slammed some fellow academics, adding: “You have to work very hard to make history boring, and there are plenty of people in the institutions who do a brilliant job of making it boring.

“I was lucky enough to be taught at school and particularly at university by teachers who believed that history was not just for other historians and was not purely an academic pursuit.

“They really resisted the slightly incestuous model of debates which were hissy fits between rival schools of historians.”

He added: you have to make sure you understand the social realities of what it’s like to deal with a classroom, for example in inner cities, where a very high proportion of children have English as a second language. Those social realities are very compelling.”

However, he believes that youngsters retain a hunger for knowledge about the past, and that history remains popular in schools.

He said: “Children of all ages are wired for ancestral stories and they are also wired for a kind of critical curiosity. In other words, not just to be a kind of passive blotting paper for ethics but also to ask questions about it.”

Schama was speaking during a visit to the University of York to mark the tenth anniversary of his landmark 15-part BBC series A History of Britain which he wrote and presented


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Niall Ferguson on the Middle East

Niall Ferguson, Professor of History at Harvard University, offers his take on American policy in the Middle East: (source:  Newsweek, February 14, 2011)

“The statesman can only wait and listen until he hears the footsteps of God resounding through events; then he must jump up and grasp the hem of His coat, that is all.” Thus Otto von Bismarck, the great Prussian statesman who united Germany and thereby reshaped Europe’s balance of power nearly a century and a half ago.

Last week, for the second time in his presidency, Barack Obama heard those footsteps, jumped up to grasp a historic opportunity … and missed it completely.

In Bismarck’s case it was not so much God’s coattails he caught as the revolutionary wave of mid-19th-century German nationalism. And he did more than catch it; he managed to surf it in a direction of his own choosing. The wave Obama just missed—again—is the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy. It has surged through the region twice since he was elected: once in Iran in the summer of 2009, the second time right across North Africa, from Tunisia all the way down the Red Sea to Yemen. But the swell has been biggest in Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country.

In each case, the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave, Bismarck style, by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail. In the case of Iran, he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. This time around, in Egypt, it was worse. He did both—some days exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, other days drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.”

The result has been a foreign-policy debacle. The president has alienated everybody: not only Mubarak’s cronies in the military, but also the youthful crowds in the streets of Cairo. Whoever ultimately wins, Obama loses. And the alienation doesn’t end there. America’s two closest friends in the region—Israel and Saudi Arabia—are both disgusted. The Saudis, who dread all manifestations of revolution, are appalled at Washington’s failure to resolutely prop up Mubarak. The Israelis, meanwhile, are dismayed by the administration’s apparent cluelessness.

Last week, while other commentators ran around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, hyperventilating about what they saw as an Arab 1989, I flew to Tel Aviv for the annual Herzliya security conference. The consensus among the assembled experts on the Middle East? A colossal failure of American foreign policy.

This failure was not the result of bad luck. It was the predictable consequence of the Obama administration’s lack of any kind of coherent grand strategy, a deficit about which more than a few veterans of U.S. foreign policy making have long worried. The president himself is not wholly to blame. Although cosmopolitan by both birth and upbringing, Obama was an unusually parochial politician prior to his election, judging by his scant public pronouncements on foreign-policy issues.

Yet no president can be expected to be omniscient. That is what advisers are for. The real responsibility for the current strategic vacuum lies not with Obama himself, but with the National Security Council, and in particular with the man who ran it until last October: retired Gen. James L. Jones. I suspected at the time of his appointment that General Jones was a poor choice. A big, bluff Marine, he once astonished me by recommending that Turkish troops might lend the United States support in Iraq. He seemed mildly surprised when I suggested the Iraqis might resent such a reminder of centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule.

The best national-security advisers have combined deep knowledge of international relations with an ability to play the Machiavellian Beltway game, which means competing for the president’s ear against the other would-be players in the policymaking process: not only the defense secretary but also the secretary of state and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency. No one has ever done this better than Henry Kissinger. But the crucial thing about Kissinger as national-security adviser was not the speed with which he learned the dark arts of interdepartmental turf warfare. It was the skill with which he, in partnership with Richard Nixon, forged a grand strategy for the United States at a time of alarming geopolitical instability.

The essence of that strategy was, first, to prioritize (for example, détente with the Soviets before human-rights issues within the U.S.S.R.) and then to exert pressure by deliberately linking key issues. In their hardest task—salvaging peace with honor in Indochina by preserving the independence of South Vietnam—Nixon and Kissinger ultimately could not succeed. But in the Middle East they were able to eject the Soviets from a position of influence and turn Egypt from a threat into a malleable ally. And their overtures to China exploited the divisions within the Communist bloc, helping to set Beijing on an epoch-making new course of economic openness.

The contrast between the foreign policy of the Nixon-Ford years and that of President Jimmy Carter is a stark reminder of how easily foreign policy can founder when there is a failure of strategic thinking. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, which took the Carter administration wholly by surprise, was a catastrophe far greater than the loss of South Vietnam.

Remind you of anything? “This is what happens when you get caught by surprise,” an anonymous American official told The New York Times last week. “We’ve had endless strategy sessions for the past two years on Mideast peace, on containing Iran. And how many of them factored in the possibility that Egypt moves from stability to turmoil? None.”

I can think of no more damning indictment of the administration’s strategic thinking than this: it never once considered a scenario in which Mubarak faced a popular revolt. Yet the very essence of rigorous strategic thinking is to devise such a scenario and to think through the best responses to them, preferably two or three moves ahead of actual or potential adversaries. It is only by doing these things—ranking priorities and gaming scenarios—that a coherent foreign policy can be made. The Israelis have been hard at work doing this. All the president and his NSC team seem to have done is to draft touchy-feely speeches like the one he delivered in Cairo early in his presidency.

These were his words back in June 2009:

America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.

Those lines will come back to haunt Obama if, as cannot be ruled out, the ultimate beneficiary of his bungling in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains by far the best organized opposition force in the country—and wholly committed to the restoration of the caliphate and the strict application of Sharia. Would such an outcome advance “tolerance and the dignity of all human beings” in Egypt? Somehow, I don’t think so.

Grand strategy is all about the necessity of choice. Today, it means choosing between a daunting list of objectives: to resist the spread of radical Islam, to limit Iran’s ambition to become dominant in the Middle East, to contain the rise of China as an economic rival, to guard against a Russian “reconquista” of Eastern Europe—and so on. The defining characteristic of Obama’s foreign policy has been not just a failure to prioritize, but also a failure to recognize the need to do so. A succession of speeches saying, in essence, “I am not George W. Bush” is no substitute for a strategy.

Bismarck knew how to choose. He understood that riding the nationalist wave would enable Prussia to become the dominant force in Germany, but that thereafter the No. 1 objective must be to keep France and Russia from uniting against his new Reich. When asked for his opinion about colonizing Africa, Bismarck famously replied: “My map of Africa lies in Europe. Here lies Russia and here lies France, and we are in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”

Tragically, no one knows where Barack Obama’s map of the Middle East is. At best, it is in the heartland states of America, where the fate of his presidency will be decided next year, just as Jimmy Carter’s was back in 1980.

At worst, he has no map at all.


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The Middle East Uprisings of 2011: 1848 in the Remaking?

Here’s a simple comparison of the European 1848 revolutions and the current uprisings in the Middle East.  The author, Tim Roberts, is an assistant professor of history at Western Illinois University.  (published in HNN, February 21, 2011):

Tim Roberts is an assistant professor of history at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (Virginia, 2009).

Some pundits have compared the recent uprisings in the Middle East to the American Revolution or to the upheavals in Eastern Europe that ended the Cold War.  But the 1848 revolutions in Europe may actually provide a better perspective on the challenges that the advocates of democracy in the Middle East face today.

Specifically, the 1848 “springtime of the peoples” shows that overthrowing a government is just half a revolution.  The more difficult half is building a sustainable political structure.

The parallels between 2011 and 1848 are many.  The sclerotic monarchies and one-party “republics” of the modern Middle East had forerunners in the kingdoms and empires that ruled in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century.  In both places political opposition was routinely suppressed, and voting rights were limited.  In Britain about four percent of the population could vote, and in France about one percent.  Voting was similarly restricted elsewhere.

Likewise, in the Middle East today many countries have universal voting rights only in theory.  In practice, citizens face the problem that Martin Luther King once highlighted in a different context in his “I Have a Dream Speech”:  “a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”

Also both regions—Europe in the 1840s and the Middle East in the recent past—existed in the shadow of democracy elsewhere.  Nineteenth-century Europeans sometimes looked across the Atlantic at the United States, an isolated country but one that presented a powerful image of government by the people.  Even with its voting rights restricted largely to white men, the United States, with 14 percent of the population eligible to vote, was an emergent democracy.

The United States still draws attention, of course.  Many Arab peoples resent U.S. policies in Iraq and Israel but are attracted to American democracy and technology, including communications technology such as Facebook, which has helped Middle East revolutionaries to coordinate demonstrations.  And Turkey, a secular republic with a Muslim majority, presents an enviable democratic example on the Arabs’ doorstep.

One of the most interesting parallels between the revolutions of 1848 in Europe and of 2011 in the Middle East is how quickly popular uprisings spread across national borders.  Between January and June 1848, as the news of revolution spread from Naples to Paris to Berlin to Vienna to Budapest, some sixteen different ethnic groups across Europe rebelled against monarchical and imperial government.  Just as the Middle Eastern demonstrators today employ a mix of new digital media and old-fashioned word of mouth, so in the 1840s the revolutionary leaders used new communications media such cheap newspapers and steam railroads along with speeches and street rallies to spread news of revolution quickly before governments could suppress it.  As the uprisings of 2011 ricochet around the Middle East, they seem to mimic the European revolutions of 1848.

However, other similarities between Europe in 1848 and the modern Middle East may suggest serious problems for today’s would-be founding fathers.

While forcing some minor reforms, the 1848 revolutions yielded no new popularly accountable governments.  France’s revolutionary republic quickly gave way to the dictatorship of Louis Napoleon.  French and Austrian armies crushed fledgling republics in the Italian states, and the Russian tsar’s armies rubbed out Hungarian self-determination.  In France and in the German and Italian states, revolutionaries fragmented among constitutional monarchists, radical republicans, and socialists.  And Central Europeans split viciously over ethnicity:  Slavic peoples did not want to be ruled by Hungarians, who committed acts of ethnic cleansing against minority groups within the Hungarian “nation.”

The Arab peoples of the Middle East today will have to overcome similar daunting challenges.  What will be their goals?  Will moderates like Mohamed ElBaradei be able to work with the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?  Will Jordanians settle for reforms by King Abdullah II, or will they push for a republic?  Will Iran or Israel intervene, as Russia did in 1849, to derail revolutionary momentum?  Will secular and pious Arabs divide over religion?  Will the United States today, as we and Britain did in 1848, act mainly as places of refuge for failed revolutionaries leaving their countries behind?

History suggests it is much too early to call upheavals in the Middle East true revolutions, if by revolution we mean the successful toppling of a government and its replacement by another with staying power and the will to enact liberal reform.  A conservative American statesman in 1848, looking at the European revolutions of that year, said with disdain, “They have decreed a republic, but it remains for them to establish one.”  We can only hope that John C. Calhoun’s skepticism, prophetic in 1848, will prove too cynical in 2011.

Still interested in learning more about 1848?  check out either of two brief histories: Mike Rapport, 1848:  Year of Revolution OR Peter Jones, The 1848 Revolutions

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Re-inacting the Confederacy 2011 style

Article by Campbell Robertson, The New York Times, February 21, 2011:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Wearing gray wool uniforms, hoop skirts, leather jackets and business suits, several hundred men and women marched to the Alabama Statehouse on Saturday afternoon, where they delivered defiant speeches, fired heavy artillery, and swore in an amateur actor playing Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy, 150 years and one day after the event took place.

The participants far outnumbered the spectators, and the city of Montgomery barely raised a collective eyebrow. But it was to be the largest event of the year organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, one of a series of occasions marking the 150th anniversary of the Confederacy and the War for Southern Independence (referring to this event as the Civil War, implying that it was anything other than an act of unwarranted Northern aggression upon a self-determined republic, is rather frowned upon)

Members of the SCV distinguish themselves from the mere re-enactors, weekend warriors who simply enjoy indulging amateur enthusiasms for history, role-playing and military hardware.

Like garden variety re-enactors, the group’s members may don their battle grays and trade recipes for gunpowder. But, declared Chuck McMichael, a history teacher and former commander in chief of the group who gave the keynote speech, “the Confederate thing is personal with us.”

The principal message of the group is that the Confederacy was a just exercise in self-determination that has been maligned by “the politically correct crowd” through years of historical distortions. It is the right of secession that they emphasize, not the cause, which they often describe as a complicated mix of tariff and tax disputes and Northern attempts to politically subjugate the South.

The other matter of subjugation — that is, slavery — went unmentioned at the event (Davis did not refer to it in his original address, but he emphasized the maintenance of African slavery as a cause for secession in other high-profile settings.) And the issue of slavery was largely brushed aside in interviews as a mere function of the time and not a defining feature of the Confederacy.

Asked about the prominent speeches and documents that describe the protection of slavery as the primary cause of secession, Joe Dupree of Mobile, Ala., said the question itself was wrong.

“African slavery is a 4,000-year-old African institution that affected us a couple of hundred years,” he said. “It is, historically, an error.”

Though the swearing-in was a historical re-enactment down to the antique buttons, there were contemporary political overtones. More than one speaker, insisting that “the South was indeed right,” extolled the Confederacy as an example of limited government that should now be followed, and said vaguely that the rightness of the Southern cause was evident by a glance at the headlines every day.

But even the politics were tied up in a larger sense of grievance, a feeling of being marginalized and willfully misunderstood. Expressing this feeling led to some rather unexpected analogies, like when Kelley Barrow, a teacher from Georgia, declared that people of Confederate heritage “have been forced to go to the back of the bus.”

The participants know, however, that such frustrations will be constant over the four years of the sesquicentennial.

“I really wish we didn’t have to defend what we do,” Chuck Rand, an engineer from Monroe, La., who is the adjutant in chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said in an interview Friday night. “This doesn’t have to be a fight.”

Mr. Dupree, who was sitting with Mr. Rand, concurred.

“What is it in a man,” he asked, repeating the question for emphasis, “that would cause him to deny his fellow man the pride and dignity of his heritage?”

The parade began shortly after 11 a.m., and marched to the Capitol along Dexter Avenue, past abandoned storefronts and empty government buildings and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, now called the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church after a young Martin Luther King Jr., who arrived in the 1950s and organized a citywide bus boycott from his basement office.

Inside, a dozen fifth-grade students from Monrovia Elementary School in Huntsville, Ala., were beginning a tour. The tour guide at the church dismissed the events outside with an eye roll, but Jesse Schmitt, who arranges the visit for his students every year during Black History Month, saw it as a potential teaching moment.

“Unfortunately we haven’t gotten to the Civil War yet,” he said, though he added that his students had told him that the march was, in their words, “messed up.”

But there was a lot more to discuss. So Mr. Schmitt said as he left King’s old basement office, still thinking of ways to talk to his students about history, about the reasons for commemoration, about causes that were lost and causes that were won.

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Lincoln Papers Found in Closet

Article by Michael Ruane for The Washington Post, February 20, 2011:

The house was a nondescript, three-bedroom, Silver Spring rancher that had been vacant for 10 years. It was filled with dust bunnies and old pocketbooks. And Laurie Zook, who prepares such houses for sale, didn’t expect much more.

But when she opened an old scrapbook that was stacked amid a pile of other volumes in a bedroom closet, she found links to a painful, bygone time, and a rare ticket to one of the nation’s greatest tragedies.

Pasted among the pages was a small, black-bordered card that read: “admit the bearer” to the White House on Wednesday, April 19, 1865, the day of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral service there.

It is believed to be one of only 600 such tickets printed, was highly sought at the time and may be one of the few still in existence.

Also among the pages were two brief notes from Lincoln that seemed to be pardons of a soldier for some unknown offense, inked with the distinctive “A.Lincoln” signature.

The documents are now available for sale via an online auction that started Thursday and ends Saturday. The auction site

Zook, who heads a Frederick-based business, “Mission: Transition,” said the house was owned by descendants of an old Washington socialite family that once had been acquainted with the Lincolns. She declined to identify the family for privacy reasons.

With the agreement of the owners, she cleaned out the house several months ago, took boxes of items to her home and then began examining them, Zook said. There were old photographs, letters and the tattered leather-bound scrapbook.

“I’m a skeptic,” she said, and when she saw the Lincoln notes, “deep inside me I said, ‘These can’t be real.’ But they are. . . . I consider this some kind of cosmic miracle.”

One of the Lincoln notes, dated Aug. 28, 1864, orders the suspension of the sentence in the case of a “Col. Law,” for offenses that are not indicated. The other, dated January 1865, appears to order the pardon and return to duty for a soldier who may be the same man.

Troy R. Kinunen, president of the South Milwaukee-based auction firm, said he authenticated the written Lincoln items.

“They were all in [Lincoln’s] hand,” he said. Plus, they’re “fresh to the hobby,” he said. “Collectors like things that haven’t been circulated. This is the first time they have been presented.”

The ticket to the funeral service, which took place in the White House East Room before hundreds of mourners seated on chairs and specially built wooden bleachers, is especially unusual, he said. “The funeral pass was for a one-day event,” he said.

Lincoln was shot April 14, 1865, in Ford’s Theatre by actor John Wilkes Booth, who was angry that the South had lost the Civil War. Lincoln died the next morning.

Documents in Lincoln’s handwriting are less rare, according to Lincoln scholar and collector James L. Swanson, whose 2010 book, “Bloody Crimes,”chronicles Lincoln’s funeral.

“During the war, he signed over 20,000 military commissions, thousands of civil appointments, thousands of autograph endorsements, plus many letters,” Swanson said in an e-mail.

Still, “without knowing more about the stories behind them, I’d say the autographs are worth $3,500 to $5,000 each,” he wrote.

Kinunen said the ticket is probably worth between $2,000 and $4,000.

Zook said the owners of the house, who will get any auction proceeds, did not want any of the items she found and instructed her to sell them. “Basically, they didn’t want anything in the house,” she said, although they’re excited about the discovery of the trove.

“They just don’t want it,” she said. “They’re not stuff people.”




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