Thursday, April 28, 2011

How to Interpret History to the Sci-Fi Fan: My Favorite Civil War Novel

I often struggled to find an answer to the comment often leveled by visitors that, "they were so backward back then," or that, "we know so much more now." Getting across the fact to visitors that much of science, especially the basics of Newtonian physics and electromagnetic, has been understood at their elemental level for generations is sometimes a tough order of business. I found myself at times trying to explain Alessandro Volta's invention of the Voltaic battery in 1800 or the use of the Turtle during the American Revolution. Still, compared to the explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 19th century seems backwards and quaint. Their dreams seem limited in scope. They appear, in short, backwards.

The tool I finally found which helped the modern public to understand the advanced scientific knowledge of our 19th century counterparts was sitting in front of me the whole time. On my shelf is a copy of some of the collected works of Jules Verne. In 1865, Verne published De la Terre a la Lune in France. The tale is set immediately after the Civil War. Fatcat industrial-capitalists, fresh off the lucrative business of war profiteering and scarred by the wanton explosions of their wares, gather in the Baltimore Gun Club and scheme to craft a grand gun. When you don't know what to do, I guess you do what you know. Bored now that the grand war has ended, the men decide to cast a massive gun and shoot the moon.

Impey Barbicane spearheads the effort. The site of the launch is chosen in Florida, due to its proximity to the equator. The capsule is constructed of milled aluminum for economy of weight. The base of the capsule has a cushion or spring of water to dampen the launch's G-forces.

But what is most intriguing in reading De la Terre a la Lune and its continuation Autour de la Lune is how little the books reads like novels and how much they resemble physics textbooks. Verne made a decent stab at calculating the escape velocities needed to leave Earth's orbit. He devised a means of producing and recycling oxygen inside the cramped capsule.

Even more interesting is the fact that Barbicane and his two companions (arch-rival Captain Nicholl and French adventurer Michel Ardan) experience in Verne's imagination what the author could never have experienced. When the capsule is fired from the massive Columbiad gun, the three travelers are knocked to their feet. But as their capsule speeds into the aether, the men puzzle incessantly over why they felt the lanch but did not hear it. Finally, Barbicane is struck with a moment of inspiration:

But they had not forgotten themselves more than a quarter of an hour, when Barbicane sat up suddenly, and rousing his companions with a loud voice, exclaimed——

"I have found it!"

"What have you found?" asked Michel Ardan, jumping from his bed.

"The reason why we did not hear the detonation of the Columbiad."

"And it is——?" said Nicholl.

"Because our projectile traveled faster than the sound!"

The sheer fact that Verne could fathom the concept of supersonic flight and the implications of traveling faster than sound is mind boggling. He had never traveled in a jet going Mach I. Still, he could imagine the scientific concept. Likewise, later in the story the three encounter a passing asteroid. Its gravitational force on the capsule is great enough to divert the course of the men away from the moon. Still later one of the dogs the men brought along dies, and they eject the body from the capsule. It keep pace with their window, following the laws of conservation of motion. Verne imagined all of these things in a world we view as backward. The concepts were ancient and universal in Verne's age, so much so that he could employ them with ease.

The people of the Civil War were not backward by any stretch of the imagination. They mightn't have gotten to the moon in the 19th century, but their grasp of the concept of space travel was firm. They lacked nothing but time to work out the mechanical specifics and the political capital to focus millions of dollars on the task which John F. Kennedy engendered in the 1960s through Cold War fear and charismatic will. Neil Armstrong would not walk on the moon until 1969. But the science that got him there was alive and well over a century before.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Coda: Henry Wise's Peculiar Property

Lest Henry Wise simply look like a hothead with no reason for his actions -

Slaves belonging to Henry A. Wise,
Princess Anne County, Virginia

Age Gender
70 Female
65 Female
57 Male
50 Male
45 Female
45 Male
40 Male
39 Male
36 Male
22 Female
22 Male
21 Male
17 Male
14 Male
12 Female
10 Male
10 Male
5 Female
5 Female
4 Female
4 Male
Source: 1860 Federal Slave Schedule

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Governor Wise's War: Burn Notice (Part 3)

One of the first tangible signs of Virginia's
secession was the removal of the American
Flag from the Richmond Enquirer's
The early teens of April seem to have been specifically engineered by Ex-governor Wise and some of the members of the Secession convention jonesing for separation of from the Union. A notice ran in the Alexandria Gazette on April 1st, declaring that on the 16th of that month a, "grand Secession demonstration," would be held in Richmond. Among those signing the notice was Henry Wise. The Gazette reported that, first news of it came from Norfolk," just a stones throw from Wise's home in Princess Anne County. "Perhaps they think the Convention too slow," the Gazette presumed, "and wish to hurry them up by a sufficient force here." Wise was massing an army of public opinion in the streets of Richmond.

As Alfred Barbour was making his way to Washington to submit his resignation to the Ordinance Department, Henry Wise was arriving on the floor of the Virginia Secession Convention. He had just the night before put into motion the key players to ensure Virginia's separation from the United States. His trap had been laid. All that was left was to spring it on the commissioners assembled in Richmond.

The second day of secret sessions went relatively uneventfully at first. A motion was brought to the floor to delay any decision on the question of secession until election day in late May. Commissioners argued that the people of the Commonwealth, and not their elected representatives, needed make the momentous decision.

The morning session stretched into the afternoon. Wise must have grown increasingly more impatient knowing the scheme hatching outside the doors of the hall. He had engineered an attack on the Federal Government, in direct opposition to the wishes of the state's ruling authority. He had massed an army of rowdys outside, eager to set, "the course which Virginia should pursue in the present emergency." Wise pounced on the moment, calmly rising to the podium. He had no guns in hand, no outward sign of threat. He spoke to the convention:

"I know the fact, as well as I can know it without being present at either the time or place, that there is a probability that blood will be flowing at Harper's Ferry before night. I know the fact that the harbor of Norfolk has been obstructed last night by the sinking of vessels. I know the fact that at this moment a force is on its way to Harper's Ferry to prevent the reinforcement of the Federal troops at that point. I am told it is already being reinforced by 1,000 men from the Black Republican ranks. I know the fact that your Governor has ordered reinforcements there to back our own citizens and to protect our lives and our arms. In the midst of a scene like this, when an attempt is made by our troops to capture the navy yard, and seize the Armory at Harper's Ferry, we are here indulging in foolish debates, the only result of which must be delay, and, perhaps, ruin."

The convention descended into bedlam. Even though he did not brandish a horse pistol, the Ex-governor did hold a proverbial gun to the head of the secession convention. Choosing his words carefully, Wise had not entirely lied. A Governor had commanded militia to Harpers Ferry. Certainly it was the Governor (ex or not) who commanded the loyalty of many both within the chamber and without.

The two delegates from Augusta County immediately expressed dismay at the news that war had been precipitated without their consent. When John Baldwin raised his concerns, Wise fired back snidely that he knew for a fact that men from his Augusta (those under Imboden’s command) were marching on Harpers Ferry at that very moment. “The Augusta troop are acting nobly in this matter.” George Baylor then made it known he stood firm against Wise. “We are told,” he spoke, that, “blood will be shed…. I do not deem it improbable that my own son is among the number. If he is not, certainly, some of the best friends I have are there.” Baylor could not stomach his own son’s blood on his hands. “I am sorry to say, sir, that I cannot approve of it. Yet, this Convention is going to pass it, whether I vote for it or not.”

Virginia's Ordinance of Secession [PDF Link]
The convention voted to leave the union. In the nearby counter convention, organized in part by Wise, jubilation reigned. "The Union had received its blessure mortelle, and no power this side of the Potomac could save it," John Jones recalled in his Rebel War Clerk's Diary at the Confederate States Capital. Upon the announcement that Virginia was no longer in the United States, cries went up from the throng. Soon thereafter, "President Tyler and Gov. Wise were conducted arm-in-arm, and bare-headed, down the center aisle amid a din of cheers, while every member rose to his feet." Tyler spoke first, giving, "a brief history of all the struggles of our race for freedom, from Magna Charta [sic] to the present day." The feeble former President, close to death, concluded that, "generations yet unborn would bless those who had the high privilege of being participators in," the secession of Virginia.

Then Ex-governor Wise rose. Wise, "for a quarter of an hour, electrified the assembly by a burst of eloquence, perhaps never surpassed by mortal orator." The crowd hung on every word he spoke. "Affection for kindred, property, and life itself," Wise instructed the crowd, "sink into insignificance in comparison with the overwhelming importance of public duty in such a crisis as this." Wise's actions, what he percieved as his public duty, bordered on treason, not simply against the United States but against his own Commonwealth of Virginia. Wise had forced the hand of the state into seceding. Governor Wise had percipitated war and was getting naught but laud for his actions.

The next day, Alfred Barbour's loose lips at Harpers Ferry tipped off Charles Kingsbury, Harpers Ferry armory's final superintendent, and Roger Jones, commanding the mounted rifles defending the installation. The pair decided to destroy the armory before if fell into enemy hands. War in earnest had come to Virginia.

The moral of this story is simple. Sometimes the things we take for granted, like a few simple sentences from our interpretive programs, are not quite as simple as they seem. Virginia's secession is at once devilishly easy to understand and excruciatingly tough to fathom.

"Virginia seceded from the Union. The Governor sent militia to Harpers Ferry to seize the armory. Roger Jones burned the armory to keep it from falling into enemy hands." The order is wrong, the players are wrong, the concept is wrong. Just a few short trips into the primary sources can unravel even the smallest details of any piece of history. History is a process; we're each discovering new things everyday. Maybe, just maybe, we should share the details of the historical process with folks in our historic sites. Perhaps we have an obligation as public historians to help folks understand that 'historical revisionism' isn't necessarily a bad word.

A colorized version of the burning of the large and small arsenals as drawn by
David Hunter Strother from the collection at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Governor Wise's War: Loose Lips (Part 2)

(See Part 1)

John Imboden as he appeared during the war /
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

When last we left Ex-Governor Henry Wise, he was exceedingly impatient at the Virginia secession convention's failure to act immediately and swiftly after the firing on Fort Sumter. The power broker who had stared down John Brown now called upon personal loyalties to get the job done where politics had failed. An account by John Imboden has the Governor querying the future Brigadier General, asking whether he remembered the charge Wise made upon presenting two brass cannon to a Staunton militia unit. Imboden recalled the Governor had told him, "he was bound to obey the call of Wise for those guns whenever made." Admitting the remark a joke then, the former Governor assured Imboden that he spoke in, "earnest now." "I want those guns," the former Governor continued, "to aid in the immediate capture of the United States Arsenal at Harper's Ferry."

As the sun was setting on Richmond on the night of April 16th, a clandestine group met in the Exchange Hotel in Wise's chambers. After the group had assembled, keen on their planned actions, they resolved to get the permission of the sitting Governor. Three of the men, including Alfred Barbour, Superintendent of the armory at Harpers Ferry, rousted the State's Executive from bed and, in his night clothes, "laid the scheme before him." Governor Letcher would take, "no step till officially informed that the ordinance of secession was passed by the convention." The convention assuredly would vote for secession the following day. Letcher assured them that there would be plenty of time to act.

The small impromptu committee's response to the governor's entirety of patience: march on Harper's Ferry themselves if the Governor would take no action. There would be no need for secrecy among the members of the secession convention, simply because they knew nothing of the plot that night. Militia men began to form around the northern quadrant of the state with no real authority from the state's elected bodies. The only secrecy would need to be among the small group of plotters on the night of the 16th, scheming to force Virginia's hand into war.

And yet, the plan almost slipped their grasp. Alfred Barbour could not keep his mouth shut. Imboden recalled that on the train, "just before we moved out of the depot," the Armory's superintendent, "made an unguarded remark in the car." The plan to assault Federal property and seize Federal assets, hatched in part by the Federal official Barbour, was, "overheard by a Northern traveler, who immediately wrote a message to President Lincoln and paid a negro a dollar to take to the telegraph office." The black man, springing toward the telegraph office to forewarn Washington, was apprehended by the crew and the plot remained under wraps, but only barely.

On the same journey escaping Richmond, on their way north and west, were some of the western Virginian contingent of the secession convention. Reading the writing on the wall, John S. Burdett of Taylor County boarded a train to Washington, and thence up the Baltimore and Ohio railroad to western Virginia. Just up the car on the way from Washington were Alfred Barbour and another member of the Convention, "plenty of whiskey bottles in front of them." The train pulled into Harpers Ferry.

"The platform was black with a frenzied crowd," Burdett recalled. Barbour recognized Burdett. Chiding the delegate that his vote mattered not, the pair said, "Burdett, you seceded."

The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad opposite
Harpers Ferry / LOC Prints & Photos
"Well," Burdett replied to the drunken pair, "what about the injunction of secrecy?" The convention at Richmond had entered a closed session, and the news of the secession vote was to be kept quiet. The two did not respond.

When the Armory's Superintendent reached the platform at Harpers Ferry, he, "stepped off the train and said something and up went a tumultuous shout." The crowd erupted into bedlam. Burdett surmised exactly what the drunken official had returned from Richmond to do. He, "guessed he was there to grab the arsenal and steal all its valuable and costly machinery. It turned out that way." "Revolutionary devilment," Burdett concluded as the train pulled away from the station, along with a good dose of whiskey, "took the locks off [their] mouths."

To be concluded...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Hymn to Freedom: Obama's 150th Proclamation

It's Thursday, the Civil War is now upon us (at least 150 years ago it was). And the Sesquicentennial, too, has arrived on our doorstep.

I thought that something which hit my Facebook wall late Tuesday night was worthy of comment here, so consider this a bonus post. The second part of my post on the secession of Virginia and the destruction of Harpers Ferry's arsenals will hit on Saturday morning, just as the National Park Service begins its commemoration of that event [PDF link].

But this post is about the President's proclamation on Tuesday. I was heartily pleased by this action from the White House. It phrasing brings to mind an intellectual fusion not unlike that crafted through Daniel Webster's 1830 pronouncement of, "Liberty and Union, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable." Certainly the 19th century conception of Liberty and our modern conception of the term, as adeptly pointed out in the most recent episode of Backstory with the American History Guys, are not the same. Still, Obama's proclamation keenly joins the two Northern war aims and war outcomes at the hip. "The meaning of freedom and the very soul of our Nation were contested in the hills of Gettysburg and the roads of Antietam, the fields of Manassas and the woods of the Wilderness," the President reflects, adding that the war's outcome ensure that, "We might be tested, but whatever our fate might be, it would be as one Nation."

Liberty in the balance on battlefields and the future of four million in the hands of soldiers' actions are deeply powerful concepts, ones which have the potential to resonate with vast portions of the American populace who have never given a second glance at the war. Seeing the modern fruits and impacts of the Civil War's labor offer Americans to see themselves within the war's events. "What would I have done?" and "How is this place's legacy present in my daily life?" are ultimately the two deepest questions visitors can walk away from an historical site asking themselves.

Obama speaking to tourists at the Lincoln
Memorial this Saturday / AP video
Obama's proclamation is not all shining. At points it does feel like Wilson's, "quarrel forgotten," speech at Gettysburg in 1913. The President calls upon, "the legacy of freedom and unity that the Civil War bestowed upon our Nation," as if the struggles for freedom, equality and unity of all the American people are complete (or ever will be). The proclamation seems to eschew the concept of division in reconciliation, instead suggesting that, "when the guns fell silent and the fate of our Nation was secured, blue and gray would unite under one flag and the institution of slavery would be forever abolished from our land." Tying the reconciliation of blue and gray to the freedom of four million is rather audacious, and rather more than a bit ahistorical.

Still, the positives shine through. I am very keen on who Obama explicitly named in his proclamation. The proclamation points to two specific figures: the USCT and Lincoln. "Those who lived in these times -- from the resolute African American soldier volunteering his life for the liberation of his fellow man to the determined President secure in the rightness of his cause," the President notes, "brought a new birth of freedom to a country still mending its divisions." Beyond these two leading men, a smaller cast of extras litters the President's proclamation:

"Though America would struggle to extend equal rights to all our citizens and carry out the letter of our laws after the war, the sacrifices of soldiers, sailors, Marines, abolitionists, and countless other Americans would bring a renewed significance to the liberties established by our Founders."

Is this scene of President Obama at a Civil War
related site a first or a last during the 150th?
/ White House Photo by Pete Souza
Did you catch that subtle nod in the middle. "Abolitionists," are viewed by the President not simply as bit players, but as important as the men fighting in the ranks during the conflict's four years. One could read this how they like, whether Obama is lauding the efforts of radicals like John Brown to force the hand of government, the efforts of pious men like Samuel May who packed care packages for Federal troops or angry men like Frederick Douglass who demanded that the war be fought as a moral conflict, and not simply a political one is unclear. Hopefully over the course of the next four years, we'll get clarification on what this simple inclusion means. Hopefully this proclamation is a beginning of Presidential enthusiasm for the 150th, and not the end. Hopefully continued enthusiasm from the White House can help spark enthusiasm from the people. Hopefully...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Governor Wise's War: My Misconception (Part 1)

A photo of me in old timey
clothing taken by Raymond Fudge
I worked in the living history branch at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park for three years, wearing old timey clothing and talking to visitors about the meanings of John Brown. Harpers Ferry is where I began to understand what the concept of interpretation means, and how it is such a radically different concept from academic history.

I don't know how many Civil War tours I conducted of the "Point," Harpers Ferry's downtown. The climax of the tour's first major tale was the arrival of Alfred Barbour, Superintendent of the Federal Armory, fresh from the secession convention in Richmond heralding the news that the state had seceded from the Union. The entire event was usually summed up in three lines: "Virginia seceded from the Union. The Governor sent militia to Harpers Ferry to seize the armory. Roger Jones burned the armory to keep it from falling into enemy hands."

The story seems plausible enough. In fact, it is about the way that Robert Rowison sums up the events in an article in the Southern Literary Messenger in July of 1862. Rowison points out Virginia's secession convention's plan to keep, "secret the passage of the ordinance," until they could, "secure for the State all the arms, munitions, ships, war stores, and military posts within her borders, which they had power to seize." One cache of those tools of war was, "Harpers' Ferry, in Jefferson County, on the Potomac river, with its Armory and Arsenal, containing about 10,000 muskets and 5,000 rifles, with machinery for the purpose of manufacturing arms, capable, with a sufficient force of workmen, of turning out 25,000 muskets a year."

The convention and Governor John Letcher worked in concert to seize the arsenal at Harpers Ferry, according to Rowison. The plan to seize the weapons was a measured and calculated move of consensus between the elected representatives of Virginia's citizenry. Letcher is credited with acting, "with great zeal and vigor." The Convention, for its part, appointed a committee of four to orchestrate the seizure of weapons from Harpers Ferry. Among these men appointed by the committee was Alfred Barbour, the Armory's own superintendent.

But Rowison's tale has very quickly ridden off the rails of truth and careened into a canyon of propaganda and imposed order. In actuality, the events of April 16th-18th, 1861 were far more complex and far less calculated. This becomes immediately clear when diving into the proceedings of the Virginia Secession Convention, newly digitized and available for free from the University of Richmond.

Rowison lists as one of Barbour's compatriots on the committee as John D. Imboden. A quick word search of the Convention records yields three references to Imboden, all pertaining to a perception that when the Convention met in February their first act would be to depose Governor Letcher. Imboden is never appointed to a committee by the secession convention. Imboden was not even a member of the secession convention, having lost his bid for a seat in the body.

Virginia Governor Henry Wise as
he appeared in Harpers Weekly,
August 1859
Indeed, there was no committee crafted by the convention. The truth is far weirder. The committee sent to Harpers Ferry on October 16th-17th 1861 was created by a governor of Virginia, but not the sitting governor. Henry A. Wise, former governor and delegate for Princess Anne County at the secession convention crafted the committee out of disgust with Virginian intransigence. John Imboden would later recall how Wise chaired the back room deal which led to Virginia's entry into the American Civil War.

Just a few short minutes of research can turn an entire interpretive product on its head. But where will delving further take us? How did the Civil War really start in Virginia? What is the definition of treason? And, most importantly, what does all this mean when the rubber hits the road and you need to interpret some of the most convoluted events on an historical landscape to a general audience?

Tune in next week, same bat-time, same bat-channel.

(To be Continued...)