Thursday, January 31, 2013

War Against Slavery Without a Black Soldier in Sight?

It's not the Emancipation Proclamation,
but a bill in 1863 that really let black
folks fight. And who better to spearhead
it than Thaddeus Stevens?
I've been lying to people. OK, not exactly lying, just not telling the whole truth. One of my favorite lines to use when I worked in Washington at the Lincoln Cottage was that the, "most important part of the Emancipation Proclamation came near the end, where it says that black men, the former slaves, can serve in the army and navy, that they can fight for their very own freedom."

I was wrong. The Proclamation does say that, does proclaim that. But the route to that becoming real, to real black men fighting in real blue suits against real American traitors was actually born of a long struggle in the early weeks of 1863. It all came down to a bill authorizing black soldiers, a rousing Congressional fight on February 2nd, 1863 and a few final words from the Great Commoner to seal the deal.


The debate over the bill in the House of Representatives was harsh. Northern radical Republican delegate had spoken their piece. The darker men of America should, in their estimation, be allowed to fight for their own freedom. Their opposition had spoken their piece.

As debate wound down, finally Thaddeus Stevens had command of the floor. Anxious to get the vote in before the day was over, he was loath to yield the floor one last time to Henry May, representing Maryland's 4th Congressional District, otherwise known as the City of Baltimore. In 1861, as war was breaking out, May was swept up in the dragnet that captured potentially disloyal Marylanders and deposited them in Federal prisons to keep the Old Line State in the Union.

But now he was serving in the House. And Thaddeus Stevens yielded the floor.

"To us who are familiar with the characteristics of the African race," May announced to the floor, "these theories that sentimental gentlemen on the other side so frequently present but serve to amuse." In spite of the fervor of the former slaves and freedmen begging to join the army and fight for freedom, May knew for a fact that, "the domesticated African," had only qualities unfit for the army. "His inert nature, his slovenly habits, his clumsiness, his want of vigilance, and his timidity," only served to show the men of Maryland that, "of all human beings he presents the least qualifications for a soldier."

But May's words ran deeper than a racial tirade. There were veiled threats. His home, his state was not happy with, "the fatal policy that a blind fanaticism has directed here and from the White House." The Emancipation Proclamation was now, "next to the fall of Adam the greatest evil that had afflicted man."

The Great Commoner, or as a
good friend has taken to calling
him recently: Agent K.
Stevens patiently listened as May called forth a resolution to make immediate peace with and recognize the Confederacy, rather than continue the war or employ negro soldiers.

Then the embodied bolt of lightning stood to speak. His tongue was sharp. He gestured to the Democrats, snidely quipping that there were some, "on that side of the House whom I am not at liberty to deem disloyal, but whose arguments and acts compel the belief that they are strong sympathizers with their 'wayward sisters.'"

Stevens had a way to spin the story so that arguing was nary impossible. "Is it wise, is it humane, to send your kindred to battle and to death," Stevens asked, a sneer almost palpable in the transcript, "when you might put the colored man in the ranks and let him bear a part of the conflict between the rebel and his enfranchised slave?" The Congressman was using racism against racists, prejudice against the prejudiced.

"Why," Stevens asked, "should these bloody graves be filled with our relatives rather than with the property of traitors slain by their own masters, who, in their turn, would fall by the hands of the oppressed?" And white soldiers would be crazy not to allow black men in the ranks. "It would be a strange taste that would prefer, themselves, to face the death-bearing heights of Fredericksburg," Stevens exclaimed, "and be buried in trenches at the foot of them, than to see it done by colored soldiers."

Would black soldiers lead to black equality? Again the abolitionist spun the story: "The only place where they can find equality is in the grave. There all God's children are equal."

But Stevens' dreams did slip through his mostly tempered words. When a colleague complained that fighting would lead to freedom, Stevens rage bled through. "He says that he fights only for the freedom of his own white race.... That patriotism that is wholly absorbed by one’s own country is narrow and selfish. That philanthropy which embraces only one's own race, and leaves the other numerous races of mankind to bondage and to misery, is cruel and detestable."


On February 9th, a week after the vote, Gettysburg's loyal opposition paper, The Compiler, with Henry J. Stahle at the helm, chided the bill and Stevens. "Thaddeus Stevens' negro soldier bill passed the House on Monday," Stahle wrote, "the yeas were 84, and the nays 54." But to Stahle, jokingly, the bill was, "an insult to the darkeys," that they couldn't be officers over white troops. Petty politics and a deep-seated institutional racism seemed ever-present in Gettysburg's streets, be it 1863 or 1865. Some things never change.

The calendar that February, though, kept being flipped forward, each new date one day closer to doomsday in South-central Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Out of Sorts: Finding the Passion behind the Article

A familiar handwriting
and inflammatory content...
must be Stahle!
The individual letters used to layout and print a newspaper in the 19th century were called sorts. Each letter was a sort. But the individual sorts that make up the words don't always give you the full story behind an article. They often aren't quite enough.

Digging hard into odd historical files, you find amazing things. Most recently it happened to me at Adams County Historical Society, my perpetual Thursday night haunt. Doing an in-depth dive, in essence living inside of an archive for years, you get to know the collection so intimately that it becomes a friend.

The vertical files in particular are amazingly odd creatures. They bear the fingerprints of anyone who has worked as at gathering the raw material together, in this case in Adams County. They're weird. They're wild. They're the mixed bag of history.

A few weeks ago, I opened a mixed bag up and found the amazing. In a folder on the Gettysburg Compiler, the borough's often-inflammatory conservative newspaper of the 19th century, a yellowing page has iron gall ink scrawled across it. I thought I recognized the handwriting.

The title screamed at me, "Thaddeus Stevens' Late Speech." The opening lines were just too good to resist diving in deeper. "Without following Mr. Stevens in his meanderings through marsh, swamp, fen, bog and slough of political despond, let it suffice to approach the threshold of this quagmire of abolition heresies." The editor continues on, excoriating Stevens in interminable diatribe.

The tone is spot on for Henry J. Stahle, the newspaper's editor. So are the politics and the handwriting. In the end, Stahle demands every good, right-thinking American to:

defend our free institutions; defend our liberal, toleration of religion; defend our homes, our altars, and our fires from the ruthless hands of conspiring demagogues and abolition traitors; defend the purity of the ballot box; defend the President in his Constitutional policy of restoration and re-Union; and God will bless and save our country from the ravages of another civil war."

A photo, alongside the handwritten manuscript
in the folder, showing the Compiler's wartime
office on Baltimore Street.
The letter is amazing in its content and its vitriol. It was eventually published in the September 18th, 1865 edition of the newspaper on page 2 as written. Surrounding it is the real aim of the editor: a concerted effort to deny David McConaughy a seat in the State Legislature, and thereby prevent real black voting rights from becoming a reality within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Where civil war had divided North and South, racial war threatened to divide states, counties and even small towns as the "War Between the States" subsided and the war over the future of the black man began.

But what's most exciting is the realization of the process. This diatribe was handwritten, with underlined words peppered throughout the page. The vitriol is in the words, but it's just as evident in the stroke of the pen. Touching the paper, the rage seeps through. These words were real for Stahle, they were things he believed so passionately and felt had such dire consequences that he penned them in neat but violent hand.

Where in the newspaper, Stahle's fear of America becoming, "a government of a single idea," is rendered in italics, in his draft each word is underlined of its own accord. Stahle fears the, "abolition traitors," because they threatens to transform America into, "a government of a single idea." That idea is ever-extending freedom to the oppressed and punishing those who deny that freedom. And as you look at the words, look at the simple ink on a page, you can almost see Stahle's pen underlining each separate word in the phrase, a short underscore for each word resolutely placed below. This wasn't the America he wanted. And he let that fact be known.

When they were translated into type, when the sorts were laid in the trays and the paper was ready to print, the italics became uniform. The anger was there, but not nearly as palpable. But in touching a simple sheet of paper, a tool of hatred from nearly a century and a half ago, you find Stahle's soul in neat, dark ink.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Old, Worn Bibles: What Did She Feel?

What is the emotion here?
A simple photo for today, taken back in September standing in the Dunker Church. A visitor, giddy and laughing, gets so close to the Dunker Bible standing inside of the footprint of the Dunker Church on the eve of the anniversary of battle.

Why? What is it that made her so happy?

Was it knowledge? That surely came into play. She needed to have some background and understanding of that place, she needed a feel for the forces at play. But it's not knowledge she's getting from those pages. It's just a book like any other.

On Monday, Obama laid his hand on a plain 1853 pocket Bible, published by Oxford University Press. To open it, to read it, it is a King James Bible. Likewise, the Dunker Bible is a plain English Bible, easily read. The 23rd psalm is the same in both books as any other hunk of dead trees and cow's skin you find on shelves and in churches across America.

So what's the power?

It's the talisman. It's the meaning. The book doesn't really matter all that much. It adds weight, but not substance. If Lincoln had set his hand upon Punch Magazine to swear out the oath of office, if the Dunkers had read from a sacred copy of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus right before the battle at Sharpsburg, we would drool over those pages of wood-pulp and ink.

It's the fact that these object were there, but it's something more than that fact too.

It's the romance and wonder of that proximity. It's the understanding that we cannot shake Lincoln's hand any longer. We cannot hear the Dunker's songs that Sunday before the battle any longer.

But we can meet the library's silent witnesses. So we stand slack-jawed with our camera, not gaining knowledge. There is none to be gained from these books.

We instead gain something to feed our soul.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Sunrise with Lincoln and Meanings with Chuck

From darkness to light.
I walked 150 years on Monday. I walked across a great chasm of history.

Physically, I walked from the Arlington Cemetery Metro Station across Memorial Bridge, then continued down the National Mall to 4th Street, where I witnessed one of the most peculiar regularly scheduled celebrations that Americans observe: the Inauguration of the President.

But along the way, I met the past alive on the landscape. I watched the sky turn from murky black into hopeful, bright pink and orange sitting alongside the savior of the nation. Lincoln and I watched as the early light of sunrise silhouetted the brightly-lit Washington Monument. We watched the dark melt to light, the chaos and unknown melt into bright order.

The two of us sat on the steps of his Memorial and watched his nation. It's a nation he could have never dreamt of and yet one he saw clearly in his greatest hopes. The man in the White House, Lincoln's house, looks like the slaves that Lincoln helped begin to truly free 150 years ago. His skin is the same dusky hue.

Meeting him on the street in 1858 in Washington, you might have assumed he was some man's property.

But meeting him on the street in 2013, you can only assume he truly is his own man, as are we all, and you would instantly know he is the leader of a vibrant and constantly evolving nation.

The man who lives in the White House looks like the slaves did, in this, the Sesquicentennial of their freedom. And Lincoln smiled down from his seat in his Memorial. A land he could never imagine, and dreamt of every night.

Reflecting on war and meaning.
I left my friend the Emancipator and dove forward in history. I stooped down to shake hands with Dr. King on the spot where he begged to cash a check of freedom. I walked past the wall which chronicles the war he fought with all his soul to keep from killing more of America's sons, just as Lincoln had hoped to do a century before when he chose to free a race of men. I glanced back and saw a young songbird, singing, "My Country Tis' of Thee," from a high perch. And I watched as she melted into an old woman, still singing for freedom and equality and to a Lord she knew held her in his hands.

I peered a the line that marks old from new on the side of Washington's Monument, the scar of a war and the resolve of a people to do honor to their father. And next door I saw the foundation of a new museum dedicated to the race of people that that father held in bondage: irony is telling.

Then I stepped onto The Mall and democracy came alive. Walking down the long muddy front yard of the nation, flanking both sides of the path, a chorus of, "good morning." Over and over. High-fives and handshakes from strangers. This wasn't a strange place. We were being welcomed home.

And then Senator Schumer began to speak. His words were brief, but powerful. They were solid and heavy, they soared like a light dove on the wing.

They were interpretive.

I've placed a full transcript of Chuck's short address in the new 'Sources and Miscellaneous' tab above. They're worth another read if you heard them, and a first read if you didn't.

Chuck spoke like a seasoned interpreter, carving meaning where none existed before for the stunned audience. The black smudge on the skyline, the fuzzy statue at the crest of the Capitol Dome, became something more.

Welcome home.
It wasn't bronze. It was resolve. It wasn't a sculpture. It was the comeuppance of slave-set-free Phillip Reid. That statue, a metal representation of Freedom became in a flash the embodiment of Americans', "stubborn adherence to the notion that we are all created equal and that we deserve nothing less than a great republic worthy of our consent."

In fewer than 5 minutes, the moment had passed. The celebration continued. But Charles Schumer had taken those moments and used them to transform that meaningless statue, to ignite it like a torch in the soul. That's what interpretation is: we, at our best, take the meaningless and turn it into a beacon to guide the heart and comfort the mind. And bronze became lighthouse Monday morning.

"So," Schumer concluded, "it is a good moment to gaze upward and behold the statue of freedom at the top of the Capitol Dome." And what could the statue provide? "It is a good moment to gain strength and courage and humility from those who were determined to complete the half-finished dome."

Strength, courage, humility, drawn from a simple hunk of bronze atop a cast-iron dome masquerading as marble. And yet, there it stands: strength, courage, humility... and Lincoln's wildest dreams fulfilled.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Meaningless Lists of Soldiers: Hidden in Plain Sight

Pencil scratches on a page...
This week I had the chance to visit National Archives 1 to do some research for work into the history of the Federal Armory at Harpers Ferry, and particularly the building I work in. Mather Training Center waswas the Superintendent's House before the War came and upended the entire town. It was nice to get back into the stacks downtown and dig through musty boxes of (in this case) Office of the Chief of Ordinance records.

It brought to mind the last time that I got the chance to root around in the trove that is the Nation's repository down in DC. In the fall of 2011, working on a hunch, I ran a lead to ground. Working from a few random Confederate Compiled Service Records I found over in the College's Special Collections, I dug into Confederate prisoner of war records from the Gettysburg Campaign.

In and of themselves, those types of documents aren't all that interesting. The data is plain and simple, a litany of names and units without much more detail. But this lead was different. I was working from the hunch that a manifest of the College Hospital existed thanks to a notation on a CSR index card.

I do that sometimes. I work hunches and tiny leads. In the past, it's lead to finding a Confederate deserter who was a student at Pennsylvania College and another student who pulled a 'John Burns' and fought on July 1st. History is like a sock with a few bare threads sticking out of the seams: pull hard enough and the whole story falls apart, baring all.

This lead took me to Record Group 109, a War Department cache of documents pertaining to Confederates and Entry 211, "Records Relating to Confederates in Union Hospitals." When the cart was wheeled out, my heart leaped. I threw open the "Gettysburg, Pennsylvania" box.

The campaign was so large, with so many wounded prisoners, it warranted its own box. And there, inside box 15, sat a simple set of two sheets of paper with light pencil scrawled on front and back. The document's bureaucratic title still sends chills up my spine: College Hospital transferred July 19, 1863 to Baltimore, Md.

A document is cold, meaningless.
The list is a roll of about 80 prisoners who sought shelter in the halls of the College Edifice through mid-July, when their fortunes suddenly changed and the United States decided to move them out of the Pennsylvania border town.

This all sounds like an amazing moment. But the truth is, it's all really meaningless. The document is just a list of names. Lists and accountings of things have no real meaning but for their weight. Here are 80 men who survived the horror of a Civil War hospital and were moving on toward better times. Beyond that, the list is just a list. It's a dry number: 80.

What does it take? It takes looking at each individual name, one by one, and finding the story. A list is a list. Any monkey can do the type of research I do. All it takes is some dogged determination and the stupidity to follow a lead all the way to its conclusion, no matter the effort. But to take that information and sous out the story? To make this mean something takes more.

It takes finding out more than just Private John Abner Persinger of the 28th Virginia's name and rank, and the sterile fact that he was wounded in the right side. That's all the document tells you. He is pencil scratches on paper. You need to keep digging and discover that he was born on March 2nd, 1842 and lived in Roanoke, Virginia as war descended on the Old Dominion state.

In 1863, as John sat in a college dorm room or library hall with a wound in his side spilling forth a trickle of cleansing blood, at home on a sprawling family farm valued at over $45,000 sat his 53-year-old father James. His mother Emaline waited too. Charles and Marshall, two of John's younger brothers, were 15 and 13. There was much work to be done on a large, prosperous farm. But how many times did their thoughts flit to John in the army. Was he safe? When had his last letter arrived? Was he among the wounded or, worse, the dead?

John Persinger survived his wound from Gettysburg, was transferred on to Baltimore and eventually exchanged. He rejoined the 28th Virginia and fought on, captured again by United States soldiers at Five Forks in the waning days of the war. Four long years of war, and four long years of waiting for father and mother and brothers at home. The 5' 5" tall soldier, with blue eyes and brown hair would return home to his family intact. But the anguish of war, for soldier and for family, would never disappear.

How many untold hours of anguish aren't captured on this simple piece of paper. These aren't pencil scratches, they're the remnants of lives. We don't commemorate pencil scratches. We don't kneel at the graves of worn stubs of graphite and yellowing paper.

It's the people. It has to be. The men and women of the past must be brought back to life in the glowing technicolor of the mind in order for any of this to matter at all. Tactics don't matter. Lines and boxes on maps don't matter. Raw casualty statistics and rote lists of prisoners don't matter.

But men and women? That's the heart of interpretive history. And here are 79 more men waiting to be awoken, remembered and set walking the world once more.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"...let the spinning wheel turn": A Piece of Gettysburg Lost in Rebeldom

"What goes up, must come down..."
Everything eventually comes full circle. The past meets the present meets the future. And we find echoes of the past in the things we do today. It's not a new sensation.

In the early days of January, 1863, one Gettysburgian found an echo from his town in the most unusual (but not unexpected) of places. "It was a cool day yesterday," a soldier, writing under the pen-name Fergus reported to Compiler editor H. J. Stahle, "and as I passed along the street leading towards Winchester, I observed a large two-horse carriage that had arrived in town with a load of ladies for the purpose of shopping."

Fergus was stationed in Harpers Ferry, at the gap in the mountain range where Shenandoah and Potomac poured out toward Washington City and the sea. This was still enemy Virginia, albeit occupied and relatively calm on this January day.

Fergus and I share a compulsion. Whenever I go into a diner, I pick up the coffee cup and read the maker's mark underneath. I'm looking for, "Syracuse China," embossed underneath, reminding me of my hometown. It's like touching the home once again, through a piece of dime-store ceramic.

"From some idle
curiosity I stopped...."
Idle curiosity is
a wonderful thing, eh?
"From some idle curiosity," Fergus stooped down at the carriage. He, "found that it bore the name of 'Danner & Ziegler, makers.'" Suddenly, a place and time flooded back over him. "You may imagine," he wrote, "what recollections it called to my mind of those pleasant, good old times, when your little city of Gettysburg, famous for its good coaches, used to drive a thriving business with these people."

Gettysburg was carriages in the prewar years. The local economy was dominated by the manufacture of quality buckboards, wagons and hacks. William Frassanito, in his Early Photography at Gettysburg, marks that no fewer than 10 carriage shops dotted Gettysburg's streets as war descended on the nation. The chief market for the carriages? Northern Virginia's plush farmlands, where sprawling landscapes birthed sprawling agriculture and immense wealth.

"How many in your midst," Fergus continued, "remember that when their husbands started forth with their long line of carriages it was only for a short time and the to return with an honest equivalent." Gettysburg traded with the south, allied itself with the south, profited alongside the south. Gettysburg benefited from the prosperity of Virginia's tarnished and slave-blood soaked soil. Carriages were blood money.

"Through some mismanagement what a change has taken place," Fergus benignly mused to Stahle back in Gettysburg. But Fergus, writing to the Democratic-partisan Compiler, eschewed the money's source in favor of its vast benefit. To him, Gettysburg had lost because of the scourge of war. Where once her husbands drove wagons into the south and cleaned up with a tidy profit, now the trade was quite different.

"Instead of their carriages they have been compelled to take up arms and march forth to battle, and many will have seen their homes for the last time, many will return crippled in limb and health, only to drag out a miserable existence among friends," Fergus floridly wrote, "Such is war and its consequences."

War was evil, war was wrong and war directly harmed Gettysburg. In January of 1863, for a good number who trod the streets of this still-obscure borough, the war needed to end and radical schemes be set aside for prosperity, freedom of four million set aside for the greater success of the nation.

Dissent is universal. Maybe that's because, no matter where on the spinning wheel you stand, dissent is one of the chief tenants of America.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

On Larsen: Friends, Philosophers and Historians

David's interview from "Discovery 2000"
that's been making the rounds lately.
It's been a melancholic week for me. My boss Katie's blog post on Tuesday set my mind spinning back to a friend we lost two years ago. When the Civil War Institute noticed some video footage of Larsen that's on YouTube, it only cemented those thoughts into my mind. The video started racing around the blagosphere, and the thoughts percolated. And the words used to describe Dave were daggers to my heart: "National Park Service historian."

David wasn't an historian, he was an interpreter. I know that distinction isn't clear in the Civil War world, but it should be. David's American University degree was in Philosophy. Yes, he worked his entire life back and forth with history. But he was a philosopher first and foremost.

The raw stuff of history was wheat and chaff for Larsen, waiting to be separated at the mill. This much an interpreter shares with the historian. Both take the raw material of history, the documents, letters, censuses, notes scribbled in the heat of the moment, and do something with them.

The historian runs all this through the grist mill of the mind, grinding the facts and figures against the wheel and bringing forth massive 50 lb. bags of fine ground flour. The historian captures every viable grain of wheat, leaves behind the chaff and crams the fine flour into the larders of knowledge. That's not a fault, it's simply a definition.

But History is to Interpretation as a fifty pound sack of flour is to a cupcake; they partly comprise the same basic materials, but one takes a lot weirder fine grain control.

The interpreter, the truly skilled interpreter like Larsen, runs that same grist through the mill of the mind and comes out with 50 lb. bags of fine ground flour as well. But the interpreter looks for the one cup in that fifty pounds, the one scoop of flour that will make the perfect cupcake, that will make the most amazing meaning. Then they politely dump the majority of that flour into the hog trough, not to be used for human consumption.

This is a fundamentally different philosophy of research and construction. The Historian amasses the aggregate of the world's knowledge. The Interpreter combs the world's knowledge for one or two amazingly meaningful tastes.

An Interpretive Dialogue, the story of an
historian struggling to find meaning,
is the heart of David's 2003 book
Meaningful Interpretation.
What does this look like? The Interpreter digging through history seeks out resonances, not complete bodies of knowledge. Resonances are the echoes of the past forward into the human soul. So instead of worrying about learning an order of battle or a table of organization, the interpreter's job is to build a small but ever-growing toolkit of meanings and stories, small morsel ready to whip out and build greater meaning in a place.

This is an entirely different research skill set, fundamentally connected to that of the Historian but focused entirely differently.

Tuesday morning, on the way into work, I was listening to WGBH's archived real-time coverage of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is an amazing living document; an entire day's radio coverage as reporters try to find the words to describe the momentous scene.

And a few tantalizing pieces stood out.

George Lincoln Rockwell and members of the American Nazi Party were protesting south of the Lincoln Memorial that August day. Major Karl Allen, Rockwell's assistant, was arrested and arraigned for demonstrating without a license. He reported to ERN's Mike Rice that, "the March is instigated by Communist trained people." Even when the Lincoln Memorial was being used as a laboratory for democracy by A. Philip Randolph's march, it was being used as such a laboratory by his opposition.

Rick Lee, reporting national headlines from Boston back to the ERN, read an obituary for W.E.B. DuBois. The famed activist for civil rights in his own era and founding voice of the NAACP, died the day before the March on Washington. DuBois was the Malcolm X of his own struggle for Civil Rights. The Black Civil Rights movement was not a unified front in any decade, but a fractured and piecemeal drive toward true citizenship.

Two tidbits. Your eye begins to search for them automatically, your ear begins hearing them in the chaff that is 15 hours of broadcast coverage of a major American event. They are small resonances with the modern era, many that don't need to be explicitly pointed out. You don't need to say "Westboro Baptist Church" to draw the modern connections. You don't need to hear "Washington gridlock" to think of divided political minds coming together for a greater good.

It is approaching research for a fundamentally different purpose. History aims to chronicle the arch and trends of the past. Interpretation aims to make the present and future better, and just so happens to use history to do that sometimes.

Interpreters are not, cannot be, never should be historians. They carry an historian's toolbox, but they need to approach history in a fundamentally different way.

They need to instead use those tools of history like my friend David did. They need to be philosophers. We are sages for a modern era, we are the voices trying to make the world a better place. We don't chronicle the past, we use it to help people find their own lessons within.

The past is the interpreter's and philosopher's paint set and his canvas is the future. At least it was for Larsen.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Bells on Bobtail Ring: A Cold Day in Hell

Sleighing, as depicted in
Harpers Weekly in late 1864.
"Snow and sleighing," are, a correspondent in the Franklin Repository opined in January of 1864, "delightful words to the young, and foolish, and careless." Still, the elder correspondent was keen to, "thank time! we have outgrown such follies."

It's not that sleighing's attendant activities caused indigestion. "We don't in the least object to the merry laughter of the belles or cheery ring of the bells as they hurry past our window," the experienced and much warm correspondent wrote, "but we stir the fire, and do wonder how they can prefer discomfort to comfort, frosted feet to slippers, and frozen noses to genial warmth."

"We hardly think we would get very cold should we take a short ride," readers of the Repository read. But the one sleigh ride that the man holding the pen had taken in those first few days of January of 1864 was considerably more chilly than simple air rushing past the nose could prove. "We have taken one more sleigh-ride -- to Gettysburg," the Chambersburg correspondent reported, having, "once again enjoyed the luxury of frosted feet, frozen ears, blue nose," and the chill to the bone of Adams County's frosty winds.

Imagine the cold of a wind whipped January, skidding across the snow on the way down the slopes of the gaps leading down into the rolling plains which surround Gettysburg. Imagine the horse trotting along in the cold, steam rising from his skin as you hear your hair crinkling in the cold near your ears. Imagine that inexpressible cold of a few hours' tour over the South Mountains and down toward Gettysburg.

But a chill of the body could not match a chill of the soul.

"We were chilled all the more at the sight of the numerous rebel graves dotted here and there on hill-side," the correspondent recalled, "and in hollow-nameless graves where the poor fellows lie, dishonored and neglected." As the sleigh slid across the frosted battlefield, the story was laid out in front of its chilly occupants by eyewitnesses. "Each historical location pointed out with painful minuteness, but we confess the vividest impression upon our mind is that of carnage, slaughter, death."

For a moment, vile and cold January melted and thawed into a warm July of the mind. A sleigh sat in a vivid field of wheat and hell swirled beyond its runners. The jingling of sleigh bells gave way to the ear's imagining of explosions, of shrieks of pain, of ultimate and final shouts of horror or regret or sorrow.

The field becomes frozen again. "We were compelled," the editor wrote, "to believe what before we were afraid was an exaggeration." Gettysburg, and Hell, become real on a cold January day in 1864 in a small sleigh threading its way across the fields and hills.

The wind whipped the occupants on the way back west through the gaps. To one side of the highway stood Thaddeus Stevens' iron furnace, "that is the stack of the Furnace... a speaking commentary upon the chivalry of the South," the correspondent added glibly.

Chambersburg hove into view. "We were very cold when we reached home--indeed, as a Southern friend of ours used to say, cold as blazes."

Thursday, January 3, 2013

25425 & 20500: ZIP codes for a Revolution

The quarry of my lunchtime chase.
I put on my coat and headed out the door today around lunchtime. My excuse was to grab a sandwich to munch on at my desk, but I was really hunting something very different. The Post Office is right along High Street down the block from work and Tuesday was the first day they've been open this year.

I went in and asked for two sheets of stamps. The clerk was kind and cheerful.

"Do you have any Emancipation stamps?" I asked.

"I hope we do," he answered, "We did before I went to lunch."

He slid his hand into the drawer and pulled out a disheveled folder. Out popped two sheets of the new Emancipation Proclamation commemorative stamps. My heart raced.

I know it sounds a bit lame, but it meant something to buy those stamps Wednesday. The fact that the stamps exist is an amazing thing. The document they commemorate is an amazing thing. And buying them on Wednesday, the 150th anniversary of the first full day that the Emancipation Proclamation was in effect was amazing.

But the most amazing thing was buying them at that particular post office.

I work in Harpers Ferry, ZIP code 25425. In 1859, John Brown's raid struck at the institution of slavery. Brown intended to raise an army of former slaves and march through the South bringing freedom to 4 million. And the United States Government saw him executed for his troubles.

But the document that stamp commemorated meant something different. In 1863, the United States Government, the same one that ensured Brown was captured and hanged, struck at the institution of slavery. That document raised an army of 100,000 former slaves and marched them through the South bringing freedom to 4 million.

The very land that the post office nows sits upon was once a portion of the Contraband Camp and defensive network that ringed Harpers Ferry. The target of John Brown's hatred became a destination for John Brown's despised poor and the downtrodden race of the South. Modern-day ZIP code 25425 was transformed from slavery's stronghold to the home of first freedoms for thousands.

That's a revolution, a complete inversion of the world's order in four short years.

A closeup of the USPS' tribute to freedom.
It was a small moment that the postman didn't realize happened when he handed me the stamps. But my heart leapt. After he ran my debit card and I walked away from the counter, I stopped and read the stamps near the desk with passport applications and draft registration forms. "Henceforward shall be free." Those words leap from the final Emancipation Proclamation. When Lincoln set his signature under those words, sitting in his office in modern-day ZIP code 20500, his hand trembled from shaking hands all morning. He was afraid that any tremors in the ink would betray reticence, so he signed deliberately. He wanted the world to know he had no reticence.

I was a little crestfallen. I much prefer the ring of Lincoln's Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation's triad of freedom: "then, thenceforward, and forever free." There is permanence in that promise & threat. Those words ring in a final, biblical way, like the dictum of a holy power.

My mind wandered to the stack of passport forms on the counter, then quickly to the pile of draft registration cards. The thought behind those two documents fundamentally changed when that other document saw Lincoln's trembling hand lay ink upon it in ZIP code 20500 back in January of 1863.

Black men could fight in earnest for their own freedoms after the Proclamation. They could be drafted and serve their nation after the Proclamation. They were firmly on an admittedly bumpy and slipshod path toward true citizenship after the Proclamation.

Then I glanced back at the stamps and saw it. These stamps don't have a denomination. They aren't 45¢ stamps, ready to send a First Class letter across the nation. They're permanent stamps.

Down in the bottom left corner is that simple word: Forever.

The Emancipation Proclamation is nothing short of an eternal revolution still continued today. And these stamps are relics of a revolution, purchased in the town where that revolution, at least in part, began.

So raise a glass to 25425! And to 20500 too! And toast a document that brings us all a measure of freedom.

In giving freedom to the slave, we ensure freedom to the free."
-A. Lincoln, 1 December 1862