Thursday, February 28, 2013

Food, Fuel and Fodder: Civil War Carbon Footprints

Thursday morning finds me presenting to a group of fellow NPS folks on the possibilities of the interpretive futures. So I've dragged out some older, weirder interpretive dreaming from a few years back. It's something I worked up for my friend and boss David Larsen to prove that topics like Climate Change can be discussed from any perspective and in any context.  

But this sort of dreaming can't stay locked in drawers, left on the backs of envelopes and stuffed away in digital filing cabinets back at work.

So here's a peek at what I'm presenting. It's a way of visualizing impacts, Civil War and otherwise, on the world around us.

Trains and Horses, integrally tied.
The logistics of the American Civil War were staggering. For example, the Army of the Potomac, in 1863, had 69 individual artillery batteries scattered among its six different Corps. Each of these batteries had, on average, six cannon. These cannon and their limbers were typically towed by 6 horses, giving the typical battery around 36 horses.

The guidelines for field artillery in the United States army called for each horse to receive 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of grain (oats, corn or barley) per day. If fed to military guidelines, one battery of field artillery required 504 pounds of hay and 432 pounds of grain each day.

Within the Army of the Potomac, if fed to military guidelines, the entire cadre of field artillery required 34,776 pounds of hay and 29,808 pounds of grain each day. For a sense of scale, a typical modern acre of corn yields about 8,000 pounds per year. A typical modern acre of hay yields between 8,000 to 12,000 pounds per year. Every day of the war, the Army of the Potomac’s artillery required about 3 ½ acres of hay and 3 ½ acres of grain.

If fed to army specifications, in a year, the artillery batteries of the Army of the Potomac would eat 10,879,920 pounds of corn and 12,693,240 pounds of hay. This is 5,439 tons of corn and 6,347 tons of hay each year of the four year war.

The armies in the field often foraged for supplies from the land, using the crops and stores of the country they occupied to feed themselves and their animals. This mass of supply, however, simply was not available. Across the entire state of Virginia in 1860, the state where the Army of the Potomac based much of its operations, cornfields did yield roughly 2 billion pounds (or 1 million tons) of corn. But two armies vied for resources in Virginia, and the theatre of operations encompassed very little of the state in the larger scope.

Suppose that even just half of the fodder required by the Army of the Potomac’s artillery (21,756 tons of corn and 25,388 tons of hay over the course of the war) was shipped to the east from the western states, most likely from a large hub like Chicago. Chicago is around 700 miles from Washington, D.C. by rail.

The amount of coal required to haul one ton of freight one mile with a mid-nineteenth century steam engine was around 6-8 ounces. Hauling 47,143 tons of freight 450 miles requires 198,000,600 ounces or 12,375,038 pounds of coal.

Burning coal emits CO2 gas at a rate of 1/2.93. For every 1 pound of coal burned, 2.93 pounds of CO2 gas are produced. If northern steam engines burned 12,375,038 pounds of coal to haul feed to the Army of the Potomac’s artillery, they produced 36,258,861 pounds of CO2 gas in a four year period.

Today’s coal power plants produce about 3,941,865,250,000 pounds of CO2 gas per year.

There are about 600 plants in the nation. If each produces roughly the same amount of CO2, this works out to 6,569,775,420 pounds per plant, per year. A plant, running 24/7, 365 days a year, produces 17,999,384 pounds a day or 749,974 pounds per hour.

Meaning, the Army of the Potomac’s Artillery’s horses fodder for the entire four years of war required a transport carbon cost roughly equal to just 48 hours of power production from a modern coal burning power plant.

This work contains material based upon or wholly the work of a National Park Service employee, created during the course of official duties. As a work of a federal government agency, such work is in the public domain and free to be redistributed, reused or remixed by anyone for any purpose.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

“A time to be born, and a time to die.”

This week I'm off on travel for work to Philadelphia, to help run a facilitated dialogue interpretive training. But I don't want to starve everyone of content. So, I thought that a preview of my manuscript-in-progress about Pennsylvania College and the Civil War might be a great way to fill the gap.

Without further ado, an excerpt from Chapter Six - Hell on Earth:

While surgeons were well acquainted with the horrors of a field hospital in the aftermath of a grand battle like Gettysburg, the civilians of the North were woefully unprepared for the carnage at play in the halls of their local institutions and homes until it presented itself in full-colored glory in front of their very eyes. Senior Michael Colver finally picked his way down the long slope of Cemetery Hill, across the borough and onto the campus of his alma mater on Monday the 6th of July. “On our arrival,” he recalled, “we found in and around the building, according to the estimate given us, seven hundred wounded rebels.” The campus was transfigured from the placid and quaint to the grotesque and horrific. Colver ascended the staircase into the hellish depths of the building. “When I came to my room I saw it afforded ample accommodations for three.” One bleeding Confederate reclined in his bed. Two more lay splayed on the floor. As Colver stumbled through the halls, stepping around and over body after body, he heard nothing but, “the moans, prayers and shrieks of the wounded and dying,” of the, “poor, deluded sons of the South.” Enmity melted from his mind. “Only a heart dispossessed of all feeling of humanity,” Colver mused, “could refuse sympathy and help in such a time as that.”

Pouring into the town were hands determined to render just such magnanimous aid. Private citizens from across Pennsylvania, from Baltimore and Washington City surged into the southern Pennsylvania city to give aid and comfort in a sea of suffering. Representatives from the United States Christian Commission and the United States Sanitary Commission began to spur their organizations to undertake the massive mobilization to deal with nearly 50,000 wounded men and their less fortunate comrades. Leonard Gardner remembered the flood of people as, “the surrounding country began to come into town.” Rolling down the spokes of the hub at Gettysburg’s center, “hundreds of wagons and carriages from every direction filled the place.” Each wagon, “brought provisions to give to the wounded and in this way showed their sympathy.” But more so, the wagons were loaded with, “gratitude for the happy results of the battle.” Aid had begun, but not quickly enough for the suffering wounded.

Andrew Cross, a representative of the Christian Commission, moved through the halls of the College Edifice on the morning of July the 6th. As he was passing, “a young, pleasant-faced lad asked us rather anxiously for food.” The boy reported that, “he had not had a meal from Tuesday before, six days.” But food was in short supply in Gettysburg, Cross reported to the wounded young man, on account of, “the burning of the railroad bridges,” outside of town. The starving soldier, “with earnestness,” Cross reported, exclaimed, “Didn't Stuart burn them? So he makes his own men suffer as well as others.” Cross again and again found men suffering from a want of rations. On the first floor of the building, in one of the rooms on the north side, Cross saw, “sixteen lying on floor, all badly wounded, several of whom died.” Each of the men, “looked anxiously for something to eat.” Tomorrow, the Christian Commission representatives counseled the men, help might come tomorrow. As Cross left the room, he realized that in his pocket were. “few dried apples, which we were chewing for our own dinner.” The snack was, “nothing comparatively,” and Cross, “felt ashamed to offer them, and did not expect them to go around one a piece.” Without thinking, he tossed the apples across the room to the bed-ridden men. “Without thought of their wounds, every man exerted himself to catch.” There were just enough. “Never,” Cross recalled, “did we see men enjoy a little thing more.”

When John B. Linn and Jim Duncan visited the campus of the college, they witnessed the horrors of the building before even setting foot inside. “Some rebel surgeons,” Linn wrote in his diary on July 8th, “were amputating a man’s leg on the portico.” Linn mused that, “the citizens of Gettysburg behaved nobly, the shock of such a three days battle over their heads was enough to unstring the nerves of them.” In spite of their efforts, there were simply not enough souls to tend to the detritus of battle. Indeed, Andrew Cross wrote, “to say in such a field that surgeons were busy, is needless.” With so much, “ragged, naked, torn and mangled mortality,” what more, “could they do but work.” The number of doctors to patients was woefully inadequate. “There was not more than one for ten that were needed,” Cross moaned, “every man that could tie a bandage, or give a drink of water, or pour it upon a wound, was at work.” Passing through the halls and between the suffering forms of the South, from every direction came the constant, delirious call to anyone who passed: “Doctor, oh, doctor, won't you attend to my case? Won't you fix my arm, or my leg, or my shoulder, or head?”

Leonard Gardner, who was visiting nearby Carlisle for Dickinson College’s commencement before the rebel invasion interrupted both the ceremony and his vacation, visited Gettysburg as a tourist but quickly tendered his service to the Christian Commission. He was sent to, “Pennsylvania college Hospital, where the confederate wounded were kept.” Gardner found himself surrounded by the prostrate Confederate men on all sides when he entered the building. “Their comrades had to leave them,” he wrote years later, “suffering from every form of injury.” Each of the soldiers, “wore a sad and dejected appearance.” The Pennsylvanian found that, in spite of the animosity between the two warring nations, that he, “had a profound sympathy for them.” Still, like so many of the hundreds of eager hands pouring into the town wishing to help alleviate the suffering, Gardner had no skills to offer. “The most that could be done at that time was to give them something to eat and wash and dress their wounds.”

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Consumptive Use History

The Library and its books / NTHP Photo
It's been five years since I was living in DC and working at the Lincoln Cottage. I don't often talk about my short stint in DC at American University (let's just say that the University and I didn't quite mesh philosophically) and working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation at President Lincoln's Cottage right as the site was opening. My time at the cottage was a blip on the radar; barely any digital footprints still exist from then.

The fact is that I wasn't the most beloved tour guide during my time in the Cottage, chiefly because I consistently stepped outside of the relatively tightly-defined box of the tour outline. Fellow Cottage alum Allison Hermann (cum Jordan) can attest to that. I broke nearly every rule of visitor experience that was strenuously laid out by management in those first tenuous months of the Cottage being open. I was breaking the rules chiefly for visitor understanding, appreciation and enjoyment, but I was still stepping outside of the box left and right. My free-form interpretive philosophy didn't really jibe with the NTHP's very strictly controlled and scripted philosophy.

That's not to say I didn't get things out of my time there. There are chunks of my interpretive philosophy which spring nearly full-formed from both the great and shabby things I saw at the Cottage. There are ideas which started rattling around in my head five years ago and which are still falling out of my mouth, often unbidden.

One of the most interesting concepts the Cottage employed (they may still employ it, it's been five years since I've visited) was in the library. On the table sat original, mid-1850s editions of some of Lincoln's favorite books. Part of the explanation given to staff as to why these were real, original editions of Lincoln's favorite books was the simple fact that finding originals in used book stores was far less expensive than having custom reproductions handmade.

Regardless of why these books were there to be touched, the fact is they were there to be touched. They were classified as consumptive use. They would eventually wear out and then-curator Erin Carlson Mast would need to find new ones. The books were intended to be used, touched, handled and eventually destroyed for the sake of the story.

My collection of books which
will eventually be destroyed.
That idea has always stuck with me. There's something so pure about that idea. We so often see artifacts as prisoners behind sterile glass walls, never to be touched by soiled visitor hands. They are sainted objects beyond our reach, better than our feeble, mortal hands deserve to touch.

But these books were there in service of making real, visceral connections to the past. They would be touched. There was no glass. They would be abused. There was no barrier. They would ultimately be destroyed.

But that destruction would not be a loss. It would be a gain for the thousands of fingers that touched the pages, felt the leather, rubbed the cloth and weighed history in their hands. They would feel Lincoln by feeling his favorite books in their own hands.

So I've begun to amass my own collection of consumptive use books. They're intended to help tell the story. They're books that soldiers borrowed from professors to wile away the hours of boredom. They're books that professors obsessively crafted in the months after the battle then obsessively sold to a slavering American public. They're books in which bored Confederates inscribed their names, forever to be graphite prisoners in a Yankee library. I'll carry them around, walk to the places around the Pennsylvania College campus where their cousins, books that looked and smelled and felt just like these, met with the people of the past. I'll tell their tales again. I'll hoist them in front of eager eyes. I'll pass them around through sweaty, dirty hands of the people who can feel the past through their pages. And someday, they'll fall to pieces.

And I'll head over to and replace them. And then replace them again. And again.

You see, this destruction is all about meaning. Because if there's anything that the Lincoln Cottage taught me, it's that sometimes the best way to preserve the past is to destroy it in slow increments.

That's me, leading Gettysburg Semester students around the Cottage. / NTHP Photo

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Plain Black and White: Race & Gettysburg, Winter 1863

"Kinkyheads," the Gettysburg Compiler gleefully quipped at the bottom of a column in its February 23rd edition, "is the new title used for Abolitionists." This was, of course, "in contradiction to 'Copperheads.'"

Race was the live wire of Gettysburg's political scene. For the roughly 10% of the borough's population that was black, that live wire must have shocked daily.

Still, the local community soldiered on. "The 'Americans of African descent,' connected with the A. M. E. Church in this place," the Republican Adams Sentinel announced on February 10th, "intend holding a Festival for the benefit of their Church, on the evening of the 23d inst." The meeting would take place, "in a large room on Washington street, near the church." The editor was convinced that the meeting would, "doubtless be patronized by a full house."

What happened in that meeting isn't recorded. But imagining the scene isn't hard. Patriotic meetings abounded throughout the North as the war limped toward its third year. And a people whose fate was tied to the war being fought would have naturally turned toward the struggle just south of their homes. Were there songs? Were there speeches? Was there talk of Lincoln's new Proclamation? Of the Negro Soldier Bill? Of the chance to fight for their own freedom?

Gettysburg's white population, though, was concerned too with the fate of those blacks in the Third Ward and their compatriots held in chains. The Compiler, by Sentinel editor Robert G. Harper's estimation, "raises the cry of 'Abolition—Abolition,' to divert the public censure from his disloyal articles. Still, Harper concluded, "he cannot get clear of the shirt of Nessus, with all his endeavors to do so, by shouting aloud—the Negro—the Negro—Abolition—Abolition!"

How the heads of Gettysburg's black community must have watched dumbstruck as the white establishment blithely debated their fate, like some cosmic tennis match where the ball bandied back and forth was the very definition of freedom and the players were blissfully unaware that the stands were filled with the freed-or-not-freed-depending.

"Our neighbor of the Sentinel," Compiler editor Henry J. Stahle wrote from his new office along Baltimore Street, "is very crusty under the charge of being an Abolitionist." Harper, Stahle wrote, "took passage on the rickety and suspicious vessel, 'Negrophobia,' in the face of the counsels of the best men in the nation, some of them leaders in the old Whig party, and if he goes down with her, he will have no one to blame but himself."

On Washington Street a block over from Stahle's newspaper office, the black community of Gettysburg (like the rest of the, "Americans of African descent,") sat in that selfsame bark, their term for it, "Freedom," and not, "Negrophobia." And for them, if it sank, it meant rack and ruin.

Robert Harper fired back at Stahle, noting that the editor, "appears to have no other day or night dreams, (if we are to judge from the articles in his paper) than the terrible bugaboos, the Negro, and Abolition." Pronouncing Stahle's ramblings, "much wildness, and queer—very gueer language there," Harper tiptoes on the line of rebuffing Stahle's wind but not the accusation of being an Abolitionist. Still, faint praise can also be damnation.

In the same issue where he adeptly avoided confirming or denying an Abolitionist bent, Robert Harper printed a notice of the success of the fair held by the black community. The, "Festival last night," he penned in his pages, "we learn was quite a success, and that a handsome sum will be realized."

Stahle's estimation of the fair was markedly different. Beneath an account of the Quaver Club's Concert held the same night cribbed nearly word-for-word from the Sentinel, Stahle laid into the A.M.E. Fair. "The Festival of the 'Americans of African descent,' on Monday evening, was, we are told, largely and liberally patronized by 'black spirits and white,'" the editor wrote, skillfully making sure to point out this definitely wasn't from first hand knowledge. Still, the support was a farce, put up by the, "Union League," for the express purpose of denigrating and showing up the white community of Gettysburg, "because on the same night 'white folks' had a Promenade Concert at Sheads & Buehler's Hall."

The next week, Stahle ran a piece from the Patriot & Union on black soldiers. "This State is overrun with agents from Massachusetts seeking negro recruits for he unfilled quota of the army," Stahle's pages echoed the Harrisburg newspaper's refrain. The black soldiers were being recruited for the nascent 54th Massachusetts Regiment (Colored). "Massachusetts may have all the negroes she can raise from this quarter," the Patriot & Union blithely concluded.

But in the Third Ward, Gettysburg's citizens weren't passive creatures. They had hopes and dreams. They had fantasies of true freedom for all and a future safe from fear of slave catchers drifting across Pennsylvania's porous border. They were no one's fools. It's just that they didn't have a newspaper to call their own. So the white folks a block away set the type, and the black folks lived their lives, fighting the war in their own way that today is largely invisible.

Still, glimmers of those dreams peak through the darkness.

Later that spring, as the cold of winter was melting into the warm of April, in a camp in far away Massachusetts, a new recruit filled out his paperwork to join the 54th. His name was James T. Russell. He was 35 years old. He stood 5 foot, 8 1/2 inches tall. His skin was dark, his eyes brown, his hair black. His place of birth?

The clerk wrote down the words on the form: "Gettysburgh, Penna."

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Presidents' Day in a Land at War

Washington as depicted
in Harpers Weekly the
following year, 1864.
Monday is Presidents' Day, our modern conglomeration of the celebrations of Washington's and Lincoln's Birthdays. Of course, no one but Mary Todd, Tad and some friends were celebrating Lincoln's birthday in 1863. Dying has a way of making special family events into cherished national holidays. Hence Washington, father of the nation who was already cold in the ground, warranted celebration and accolades on his birthday.

But America was a land divided. Washington's gambit at a free and independent republic in the New World was in limbo. And the fate of the concept of freedom hung in the balance

My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;

In early February, the U.S. Congress passed a Conscription Act. Now any American male of military age could be coerced into service, forced into fighting for a cause he might not find just. The rich could buy their way out; the poor were left largely to brave the bullets.

Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims' pride,

Joseph Hooker had just taken command of an army that has seen perhaps its worst winter. Battered at Fredericksburg and bitterly politically divided, the Army of the Potomac looked very much worse for wear. Hooker reorganizes and regroups, knowing full well another season of heavy fighting lies in store.

From ev'ry mountainside
Let freedom ring!

And in Gettysburg, the people gather to honor their sainted father. On the 25th of February, the students of Pennsylvania College held a rousing ceremony for their nation and their dead chieftain. "It was rather a hastily planned affair," the Lutheran and Missionary noted, "as student celebrations are apt to be." Still, if the celebration wasn't "elaborate in design and detail, [it] was eminently successful in execution." In spite of a distinct lack in, "stage effect," the students' enthusiasm and patriotism carried the day.

Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom's song;

In front of Pennsylvania Hall, known as the College Edifice in 1863, a grove of trees sat barren in the cold mid-winter. Echoing through the branches at 10 am, the college bell peeled forth. Students streamed across the brown and white wintery campus toward Christ Church on Chambersburg Street.

Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;

After prayer, the crowd of students and professors broke forth into song, the patriotic hymn My Country 'Tis of Thee ringing in the rafters of the Lutheran church. Half that country was at war with the land these young men loved. Half that nation wanted to break away and craft a new nation. But still the students sang.

Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.

Then speeches followed. Someone read President Washington's Farewell Address. The dead President intoned solemn words of unity through a living voice. "The North," he said, saw industry grow thanks to, "an unrestrained intercourse with the South, protected by the equal laws of a common government." So to, the South, "in the same intercourse, benefiting by the agency of the North, sees its agriculture grow and its commerce expand." How those words must have stung.

The ghost of Washington closed, hoping that his words might help, "to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism." From the grave, he couldn't see the nation torn asunder by party spirit, a benighted institution and the evils of unchecked sectional patriotism.

Our fathers' God to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.

Then the college's president rose. Henry Lewis Baugher addressed the crowd. He, "showed the points of resemblance between this revolution and the first," a student recorded, "how the same domestic treason, base slander and misrepresentation existed then as now." The man of god damned the idea of disunion and, "proved the utter fallacy of the right of secession, and the great wickedness of rebellion."

Long may our land be bright,
With freedom's holy light,

Other professors spoke, underlining Washington's character as an exemplar. Undoubtedly, they tiptoed past his role as a slave master, focusing instead upon the, "most prominent of his virtues." But then, noon approached and the students rushed off to eat.

Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.

The afternoon was a personal celebration where the morning was communal. "Sleighing," the student recounted to the Lutheran and Missionary, "seemed quite a prominent feature." Throughout the College Edifice, the dormitory rooms were crowded with knots of students, "from which came many a hearty laugh and token of mirth."

Gettysburg enjoyed one more day of peace and celebration in a land bitterly torn by war.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Two Kosciuszkos: Fighting for Liberty

I got in trouble down in the District of Columbia before Christmas. I made the mistake of asking friend and fellow blogger Aaron Urbanski why I should care who Thaddeus Kosciuszko was. He went mildly ballistic. Aaron has a soft spot in his heart for the old Polish general, partially because his last name is Urbanski. I can't begrudge him that.

So the name "Kosciuszko" has been rattling violently around in my head since December. Recently it broke free. And it was because of the Civil War, Gettysburg and a Pennsylvanian general that I found out why Thaddeus Kosciuszko might matter to me.


Did these woods see the footfalls
of the young Samuel Kurtz Zook?
 / CC Nathan Rein
On a farm in southeastern Pennsylvania, a young boy heard family stories passed down from generation to generation and sat in wonder. They were stories of excitement, of war, of revolution.

Family stories are powerful. Our ancestors can be exemplars of where we're going and who we are. They can just as easily be signposts on the road of life warding off pitfalls. They stick with us for some reason. Maybe the blood in our veins sings when it hears the stories of the ones in whose veins it coursed before. Maybe humans are just hardwired to love stories.

The 1820s and 1830s were a time of wonder for Samuel Kurtz Zook. He lived on his mother's family farm outside of Philadelphia. Both of his parents were descended from Quaker farmers who lived in the hills north and west of Philadelphia. His mother's father, Welsh immigrant Abijah Stephens, had farmed the lands for years. The young Samuel Zook played across the open fields once plowed by his Grandfather, the first of nine children.

Those fields were special, and so were the tales that revolved around the house. Outside the windows decades earlier, America had been defended. Beyond the walls, America had been saved in the shivering cold. Beyond the doorstep, America was molded in the cold winter of 1777-1778.

Samuel Kurtz Zook grew up playing in the fields of Valley Forge, the winter encampment where George Washington's puny and fledgling force of militia became a true army. And the family stories he grew up on were of revolution, excitement, danger and patriotism.

His ancestors were pacifists. They did not fight with that army at Valley Forge. But they did help. Zook's Grandfather, Abijah Stephens, according to potent legend, had a, "gift in medicine," and was known throughout the area as a sort of doctor, though he had no degree or formal training. Managing a farm and family dozens of miles from the bustling city center of Philadelphia meant fending for yourself and keeping your family safe in spirit and body.

Another decedent of Stephens recounted that his, "grandfather was a self-taught surgeon and practitioner in the art of healing ulcers, abscesses of various kinds, setting of broken bones and dislocations, curing spasms, cuts and bruises." The off-license doctor, his grandson later published, "went early every morning to the camp and stayed late in the evening, waiting on the sick."

Used as a headquarters, the Stevens' home saw the footfalls of many a famous general cross its threshold. The Marquis de LaFayette frequented the home often. More Frenchmen, Duportale and Duponceau, met the family. And the Polish freedom fighter, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, visited as well.

The mysticism which must have surrounded the family stories of the Stevens and Zook clan seeped into Samuel's young soul. He was entranced by the fields surrounding his home, commanding, according to one historian, his schoolmates in a company drill. The young children made a game of, "playing on the old fortifications on the site of the Valley Forge encampment." And what better playground to envision the grand victories of the child's mind?

The monument at Gettysburg
to Samuel Kosciuszko Zook
/ CC Michael Noirot
The young Zook would grow. But the memories of his family and that place remained with him forever. He wore them, quite literally, as a badge on his person. Samuel Kurtz Zook rechristened himself, changing his middle name to Kosciuszko. He took the name of the foreign general who fought as a stalwart defender of true liberty.

Kosciuszko's name means more. The Pole hated inequity of all stripes. He despised slavery. And Zook would go on to fight in a war over that very question. What was the equitable state of things in America? Did slavery have a place in a nation which had fought so hard, shivered so long at Valley Forge, to craft an America where, "all men are created equal," and were ensured, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

And at Gettysburg, he would fall. He bled, in part, for the death of the benighted institution that his chosen namesake despised. Was battle like it had been in his childhood dreams? Was fighting and dying to save his country as sweet as his imagination had told him it would be so long before on the slopes of Valley Forge?

Samuel Kosciuszko Zook died at Gettysburg on July 2nd, 1863, a death that seemed almost fated. Another Kosciuszko fighting once again to save America from despotic rule.


Great assistance for this piece was provided by Chapter 2 of A. M. Gambone's 1996 biographical history of Zook's life, "...if tomorrow night finds me dead..." The Life of General Samuel K. Zook: Another Forgotten Union Hero published by Butternut and Blue.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Glitch in the Matrix

The blog post which went up here moments ago will post tomorrow as usual. Slip of the "publish" button. See you tomorrow!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Downwind from Gettysburg

"And for a long time the father cannot bring himself
to ease his translator of the wind down to set him on the earth..."

I have always wanted to do a film on Gettysburg and the vast crowd there and far away out at the edge of that sun-drowsed impatient lost thick crowd, a farmer and his son trying so hard to hear, not hearing, trying to catch the wind-blown words from the tall speaker there on the distant stand, that gaunt man in the stovepipe hat who now takes off his hat, looks in it as to his soul rummaged there on scribbled letterbacks and begins to speak."

"And this farmer, in order to get his son up out of the crush, why, he hefts the boy up to sit upon his shoulders. There the boy, nine years old, a frail encumbrance, becomes ears to the man, for the man indeed cannot hear nor see but only guess what the President is speaking far across a sea of people there at Gettysburg and the President's voice is high and drifts now clear, now gone, seized and dispersed by contesting breeze and wind. And there have been too many speakers before him and the crowd all crumpled wool and sweat, all mindless stockyard squirm and jostled elbow, and the farmer talks up to his son on his shoulders in a yearning whisper: What? What's he say? And the boy, tilting his head, leaning his peach-fuzz ear to the wind, replies."

-Downwind from Gettysburg, Ray Bradbury

What is this if not interpretation? Go find a copy of I Sing the Body Electric, Ray Bradbury's collection of short stories from which this chunk comes. Check it out of the library. Go buy it, you won't regret it.

Bradbury, in his short story, tells the tale of a man whose obsession is to bring the dead to life. Phipps wishes to make a film about Gettysburg, the film outlined in the passage above. A boy on his father's shoulders translates the Gettysburg Address from it's wind-borne course.

Phipps never gets to resurrect the dead on film. What he does do is bring a robotic Lincoln back to life, with oil coursing through his metallic veins.

And this is what we do too. Freeman Tilden made the astute observation decades ago. "Interpretation is an art," he wrote, "which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural."

And in his short story, Bradbury is doing nothing more than revealing a great moral, philosophical and historical truth through art. He is speaking of the human soul. He is interpreting the real past and the imagined future, he is interpreting his mystical make-believe characters and our flesh-and-blood selves, all simultaneously.

Bradbury's father and son never existed. And yet, their story speaks truth that even the best of historians can't truly access. It is fiction that tells an historical truth.

Bradbury resurrects the dead through his art, not with a robot or celluloid, but with the word. In the end, we only need the word. And it is through that means, the power of our language, that we raise the dead every day.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Her Meaning, My Meaning, Our Meanings

Lincoln at night:
pure majesty. / PD LOC
One of the most special places in the world to me is that random collection of marble and skyscraper steel at the end of the National Mall known as the Lincoln Memorial. I've had so many amazing experiences there. They're small experiences, but they're amazing. Seeing America, us, walk through those columns and up at that man.

It instantly makes you a child again, standing knee-high, gape-jawed at our collective grandfather as he sits in his comfortable chair and tells his silent story.

But my favorite memory of that place didn't happen to me. I still see it every time I visit. I didn't witness it. But I can still trace the events, written on the backs of my eyelids as I stare at that ground.

My mother was young. I don't know exactly how young. I could ask her, but it's not all that important. Her father was a working-class stiff, a milk truck driver in Syracuse. Her mother was a skilled woman, working in the polio ward at a local hospital. Vacations were rare. And yet here was the car rolling down the highway.

It was the 1960s. America was different. My mom has told me the tale of stopping by a restaurant with her parents while on the road. She went off to the bathroom, but came back perplexed and still needing to go.

There are two bathrooms, she told my grandmother, one saying "Women" with white writing on a black door and one with black writing on a white door. I don't know which one to use, the perplexed girl explained.

My grandmother, savvy to the situation, knew the right answer: it doesn't matter which one you choose.

The ride from Syracuse to Washington, DC is long. Darkness wrapped around the car. Like most great road-trips, the kids in the back seat fell asleep. And then, late in the night, the car eased to a stop. My grandfather, a wiry man, walked around the car and opened the door on my mothers' side of the car.

I like to envision her face from her childhood photos, pressed against the glass and asleep. I like to imagine him opening the door and her slowly realizing it was gone and she should wake up. And then I like to see her smile in my mind.

A beacon light for Us, like
a modern Parthenon. / PD LOC
Behind my grandfather, shining like a beacon down from a man-made Olympus, there he was. Lincoln sat there in the darkness, the car parked right at his feet. And my young mother stood in awe at his majesty, at the fact that she was really seeing that man.

That awe is what I feel. I visit that man at least once a year. And I stand down on that driveway, too. No cars drive there anymore, but I can still see them parking. I see the door popping open. And I can see that look.

My mother's awe at that man has never waned. That is her meaning for that place, the majesty of a young girl awakening to see, peering from the darkness, the brightly lit figure of hope, power and promise. That meaning is mine now too.

And I hope that the next time you visit the Great Emancipator that you imagine that car, that door and that face. Now it's your meaning too. That's how this whole game works.