Tuesday, January 20, 2015

We Will Now Rejoin Your Civil War (Already In Progress)

The long struggles started by the Civil War
continue in America's streets even today, from
St. Louis, Missouri to Staten Island, New York.
And the protest sign is still the greatest weapon,
like this example at the Newseum in Washington.
I celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a mouse and keyboard. I love diving neck deep in historical documentation for no good reason. Falling down the research hole can be so much fun, particularly when it's looking for one elusive piece of evidence.

This time, it was chasing an elusive section of a United Auto Workers protest sign used at the March on Washington in 1963. I found a photo of the corner, a chunk of text.

The idea that the Civil War led toward the Civil Rights movement 100 years later is almost painfully obvious. The fitful, ineffective and aborted experiment that was Reconstruction laid the groundwork upon which Randolph and Rustin erected the grand protest of 1963. Everyone on the rostrum called back to Lincoln, to the Civil War, to Emancipation.

The March on Washington was a non-violent battle in the long Civil War, just another skirmish like the ones fought in Gettysburg or Sharpsburg or Chattanooga. And everyone on the street knew it.

From what I can tell, the "official" posters produced by the march organizers, the signs announcing "We March For...Now!" and "We Demand... Now!" far outnumbered any others. But there were others. Some were hand-drawn. Some were banners brought by delegations, announcing that this church or that labor union was here to be heard.

And then there are the UAW signs. The language is far more strident than any of the others. The language is biting, snide and sarcastic. It's the language of a people oppressed for far too long to worry about being polite.

The March on Washington in August 1963 was
a definite echo of the Civil War.
The sign I went searching for underlined the 100-year disconnect in American society. And finally I found the whole elusive poster in an Associated Press photograph published by the Washington Post. "We seek the freedom in 1963," the UAW poster reads, "promised in 1863."

Emancipation was incomplete. It was never fully deployed, thanks in part to the failure of America's reconstruction experiment in 1877. And the March on Washington was just another battle of the Civil War.

I carefully traced the poster into a vector image. I'm a compulsive history. I collect things. Luckily, in this modern age, that doesn't always mean stuffing photocopied images into filing cabinets in the office. My filing cabinets are digital and they take up less real estate.

But to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday this week, I wanted to share that poster with you, along with a few more that I've been converting over. They're hosted below on Flickr, in vibrant color and at high resolution. Use them however you see fit: in a classroom, in a frame on your wall or perhaps in the streets protesting today. After all, the African-American Civil Rights movement is still going on. And so is our Civil War.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Fruit of a Vile Tree: The Eshelman Family's War

Frederick Eshelman's father wasn't home. He was in Petersburg, the chilly and treacherous trenches stretching to his right and left as far as the imagination might take them. That's where the danger was. That's where war lived.

And in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, the war was about as far away as it could be. Tides of battle had lapped at the borough and the county, men had trampled the streets and horses had broken into a gallop on the way toward the gap at Monterey Pass. But it was January now and the muddy roads were crispy and quiet.

Catherine Eshelman was now a single mother. Her husband Hiram was alive and well, but she had to raise her passel of children without his help, without his influence. Frederick was 7. His sister Sarah was a year older. His older brothers John and William were about 9 and 11. Though Catherine had Mary, her daughter of about 15, to rely on, keeping watch over so mane children in such a lonely house must have been tough.

Every house in Adams County had the weird and odd relics of war. Some places they were hunks of iron, pieces of shells lined along a mantle. Others had swords hung on walls, abandoned by officers long ago captured and imprisoned.

And some homes, like the Eshelman's, had even more awkward souvenirs of war: rusting and broken gun barrels.

One of Frederick's brothers, playing with the weapon-turned-toy, shoved the butt of the barrel into the coals of the wood stove. He grabbed his little brother and told the 7-year-old to listen to the tube.

The sounds of gunfire were old hat to Hiram Eshelman in the trenches at Petersburg. By 1865, most soldiers were no longer phased by rifles, cannon and explosions. Even his scant few months since September in the ranks likely had deadened Hiram's ears to that sound.

But Catherine, in peaceful Fairfield, heard that sound anew. She heard that jarring bang and that sickening splatter of what once was her beloved son's skull burst to pieces. On the 17th of January, 1865, a long forgotten bullet from the grand invasion of Pennsylvania finally found its mark in a 7-year-old boy's brain, another casualty of the battles near Gettysburg.

Hiram Eshelman marched home a few months later. War had taken from the family, but not in a way anyone might have expected.