Tag Archives: Civil War

Mirror of History

Louis XIV famously once said Fashion is the mirror of history but as we all know, sometimes mirrors show us things we don’t want to see. I was looking around for some inspiration for my Resistance Ball dress, when I discovered the work of an amazing Haitian-born, Brooklyn-based artist named Fabiola JeanLouis, a photographer, a stylist, a (paper)dressmaker, and a “maker” who seems to be able to embrace the past, present and future in her work, sometimes simultaneously. Her breakthrough exhibition, Rewriting History (2016), took my breath away. Look at this “mirror image”, in which the embroidery design on the back of the embellished dress of “Madame Beauvoir” mirrors the scars from the scourged back of the once-enslaved man named Gordon, displayed in a famous photograph by McPherson & Oliver that went viral during the Civil War.

Fabiola Jean Louis MADAME BEAUVOIR'S PAINTINGMadame Beavoir’s Painting

The juxtaposition of the very beautiful (women, dresses, surroundings) with very ugly historical events is jarring in these compositions, but also remarkably effective: you can’t look away. According to Ms. Jean-Louis, it’s not just the medium and the message but also the material: the paper gown sculptures are transformed in a way that allows me to represent layers of time and the events of the past as they intrude upon the present. Through the materials, I suggest that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present, as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors. Rewriting History seeks to reconnect viewers to the past so that parallels with current events are amplified.

Fabiola Jean Louis Madam LeRoy

Fabiola Jean Louis Rest in Peace

Fabiola Jean Louis Revolutionary-Dress-Top Madame Leroy and Rest in Peace; Revolutionary Dress Top (detail).

The beautiful Madame Leroy in her exquisite eighteenth-century gown with a stomacher (locket? window?) encasing a lynched man, an image which is repeated even more starkly in the model-less Revolutionary Dress. Less straightforward, at least for me, is Marie Antoinette is Dead, modeled on François Boucher’s portrait of a reclining Madame de Pompadour, but the updated subject seems to be a Voodoo Queen in a rococo dress. There are no fashion victims among Jean-Louis’s subjects: only powerful women, and heroines such as Mathilda Taylor Beasley: born into slavery in Georgia in 1832, she somehow escaped, and operated a secret school for African-American children in Savannah in the 1850s—a very dangerous act at that time and place. I cannot help but think of Charlotte Forten Grimké, a contemporary of Beasley’s and Salem’s first African-American educator, who ascended to that profession under far more advantageous circumstances in the North. Beasley is memorialized in Passing and Violin of the Dead, and now I know her name. I really can’t discern whether I am reacting to these works as a cultural consumer or an educator.

Fabiola Jean Louis Marie Antoinette is Dead

madamedepompadour

Fabiola Jean Louis CollageMarie Antoinette is Dead; Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (Neue Pinakothek, Munich); Passing and Violin of the Dead.  All photographs by Fabiola Jean-Louis with more + commentary at her website: www.fabiolajeanlouis.com .


Codfish Aristocracy

Growing up in York, Maine, my focus was increasingly over the river and out of state once I hit my teens, to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a larger town with a mall, movie theaters, downtown shops, and lots and lots of restaurants. As I’ve said before, I think I ended up in Salem in large part because of its similarity to Portsmouth, and its greater proximity to Boston (now Salem surely has more restaurants, but fewer shops). For some reason which I can’t remember, my favorite restaurant in Portsmouth has always been The Oar House, which still exists, but a close second was The Codfish Aristocracy, which is long gone. I had very little historical curiosity then, as well as very little regard for American history, so I never questioned the name; only later did I delve into the origins of this interesting idiom. Since I have cod on the brain this week, I decided to delve into it a bit more, and of course, in this year of discovering all sorts of legacies of slavery, here is another one. I think there are several connections, actually. As a general reference to the New England aristocracy of families whose “new” wealth was based on the Atlantic fisheries and trade to both the West Indies and Europe, the term predates the nineteenth century; after all the original “sacred cod” was placed in the old Colonial State House in the early eighteenth century and the present one dates from 1798. Salem even has a claim for the origins of the term, based on the cod embellishment on the stairs in Colonel Benjamin Pickman’s beautiful Georgian mansion on Essex Street, built in 1756. A lithograph of this house was included in the materials chosen by a special Essex Institute committee to represent Salem at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, when it was “still standing though defaced by shops in front. It is said that the term “Codfish Aristocracy” arose from the fact that the end of each stair in the hall of this was house was ornamented with gilded codfish, Colonel Pickman’s fortune being derived from the fisheries”.

Cod in State House Griffin DC

Pendleton PickmanArthur Griffin photograph of the Sacred Cod in the State House, 1950s; The Pickman House by Pendleton’s Lithography, Digital Commonwealth & Boston Athenaeum.

New England cod fed both enslaved Africans and free Europeans and thus created great wealth in New England, but the derisive use of the term “Codfish Aristocracy”, in reference to the ostentatious and vulgar display of that wealth, comes later, in the 1840s and 1850s, and most prominently in the debate over slavery. He was not the originator of the phrase, but when Senator Andrew Pickens Butler of South Carolina remarked that We should regard it somewhat strange if we should require a codfish aristocracy to keep us in order in the midst of a speech on the floor of the Senate in the summer of 1850, it seemed to hit a chord. As a leading pro-slavery, anti-abolitionist voice, Butler drew heated criticism from Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who indicted Butler as both “the Don Quixote of slavery,” and an admirer of “the harlot, Slavery” in his own Senate speech in May of 1856: in retaliation Butler’s cousin Preston S. Brooks responded by caning Sumner on the Senate floor days later, instigating his three-year incapacitation. In the following year, after Senator Clement Claiborne Clay introduced a bill repealing all laws allowing bounties to vessels employed in the fisheries under the rationale that 25 states were made to pay tribute to the Codfish Aristocracy of a mere six, papers in Massachusetts opined that “southern hatred of New England” was his true motivation.

Somewhere between the absolute disdain conveyed by the southern use of the term and the occasional pride displayed in the North was the New York attitude: more mockery than condemnation. There are three caricatures of the Codfish Aristocracy that represent this perspective well in the collection of the Library Collection of Philadelphia: literal representations are always an effective form of censure!

Codfish LC

Codfish LC 2

Codfish Aristocracy LC 3Three Codfish Aristocrats: McAllister Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia, c. 1840-1880.


Mid (19th)-century Thanksgiving

In the middle of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving was a very different holiday in some ways, but familiar in others. It did not become a national holiday until 1863: before that the Salem papers (I’m using the Salem Register in this post) note with each passing year how many governors have issued proclamations adopting the “joyous festival, so long the ‘peculiar institution’ of New England”. How jarring to see this phrase applied to Thanksgiving—when I thought it was an exclusive reference to slavery!  I’m not sure I’m really comfortable with the phrase “Universal Yankee Nation” in this 1847 article either.

Thanksgiving 1847 collage

Apart from the provincial pride, Thanksgiving was also a busy public holiday, rather than merely a family gathering. It was both sacred and secular, and everyone was out and about in the morning (for church services) and the evening (for concerts and dances). I assume they ate their Thanksgiving dinners in between, as there were lots of advertisements for various foodstuffs  in the weeks before the big day, which was always in November in Massachusetts despite some December dates chosen by other states. Provisioning and preparations were very important: not just for family meals, but also for the meals that were prepared by different civic groups for orphans, prisoners, “inmates of the Alms House”, and (during the Civil War) soldiers.

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1848-11-30_3

Thanksgiving Salem_Observer_1849-11-24_[2]

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1849-02-05_4

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1851-12-15_1

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1851-11-24_3

Thanksgiving 1852 collage

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1853-11-14_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1854-11-20_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1857-11-30_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1863-11-05_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1865-11-06_2

Thanksgiving Salem_Register_1875-11-15_2

These advertisements from the Salem Register (from 1847-75) give some semblance of what Thanksgiving festivities were all about in mid-nineteenth-century Salem but are an under-representation: people really wanted to give thanks in as many ways as possible, especially during the Civil War. But they also wanted to celebrate: Thanksgiving is always referred to as a “festival”. Turkey–and other fowl– was definitely on the menu as you can see from the “warning” to Salem’s resident birds, and cranberries as well. I remain extremely impressed by the entrepreneurialism of Mr. John Remond, an African-American man who served as the resident manager and caterer of (a very busy) Hamilton Hall while also running several provisioning businesses downtown: he arrived in Salem from the West Indies in 1798, all alone and only ten years old, and seems to have transformed himself into one of the city’s major players by the 1820s. He and his wife Nancy (who also had her own business–and they had eight children) were also active abolitionists and do not seem to have suffered the handicaps faced by most African-Americans in the nineteenth century, but then again, advertisements only reflect one small sliver of their lives. But they can tell us that year after year in Salem, oysters, whether individually or in pies, were much in demand for Thanksgiving.


The G.A.R. is Gone

The Grand Army of the Republic, the powerful veterans organization of Union veterans of the Civil War, was officially disbanded in 1956, following the death of the last Union soldier, Albert Woolson. At its peak, just before the turn of the twentieth century, the G.A.R. was an association possessed of great demographic, political, and social power. With over 400,000 members, it advocated for pensions and other veterans’ benefits at the national level and played multiple fraternal and civic roles in every city and town which had a post: over 7000 across the nation and 210 here in Massachusetts, of which Salem’s Philip H. Sheridan post (#34) was among the oldest and largest. Because of the decentralized nature of the G.A.R., its membership records are found primarily in local repositories, and its successor organization, the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, maintains a register of record locations. Salem’s G.A.R. records–16 boxes in all–are in the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum, and so gone, with the rest of its material heritage, to a storage facility in Rowley.

G.A.R. Salem

G.A.R. Salem AtkinsonGreenlawn Cemetery in Salem, and the 2016 memorial for Medal of Honor recipient Thomas Atkinson.

It is tempting to dismiss the G.A.R. as a dusty and defunct fraternal order which only represented a certain minority of the population, but its impact was consequential: Decoration Day/ Memorial Day as well as more material forms of remembrance and veterans’ benefits are among its legacies. The Library of Congress’s guide to G.A.R. records in its possession highlights several potential subjects for research, including: social and charitable activities of Civil War veterans, the establishment and development of orphans’ and veterans’ pensions, and the post-war political activity of Union veterans as well as the attitudes of Union veterans towards government and the civil service. Many towns and cities–in our region Marblehead and Lynn come to mind immediately–have not only preserved their G.A.R. records but created museums for their interpretation. But Salem’s went to the PEM’s predecessor, the Essex Institute, like the records of most of its organizations, associations, and institutions, because the Essex Institute was Salem’s historical society. The Phillips Library’s finding aid for its G.A.R. records admits that these records create a detailed picture of an active GAR post with a large member base, yet this is a picture we can’t see—or paint—because of their inaccessibility, in apparent violation of the Massachusetts General Laws Part I, Title II, Chapter 8, Section 18:

The histories, relics and mementos of the Grand Army of the Republic of the department of Massachusetts and the records of the Massachusetts department of the United Spanish War Veterans, of The American Legion, of the Disabled American Veterans of the World War, of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, of the American Veterans of World War II, AMVETS, and of the Veterans of the Indian Wars shall be accessible at all times, under suitable rules and regulations, to members of the respective departments and to others engaged in collecting historical information. Whenever any such department ceases to exist, its records, papers, relics and other effects shall become the property of the commonwealth.

G.A.R. Boston 1927 3

G.A.R. collage

historycompleter00naso_0377The Massachusetts State House festooned for a G.A.R. encampment in 1927, Leslie Jones, Boston Globe; images from the History and Complete Roster of the Massachusetts Regiments, Minutemen of ’61 who Responded to the First Call of President Lincoln, April 15, 1861, to defend the Flag and Constitution of the United States (1910).


The Dashing and Devoted Landers

Lately I’ve been thinking about a Salem native, descended from the city’s most-monied maritime family, the Derbys, but still devoted to public service, very well-known in his day but little-known in ours: Frederick William West Lander (1821-1862). Today, you can find hardly a trace of Lander in Salem, a city that has a statue of a fictional television witch in its most public square. Yet he was referred to as “the fearless solder, the bravest of the brave” and “the very beau ideal of an American soldier” in his New York Times obituary. Yesterday, the first truly warm spring day of the year, I wandered past Lander’s rather secretive grave in the Broad Street Cemetery and wondered about him—about all that he came from, all that he did, and what he might have done if not cut down in the prime of his life by pneumonia contracted in a West Virginia encampment towards the end of the first year of the Civil War. Lander was educated in private academies before he went to Norwich University in Vermont to study engineering. After Norwich, he worked at surveying and laying trails, first for the Eastern Railroad in Massachusetts and later the Pacific Railroad way out west, leading five expeditions to map out transcontinental routes between 1853 and 1858. He was a commissioned a Special Agent of the U.S. Department of the Interior that year, giving him superintendent responsibilities over what had become known as the “Lander Trail” through Wyoming and Idaho. In 1860, purportedly after a 12-year acquaintance and 3-year engagement, Lander married the famous British-American stage actress Jean Margaret Davenport in a San Francisco ceremony called the “The Union of Mars and Thespis” by the San Francisco Daily Times. Seventeen months later he was dead, after being commissioned as a Brigadier General and leading charges in several battles. His was the first full-fledged funeral with honors of the war, held in Washington with President Lincoln and members of the Cabinet and Supreme Court in attendance. And then his body was transported in a special train to Salem, for burial in Broad Street.

by Mathew B. Brady

Harvard_Theatre_Collection_-_Jean_Margaret_Davenport_Lander_TC-22Matthew Brady daguerreotype of Lander, Smithsonian; Jean Davenport Lander at about the same time, Harvard Theater Collection.

Those are the bare biographical facts, but there is so much more to say about Lander—-and Mrs. Lander: he was not all Mars and by no means was she solely a thespian. Though Lander was obviously a man of action (and I have not even mentioned his dueling), he was also a champion of the arts: he included the Massachusetts artists Albert Bierstadt, Francis Seth Frost and Henry Hitchens on his 1859 expedition team out west–with glorious results–and addressed the “aptitude of the American mind for the cultivation of the fine arts” on the Lyceum circuit back east. He was also a poet, and although at least one publisher told him effectively not to give up his day job, several poems were published before his death, and more after, including Ball’s Bluffhis poetic account of the Union defeat at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, with an opening stanza responding to the purported Confederate claim that fewer Massachusetts soldiers would have been killed in the battle had they not been too proud to surrender. This was the battle that really “brought the war home” for Massachusetts: as soldiers in two Bay State regiments accounted for more than half of the approximately 1000 Union casualties. Lander lived to tell the tale, but not for much longer.

Landers MAP SLM

Bierstadt Rocky Mountains

Ball's BluffOne of Lander’s early road surveys, from Danvers to Georgetown, Massachusetts, State Library of Massachusetts; Albert Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, 1863, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Soldiers from the 15th Massachusetts Regiment charge the Confederate line at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Illustrated London Newspaper, November 23, 1861, Library of Congress.

Jean Davenport Lander played several important Civil War roles as well. In the early days of the war, before her husband’s engagement and after they had taken up residence in Washington, Mrs. Lander happened to hear (I can’t fix the details!) whispers of a plot to assassinate President Lincoln. Whether by the confidence of her celebrity or the urgency of the times, she made her way to the White House hastily to report the conspiracy. Perhaps this was not as serious a threat as the earlier “Baltimore Plot“, but still, she acted to foil a presidential assassination plot! Her husband’s tragic war-camp death apparently inspired her (as well as his sister, the sculptor Louisa Lander) to start nursing, and she served as the supervisory nurse at the Union hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina for several years. After the war was over, Mrs. Lander resumed her acting career and seems to have been constantly on stage for the next decade or so, playing her last role in 1877: somewhat ironically, Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter.

Lander collageJean Margaret Davenport Lander as a bride in 1860 and Hester Prynne in 1877. Below: I’m assuming the friendship of Lander and Albert Bierstadt brought the latter to Salem at some point, because Christie’s has a Bierstadt landscape titled Salem, Massachusetts up for auction on May 22.

Bierstadt SalemAlbert Bierstadt, Salem, Massachusetts, 1861.


Bullet-ridden Bibles

I have been treating the digital remnants of the first and apparently-last PEM exhibition focused on the holdings of the Phillips Library as a requiem; when I first saw Unbound: Treasures from the Phillips Library of PEM back in 2011, the same year that the library closed in Salem with promises to return two years later, I enjoyed it immensely, but did not return multiple times because I believed I would see these items again. Now I fear I never will, so I go back, again and again, and again, in search of memento mori. One exhibition item that attracted a lot of attention then was a bible with a bullet embedded in its cover belonging to Private Charles W. Merrill of the 19th Massachusetts Regiment who nearly lost his life at the Battle of Fredericksburg after coming in the line of fire of two bullets: one entered near his right eye and was extracted from his left ear. Another ball would have entered a vital part of his body had it not been arrested by a Testament, in which it lodged. When this safeguard was shown the President, he sent to the hospital a handsome pocket Bible, in which, as an evidence of his warm regard, he caused to be inscribed: “Charles W. Merrill, Co. A., 19th Massachusetts, from A. Lincoln.”  [Devens, Pictorial Book of Anecdotes of the Rebellion, 1887] Unfortunately Private Merrill succumbed to his wounds in the next year, and his family placed the “safeguard” bible into the care of the Essex Institute, one of the progenitors of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Bullet-ridden bible Merrill PhillipsCharles William Merrill Papers, Fam. Mss. 611, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.

There’s a bit of (urban) mythology surround bullet-stopping bibles, tales of which predate and postdate the American Civil War. After the English Civil War some 200 years earlier, the Puritan preacher Richard Baxter, who briefly served as chaplain to the Parliamentary army, recounted an anecdote in which one of the Souldiers Pocket Bibles issued to Cromwell’s soldiers saved a man’s life, but these were 9-page pamphlets, so I’m wondering about the veracity of the claim. This little bible seems to have established the precedent for military pocket bibles, however, and there are many references to them on both sides of the Atlantic in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are much bigger in the nineteenth century–and presumably more bullet-proof: in addition to Merrill, I easily found references to seven Civil War soldiers whose lives were shielded by bulwark bibles—three union and four confederate—and I am sure there are more stories.

Bible collage

bible 2 collage

Bullet Bible Kelley

Bible Hall VT

The Souldiers Pocket Bible, 1643, British Museum; Francis Merrifield’s “Bunker Hill Bible”, Bonhams Auctions; the bibles of Corporal John Hicks Kelley of South Carolina (Darlington County Historical Commission) and Edwin Hall of Vermont, Heritage Auctions.

But it is in the twentieth century (ironically, as so many new weapons surpassed the rifle) that the bullet-proof bible became the bullet-proof bible. The onset of World War I centennial commemoration in 1914 has brought lots of interesting war stories and souvenirs to light, including several bullet-ridden bibles. The story of handsome British soldier Leonard Knight, who enlisted at 17 armed with a bible gifted to him by his Aunt Minnie, has been particularly resonant. There are more tales, including several harrowing ones involving ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli. And all of these bespoke bibles culminate with the steel-plated “heart-shield bibles” that were the preferred gift for every soldier shipping off to the fronts of World War II: May this keep you safe from harm.

Bible Knight

Heart-shield BibleBritish soldier Leonard Knight and the bullet-ridden bible that has been passed down to five generations of his family; a heart-shield bible from World War II.


Electoral Ephemera Euphoria/Escapism

I’m still very preoccupied with the large collection of nineteenth-century ballots at the American Antiquarian Society: if I had time I would drive down to Worcester and immerse myself in the real paper; because I do not, I have to settle for digital immersion. Every little slip/image fascinates me–I woke up at 4:00 the night before last thinking why is the image of an upside-down chained beast associated with the movement AGAINST the incorporation of Boston as a city in 1822? Would livestock no longer be able to roam freely on the Common? That was my 4:00 am thought, but in the light of morning I realized the image probably had a more metaphorical meaning.

election-city-no

election-no-city

I still don’t know what the symbol of the chained beast means, but these particular ballot tickets represent the failing side: Boston did indeed become a city in 1822. So today, I’m going to focus on referenda, something we should all be familiar with as I believe nearly every state has ballot questions to decide on Election Day. Here in Massachusetts, our measures pertain to: 1) slot licenses; 2) charter schools; 3) the containment of farm animals (here we are, back to the chained beast!); and 4) recreational use of marijuana. In the nineteenth century, it was all about municipal incorporations, infrastructure, and above all, liquor. And taxation, of course: you know that old saying about death and taxes.

election-boston-no

election-3-referendum

election-liquor-no

election-liquor

election-common

election-taxation

Some of these private party tickets offered a public service by reminding voters when the polls were open–and where they where. Vote early [vote often?] and vote no.

election-collage

This last ticket obvious refers to the presidential election rather than a contemporary referendum, but I had to include it because it’s just so great: eminent historian George Bancroft weighing in on the [1864?] election. Imagine a world where an historian’s words could sway votes!

election-bancroft

All images courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society: their digitized collection of nineteenth-century electoral ballots and ephemera can be found here.


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