Tag Archives: Civil War

Salem’s Scholar-Activist

The second president of the university where I teach was Alpheus Crosby (1810-1874), although his title was Principal of what was then known as Salem Normal School, a pioneering institution in both the education of teachers and women. While “scholar-activism” is an integral part of professional life for many in higher education today, it was a somewhat different pursuit in the nineteenth century, and Crosby’s life exemplifies that of a scholar-activist in that time, while also representing the differences between his time and ours. Crosby was an eminent scholar of classical Greek who became a passionate advocate of public education: for women and freed slaves in particular, for everyone in principle. He managed to pursue these two callings simultaneously even though they did not always intersect—-to connect them, he also became an expert on educational instruction, publishing papers and delivering lecturing on “emulation” and grammatical “analysis” (which seems to refer to dissecting sentences—a practice I wish was still current) and serving as editor of The Massachusetts Teacher. These professional activities were just part of his life, which also included a decades-long devotion to the abolitionist and suffrage movements and major roles in Salem’s key cultural institutions: the Salem Lyceum, the Salem Athenaeum, and the Essex Institute. He was a very “public man” by vocation and predilection.

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Crosby Normal School 1865 SSU

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Crosby Ad The Massachusetts Teacher 13Alpheus Crosby and several (not all!) of his equally successful siblings, the sons of Dr. Asa Crosby of Sandwich, New Hampshire. The Normal School at Salem on Broad and Summer Streets during Crosby’s tenure, c. 1857-1865, Salem State University Archives; just a few of the Salem institutions to which Alpheus Crosby volunteered considerable time: the Salem Lyceum, the Salem Athenaeum (then at Plummer Hall) and the Essex Institute, Cousins collection of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum via Digital Commonwealth; Professor Crosby’s bestselling series of Greek textbooks, 1860.

Because Crosby was so active, he was memorialized everywhere upon his death in 1874. I read a lot of obituaries and none were pro forma: all were very personal and absolutely reverent. Some personal details: his first wife, Abigail Cutler of Newburyport, was an invalid whom he took on a tour of Europe after their marriage, during which she died in 1837. He returned to his professorship at Dartmouth, where he had commenced teaching at age 23, but resigned and moved to Newburyport to care for his mother-in-law, who was also an invalid, upon the death of her husband. During this period—over a decade—he continued his Greek scholarship but also served as Newburyport’s Superintendent of Schools. Upon Mrs. Cutler’s death, he went south to Salem and began his post at the Normal School. in 1857. There followed an expanded curriculum, a larger library, and enthusiastic (by all accounts) teaching by the Principal, who was clearly much more than an administrator: many student testimonies speak to his “remarkable spirit of earnestness” and enthusiasm, and then there is this glowing account in the Salem Observer, from December of 1861.

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In that same year, Crosby married Martha Kingman of Bridgewater, who was an instructor at the Normal School. As the Civil War progressed, he became increasingly focused on the emerging agenda of political, social and educational reform in the south, publishing several works on the topic, becoming the first chairman of the Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society, and taking on editorial duties for The Right Way, a new journal dedicated to advocating for progressive reconstruction. The urgency of this work prompted his resignation from the Normal School in 1866, citing “the critical condition of the country at the present time and the danger that the rights of colored people will not be duly regarded in the coming reconstruction.” That work—-and his classical scholarship—consumed him until his death in 1874. Several of the obituaries marking his death, including those in the New York Times and Boston Globe, make note of the two “colored girls” which Professor and Mrs. Crosby adopted, “an act which provoked much comment.” I have to admit I couldn’t find any comment and not much about these two girls, whom I suspect were fostered rather than adopted by the Crosbys. They are referred to (and provided for) in Crosby’s 1874 will as “Amy Lydia Dennis and Lucy B. Dennis, living with me.” I’d really like to know more about these two women.

Crosby Suffrage Collage

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20191117_151200 Post-“retirement”: advocacy for radical reconstruction and “impartial” suffrage, 1865-66, Library of Congress; just one donation to the Normal School at Salem. 111 Federal Street in Salem, the residence of Professor and Mrs. Crosby, along with Amy Lydia and Lucy B. Dennis, during the 1860s.

Obviously there is a lot more to learn about Professsor Alpheus Crosby: his life, his work, his world. He is book-worthy! I was inspired to post about him now because of a rather odd confluence of factors. I was reading up on Xenophon for the book I’m working on, as he was a very popular author of husbandry and household tracts in the Tudor era despite being dead for centuries, and I encountered Professor Crosby’s name everywhere I clicked. And the materialist side of me is a constant real- “estalker” and his Federal Street house has recently been on the market. Once I had Alpheus Crosby on my mind, he was suddenly everywhere: just last Friday I was walking back to my office after finishing my last class and I saw one of my students in the hall, waiting to begin her classical Greek tutorial with our Department’s ancient historian, Erik Jensen, and I thought: Professor Crosby would be so pleased!


A Monumental Divide

At the center of Raleigh is the North Carolina Capitol building, in the midst of Capitol Square, surrounded by more than a dozen monuments to the memory of statesmen and soldiers. The most recent installation (1990) is the North Carolina Veterans Monument, while the tallest memorial is the monument erected “to our Confederate dead” in 1892, and the only monument referencing women is the 1914 statue honoring the North Carolina Women of the Confederacy. The Raleigh-Durham area has seen several intense protests against Confederate monuments over the past several years, resulting in the toppling of the Robert E. Lee and “Silent Sam” statues in Durham and Chapel Hill, but this past August the special “Confederate Monuments Study Committee” of the North Carolina Historical Commission voted that the Capitol monuments should stay in place, despite the request for removal from North Carolina governor Roy Cooper and the Committee’s own opinion that the statues are “an over-representation and over-memorialization of a difficult era in NC history.”

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I would have to agree with that characterization, particularly of the Women of the Confederacy statue, which depicts a woman as a mother-historian, reading the heroic tales (I presume) of war to her sword-bearing son. The towering Confederate Dead statue nearby (which was very difficult to photograph) features anonymous soldiers and a rather simple message of honoring the dead, and so is perhaps not as confrontational as a statue of an individual and identified Civil War soldier, though there is also a monument to Henry Lawson Wyatt, purported to be the first Confederate soldier killed in action, on the Capitol grounds. In announcing its decision to let these statues stand, the state Commission called for additional interpretation, “to provide a balanced context and accounting of the monuments’ erection in their time in political history” as well as the erection of additional monuments honoring the contributions of North Carolina’s African-American citizens. I did not see such context, nor equal monumental representation, but we are less than a year out from this ruling and a long-term effort to establish an adjacent “Freedom Park,” designed by architect Phil Freelon, the leader of the design team for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, appears to have accelerated over the past year.

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Plan for the proposed “Freedom Park” and monument in Raleigh.

As I wandered around Capitol Square this past weekend looking at all of its installations with my historical and decidedly northern (even more decidedly Massachusetts) perspective, I had the most visceral reaction to a monument which wasn’t even mentioned in the recent debate over Confederate memorials in North Carolina: that dedicated to Samuel A’Court Ashe in 1940. Ashe obviously lived a full life and was revered by many in his native state, but all I could see when I read this plaque was heroic defender of Fort Wagner. Just a few weeks before I was wandering another hallowed ground, Salem’s Harmony Grove Cemetery, where I saw the graves of several men who served with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first Civil War military unit comprised of African-American soldiers to be raised in the North. The soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th distinguished themselves during the assault on strategic Fort Wagner, which guarded the entrance to Charleston Harbor, at great cost, losing 281 men on July 18, 1863: 54 confirmed casualties (including commanding officer Robert Gould Shaw), 179 wounded, 48 simply lost, while the Confederate troops inside were reportedly “maddened and infuriated at the sight of Negro troops.” Their sacrifice confirmed their promise of hope and glory, in the words of Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, and was memorialized later by the Augustus Saint-Gaudens monument on Boston Common (1897), Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead”, and the 1989 film Glory. Ashe, the defender of Fort Wagner, has much to say about the war and its commemoration, as his long post-war career was characterized by prolific writing (and Confederate commemoration advocacy) both as a newspaper editor and historian. In his History of North Carolina, he makes no mention of the Massachusetts 54th at Fort Wagner, but only of “the splendid heroism and devotion of the North Carolina troops”, and his “historical” analysis of the causes of the Civil War focuses almost exclusively on the policies of an “unpatriotic” Abraham Lincoln, whom he never refers to as President: it is not true, as Lincoln said, that without slavery there would have been no secession. It was the absence of the spirit of compromise on the part of Lincoln and his party that brought about secession in 1861….Secession would have been averted if Lincoln had copied the example of his patriotic predecessors. But he made his anti-slavery feeling his ‘paramount object’ instead of his desire to save the Union. He was revered as “that stainless leader of the Lost Cause” in the 1940 address given at the dedication of his monument. Frankly, I don’t want to read anything more about or by Mr. Ashe, and the next time I am in Raleigh I will give his memorial a very wide berth.

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Shaw Memorial

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The monument dedicated to Samuel A’Court Ashe in Raleigh’s Capitol Square and one of his telling titles; the Boston Common monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th by Augustus Saint-Gaudens: two memorials which reference Fort Wagner, and the Civil War, in very different ways. The grave of  Salem native of Luis Fenollosa Emilio, a Captain of the Mass. 54th who survived Fort Wagner and lived to tell their tale in A Brave Black Regiment (1894).

 


Witness Houses

I was out and about in Lexington and Concord last week as my favorite nurseries are in that area, and between bouts of perusing plants I walked around Lexington Green and along the Battle Road at the Minute Man National Historic Park. In both locales you will see eighteenth-century “witness houses” which overlooked the opening acts of the Revolutionary War and now stand as physical reminders. The National Park Service also utilizes “witness trees” to enhance historical interpretation, particularly at Civil War sites. Certainly both the houses and the trees add to the ambiance of these historic landscapes, but their roles are much more important than that. The trees might bear scars, the houses might have served as refuges or makeshift hospitals: every physical remainder is a reference point or a touchstone. One can grasp their landmark status immediately by glancing at photographic records like Alexander Gardner’s photographic sketchbooks of the Civil War, which documented the contemporary significance of the Matthews House in Manassas and the Burnside Bridge in Antietam among other structures: the house still stands as does the sycamore tree by the bridge, connecting us to the past with their very presence.

Mathews House Gardner

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Burnside Bridge

witness-tree-sycamore-burnside-bridge-antietam-620Pages from Gardner’s Sketchbook, Volume One at Duke University Library’s Digital Repository; the Stone House and Burnside Bridge at Manassas National Battlefield Park and Antietam National Battlefield.

The importance of place—both in general and in many specific instances—can also be gleaned from accounts of the long process of reconciliation and remembrance following the Civil War. The grave of Calvin Townes, a Salem shoemaker who fought and was wounded with the valiant 1st Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery at Spotsylvania, drew me into the heady history of memorialization for and by these men, who lost 55 of their comrades at the “engagement” at Harris Farm on May 19, 1864, and 484 men during the entire war. The surviving members of the Regiment met annually after the war, and raised funds for a monument on the battlefield near the farmhouse which was the focus of so much of their collective remembrance. The monument was dedicated in 1901; it endures but unfortunately Harris Farm does not, despite its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places: it was purchased by a developer in 2014 and rather promptly demolished.

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1st regiment reunion at Salem Willows 1890

1st Regiment Monuments

Spotsylvania_HarrisFarmCalvin Townes of the First Regiment; the surviving Regiment at Salem Willows, 1890; Memorials at Spotsylvania and in the Essex Institute, from the History of the First Regiment of Heavy Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteers, formerly the Fourteenth Regiment of Infantry, 1861-1865 (1917); the demolished Harris Farm.

Revolutionary remembrance does not seem as intense, or we don’t have as much evidence of its expressions. Nor do we have opportunities for dramatic photographic contrasts, but the witness houses of Lexington and Concord remind us that these 1775 battles took place within a very human context—-settlements, not barren battlefields. And they also played their roles within the narrative of events. In Lexington Center the houses are privately-owned, and located around the Green; along the Battle Road they are part of the public park.

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20190528_114456The Munroe House on Lexington Green (which is presently for sale); the Smith House, Hartwell hearth and Tavern, Minute Man National Historic Park.

The term “witness” implies to something: an act or an event. Salem’s historic structures witnessed many events: the arrival of precious cargoes, military maneuvers, political parades, the progress of transportation technology, fires, men going off to war, hordes of Halloween revelers. But of course one event looms large over Salem’s long history: the Salem Witch Trials. There is only one surviving structure which “witnessed” that tragedy: the Jonathan Corwin House, better-known (unfortunately) as the Witch House. Despite Salem’s (unfortunate) dependence on the witch trade, it bears remembering that the Corwin house was not saved and restored by the City, but rather by Historic Salem, Inc., which was founded in 1944 for the purposes of saving the storied house (and its neighbor, the Bowditch House) from demolition due to the widening of Route 114, one of Salem’s major entrance corridors. After its slight relocation and restoration (or recreation? or creation?) by the Boston architect Gordon Robb, the Witch House opened to the public in 1948. Historic Salem, Inc. went on to play key roles in preventing full-scale urban redevelopment in the later 1960s and early 1970s and advocating for both preservation and sensitive redevelopment for decades—a particularly pressing responsibility now. This year marks its 75th anniversary, a notable achievement which will be celebrated this very weekend with an event at the Hawthorne Hotel. Come one and all, and congratulations to HSI!

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Witch House 1947

Witch House 1940sThe Jonathan Corwin (Witch) House, in all of its incarnations in an early 20th century postcard, Historic New England; in 1947 as restored by Gordon Robb and Historic Salem, Inc., and photographed by Harry Sampson, and in the tourist attraction in the 1950s, Arthur Griffin via Digital Commonwealth.


The War on Paper

I spend a lot of time in cemeteries all year long (well perhaps not in the depths of winter) but in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day that time intensifies: late May is characterized by that heady mix of beautiful blooms and remembrance. Salem’s two larger cemeteries, Greenlawn and Harmony Grove, are nineteenth-century “garden cemeteries” which are beautiful places to wander and to remember, as they contain graves of soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars One and Two, Korea and Vietnam. The two Salem men who were killed in Afghanistan, James Ayube and Benjamin Mejia, are buried in these cemeteries as well: the former at Harmony Grove and the latter at Greenlawn. In the center of town, Salem’s older cemeteries, at Charter, Broad and Howard Streets, contain the graves of Revolutionary War veterans, as well as those who fought in earlier colonial conflicts, and the Civil War. This is one of the more important aspects of living in an old settlement: you can feel the weight of history.

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Harmony Grove is the cemetery where you feel the weight of the Civil War the most, or the “War to Preserve the Union” as its northern combatants called it (because that is what it was). Greenlawn has a G.A.R monument and many graves of Civil War soldiers, but there is something about Harmony Grove that feels more connected to that era. There is a central circle commemorating the young Salem men that died during the war, and survivors’ graves are interspersed throughout the cemetery: the grave of Luis Emilio, the Captain of the Mass. 54th is there. He survived the assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina in 1863 and lived to tell the tale, but the grave of William P. Fabens, who died there the following year, is also at Harmony Grove.

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Stones can only tell you so much: if you want to want to know more, you need paper: the sources of the Civil War are plentiful and accessible in general but for Salem in particular, sparse, because of the removal of the Phillips Library.  With its present pledge to digitize more of its collections, this situation might change, but for now we are dependent on other repositories for glimpses of Salem’s Civil War history. Given Salem’s role as a regional center in northeastern Massachusetts, I was able to piece together a paper trail through two state digital databases, the New York Heritage and Digital Commonwealth, and a few other sources: this trail does lead us to the battlefield (or camp nearby) but is more evocative of the war at home. Salem emerges as a busy place of mobilization and recruitment, where young men from all over Essex County were mustered into service and dispatched to the major regional training camp in Lynnfield. At the beginning of the war, this is a process of enthusiastic volunteerism, but as it wears on it’s all about bounties and quotas. Massachusetts Adjutant-General William Schouler cited his own correspondence in his two-volume History of Massachusetts in the Civil War (1868) including this representative instruction to an official in Newburyport: Recruit every man you can; take him to the mustering officer in Salem and take a receipt for him. After he is mustered into United States service, you shall receive two dollars for each man. The officer will furnish transportation to Lynnfield. Work, work: for we want men badly. The correspondence between Daniel Johnson, the mustering officer and Provost Marshal in Salem who was responsible for recruiting men from Essex County in the last 18 months of the war and officials in the small town of Essex illustrates the intensifying local effort to meet quotas established by the state and federal governments.

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Civil War logistics DCRecruiting posters from 1861-1863, New York Historical Society via New York Heritage; Town of Essex Civil War records, 1864 via Digital Commonwealth.

Official records are illuminating yet necessarily focused on logistics; more intimate perspectives, bringing us closer to the camp or battlefield, can be found in diaries and journals. Two Salem soldiers recorded and projected their personal perspectives during and after the war: John Perkins Reynolds and Herbert Valentine. Reynolds (a grandson of Elijah Sanderson who was briefly detained by the British on the even of the battles of Lexington and Concord!) kept a diary of his service in the opening months of the war with the Salem Zouaves (at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan, and available here in print),  and also documented  his reminiscences of his time with the Massachusetts 19th (at the Massachusetts Historical Society). Valentine’s journals, scrapbooks, and visual impressions of the war are also in several repositories, including the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Z. Smith Reynolds Library at Wake Forest University, the Phillips Library, and the National Archives, which has digitized his watercolors of wartime scenes.

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Civil War Valentine 2Valentine’s Virginia vignettes, 1863-64, National Archives.

These are not impressions that would have been available to contemporaries, but I think people who lived during the war would have have been exposed to its images and texts every day: posters, newspapers, the daily mail. A sea of Civil War envelopes survives, emblazoned with all sorts of colorful messages: surely this must be a fraction of what was produced and disseminated. According to its finding aid (which is online), the Phillips Library has 17 boxes of Civil War envelopes! Wow—-those will make quite a splash when they come online. My very favorite example (about which I wrote a whole blog post) depicting President Lincoln as the “Union Alchemist” was printed by Salem printers G.M. Whipple and A.A. Smith: I hope that there are more examples of their clever imagery in that Rowley vault.

Civil War Envelope - C-O-53 Library Co of Philadelphia Union Alchemist

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Civil War Envelope 3Library Company of Philadelphia and Richard Frajola.

Newspaper accounts constituted a daily drumbeat and are thus too plenteous to consider here, but I did want to chart the beginnings of remembrance for this Memorial Day, so I looked at newspapers from the later 1860s and early 1870s—or so was my goal; I dug in and went quite a bit later. For the most part, the Salem story follows the national (or at least northeastern) pattern: in 1868 the first Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic declared May 30 to be Memorial Day and the Salem G.A.R obeyed his orders to the letter. I saw very few references to “Decoration Day”; Memorial Day seems to be have been the preferred designation right from the start. While local officials were invited to participate in the proceedings, the entire commemoration was a G.A.R affair until the early decades of the twentieth century. The only concerns expressed about the increasingly-ingrained “holiday” came right at its beginning and much later: an anonymous daughter of Civil War casualty expressed her concerns in 1870 that the proceedings were too commercialized, and certain members of the G.A.R leadership were profiting from supplying (see the C.H. Weber advertisement below), and much later the G.A.R itself expressed its concerns that a city-licensed circus was being allowed to operate on Memorial Day (see? protesting city-sanctioned circuses is a time-honored Salem tradition).

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Memorial Day BG Mary 26 1873

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Memorial Day 30 May 1944 BGThe evolution of Memorial Day: C.H. Webber outfits participants for the occasion, Salem Register, May 19, 1870; Boston Globe May 1873, 1923, and 1944: the last GAR members in Massachusetts, including Thomas A. Corson of Salem, who died later that year at age 103.


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

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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”.

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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!

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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.

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Thanksgiving 1852 collage

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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.


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