Tag Archives: Current Events

Trial by Combat

Like most Americans, I am outraged by the pillaging of the Capitol on Wednesday by a mob incited by the President of the United States and his personal lawyer, once a serious figure, now a joke, who called for “Trial by Combat”. Tears and despair reigned on Wednesday and Thursday, but yesterday I was just mad: mad at so many things, but I think principally upset about the misuse of history by everyone on the wrong side of it. It’s really clear that there is massive ignorance of history in our country, enabling its constant exploitation. When you look at the scenes of the Capitol riots what do you see? Flags, so many flags: the Confederate flag was the most conspicuous, of course: we had never seen it in that building before. But there were several Revolutionary War flags as well, outrageously displayed in an ignorant attempt to establish some sort of equivalency or legitimacy. I’m used to the quasi-“medieval” emblems used by white supremacists, and I saw them on display as well: of course the Vikings never wore horned helmets—they are a Victorian creation—but these people don’t read so they don’t know. Anything medieval is just Game of Thrones fantasy to them, but how dare they use the “Appeal to Heaven” flag of the nascent U.S. Navy or the Gadsen “Don’t Treat on Me” flag.

A flag hangs between broken windows after President Donald Trump supporters tried to brake through police barriers outside the U.S. Capitol, Wednesday, Jan 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

That casual reference to trial by combat, which was archaic in the sixteenth century at the very least! As it evolved into the duel, monarchs wanted a monopoly on warfare, and so it was disdained, not celebrated, as it was on Wednesday (by the cowardly “generals” who of course did not accompany their “army” to the Capitol). And we’re supposed to be more civilized? I hardly think so. Trial by combat is already depicted as “orderly” and idealized in the fifteenth century: it’s on its way out then, only to be resurrected in the twenty-first.

Trial by combat as depicted in two late medieval manuscripts (British Library MS Royal 15 E VI and Royal 14 D I) and a Victorian reimagining.

Maybe it’s because I’m writing about the Renaissance now and completely focused on its messaging, but I feel like we can only move forward by looking back. We’ve got to learn our history, our real history. I think I’m also a bit concerned about this now because the Liberal Arts are being challenged across our nation at institutions of higher education, particularly public ones like the one at which I teach. I’m worried we are going to be transformed into a vocational school by our administration with its “bold” plan: offering instruction primarily in social service rather than social science. We excel at teacher education in several fields (including history, of course) because that is our history, and nothing is more important than that now. How can we move forward if we don’t know where we’ve been?

Oh, and those “backward” medievals always distinguished between trial by combat and pillage: that’s what happened on Wednesday.

Pillaging, BL MS Royal 14 D I


Abigail, Abigail & Susan

I was hopefully thinking about transitions and inaugurations and first ladies and somehow I ended up admiring Abigail Adams’ yellow kid slippers in the Smithsonian. I can’t really retrace my steps as I was kind of in an election coverage daze. But here are the slippers, which were donated by Miss Susan Elizabeth Osgood of Salem. They prompted a #SalemSuffrageSaturday post, as I’m trying to look at Salem women’s history with the widest possible lens, as well as every possible filter. It’s been clear to me for some time that the collection (in both its active and preservation meanings) and curation of Americana is an important Salem topic, and one in which women played many key roles.

Abigail Adams’ Slippers!

The First Ladies collection at the Smithsonian was conceived by two Washington society ladies, Cassie Mason Myers Julian-James and Rose Governeur Hoes, a great-granddaughter of President James Monroe, in 1912-1913; their gallery of items collected from presidential families opened to the public on February 1, 1914. Their emphasis was on “costume” but the collection expanded in scope and scale over the next century and is one of the Smithsonian’s most popular exhibits. An absolutely great source, the successive Reports on the Progress and Condition of the U.S. National Museum for 1913-1914, gave me the Salem story: in the latter year, the Report reported that “Mrs. Julian James and Mrs. R.R. Hoes continued, with their customary zeal, their self-appointed task of securing materials for the period costume collection, and during most of the year they were closely occupied in arranging the interesting fabrics and other articles which had been received. The results of their labors, successful and most brilliant in effect, have already been described, and there only remains to be accounted for in this connection the many and valuable contributions of the year. Of costumes of ladies of the White House, forming the central and most prominent feature of the exhibition and including some accessories, six were received, [including] a dress, kid slippers, and fan and pearl beads, worn by Mrs. John Adams, received from Miss Susan E. Osgood, of Salem, Mass.”

The items which once belonged to Abigail Adams which were donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1913 by Salem’s Susan Elizabeth Osgood: the dress is navy blue, and shown by itself and in “company” (far right); the “pearl beads” are actually glass—so Mrs. Adams was well ahead of Jackie Kennedy and Barbara Bush with her faux pearls!

It took me a while to figure out how Susan Osgood came to be in the possession of these items: there was no readily apparent connection to Abigail Adams and I am no genealogical researcher! Miss Osgood was one of those maiden ladies from established Salem families who seldom shows up in the newspapers: the rule was birth, marriage and death only and since she was unmarried that left a large gap (especially as she lived a long life, from 1832-1920). The only time she really “appears” in public is in reference to her famous garden at 314 Essex Street. I chased down a few family connections and finally found the link: her uncle, the Salem historian Joseph Felt, was married to Abigail Adams’ niece, Abigail Adams Shaw, the daughter of her younger sister, Elizabeth Shaw Peabody. As Mr. and Mrs. Felt had no children, I’m guessing that the Adams items were passed down to their niece, Susan, after their respective deaths and were stored in Susan’s Salem house until the Mrs. Julian-James and Hoes put the word out. There are a few references to Salem sculptress Louise Lander playing an intermediary role in this story, but I couldn’t really substantiate them: she was living in Washington at the time, however. If my explanation of the Abigail-Abigail-Susan connection is accurate, that means that Mrs. Adams is connected to Salem through both of her sisters. Her older sister, Mary Smith Cranch, and her husband Richard lived in Salem for a time, during which both Abigail and John Adams visited occasionally. I presume (again) that the Adamses were introduced to the work of Salem artist Benjamin Blythe on one of those occasions, and commissioned their famous pastel portraits from him.

Abigail Adams by Benajmin Blyth, circa 1766. Massachusetts Historical Society.

 


The Suffrage Seekers

I’m not going to write much on this #SalemSuffrageSaturday: I prefer to let one document speak for itself—or its signatories. Election Day is three days away, and if it is a struggle to get all the votes counted we can and should be reminded of the long struggle for universal suffrage. We can certainly wait a week, or a month, as these women (and men) waited for seventy years! The first Salem suffrage petition was in 1850; this one is dated 1880—there were more, representing more marching, writing, meeting, speaking, striving in so many ways….all the way up to 1920.

The citizens of Salem, Massachusetts petition the US Senate, May, 1880: Petition from the Citizens of Massachusetts in Support of Woman’s Suffrage; 5/26/1880; Petitions and Memorials, Resolutions of State Legislatures, and Related Documents which were Referred to the Committee on the Judiciary during the 46th Congress; (SEN46A-H11.2); Committee Papers, 1816 – 2011; Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/petition-massachusetts-suffrage, October 31, 2020].

We should not segregate the long struggle for the passage of the 19th Amendment: it represent the single largest expansion of voting rights in American history. But we should also note that many women were excluded from its provisions by the barriers of poll taxes, literacy tests, exclusionary acts, and other forms of voter suppression. The struggle continued after 1920, as it does today.

Officials in Rochester, New York have had to encase Susan B. Anthony’s grave in a protective barrier due to the evolving public ritual of placing voting stickers on her grave on Election Day. This year, of course, they’ve also had to come up with a Covid plan! For my part, I’ll be trekking up to Dr. Sarah E. Sherman’s grave in the Harmony Grove Cemetery on November 3 here in Salem.


Voting Matters

I am very, very anxious about the election and can think of little else. I have enough of a historian’s sensibility, of a human’s sensibility, to know that this is the most momentous election of my life. Of course there is little that I can do–other than donate and vote–so I have been appeasing my anxieties in my usual way: by reading about elections past. It has also helped me to read and listen to Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson, who has been putting the current situation in a comprehensive historical context for months now: talk about commitment! I have learned a lot about American history during this whole blogging experience, but I think I’ve learned more in the last 6 months than the past ten years: the problem is, I’ve been looking for the comfort of we’ve been here before but I seem to be surmising that many aspects of our current situation are truly aberrant! Apart from the search for context, there is just something very interesting about the logistics and detritus of elections past: in this digital age, we don’t have enough electoral texture. So here are just a few items that caught by eye.

Early Election Ballots: I love browsing through the early election ballots at the American Antiquarian Society: if you don’t understand the Electoral College—they are rather clear illustrations: also of the evolving concept of the ticket. Plus it’s interesting to see the emergence and disappearance of various political parties.

Mass Appeal: I love this flyer for Nathaniel Prentice Banks (also from the American Antiquarian Society), who was running for a Massachusetts congressional seat in the election of 1852. I don’t know if you can read it all, but he is appealing to all different sorts of men—mechanics, young men, middle-aged men and veterans! Plus he courts the ladies, and exhorts them to “stir up” their men!

 

Voting by Mail: since 1864. Very American. Poll Book from the Smithsonian Institution.

 

Poll Taxes! Who knew? I associated poll taxes with the segregated South, but in fact, people had to pay them right here in Massachusetts, and in other states as well, right up to the ratification of the 24th amendment in 1964! Imagine paying to vote. Imagine being an active suffragist, working your whole life for the voting rights of women, all women, and even after enfranchisement this barrier is still there! There were a few snarky articles published in the Boston papers right after the ratification of the 19th amendment in which the theory was put out there that perhaps women wouldn’t want to vote as they would have to tell the poll tax assessor their true ages! Unbelievable!

 

A Salem Parade Flag. Just because it must have been fun to see election parades, which I assume must have brought people together, but perhaps not. 13-star flag used in 1896 Salem parade, Cowan’s Auctions.

Pinback Buttons! Never can get enough of these: most are Roosevelt and McKinley, 1900 & 1904, from the Smithsonian; the Citizen pin is from 1915-20 and the Ann Lewis Suffrage Collection. I love the sentiment of Vote as you please but please vote.

 

A flyer from Margaret Chase Smith’s presidential campaign, 1964 (Smithsonian Collection). Because Margaret Chase Smith. And that’s as close as I am getting to our present time.


Eat, Drink & Be Merry

For the most part, I’ve managed to avoid dwelling on the pandemic and I must admit that I haven’t been that affected by it either, apart from the radical reconfiguration of my work environment! My struggle is to improve my online communication skills so that I can convey my passion for history through the screen—and that really isn’t much of a struggle, relatively speaking. I feel grateful as I’ve been fortunate: fortunate in my profession, which enables me to work in isolation reading and writing about a distant time and place, and fortunate in my residence—Massachusetts was hard hit in March and April but the steady leadership of our Governor and the responsible compliance of (most of) our citizens has enabled us to contain the spread of the Covid. Most days I am in a sixteenth-century fog writing my book, but headlines from the radio and the television intrude, and of course, the numbers of the infected and the dead keep climbing. I can’t believe that the President would hold rallies in this environment, and I am fearful of the maskless merrymakers I see whenever I do get outside and happen to find myself near a body of water, which is often, because I live on the coast. These “mask slackers” (a great term that comes from the last epic pandemic, when an Anti-Mask League formed in San Francisco) do not in any way remind me of a proverbial and patriotic “live free or die” movement but rather another, older, proverbial expression of selfishness: “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we shall die”. This is a biblical reference, of course, and as such it does not imply selfishness on the part of those partaking in the joys of daily life; rather it began to acquire its modern meaning at the time of the Black Death, or shortly thereafter. One of our best sources for the plague’s impact is the Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, who set the scene for his tales of the Decameron by giving us a first-hand account of plague-time Florence, where

Some thought that moderate living and the avoidance of all superfluity would preserve them from the epidemic. They formed small communities, living entirely separate from everybody else. They shut themselves up in houses where there were no sick, eating the finest food and drinking the best wine very temperately, avoiding all excess, allowing no news or discussion of death and sickness, and passing the time in music and suchlike pleasures. Others thought just the opposite. They thought the sure cure for the plague was to drink and be merry, to go about singing and amusing themselves, satisfying every appetite they could, laughing and jesting at what happened. They put their words into practice, spent day and night going from tavern to tavern, drinking immoderately, or went into other people’s houses, doing only those things which pleased them. 

Boccaccio’s description echoed the late medieval Danse Macabre (“Dance of Death”) allegory, an expression of the egalitarian and universal nature of all-conquering Death found in poetry, music, and images both before, and especially after, the Black Death. Late medieval people heard (or saw) the message as a reminder to be ready for Death, which could strike at any time, in a spiritual sense, not just as a call to indulge. Over the next centuries the hoarding isolationists and the dancing fools converged and the focus on sinfulness and salvation was diminished and forgotten, leaving us only with self-centered indulgence in the face of things we can’t, or won’t control: eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).

Screenshot_20200720-123018_Arts-Culture

Screenshot_20200401-081302_TwitterAre we in a crisis? Death is just outside the door in The Feast of Dives, Master of James IV of Scotland, c. 1510-20, from the Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum; I took this screenshot of Governor Kevin Stitt’s tweet back in March because I could not quite believe it: it was later taken down. I’m sad to say that Governor Stitt has recently announced that he is the first Governor to test positive for Covid and I hope he makes a speedy recovery. He attended the President’s rally in Tulsa on June 20 (without wearing a mask) but does not believe that it was where he was infected.

Screenshot_20200720-123433_Chrome

Screenshot_20200720-123154_Chrome

Screenshot_20200720-124158_Chrome

Detail of a photograph of  the Danse Macabre frieze at St. Mary’s Church in Lübeck painted by Bernt Notke in 1463; it was destroyed during World War II.  Ink & watercolor Dance of Death by anonymous German artist, 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art; inset of 17th century oil painting of the Dance of Death, Wellcome Library.


Not so Ephemeral

I was a casual collector of ephemera for years, so I’ve always been impressed with the more serious seekers and crafters of entire collections, most prominently Eric C. Caren, founder of the Caren Archive of paper Americana. With its tagline “History Unfolds on Paper”, the collection extends to about a million items I believe: Mr. Caren has culled it down with a series of auctions over the last decade or so–at Bonhams, Christie’s, and Swann’s among other houses–but I suspect that he continues to buy with feverish enthusiasm. The eighth Caren collection auction is now ongoing online at Sotheby’s, and I have really enjoyed perusing the lots: ephemera can really take you into an era, by offering intimate, “everyday” or administrative perspectives on the events of the day: often it’s surprising how weighty these little strips of paper can be. A serious collection of ephemera makes such items less ephemeral and more evidential, and with digitization, the ephemeral is also transformed into a lasting testimony. My browsing was edifying as well: who knew, for example, that the famous Gerrymander, spawned right here in Essex County in 1812, died in the following year? Certainly not me! This skeletal monster is just one of several intriguing items in the auction: here are my picks.

Dead Gerrymander

Screenshot_20200713-225046_Chrome

Screenshot_20200713-223801_Chrome

Screenshot_20200713-231043_Chrome

Screenshot_20200713-223829_Chrome

Screenshot_20200713-224036_Chrome

Screenshot_20200713-224109_Chrome

Screenshot_20200713-224736_Chrome

Gerrymander cartoon in the Columbian Centinal via the Salem Gazette, 1813; Horatio Gates’ Recruiting Instructions, 1775; Benjamin Harrison, Governor of Virginia, grants land to Daniel Cumbo, and African-American soldier, in return for his service in the Revolutionary War (quite a contrast to the Gates document, which prohibits the recruitment of “any Stroller, Negro or Vagabond”; John Paul Jones mezzotint, 1779; Alfred Swaine Taylor, early “photogenic drawing” photograph of a fern, 1839; Brochure for “Bloomer Girls”, a touring baseball team, from the Young Ladies’ Athletic Journal, 1889; Stop Lynching, Shame of America poster, 1937; US House of Representatives Calendar No. 61: Impeachment of Donald John Trump.


How do You Re-open a Tourist Town?

After a pandemic—or in the midst of one? Obviously the answer is very carefully. I grew up in a summer tourist town, York, Maine, and have lived in a seasonal–going on all-year tourist town, Salem, Massachusetts, for several decades, so the question is very interesting to me, and obviously far more than interesting to the residents and business owners of both communities. I’m in York now, so I thought I would start with some observations of what is going on here, and then follow up with Salem (whose many restaurants started opening up yesterday—in the streets) when I return in a few weeks. The policy in Maine is self-quarantine for two weeks for all people coming from outside: I am following that policy I believe: I came up with two weeks’ worth of groceries and supplies and am going to no public places, with the exception of parks and walkways near our home which are open. Self-quarantining in Massachusetts allowed daily exercise as well as essential shopping, so I was assuming that the former is allowed here: I found some contradictory information, but if I am the wrong let me know, Maine authorities! I stay far away from everyone on my daily walks and wear my mask at all times. We have the perfect situation here, as we have a big family house where my husband, stepson and I are staying, and my parents–who are Maine residents—are in their condominium less than a mile away. So if we run out of anything they can go and get it for us! The one time I was walking in rather public place, with my Maine parents and mask on, they insisted on going to the walk-in counter of Rick’s All-Season Restaurant for Bloody Mary’s: I stayed far away from the window and we imbibed at home. There is an ice-cream take-out window in Salem, but I don’t know if we have a Bloody Mary one—-yet.

IMG_20200607_120623_791The Take-Out Window at Rick’s Restaurant in York Village

I was quite accustomed to seeing masks on the streets of Salem as well as inside public places: here in Maine there seems to be less mask-wearing outside, but as I haven’t been inside anywhere but our home I’m not sure what’s going on there. Obviously Maine is a much larger state than Massachusetts with a much smaller population, so there is less concern about population density: in York the population typically swells in the summer, but with this two-week self-quarantine policy in effect I would guess that this would not be the case this summer. That is the pressure point. York is a really large town, geographically, with a lot of public outdoor space: three major beaches, a mountain with trails, parks, ponds, pathways—lots of room for social distancing. The beaches are open for active use: no sunbathing, but walking, swimming, fishing are allowed. In York Harbor, where we live, there are two coastal paths: the Cliff Walk and the Fisherman’s Walk. I grew up walking on the former in four seasons: but there have been some access issues over the past decade or so, and the owner of one abutting property has built a fence to block pedestrian access to part of the walk. It has been Covid-closed, but the nearby Fisherman’s Walk is open so that is where I will be taking most of my harbor walks. As you can see, it’s lovely, and very uncrowded: we’ll see what happens as June progresses.

20200609_102633

20200609_102553

20200609_095055

20200609_095449

20200609_095313

20200609_095625

20200609_101256

20200609_101139Fisherman’s Walk, York Harbor, Maine, with a new house (next-to-last photo) rising over the Harbor.


Quarantines in Salem

I’m pretty familiar with the origins of the quarantine, having taught classes on or in the era of the Black Death for twenty years: quaranta (40) days that ships were required to anchor in the harbor off Venice before they could unload their passengers and cargoes to prevent the passage of plague in the fourteenth century. The Black Death came to Europe by sea, in ships: it was external. The circumstances in which we find ourselves prompted me to look at Salem’s quarantines, as Salem was a mini-Venice in its day, an entrepôt for worldly goods coming from far, far away. And by the time of Salem’s heyday, everyone knew that deadly germs could accompany those precious commodities. The plague was over (until its reappearance in the later nineteenth century) but other plagues persisted: smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, influenza, scarlet fever.

Quarantine-Venice Puck Magazine drawing from 1883, showing the NYC Board of Health attempting to ward off the arrival of Cholera.

Disease operates like war in history: it dramatically intensifies the size, scale and power of the government in reaction. Quarantines are evidence of the government’s powers and/or ability in the face of crisis, and they leave a record. Massachusetts experienced several smallpox epidemics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, provoking both quarantine measures and medical relief in the form of inoculation. In Salem, smallpox was still considered threatening enough to provoke the establishment of a designated hospital and committee to deal with it in the eighteenth century, but it was by no means as frightful as the disease which was often simply referred to as the “pestilence”: yellow fever. Maybe I’m wrong, but the public discourse at the time seems to imply that smallpox is containable, yellow fever, not at all.

Quarantine-Salem_Gazette_1798-07-03_3

Quarantine-Salem_Gazette_1794-09-16_4Salem Gazette

Strict maritime quarantines were implemented as soon as any news of yellow fever was reported, particularly after the dreadful epidemics in Philadelphia in 1793 and New York in 1795, and the concurrent epidemics in both cities and Boston in 1798. The last two years of the eighteenth century marked a turning point in Salem’s public health history, with the appointment of a new inspector of police: apothecary Jonathan Waldo. In several long articles in the Salem Gazette, Waldo asserted that the dreadful pestilence was not only an external threat, but one that was festering right in Salem, and thus a series of quarantine and hygiene regulations must be implemented as soon as possible. Salem needed to clean up its act.

Quarantine-Salem_Gazette_1799-03-08_2

First, a new Board of Health, the Overseers of the Poor, or some other body should be empowered with the mandate to enforce the necessary regulations, which included: confiscation of “corrupted” properties for the “public good”, with compensation to the owners, the establishment of a “pest house”(another one: Salem already had two by my count), “suitable” privies, “so situated as to incommodate their next neighbor as little as possible”, proper cisterns for butchers, docks and flats to be kept clean, no dead animals are to be thrown into the streets or the river, no storage of hides, fish, and beef for prolonged periods of time, and “the public streets, wharves and enclosures should be kept in a good wholesome state of cleanliness, especially during the hot season.” And so you see, we can learn a lot about societies in the midst of, or facing, a contagion! Once the hot season arrived, the city imposed a maritime quarantine on all incoming vessels. Another apothecary (who interests were even more wide-ranging than those of Waldo), Scottish exile James Tytler, published his Treatise on the Plague and Yellow Fever in Salem in this same, fevered, year of 1799.

Screenshot_20200329-224211_Chrome

KeithFeverDistrictsUSA1856Library of Congress

As the map above (from Alexander Keith Johnston’s Physical Atlas: a Series of Maps & Notes Illustrating the Geographical Distribution of Natural Phenomena) depicts, I always associated yellow fever with the south: the Caribbean, and New Orleans, in particular. But this was not strictly the case. I have no access to the City of Salem archives—some seem to be up in the Phillips Library up in Rowley; some remain here in Salem, in City Hall I presume—but fortunately a predecessor of mine from the Salem State History Department, Charles Kiefer, created an inventory and finding aids for the municipal records from 1681-1832 in the 1970s which is preserved in the Salem State Archives. According to Kiefer’s notes, most of Waldo’s recommendations went into effect in the first decade of the nineteenth century, with the additional improvement of paved streets. These notes also reference the first outbreak of what would be the new threatening disease of the nineteenth century, cholera, with a very early outbreak for Salem in 1812. I was surprised to read of the implementation of a maritime quarantine against cholera by the Salem Board of Health as late as 1885: I thought it was all about railroads at this point. There were influenza alerts (but not quarantines as far as I can tell) in 1890 and (of course) 1918, a late smallpox scare in 1912 which brought out police guards, and several scarlet fever quarantines in the twentieth century. Despite the fact that it was revealed to be contagious in the 1880s, I don’t see any quarantine measures used by Salem authorities to combat the most endemic of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century diseases: tuberculosis. There was clearly increasing concern and focus on preventative public health, hygiene, and housing, an updated Waldo regimen if you will, but no extreme measures.

Quarantine

Smallpox-1912

Quarantine-Scarlet-Fever-3


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.”

Mon 5

Mon 2

Mon 1

Mon 3

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.

Freedom Park

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.

Mon 7

Monument title 1933

Shaw Memorial

20190612_114421

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).

 


Red Roofs

Patriots Day 2019 was not a very enjoyable day. It was certainly not as dreadful as Patriots Day 2013, but still a frightful day. I woke up to thunder, looked out at the dreary rain, made the decision not to drive to Lexington so I could walk the Battle Road as is my custom, did some errands, and then turned on the radio to hear the Marathon results and instead heard “Notre Dame is burning”.  And that was the story for the rest of the day: listening, watching (big mistake but I could not look away), and (towards the end of the day) drinking. I admire all historical architecture, but Gothic cathedrals are more than mere buildings: they symbolize the aspirations and abilities of an era and a civilization. Very early in my teaching career, I essentially turned my medieval survey into an “Age of Cathedrals” course, and I still teach through and around and with these monuments. At first reference that might sound like an approach that is simplistic and old-fashioned, but for me the cathedral has always been both a symbol and a conduit, connecting one to all the layers of medieval history, not just religious, but social, economic, political, cultural, and of course technological. Cathedrals can open up minds too: especially the minds of college students who are predisposed to think of the Middle Ages as merely “dark”,  and “backward”. It’s impossible to look at a cathedral and not be impressed by its creators, or maintain a presentist perspective.

aptopix-france-notre-dame-fire-20190415155934-12400800AP Photo by Thibault Camus

As the day wore on, I realized I was getting upset as much by the commentary and coverage as by the incessant fire. There was a lot of speculation, and little confirmation, and of course we could see the fire burning and burning and burning. So I turned everything off and went to bed. The next day, the fire had finally been stopped and Notre Dame was still standing: its roof and spire were gone but the bulk of its early Gothic expanse and vaulting, its bell towers, and even its trio of rose windows had been saved. I welcome the full report on the fire’s causes and damage because there is still a lot of contradictory information out there, but I learned a lot from a few select Twitter threads that found their way into my feed, mostly through architectural historians: about the protocol followed by the Parisian firefighters, put in place after the last time Notre Dame was ravaged during the French Revolution and sustained through two world wars, about the oak trees planted at Versailles after the last restoration of Notre Dame’s roof 160 years ago, and about the human chain created to rescue its treasures, with a fire-fighting chaplain serving as the essential link.  The combination of a still-standing Notre Dame, human heroism, and the resolute statement of President Macron reassured me quite a bit (French cathedrals have been owned by the state since 1905), but more than anything I am hopeful because of history: cathedrals were built over generations, in fits and starts, many sustained fire damage as well as human assaults but survived and were rebuilt. There are several precedents for the restoration of Notre Dame, but I think the most inspirational examples must be Reims Cathedral, which sustained devastating damage during World War I, and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Nantes, which was bombed heavily during World War II and severely damaged by a fire in 1972.

Cathedral CollageThe Cathedrals of Reims and Nantes in their present glorious condition. Photographs by Nicolas Janberg for Structurae.

The restoration of Reims, the most royal of French cathedrals, was an epic achievement. It sustained intense shelling by German forces outside of the city in September of 1914, setting fire to the wood scaffolding that was in place, and then the cathedral’s oak roof, which caved into the nave below. Reims lay in a state of semi-ruin for the rest of the war, and was bombed again in 1917 and 1918, thus attaining its status as a “martyred cathedral”. I inherited a book from my great aunt by the American illustrator George Wharton Edwards titled Vanished Halls & Cathedrals of France which was published at the height of the war. Reims is on the cover and inside, looking beautiful in his pre-war paintings, but the text reads like a eulogy: the catastrophe is so unbelievable that one cannot realize it…….Reims can never be restored to what it was before the bombardment. Let it rest thus….a sacred ruin—the scarred, pierced heart of France. He goes on a bit later: Let it remain….the living, standing record of an infamous crime. Consumed by fire, soaked in blood, Reims, which crowned and sheltered a hundred kings, has passed. Deleta est Carthago.

Vanished Halls

Edwards Collage

Vanished Halls Reims_Cathedral_burning_during_World_War_I

Vanished Halls Reims PC

The burning of Reims Cathedral after the severe bombardment by the Germans, 17-24 September 1914Edwards’ book and paintings; two 1914 postcards; Charles W. Wyllie, The Burning of Reims Cathedral after the Severe Bombardment of the Germans, 17-24 September 1914. From The Sphere, 7 December 1914.

Edwards would not get his wish. Reims would be restored after the war (with a good deal of American money) and it served as the site of the signing of the peace treaty which ended the second World War in Europe in May of 1945. Only a year before, and more than 300 miles to the east, the city and cathedral of Nantes sustained significant damage from Allied bombing in June of 1944, but the more serious threat to the latter was the fire that broke out in January of 1972 related to ongoing restoration on the roof. Indeed, the post-war restoration was barely completed by that time according to most accounts, but the “resuscitation” following the fire was shorter, and detailed in a wonderful short video you can view here. President Macron’s five-year plan is perhaps ambitious, but not impossible: it’s been done before.

1211872-musee-des-sapeurs-pompiers-de-loire-atlantique-fonds-hervio

[The Angel of the Resurrection on the Roof of Notre-Dame, Paris]Nantes Cathedral in flames on the night of January 28, 1972, Museum of firefighters Loire-Atlantique. Hervio Fund; Charles Nègre, Angel of Resurrection at Notre Dame, 1853, Getty Museum.


%d bloggers like this: