Short Takes

I’ve been extremely busy with several projects which hasn’t left much time to blog, even though I have a lot of material. Thanks to co-bloggers for keeping the flame burning here at TOCWOC.

Talked to an FSU history professor at a party over the holidays, a woman of about thirty. What was most interesting was her frank admission that she’d written two books that absolutely no one read or cited, and had written both just to keep her job. One dealt with the more esoteric gender aspects of the French Revolutionary period, so I can see why. A lot of academic literature seems to fall into this category.

Who’s really buried in John Wilkes Booth’s grave? Was it really someone else? That’s what a Booth descendant claims:

There was also a family secret about whether John was really shot by federal troops while escaping.

“You might as well know now that he never died in the barn,” Hulme says. “That here was a gentleman named James William Boyd that died in the barn and he lived for many years.”

Color me skeptical—this sort of story often attaches to famous villains like Jesse James. Invariably someone else is killed and they go on to lead peaceful, obscure lives. At one point in the 19th Century there were nearly a hundred men claiming to be the real James.

In period news, Mark Twin’s oft-banned classic Huckleberry Finn, is getting the Thomas Bowdler treatment. The Victorian era was notable for its prudishness, when well-bred men would not say “trousers” around women, and Bowlder “improved” many classic works, including Shakespeare and Edward Gibbon, to make them more “family friendly.” Today we have political correctness, in this case Twain’s liberal use of the word nigger, which seems to cause the vapors in modern readers.  Many have written about this, but the best take I’ve seen so far is that by Christopher Howse.

We readers of Shakespeare and Mark Twain do not dislike black people or Jewish people. Yet we can be more certain that Twain did not hate blacks than that Shakespeare was not anti-Semitic. Anyone would have to be not only stupid but a fool to miss the fact that Mark Twain was on the side of Jim, the runaway slave in Huckleberry Finn.

And, a chance to see Lincoln as you’ve never seen him. I am happy to say this is not naked, but in 3D. Stereo photography, which has made a comeback with movies like Avatar, goes almost back to the invention of the camera.

Even more sensational was the image known as a stereograph, or stereo view, which was a photograph viewed in 3-D through a stereoscope, or stereo viewer-another 1830s invention. “The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereoscope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced,” the essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1859. “The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture. The scraggy branches of a tree in the foreground run out at us as if they would scratch our eyes out.” Before the rise of the stereo view, photography was largely limited to the creation of photographic keepsakes of family and friends. With the advent of mass-marketed stereo views in the late 1850s, and with Holmes’s invention of a simple, handheld stereoscope, photography now could also provide a photographic viewing experience. You could take a 3-D tour of the world while sitting in the parlor of your own home. Before movies and television, the stereo view was the closest thing to video that nineteenth-century Americans had. It was the first mass-marketed form of visual home entertainment, and the conflict provided boundless new
stereographic opportunities.

Some interesting Civil War photos, if you have the glasses.

One of the more pleasant aspects of the holidays was finishing Rob Wynstra’s The Rashness of That Hour about Iverson’s brigade at Gettysburg. Liked it and hope to post a review soon. Bull Runnings has an interview with the author.

UPDATE: John Stauffer reviews two books on slave revolts in the Old South in the Wall Street Journal. Thanks to historians like John Hope Franklin, there is now a narrative of slave “resistance” as if it were some sort of Third World movement against colonialism. The reality seems quite different—such revolts as occurred were both spontaneous and bloody, with little planning involved.

There is no evidence that the slaves had planned to rebel before breaking into the store. Yet previous accounts have assumed that rebellion was the slaves’ aim from the outset. For Mr. Hoffer this reasoning “turns causation around” and ignores the role of chance. Might the saga have begun not as rebellion but as a plan to steal food? What if the tipping point was the discovery of the two whites in the store, prompting a sudden change of plan?

Addressing such questions, Mr. Hoffer structures his book as an elegant and intricate detective story. Along the way, he neatly captures the texture of South Carolina’s Low Country in 1739. It was a time when the slave population had almost doubled in a decade, owing to the influx of slaves from Angola. Blacks outnumbered whites by a 2-to-1 ratio. Masters got rich from slave-grown rice. And “death was everywhere.” Slaves “reckoned that old comrades and new friends would die before they could start families.” In this environment, “something had to give.” It did.

A Civil War collector has made a major donation of period photographs to the Library of Congress.

A Virginia collector has donated to the Library of Congress the largest trove of Civil War-era photographs depicting average soldiers that the institution has received in at least 50 years, officials said last week.

The stunning photographs – small, elegant ambrotypes and tintypes – show hundreds of the young men who fought and died in the war, often portrayed in the innocence and idealism before the experience of battle.

The pictures, almost 700 in all, make up the bulk of the collection of Tom Liljenquist, 58, of McLean, who operates a chain of Washington area jewelry stores and with his sons has been buying Civil War photographs for 15 years.

The images show the striking youth of the soldiers of the 1860s. Many seem barely out of boyhood and too young for the trials ahead of them. Yet, as Liljenquist remarked last week, they became saviors of the nation.

The collection, which is well worth a cybertrip, is now available for viewing.

One of the photos is that of “My beloved son Carl, taken from me on April 1, 1865 at age 18 killed at Dinwiddie. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Nancy Dearing Rossbacher, managing editor of North South Trader’s Civil War magazine, thinks it is Private Carlos E. Rogers, a Union infantryman from the Syracuse area.

Rossbacher, of Orange, Va., who is also a genealogist, said she became mesmerized by the “Carl” picture when her magazine reproduced some of the photographs with an essay by Liljenquist’s son, Brandon.

“That young man called me,” she said of the boy in the photograph. “He cried out for some kind of identification.”

Rossbacher pored over Civil War records to find people killed in or near Dinwiddie in late March or early April 1865.

“I tracked down every Yankee and rebel who would have been in the vicinity at that time,” she said in a phone interview.


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