Archive | October, 2013

Review of Swamp Sailors in the Second Seminole War, by George E. Buker

30 Oct

I’m wrapping up a series of several books I’ve been reading about the Seminole Wars this year with George Buker’s landmark study of the U.S. Navy’s involvement in the Second Seminole War, Swamp Sailors. Originally published in 1975, the book is a remarkable account of the Navy’s role in the war, especially as it relates to operations in extreme south Florida where the Seminoles took their last refuge. Like so many books on the Seminole Wars, Buker’s narrative still stands as the only book-length treatment of the subject in print.


I have commented previously on the particularly tough conditions in which so much of the Seminole Wars were waged: subtropical heat, mosquito and snake-infested swamps, and extremely remote locations. Perhaps no book brings this aspect of the conflict into sharper focus than Buker’s work. While part of his account chronicles the movements of the various sea-going naval ships involved in blockading the Florida coast to prevent the Seminoles from obtaining supplies through trade with Cuba, the bulk of the book is devoted to detailing the sailors’ coordination with army forces in an unforgiving landscape.

In truth, their coordination was neither truly by land nor sea, but rather somewhere in a swampy middle. Small bands of these pioneering men—the Second Seminole War marked a turning point in U.S. Naval tactics and involved the first military uses of steam-powered vessels—trudged through the Everglades seeking out Seminoles in their most secure of hiding places. Many literally did not see dry ground for weeks on their missions, sleeping in their small specially-designed boats, the “Mosquito Fleet,” at night and pulling them through waist-deep mucky water during the day. The grueling exertions of both these sailors and their foe, who by the last days of the Second Seminole War were perhaps 250 in number, are simply amazing.

Historians of American military history, especially naval history, have long recognized Buker’s book as an important study of a conflict that marked the first time the U.S. Navy operated substantially in a non-maritime environment. Additionally, they have acknowledged the book’s contribution to military history by demonstrating the Second Seminole War was a training ground for men such as Raphael Semmes who would later achieve fame during the Civil War. Those simply interested in the day to day existence of those who fought and died in the Seminole Wars will appreciate the book for something more tangible; the visceral detail of the experiences of sailors and Seminoles it contains.


Review of Interpreting Our Heritage, by Freeman Tilden

23 Oct

Most professionals working in the field of public history have heard of Freeman Tilden. Known as one of the earliest educators in the field of interpretation, his classic Interpreting Our Heritage remains a must-read for anyone if the field, although it was initially published in 1957.


Now in its 4th edition, this book’s message continues to resonate with words of wisdom to all those who work with the public at historic sites.  This blog contains just a sampling of Tilden’s insight that I found informative and/or useful:


To pay a personal visit to a historic site is to receive a concept such as no book can supply. No textbook can convey the feeling of reality that comes to use when we stand in the very places, among the identical objects, where our history has been wrought by the will and courage and ideals of the earlier days of the nation.

Interpretation is an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.

Principle #1-Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

Principle #2-Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based on information.

Principle #3-Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

Principle #4-The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

Principle #5-Intepretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phrase.

Principle #6-Intepretation addressed to children should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

Perhaps most important, interpreters should have a passion for their work. 

Interpreters should tell a story, not an inventory; people are with us mainly seeking enjoyment, not instruction.

Purpose of interpretation is to stimulate the visitor toward a desire to widen his horizon of interests and knowledge, and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statement of facts.

Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.

Children are not afraid to ask questions, and many adults are, from fear of saying the wrong thing.

If we cannot interest with our treasures those carefree young persons whose minds are at the height of receptivity, how can we hope to interest those adults who are inevitably fogged and beset by the personal and social worries of an uneasy world?

Text writing is thinking and composition.  What would the prospective reader wish to read? And what can I say in brief, inspiring, and luring terms about this area in language he will readily comprehend?

Anything written without enthusiasm will be read without interest. You must be in love with your material.

Two devices for bringing the past to the present are demonstration and participation; both are priceless ingredients of interpretation that we should diligently search for possibilities and never let slip an opportunity for including them.

No institution should install any mechanical devices until it knows that such gadgets can be adequately, continually, and quickly serviced. No matter how good they may be when they are working properly, they are a source of shame when they are allowed to be more than briefly inoperative; Gadgets do not supplant the personal contact;

Classroom instruction was made truly effective when it could supplemented in the field where the things were.


Tilting at Windmills

21 Oct

Listening to the stream of obnoxious rhetoric spewing from our nation’s leaders in the wake of the signing of the short-term agreement that has allowed our government to function again, I can’t help but be reminded of that legend of literature, Don Quixote. In Cervantes’ famous novel of the same name, the poor misguided main character imagines some windmills he sees in the distance are giants, and proceeds to charge them with a lance while mounted on a mule. A few bricks shy of a full load, he thinks his errand is a virtuous endeavor.

Don Quixote

The scenario sounds almost as ludicrous and sad as the self-absorbed drivel we hear from our “leaders” (I simply can’t use that word here without quotation marks) as it concerns their ongoing utter disconnect with the needs and wishes of the people they purport to serve. The self-induced impasse that brought the country to a halt is all the evidence we need of their collective disregard of our wishes. Regardless of party, they all claim to be fighting for the positions the “American people” are asking them to represent. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. There is no uproar within the bases of Republican or Democrat parties, or anywhere else but perhaps their own imagination or special interest lobbies, driving these people to take their personal squabbles to the point of endangering livelihoods. Sure, people on either side of the political fence may agree with parts of their respective arguments, but the bigger point is that the people we have elected to represent us are now telling us what they are elected to represent rather than the other way around. We asked them to go to DC to run the country with us in mind. Instead, they have made up battles to fight which nobody has asked them to wage, for purposes known to and benefitting only them, and which the general public plays no part.

The situation is a mockery of our democracy, and an incredible injustice to all citizens, especially those associated with or supportive of cultural heritage institutions caught in this obscene crossfire of partisan rhetoric. Rarely in history have so many people been shown so susceptible to continual cranial-rectal inversion. Rarely has so large a group been so able to continue in their employment despite a woeful inadequacy to the tasks in which they are entrusted. Call me a pessimist, but the future doesn’t seem quite as bright for the country today as I would like.



16 Oct

I spent most of last week in Atlanta earning my certification as an interpretive guide from the National Association for Interpretation, so issues of how to relate historical information to people in a way that is relevant and impactful has been particularly on my mind the past few days. The program has caused me to rethink a lot of what I thought I knew about interpretation, and especially caused me to be more aware of my audience and their needs when speaking to them, whether in a lecture, on a tour, or in an exhibit text panel. In our classes, we learned a lot about techniques to engage our audience. One stood out as paramount—passion.

Tour guide

If public historians are to be effective, we must be passionate about what we do. A passion for history is of course critical in driving us to do what we do as professionals, as it is an interest in the past that propels us to read and write about historical events. That same passion needs to be communicated to our audience in our work. Whether or not we are passionate about the past is the first thing they will notice, and it is something that can’t be faked. If what we do isn’t intriguing to us, it certainly won’t be to them. The first step in getting anyone else to care about history is to care about it ourselves. If we aren’t passionate, we probably need to ask ourselves why we are in the field anyway.


Review of History of the Second Seminole War, by John K. Mahon

7 Oct

Rarely does a book approaching a half-century old manage to still stand as the beginning point for the study of the topic it chronicles. Remarkably, such is the case with John K. Mahon’s History of the Second Seminole War, first published in 1967 and now having undergone multiple reprintings. The book is simply the most detailed, inclusive, and well-researched volume ever written on the Second Seminole War.


There are several excellent books that cover the Seminole Wars currently available, some of which have been reviewed in this blog previously. Most of these, to their credit, cover the three Seminole Wars as a continuous series of conflicts and provide an overview of the era in Florida and Southern history in the process. Mahon’s study differs in that it is focused exclusively on the Second Seminole War; the most protracted, most vicious, and most costly of the three contests by far. A reading of the book will give one a sense of the bitter and cyclical nature of this relatively little-known war, and the incredible lengths the nation went to—unsuccessfully for the most part—to remove the Seminoles from Florida. The fight was the very opposite of glorious campaigning, featuring few real battles, dreadful conditions, constant debate over tactics and the very purpose of the effort, and, in the end, lackluster results. One can’t help but be struck by the endurance of both the American soldiers and the perseverance of their Seminole foes throughout the long war.

Mahon’s writing, featuring anachronistic terms such as “negro” in the text and obvious pity for the relatively “uncivilized” Seminoles certainly doesn’t jibe well with modern writing concerning aspects of Native American history. But he carefully lays out the story objectively as it happened with the sources available, and the fact nobody has managed to do much better in five decades of work alone gives the work lasting merit. I can’t help but mention his original fold-out map of the Second Seminole War in Florida, included in the inside cover of the first edition of the book, is a marvelous piece of cartography that certainly hasn’t been superseded. In fact, it still stands as the best available map with which to understand the conflict to appear in a book chronicling the war.


Epic Fail

2 Oct

Just when you think the leadership in our country cannot get any worse, our national government fails to pass a spending bill to operate our government.  Blatant and self-serving partisanship has now shut our government down. All citizens should be outraged, no matter what side of the political fence you sit on. We, the people, elect representatives to pass laws necessary for the functioning of our country and expect compromise to get things done. But today, political posturing from a bunch of entitled sycophants who are completely out-of-touch from the average hard-working American have decided to grandstand and shut the government down, oblivious to the dire effects it causes citizens. What a farce! The nation, once the shining light for the entire world, has become a laughing stock and an embarrassment to the thousands of men and women who have died to see this nation grow and prosper. How ironic was it to see some World War II veterans yesterday have to cross “Closed” barricades in Washington to see the World War II monument that honors their efforts??


There are so many points to make arising from this mess that highlight the inadequacy of our current leadership to their task.  For example, the notion being put forth by them that only “essential” work will continue while they grandstand leads one to question that if government work is not essential, why are we doing it anyway?  Of course, we feel that entities such as the National Park Service do conduct essential work. It is both a tragedy and an indictment of our unenlightened leadership to see that the institutions charged with protecting and promoting some of our nation’s most valuable resources are deemed as of only secondary importance.

By far the biggest thing to take from this event is this nation’s lack of leadership in general. While this nation has a population of over 300 million people, we seem to struggle woefully in finding leaders who put the interest of the nation ahead of themselves and actually do any leading. It is abundantly clear that one of the principles at the core of good political leadership—the art of compromise—is dead in this country. Partisanship and factionalism have been around since the nation’s founding, but there were statesmen who led us through both major and petty disputes in our history. Today, we only have hapless morons who are more interested in posing in front of the camera than actually displaying leadership to move our country forward. How long will we have to deal with this epic fail!!

Our current lack of leadership in Washington is inexcusable and also a disgrace to the proud legacy of the all the patriots and statesmen who have guided this country through a revolution, rebellion, depression, and global warfare. To see the self-centered nature of the impasse those in charge of the country have brought us to through their inane political battles is a mockery of the principles upon which the founding fathers risked their fortunes, reputations, and lives to uphold. Through their outrageous ignorance and selfishness, they have imperiled the nation they were elected to serve. To paraphrase a famous quote appropriate for the moment, they fiddle while Rome burns. On second thought, let us rephrase that. They quibble while Rome burns!