Archive | March, 2015

My Love-Hate Relationship with Historic House Museums

31 Mar

I want to love house museums, and in theory I should. They should be, after all, time capsules where lives from the past were actually lived, where historic objects are displayed in proper context, and the diversity of interpretation is as broad and varied as the experiences of the many people who have lived in them. I hate to admit it, but I nonetheless find a lot house museums a bit disappointing.

house museum

For one thing, the interpretation they offer can be alarmingly standard, especially in the South where I live and “historic” often means “antebellum.” When one visits so many of the historic homes here, you almost invariably discuss the ornate parlor, the high ceilings and central hallway to promote ventilation, the detached kitchen and the reasons why this arrangement was so, the sitting room and the “ladies’ parlors”, the ubiquitous courting sofa and rope beds, the fact that slaves probably helped in construction of the home, and on occasion, the dubious legend of taxation based on number of closets. And we can’t forget the unfortunately mind-numbing recitations on the provenance of the elaborate antique furnishings scattered throughout, most of which very often have nothing whatsoever to do with the house. In fairness it can all be very compelling depending on the objects, the story, and the guide, but it can also seem frustratingly generic, focusing on Victorian era symbolism and an artificial polished presentation for entertaining guests to the point that imagining anyone actually living in such a staid museum atmosphere seems difficult. Despite the best efforts of staff, few historic homes I have visited ever really strike a chord to those like me seeking a little more in their heritage tourism experience.

house museum interior

I have wondered why this should be the case from time to time, but have only recently been able to put my finger on why. I have found that I am personally interested in historic homes more as places where history happened—historic sites—than examples of any particular style or era—historic museums. Consequently, I have found that I find single compelling moments that occurred within historic homes are what prompt me to connect with them on a more meaningful level than any awareness of craftsmanship of its architecture or the elegance of its furnishings. In truth one of my favorite “house museums” of all interprets a house that is actually no longer standing—Ben Franklin’s house in Philadelphia. A ghost structure stands atop its former site, with the location of rooms and quotes from Franklin’s diaries engraved in the pavers visitors walk on as they explore its footprint. I remember more about that house as imagined in my mind’s eye that most I have physically toured.

Franklin House

I have visited a lot of house museums, but the ones I remember the most are those that capture some particular moment with such clarity that the rest of the structure becomes context, such as the Potts House at Valley Forge set up as the frenzied headquarters of George Washington during that pivotal winter at Valley Forge, the unfinished upper floors at Longwood in Natchez, where work was halted at the beginning of the Civil War, or the parlor of the McLean House in Appomattox where Lee surrendered to Grant. This may seem a pretty narrow mission for most house museums, as not every location is equally equipped to interpret such evocative moments. But the effort to capture a particularly poignant event is the point.

Washington hqLongwood Appomattox

None of this means I question the validity of house museums that interpret daily life of people who are not as famous as Washington. I believe there is definitely a place for the preservation of specific homes as “best examples” of architectural styles or illustrative of lifestyles from the past, for on my list of most memorable house museums is also Drayton Hall in South Carolina, which features unfurnished rooms on its tours.

Drayton Hall

But the house as a historic site, providing a special connection to the past through the stories of events that occurred within it in the past, even if momentary, is what sparks my deeper intrigue with a historic house museum. I guess I am one of those for whom “Washington slept here” still resonates. But I don’t think I’m alone.

Washington slept here


Review of Confederate Mobile, by Arthur Bergeron, Jr.

27 Mar

Arthur Bergeron, Jr.’s overview of the Civil War experience of Mobile, Alabama, Confederate Mobile, first appeared in 1991 and has become a standard reference source on the history of the city. Mobile had been largely overlooked in Civil War historiography prior to Bergeron’s book, even though it was one of the largest and most important cities in the Confederacy. Sure, there had been several books focusing on the naval engagement in Mobile Bay and the other scattered fighting for the city, but Confederate Mobile was the first comprehensive treatment of the city’s place in the Confederacy and the extensive preparations that went into its defense.


The book consists of some thirteen chapters detailing the city’s strategic position, its role as a point of Confederate supply, the plans made for its defense, and the fighting that took place in late 1864 and early 1865 that resulted in its capture by Union forces. It is a detailed, if not necessarily engrossing, account of military activity in Mobile, unearthing a story that few had ever attempted to tell. Its strength lies in the comprehensive way it deals with that military history, providing details on everything from the purpose and nature of the rings of defenses that encircled the city to the chronic shortage of troops to man them to the special role played by slaves and free blacks in the city’s defense. It is a little less convincing in integrating the story of the civilian experience into the narrative, providing a rather cursory overview of the topic despite the fact that “Confederate Mobile” saw no fighting until the very late stages of the war and life carried on as normal there perhaps more so than any other large Southern city. What it does it does well, though, and it remains a standard reference on its subject today.


Review of Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign, by Chester Hearn

25 Mar

Having recently joined the staff at Historic Blakeley State Park where the culminating battle in the long, complicated Civil War campaign for the city of Mobile was fought, I took an opportunity to read again Chester Hearn’s book on the topic, Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign. The book first appeared in 1993, but is as relevant today as it was two decades ago. Save for some scattered but solid scholarship on the Battle of Mobile Bay, there has been little published in the intervening years that even attempts to relate the details of this campaign in any but the most broad of overviews.


Mobile is often regrettably overlooked by all but the most diehard Civil War enthusiasts, and our understanding of the conflict is poorer as a result. A key Confederate economic and transportation hub, the city served as one of the South’s premier centers of blockade-running activities and, unlike virtually any other large city in the Confederacy (it was the fourth largest in the Confederacy), stayed in Southern hands until the very last days of the war. As a consequence Mobile was one of the most heavily fortified places on the planet in late 1864 when the Union’s long-delayed effort to capture the city began. The complex campaign that resulted in its capture involved the largest naval battle in the war, by most estimates played no small role in the reelection of Abraham Lincoln in the fall of 1864, and featured sieges, skirmishing, and relatively large battles. Coming so late in the war when technological and tactical advances had radically altered the nature of combat, the campaign, better than almost any other single event of its type during the war, foreshadowed the future of warfare. It featured ironclads, submarines, torpedoes, land mines, hand grenades, advanced rifled artillery and repeating rifles, coordinated amphibious assaults, elaborate earthen fortifications, instantaneous electronic battlefield reports via telegraph, and skillful deployment of troops as opposed to open charges. It also involved combat between some of the war’s most celebrated veteran units and one of the highest concentrations of black troops in combat anywhere in the war. To say that it is a rich field of historical inquiry is an understatement.

Hearn’s book analyzing the campaign is superbly researched, constructing into narrative form vast amounts of information unearthed in extensive research into original resources. It takes readers all the way back to 1862 and the beginnings of the campaign for Mobile, and allows them unprecedented insight into the planning, logistics, and ultimately dramatic fighting for the city that raged on both land and sea. While it excels in its execution to the point of being the unquestioned standard resource on its subject, this is no work of engrossing literature. It is as dry as a textbook and as straightforward a recitation of facts about military maneuvering as ever was written. This is only a minor nitpicking-type of regret in final analysis, for the book presents the story of the Mobile Campaign with as much detail as anyone before or since.


Review of Longleaf, Far As the Eye Can See: A New Vision of North America’s Richest Forest, by Bill Finch, Beth Maynor Young, Rhett Johnson, and John C. Hall

20 Mar

I recently picked up a copy of Longleaf, Far As the Eye Can See (by Bill Finch, Beth Maynor Young, Rhett Johnson, and John C. Hall) for several relatively personal reasons. Not only have I begun working at a park that sits within what was once the heart of longleaf country and contains a stand of longleaf within it, but I have been hearing about efforts to restore the virtually extinct longleaf forests across the areas of the Deep South in which I have lived and worked for some time now. Frankly, I was curious what all the fuss was about. I grew up in the heart of longleaf’s once expansive range, but I had a hard time understanding how one pine forest was all that different from another. Nonetheless, I have of late come to have a real interest in the environmental history of the South, especially after reading the late Jack Temple Kirby’s provocative Mockingbird Song. As a historian, I have always been intensely intrigued with historic sites and envisioning what places looked like when historical events took place. Since the Southern experience has been a largely rural one involving adaptation to its special climate and terrain, understanding the native environment in which its history unfolded seems to me to be of no little importance.


The authors of Longleaf assisted me in that understanding immensely. I cannot speak to the science discussed in the book, but they do provide an insightful, beautifully illustrated, and intriguing account of one of the most quintessential Southern ecosystems which is now forever gone in its original form. They explore its fragility, its uniqueness, and with guarded optimism point the way toward a future in which some small sections of what once was is allowed to coexist with our modern environment. I learned a lot more than I thought I would from what I admittedly feared might be little more than some sort of ode to the forest that only committed environmentalists could appreciate.

I had no idea the native longleaf forests that once blanketed much of the South give life to one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, being the only habitat of such creatures we know today as threatened, like pitcher plants, gopher tortoises, and red-cockaded woodpeckers, as well as a host of others inevitably soon to be long gone. I had no idea how fire was not only tolerated, but necessary in the delicate environments in which these trees live, or how incredibly adapted they are to surviving and thriving during regular burns. I really had never given thought to the incredible uniqueness and desirability of longleaf lumber, which I knew alternately by such vague names as “old-growth” pine or “heart” pine used to construct so many of the antebellum structures that dot the Southern landscape and appear as sturdy today as when constructed—wood like that simply doesn’t exist anymore. Further, I had never given very much thought to its central role in the building and maintaining of the navies of Europe and America, contributing masts, planking, and pitch for hundreds of years. Nor had I an idea of the extraordinary lifespan of these venerable trees—commonly well over 300 years.

Above all, I really had given no thought to just how different the fast-growing, inferior, planted loblolly pines most of my generation are familiar with are from the native forests that disappeared within living memory of many of our older citizens. The disappearance of the longleaf is in truth a startlingly recent and dramatic turn of events in the ecological environment of the South. Of the approximately 90 million acres once covered by longleaf, stretching in a broad arc from the Virginia tidewater to central Louisiana, less than 3 percent remain. The overwhelming majority of this vanishing act has occurred since the late 1800s. Two particular passages in the book stood out to me that drove the longleaf’s notable absence home. One was about a Mississippi farmer who showed a mule he had for sale by walking it around the top of a stump of an ancient pine which had been sawn down in the early 1900s. That tree may have been as much as 400 or more years old; it is the type of thing that was once a commonplace sight to early settlers of the Deep South which I’ll never see. Another passage made mention of the lingering place names and even nicknames associated with longleaf forests that have survived in the South long after the trees had been cut. The one I remember the most is “Tar Heels,” as in the nickname of the University of North Carolina’s athletic teams and, more generally, anyone from the state of North Carolina. The term was once a somewhat derogatory nickname for those who lived among and drew their living by working in the state’s once-extensive longleaf pine forest, especially in the production of pitch tar and turpentine. Today, the only place where you’re likely to find one of these trees around Chapel Hill is in a park.

Of course, the authors’ purpose in Longleaf is a little different than my takeaway from reading the book. They see it primarily as an appeal which is designed to awaken interest in an endangered native environment that is inextricably intertwined with the cultural and economic development of much of the lower South. It achieves that goal with special flair, as the writing is unexpectedly compelling and the photography beautiful. If you are like me and have any interest in the cultural history of the South, though, it is worth a look for a little different reason. The book was a jarring reminder of just how difficult it really is for historians convincingly to reconstruct the past. Without an adequate awareness of the physical environment in which our forebears lived and labored, we are missing out on understanding a fundamental part of their story. I had always taken it for granted that so many of the people I read and write about would not recognize the places they once called home if they could see them today, as urban growth and development have obliterated so much of the colonial and antebellum South I spend my time researching. Little had I stopped to think that that even if they could once again see the deepest recesses of the Southern backwoods which we presume has changed very little since those times, they wouldn’t recognize that either.


Review of Why We Are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City, by Edward O. Wilson and Alex Harris

17 Mar

The elusive concept of “sense of place” has always held special interest to me. Inherently seeming to combine on some level notions of history, culture, and physical environment, the attempt to define what makes a location a true place that can be demonstrated to be somehow different than another is an immensely intriguing endeavor in my opinion. Perhaps no region of the country has witnessed more attempts to communicate its sense of place more than the American South. That particular goal, it has always seemed to me, has been especially elusive, as the South contains tremendous variables in topography, urbanity, racial makeup, historical background, and even linguistics. Few states within the South contain the dramatic diversity in several of these variables than Alabama. From the foothills of the Appalachians in the north to the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico in the south, the state has always been a difficult one about which to generalize.

Perhaps all this complexity in defining what “place” is all about is why I found Edward O. Wilson and Alex Harris’s recent partnership, Why We Are Here: Mobile and the Spirit of a Southern City, so fulfilling. The book attempts to provide a unique, if unashamedly favorable, statement about how culture, environment, and history have intertwined in forming one of the more “definable” of the many Southern places. Wilson, a figure of national reputation with numerous publications and accolades to his credit, has for decades been one of America’s foremost naturalists. Even though most of his life has been spent teaching at Harvard University, he rather overtly identifies himself still as a Mobilian. Alex Harris is an acclaimed photographer and professor at Duke University. Both have been associated with Pulitzer Prizes; Wilson a winner and Harris a finalist. Clearly, the effort to define Mobile as a place in this book is in good hands.

Wilson and Harris

The book attempts to integrate captivating modern documentary photography of the Mobile area with Wilson’s sterling prose providing both historical overview and commentary on its rich and truly unique natural environment. The fact that discussions of native grasshoppers and photographs of high school football team locker rooms both somehow contribute to helping communicate a clear statement on Mobile’s sense of place is a testament to the depth of knowledge and range of abilities of the authors. But there is a lot more to this book than obscurities or meditations on the meanings of ordinary activities caught as still-life portraits; this is a book about what it means to be from the Mobile area. It wrestles with how the historical baggage of a Deep South city with its own unique episodes of colonial, Civil War, and Civil Rights history combine with its physical environment to define what it means to be from this particular spot.

While the effort itself is certainly not unique, the execution sets it apart from a number of similar books of the genre. Wilson and Harris have painted a portrait not everyone will agree gets at the heart of defining Mobile, to be sure, but they do have something to say and they say it clearly. This is not a book of random historic images showing snapshots of a community through time, and does not attempt to give equal treatment to all subjects. It relies heavily on the stories of Wilson’s own family history, which conveniently enough traces the broad arc of the Port City’s history with flair. It is complemented by photography that unabashedly attempts to communicate images of cultural persistence and showcase the special landscape—equal parts land and water, or course— in which it has been nurtured. It is, in the words of Wilson, a story of “sheer endurance” that is driven by a “clear vision of why we are here.” I appreciate the effort and applaud the clarity. Few, perhaps not even the authors, would categorize it as definitive, but then again, I don’t suppose there can ever be one on such a vague notion as “sense of place.” But it comes as close as I’ve seen in a while.


Review of Shiloh: Conquer or Perish, by Tim Smith

10 Mar

Most historical subjects are worthy of a fresh examination and the dramatic Civil War battle of Shiloh is no exception. Tim Smith, who is rapidly becoming one of the Civil War’s premier historians, has written his own narrative of the war’s earliest bloodbath. Unlike other accounts of the battle, Smith does not accentuate the usual topics such as the Hornet’s Nest, Bloody Pond, and the controversial end of the first day, but provides details on other crucial parts of the battle.

Shiloh Smith

In just over 400 pages of text, Smith guides the reader through the Shiloh campaign. One initial positive is how quickly Smith gets to the battle itself. Unlike many other authors who provide far too many pages of background to set the stage, Smith has the opposing armies in striking distance in only 40 or so pages. Having spent years as a park ranger at Shiloh, Smith is well-aware of the primary material and his narrative is full of first-hand accounts by the soldiers themselves, descriptions that bring the fury and horror of the battle to light.

Several conclusions stood out from Smith’s narrative. First of all, Smith emphasizes that the initial Confederate attack did not overwhelm the Union forces. Those outnumbered forces made heroic stands that perhaps won the battle. In fact, Smith emphasizes that seven Union brigades held their own against 14 Southern brigades, buying valuable time for Ulysses S. Grant to martial the remainder of his army and to eat away the hours that allowed Don Buell’s reinforcements to arrive that night. Secondly, Smith firmly declares that Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston’s death did not truly hamper Southern hopes for victory. By the time he died, too many hours had already passed as victory depended on a rapid defeat of Grant’s forces before Buell arrived.

Smith’s third point of interest relates to one of the book’s strongest points. Almost all other studies of Shiloh gloss over the battle’s second day, making it a foregone conclusion that the reinforced Union army would steamroll the exhausted and unorganized Confederate forces. Smith gives as much space to the battle’s second day as he does the first, detailing how the Southern forces managed to hold off the Union onslaught for hours, even making several counterattacks during the day. Smith’s account shows the second day is just as worthy of our attention as the more famous first day’s actions.

As one who thinks Shiloh provided the Southern forces one of the few opportunities to drastically change the outcome of the war, I am always anxious to read and learn more about this titanic struggle.  Feeling that Smith must feel the same way, he ends his book with a quote from Johnston himself, “We must this day conquer or perish,” and in expert fashion concludes by stating “He, and perhaps the Confederacy itself, perished on the plains of Shiloh.”