Archive | December, 2015

Finding Historical Markers

29 Dec

It never stops being a thrill. For most of my life, I have enjoyed searching out places of historical interest. Many of my excursions have led to see important or picturesque buildings, solemn battlefields or impressive monuments. However, there are many times when I have traveled out of my way, sometimes a long way, to simply find an historical marker. And I admit that I still get excited when I see it. I pull my car over, grab my camera or phone and take a photo. I read the marker and then simply enjoy a moment of fulfilment to know that I have found the object of my pursuit. (Of course, I must admit my wife does sometimes tire of my backtracking the car to read a marker I glimpsed as we hurried along.)

TN marker.JPG

Part of the enjoyment is surely the sense of finding the marker after a journey with sometimes only the barest information on where the marker actually is located. But the biggest enjoyment comes from finding the place where something significant occurred. The marker might allude to a person, a place, or an event, but it always signifies that you are at an important place that is essential to the region’s heritage. Furthermore, someone recognized it and went to the effort to make sure it was identified for posterity by having a marker placed on site. I sometimes wonder how many people have gained at least a bit of information on our history from simply taking the time to read markers they have come across in their lives. I have to think these markers are one of the strongest tools of interpretation in use today. I know I never fail to read them and I hope that as I grow older and my interests change that I will always have the joy of finding these (sometimes hidden) gems.


The Persistence of Christmas Traditions in America

22 Dec

I love Christmas time. It is a wonderful holiday that to me represents all that is best in the world; spending time with friends and family, sharing and giving, peace and good will, and open recognition of our lord and savior. As a historian, I’ve always been intrigued with the holiday in at least one other way, as well. Few observances of any kind in this country demonstrate more visibly the power of shared tradition and custom.

Christmas palm tree

I’ve always been particularly struck by how many of our holiday songs and imagery are replete with references to a version of Christmas that very few of us have ever experienced, for example, yet they are so ubiquitous that we simply can’t imagine celebrating December 25th any other way no matter where we live. As a case in point, I live in the Deep South, and have never seen a “white Christmas”; indeed I’ve had opportunity to build perhaps 2 or 3 snowmen worthy of the title in my lifetime. While “jack frost” does nip at us down here, it is pretty rare to need anything more than a light jacket on Christmas Day. I’ve never roasted chesnuts over an open fire—indeed few Americans ever have as the chesnut blight of the early 1900s virtually rendered the species extinct by mid-century. And how many of us anywhere have ever ridden in a sleigh or gathered around a yule log? I could go on and on but the point is made. Just think of all the imagery—largely Victorian and overwhelmingly northeastern and even European in origin—that we associate with Christmas celebrations. Whether we reside in Boston, Mobile, or Denver or have ancestry from Europe, Africa or Asia, red and green sweaters, icicles, and snow are symbols of the holiday whether or not they are really part of our lives at this time of year. There are real historical reasons for all this, which I will not attempt to go into now even if I could.

On a more serious note, I would like to say that I think it is great that we have a few things that can still unite us in this country even if they are sometimes so artificial and trivial they can border on the comical. Every year on December 25th and all throughout the weeks before it, a majority of Americans, despite the innumerable cultural, political, and religious differences among us, seem to more or less agree to observe one of our most important holidays with remarkably similar symbols that have very little to do with our actual situations and many of us stop and contemplate things of far more importance than our daily selfish routines even if for a moment.

Of course there are a lot of major exceptions to this rosy view of things, and there are a lot of people for whom Christmas holds little importance. And there is a growing number for whom Christmas somehow manages to be a special holiday, but unfortunately an entirely secular one devoid of any deeper spiritual meaning. We are a diverse country, and I guess that in some respects that is ok. We each get to set our own priorities. But I also think it is ok that a majority of us do hold the holiday in high regard as a fundamental expression of our faith and worldview and that we share a vision for the way it looks and feels in both serious and lighthearted ways that transcend time, place, and, in many ways, our realities.

Of course Christmas is much more important than songs about red-nosed reindeer or Christmas cards with depictions of snow-covered homes, but it shows just how strongly the holiday and its many traditions are engrained in our culture that they are nearly universally recognized. I hope it will always be so.

 Merry Christmas!



Review of Besieged: Mobile 1865, by Russell W. Blount, Jr.

15 Dec

As a historian, I frequently have a need for books that provide detailed accounts of historical events as they developed day by day and blow by blow. Occasionally, these almost inherently dry books can still be a pleasure to read, but most of the time they contain so much detail that it bogs down the narrative and is more than I can retain in a leisurely read—they are what I would call “research” or “reference” volumes. I have several on my shelf at home that I would like to read, but just can’t seem to find the time for even though I am interested in the subjects. I have therefore come to especially appreciate books that cover complex events in engaging fashion in succinct style yet leave the reader with a firm grasp on the chapter of the past they explain. The Civil War campaign for Mobile, a subject about which I have collected a great deal of available literature, has several examples of both of these extremes. I am delighted to say that one of the most enjoyable chronicles, Besieged: Mobile 1865, has just been released.


Author Russell W. Blount Jr. covers some well-trod ground in this slim book, which comes in at under 140 pages of text. Despite its brevity, the book gives you about as well-rounded and as thorough a picture of the campaign for the “Paris of the South” as one is likely to find. The book chronicles the period between the Battle of Mobile Bay and the fall of the city to Union forces, or a period roughly from January to April of 1865. In a dozen brief, quick-moving chapters, Blount gives readers an understanding of life in Mobile during the time, the strategies and movements of the opposing armies and navies that battled for the city, and the personal experiences of the soldiers who comprised those forces. Blount, Jr., author of acclaimed books on the battles of New Hope Church and Kennesaw Mountain, brings a compelling insight and engaging style to writing about his hometown’s Civil War saga. Utilizing well-selected quotes from those who lived through the events he chronicles, he brings the story to life in convincing fashion.

One quibble some might have with the book is an attempt to write it in the present tense—undertaken in his words “to make the reader a bystander or eyewitness to this time.” The style makes for a few awkward passages, but for the most part works well with the format and at times does help enliven first-hand descriptions provided by such intriguing characters as Union and Confederate leaders and Mobile civilians. Overall, it is a quick and entertaining read and among the most informative books on its subject to be published.


A Damn Nice Uniform!

8 Dec

As previously mentioned at least twice in this blog, I have a particular fondness for combining my favorite television programming—college football—with US history. Last year I was a big fan of Navy’s incorporation of historic first Naval Jack in its uniform and Maryland’s “Star Spangled Banner” tribute on their equipment. The latest edition of such an effort, again by the Naval Academy, is particularly near and dear to me.

For Navy’s annual rivalry game with Army, the Midshipmen will wear what they call “Navy Fleet” uniforms featuring hand-painted helmets honoring a series of warships. The concept alone is pretty neat, but what I really love is the rally cry of “damn the torpedoes” which will be featured on player jerseys, pants, and even gloves.




Those words were of course famously said by (or some approximation thereof attributed to) Admiral David Farragut as he boldly advanced his fleet into the mine-strewn waters in front of Fort Morgan during the height of the Battle of Mobile Bay in August of 1864. Placing them on a football uniform may sound a little quirky, but I can think of no better way to introduce this important historical event to a whole new audience.

Anchors Aweigh!


Combining Preservation and Interpretation

1 Dec

My job involves overseeing the administration of six historic sites in Mississippi. Each one has a different specific mission, but one goal they all have in common is preserving and taking care of their sites and interpreting them for the public. Perhaps the most important part of this interpretation is to relay to the public why this place is important and why it needs to be maintained.  I feel most historic sites do a good job telling their stories, but I am not sure many of them emphasize how important the sites are to their communities on a local, state, or national level. With this knowledge, the public hopefully gains an awareness of the need for these place’s continual upkeep and maintenance.

Jefferson College


In these days of shrinking budgets as well as apathy towards history in general, it is even more important to convince our audiences of our importance. (And yes, audiences include those such as legislators who provide funding!) Our interpretation focus must shift towards tours, programs, exhibits not only telling the stories of our sites, but stress why these stories are essential to our communities. Therefore, this interpretation has a direct relationship to the continued preservation of the sites themselves. This interpretation should allow our visitors to leave our sites not just educated on the history of it these places, but fully understand the extreme importance of them and their continued existence.

living history program at Old Capitol


When I served as director of the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson, this was one of my primary concerns. Our exhibits and tours focused on the building’s history when it served as the statehouse through some of Mississippi’s most formative years. I would not expect visitors to remember too many details, but I hoped that when done, they at least knew how important this building was to Mississippi and how it shaped our state. If they walked away with that knowledge, I felt that I had succeeded. It is impossible to push our audiences for continued preservation of our sites if we do not first convince them of their importance!