There’s been a good bit attention recently to the revelation that Ben Affleck, participating in the historical/genealogy show Finding Your Roots, asked the show’s host, Henry Louis Gates, to conceal the fact that one of Affleck’s ancestors was a slaveholder. That segment was subsequently edited out, although Gates has said that decision was made on factors other than Affleck’s request. The credibility of Gates took another hit with his assertion that Ben Affleck’s mother, Chris, had been a Freedom Rider. Chris Affleck has explicitly denied that, saying she had done civil rights work in Mississippi in 1965, but not during the freedom Summer of 1964 when three civil rights workers were murdered (as Gates also claimed), nor during the Freedom Rides of 1961. It’s all extremely shoddy, and does not reflect well at all on Gates, who ‘s made a very successful career as a public historian by telling uncomfortable truths about how issues of race are inextricably interleaved in American history. Kevin Levin has a more apt description for what Gates, who is billed as the show’s Executive Producer, Writer and Presenter, is up to : “we are doing history on Oprah Winfrey’s couch.”
Many of you will recall Anderson Cooper’s response on another episode of the same show, when confronted with the news that one of his slaveholding ancestors, Burel Boykin, had been killed by one of his bondsmen: “I don’t feel sorry for him.” Whether you agree with that sentiment or not, Cooper at least gets props for dealing with that revelation directly, rather than trying to keep it from becoming public knowledge.
Cooper’s response got some attention at the time, but there was something else about that segment that was mostly overlooked, something that (to me) further undermines Gates’ scholarship. In the video segment of Cooper’s interview (above, in a video clip uploaded by PBS itself), Gates shows Cooper the 1860 U.S. Census form that records his ancestor’s death. Beginning at about the 20-second mark, the video shows a closeup of the document, starting with the ancestor’s name, and panning to the right to the dramatic notation, “Killed By Negro.” It makes for great teevee, but it’s faked. Here is the original document, and you can see that “Killed By Negro” appears not adjacent to Boykin’s name, but over on the opposite edge of the page. The producers of Finding Your Roots apparently used Photoshop or something similar to move the notation of Boykin’s death across the page, next to his name, as can be seen in these screen caps:
This makes for great viewing, but it’s a dishonest depiction of the actual (and critical) document, and that’s a problem. Although in this case Gates is not misrepresenting the information, he’s absolutely misrepresenting the original document. Doing that calls into question anything he and his producers do with primary source materials, and reflects very poorly on his commitment to accuracy.
Makes you wonder what else he’s shown on that series that’s not entirely real.
Today, Sunday, is the 154th anniversary of Lincoln’s Proclamation 81: Declaring a Blockade of Ports in Rebellious States. As I discuss in the blockade book, this event was one of a series of actions and reactions that expanded the conflict between the national government in Washington and that of the seceded southern states. The blockade order was, most directly, a response to Jefferson Davis’ call on April 17 for privateers to obtain Confederate letters of marque to attack U.S. shipping. Privateering was well understood among Western nations as a war act, and in fact it had been outlawed by the major European powers by the 1856 Paris Declaration, declared the practice to be illegal and amounting to piracy. The United States had not signed that treaty, but nonetheless observed its provisions on privateering and did not issue letters of marque.
One thing I found odd, though, was that Proclamation 81, while given by order of the president, was actually signed by William Seward, the Secretary of State, who had been the administration’s point man on discussing the possibility of a blockade with the European powers. Where is Lincoln’s directive in this?
Then last week Josh Marshall, publisher of Talking Points Memo, did a blog post on the exponential rise in the price of historic documents, along with a discussion of the value of the documents themselves, versus the information contained in them. Among the examples he found online was, sure enough, Lincoln’s written order to Seward to promulgate the blockade decree (above).
It’s interesting to see the real document, which Josh says “is basically the document you could argue began the Civil War.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s a notable piece nonetheless, and apparently for sale somewhere with an asking price of $900,000. Not in my budget this month, I’m afraid, but interesting nonetheless.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kK0iUqGg5c The Corps of Engineers has been recovering the remains of the ironclad battery C.S.S. Georgia at Savannah over the last few months. It’s a big project, and one that hopes to answer a lot of questions about this vessel, that is relatively little-known. One particular focus of historical research, going on in parallel with the fieldwork, is trying to locate the original copy of an image of the vessel that was first reported thirty-some years ago. Although there are contemporary drawings of C.S.S. Georgia, the only known photograph of the ship is a photo-of-a-photo, supposedly snapped at a local garage sale. Now, it appears, it was all a teenage hoax that got out of hand:
When he was a teenager in Savannah, [John] Potter, his brother Jeffrey and a friend shot a short 8mm movie about the CSS Georgia. They built a 2-foot model.
At some point, Potter decided to test whether he had the skills to become a Hollywood special effects artist.
Potter’s younger brother put on a coat and straw hat and went out to a marsh with a cane fishing pole and Potter took a photo. He took another photo of the model. He glued the boat’s image onto the photo of his brother, then used dirt and glue to “age” the photo.
If you compare the purported historic image of the ship with what Potter says is a photo of the model he and his brother made, they do look very much alike:
On Thursday evening I had the privilege of speaking at Stringfellow Orchards in Hitchcock, on the early life and Civil War military service of Henry Stringfellow. It’s a story that I don’t think has been told before in any detail, and it was made better by the fact that I got to tell it on Stringfellow’s front porch — literally. The site’s current owner, or steward, as he sometimes refers to himself, is Sam Collins III, who has taken a great interest Hitchcock’s history and the central place Stringfellow’s Orchard had in its early development.
Stringfellow is an interesting character, as you will see. He was born into a prominent family of Virginia clergymen, and was himself well along that career path himself when the war came. Within eighteen months of enlisting in the local artillery battery, the Hanover Artillery, Stringfellow was commissioned a lieutenant and assigned to the staff of John Bankhead Magruder’s new command in Texas. It was a move that changed the entire course of his life. After seeing action in the Battle of Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863, Stringfellow married a Texas girl, Alice Johnston, from Seguin. Henry and Alice decided to make their postwar homes in Texas, where Henry soon found himself wrapped up in horticulture. Stringfellow proved to be both a successful and unconventional grower, attracting much acclaim in the last decades of the 19th century. Stringfellow was almost as unconventional with people as he was with plants; he reportedly earned the enmity of other growers in the area by paying his African American orchard workers a dollar a day, when the local custom was to pay fifty cents. That’s not necessarily what one might expect from a man whose grand-uncle wrote one of the most widely-circulated tracts asserting the Christian righteousness of chattel bondage of the antebellum period.
But, I’m get ahead of the story. Sam will be giving a presentation on Stringfellow’s later life at the orchard on April 23. For now, here’s my profile of Henry Martyn Stringfellow.
This coming Thursday marks the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House. That evening at 6 p.m. I’ll be speaking at the Stringfellow Orchards, 7902 Highway 6 in Hitchcock, on the early life and wartime career of Henry Martyn Stringfellow (right, c. 1896).
Stringfellow is remembered today as one of the pioneer settlers of mainland Galveston County, a successful grower who introduced new products and growing techniques in the late 19th century. But he originally came to Texas in the fall of 1862 with John Bankhead Magruder, and served most of the war here as a staff ordnance officer. He served in the Battle of Galveston, where he took command of a battery after its original officer had been struck down, and was later cited by Magruder for his “remarkable gallantry during the engagement.” Stringfellow was the son of one of Virginia’s most prominent clergymen of the time, and a member of a well-connected family in the Commonwealth. It’s an interesting and unusual story, one that I’m excited to be able to tell.
Then, on Saturday, I’ll be speaking at the annual meeting of the Texas Map Society here at Rosenberg in Galveston. My presentation there is, “Treacherous Shoals: The U.S. Coast Survey and the Civil War in the Gulf of Mexico”:
In setting out to blockade the Confederate Gulf coast in 1861, the Federal navy found itself desperately short of the ships and men needed to accomplish the task. The one weapon they did have was two decades’ worth of chartmaking done by the U.S. Coast Survey, which formed the foundation of blockade strategy in the Gulf. Over the next four years, naval officers on both sides of the conflict would use their prewar experience with the Coast Survey to try and gain the upper hand in the blockade and other major naval operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
This should be fun.
On Tuesday, April 7,
The History Channel will premier Blood and Glory: The Civil War in Color, featuring over 500 original, black-and-white images that have been colorized. Among the digital artists who did this work are Mads Madsen and the folks over at Civil War in Color. The History Channel is not especially known these days for in-depth historical analysis, but this particular show was created with the input of Garry Adelman of the Center for Civil War Photography and photgrapher/collector Jack Melton, which is a good sign.
Update: Will Hickox points out that the show website also highlights the participation of “Civil War historians Richard Dreyfuss and Ben Stein.” Ugh.
A sketch of the runner Fox, made at Bermuda. St. Georges Museum, Bermuda, via U.S. Navy.
One of the more dramatic incidents in the blockade of the Texas coast occurred 150 years ago this morning:
The British paddle steamer Fox was one the several purpose-built blockade runners that appeared in the Gulf during the last months of the war. Built of steel, she was long and lean, measuring 219 feet between perpendiculars (about 230 feet overall), with a beam of just 22 feet. Fox was a very successful blockade runner, having made eight round voyages between Nassau and Charleston before entering the Gulf of Mexico and running into Galveston. Fox’s master was Simpson Adkins, an experienced pilot on the Carolina coast. Adkins was an old hand at running the blockade and well known to the Federal navy. He was captured at least twice and both times returned to his old calling upon release. After his second capture, a Federal officer described Adkins as an “old offender” and “one of the most expert pilots on the Southern coast.” The officer warned his colleagues to watch Adkins carefully, but it did no good—by 1865, he was back running the blockade again, this time to Galveston.
Before dawn on April 1, Fox was moving along under easy steam, some eighty miles offshore, probably looking to make landfall north of Galveston and wait until nightfall to run past the Union fleet. The growing light in the east, though, revealed the silhouette of a Federal gunboat patrolling the distant approaches to the coast. A column of black smoke soon appeared over the gunboat, USS Preston, at that point lying about eight miles astern of Fox, as the Yankees poured on coal to give chase. Adkins and his pilot, a “quiet, self-possessed and fearless” Galveston man named Harry Wachsen, recognized they had little chance getting to seaward without being cut off by their pursuer, so they set their course west toward a point on the Bolivar Peninsula some miles north of Galveston, where they hoped they could stay out of sight of the main Union fleet.
Both ships were now pounding toward shore as fast as they could, across a wide expanse of Gulf, still well beyond sight of land. Fox was carrying in her holds lead, iron implements, barrels of beef and other very heavy articles; Adkins had the hatches opened and these things dropped overboard to lighten the ship.
On and on the ships raced until the shore was in plain sight ahead of Fox. Aboard the blockaders anchored off Galveston, it was yet a routine Saturday morning, with crews at work scrubbing the decks, touching up paintwork and polishing brass. At about 10:00 a.m., on USS Seminole, Marine sergeant John Freeman Mackie heard a lookout at the masthead cry, “Sail ho!” Signals were passed to the squadron flagship, Ossipee, and soon a second vessel was spotted, this one “a long low steamer about eight miles to the eastward, burning black smoke, steaming rapidly to the northward and westward.” The squadron commander, Captain John Guest, ordered Seminole to intercept this second ship, which later proved to be Adkins’s Fox.
Aboard the runner, Adkins and Wachsen spotted the Union ships at about the same time and altered course to starboard. They were now headed full speed at a right angle toward the beach. Seminole was closing, though, so Adkins altered his course again, to almost due north, and set out a pair of small sails to add a little extra speed. Captain Albert G. Clary of Seminole was ready for this maneuver and shouted orders to set the ship’s fore and main topsails, along with jibs and staysails. “In a minute,” Mackie later recalled, “the Seminole was staggering under a cloud of canvas, trimmed well aft—every rope drawing as tight as a fiddle string—causing the sea to boil like soapsuds under our bows as we fairly flew through the water.”
Sergeant Mackie, by the way, was the first Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor, for his service aboard USS Galena at Drewrey’s Bluff in 1862. To see how this Fox chase ended, check out the blockade-running book. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Added: I missed it back in the day, but last summer Craig Swain had a great post about Fox running into Charleston.
In 1857, future Confederate general Daniel Harvey Hill was a mathematics and civil engineering professor at Davidson College in North Carolina. That year he published a mathematics textbook, Elements of Algebra. Lest one assume that a mathematics text would be dull, fear not — Hill went to some length to make it a primer on the evils of Yankeedom. Here are some of the actual word problems from the book:
A Yankee mixes a certain number of wooden nutmegs, which cost him 1/4 cent apiece, with a quantity of real nutmegs, worth 4 cents apiece, and sells the whole assortment for $44; and gains $3.75 by the fraud. How many wooden nutmegs were there?
In the year 1692, the people of Massachusetts executed, imprisoned, or privately persecuted 469 persons, of both sexes, and all ages, for alleged crime of witchcraft. Of these, twice as many were privately persecuted as were imprisoned, and 7 17/19 times as many more were imprisoned than were executed. Required the number of sufferers of each kind?
In the year 1637, all the Pequod Indians that survived the slaughter on the Mystic River were either banished from Connecticut, or sold into slavery. The square root of twice the number of survivors is equal to 1/10 that number. What was the number?
The field of battle at Buena Vista is 6½ miles from Saltillo. Two Indiana volunteers ran away from the field of battle at the same time; one ran half a mile per hour faster than the other, and reached Saltillo 5 minutes and 54 6/11 seconds sooner than the other. Required their respective rates of travel.
A man in Cincinnati purchased 10,000 pounds of bad pork, at 1 cent per pound, and paid so much per pound to put it through a chemical process, by which it would appear sound, and then sold it at an advanced price, clearing $450 by the fraud. The price at which he sold the pork per pound, multiplied by the cost per pound of the chemical process, was 3 cents. Required the price at which he sold it, and the cost of the chemical process.
At the Women’s Rights Convention, held at Syracuse, New York, composed of 150 delegates, the old maids, childless-wives, and bedlamites [lunatics] were to each other as the number 5, 7, and 3. How many were there of each class?
The first testimonial endorsement in the front of the book — what we would now call a “blurb” — was from a Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at the Virginia Military Institute, named T. J. Jackson. The endorsement didn’t mention that Jackson was Hill’s brother-in-law.
Lyle Denniston, the dean of reporters covering the Supreme Court, offers a recap of this morning’s oral arguments at SCOTTUSblog. Not surprisingly, almost the entire session was taken up with back-and-forth on whether the license plates in question are government speech, or individual speech, or something in-between. On the whole, it doesn’t sound like it went well for the State of Texas, given that even the perceived liberal justices like the Notorious RBG saw a First Amendment issue in the case:
But [Texas Solicitor General Scott A. Keller] had hardly finished his opening sentences when members of the Court began acting as if the First Amendment did apply to that system. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the state used a “nebulous standard” for disapproving plate designs — which, of course, would be beside the point if the state had absolute freedom to choose; it would not need any standard at all, and could act on whimsy.
Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., quickly offered a hypothetical about government billboards that contained the state’s message, but left room at the bottom for people to put up a message of their choice. He was, of course, hinting at a hybrid display: some government, some private. Keller responded that, if the government had final approval authority, it still would be government speech.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor suggested that, “almost anything that the government does, it has final authority over,” but that would not be true if the government had not created the words — in other words, if some of the speech was privately initiated. She, too, was talking about a hybrid situation and that, again, would seem to bring the First Amendment at least partly into play.
[SCV attorney R. James George, Jr.’s] entire time at the lectern, like Keller’s, was taken up with explorations of where free expression stopped and state regulation could begin — a line-drawing problem that would not even arise if the First Amendment did not apply at all.
What was evident, by the close of the argument, that Texas had made no significant impression with its core argument, but the Court was left with a very challenging task of deciding what constitutional regime should be put in place to monitor the potential censorship of the messages that roll down Texas’s highways.
The audio recording of this morning’s session should be released Friday, the same day that the justices will meet in conference. If they follow their usual practice, they will vote on the case then and divvy up the assignments for writing the ruling, dissent, and any concurring opinions among the justices. Public announcement of the decision likely will not come until June.