I am re-posting an article from three years ago, about my hometown, and Memorial Day 

 

Forty-five years ago, Memorial Day became a national holiday.

But in Waterloo, NY, my hometown, this year will be 150th observance of Memorial Day.

Often called “Decoration Day” in some parts of the U.S., it was conceived after the Civil War, as a call to remembrance of the soldiers who died in the war.

 

 

It now commemorates the soldiers who have died during all of America’s wars.

 

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The residents of Waterloo first held the ceremony in 1866, and have never failed to mark the event since then.

Fifty-eight villagers had died fighting for the Union Army.

Many of them fell on the same day, holding the line at Gettysburg.

Some were draftees. A good number of them were immigrants. German, English, Irish, Canadian, they died along with the native-born.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1966, for the centennial of the event, the village was recognized by gubernatorial, Congressional and Presidential proclamations as

The Birthplace of Memorial Day.”

Waterloo’s ceremonies were not the earliest memorial services, nor were they the sole inspiration for our national day of commemoration.  Nonetheless, the village should be recognized as a “birthplace,” because it was the first community to institute a non-sectarian, community-wide, official event.  All businesses in the village closed that day, and the commemorations have been consistently observed, in peacetime and wartime, each and every year since 1866.

 

 

In Waterloo, it was never “Decoration Day;” it has always been called “Memorial Day.”

 

Civil War pictures

 

In 1866 the entire country was already in mourning, and trying to come to terms with the loss of hundreds of thousands of citizens.

It was a nation of widows, orphans, bereaved parents, lost families, and countless veterans left maimed physically and mentally, and sometimes, shipped home only to continue dying from wartime injuries, diseases, and drug addictions.

 

 

There was a common impulse, North and South, to pay tribute to the dead, by formal observances, floral tributes, speeches, parades and poetry.

From Maryland to New Mexico, Florida to Pennsylvania, soldiers’ remains were gathered from shallow graves near battlefields, camps, prisons, and hospital yards, and re-buried in orderly plots, some of them laid out uniformly in huge federal cemeteries, and some designed as beautiful community parks .

A new industry was born, as sculptors began to create thousands of monuments.

Robert E. Lee’s “Arlington” estate was transformed into a vast necropolis.

 

It was at Arlington National Cemetery, in 1868, that General John “Black Jack” Logan and the G.A.R. (which became the largest Union veteran’s group) initiated the ceremony which became the national Memorial Day.

Logan began his political career as a pro-slavery racist, but during the course of the war, was transformed not only into one of the best of the politician-generals, but also into a “Radical Republican,” supporting the freed slaves.

 

 

My favorite story is from Columbus, Georgia, also during the spring of 1866, because the townsfolk there decorated both Confederate and Union graves.

 

06317v LOC 1915 GAR fife drum Michigan

1915 G.A.R. parade. Library of Congress

 

“Decoration Day” had long existed as a custom in many communities, when the grass at burial grounds was trimmed, and evergreen boughs and flowers were brought graveside.

 

 

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Gettysburg

 

The association of greenery and flowers with memorial services long predates the Civil War, or even the existence of the United States.  Flowers and garlands have been found in Neolithic graves and Pharaohs’ tombs.

 

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For many people, especially in English-speaking countries, poppies are now associated with the First World War and remembrance of “Flanders fields”.  But for many centuries before that, they served as a symbol of sleep, death, oblivion, ease of pain, and for some, resurrection.  Poppies are mentioned in this way by Roman poets and Shakespeare, and you’ll see them carved on old tombstones and monuments from the Civil War.

 

On Boston Commons, there is a beautiful bronze sculpture by Saint-Gaudens, portraying Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, comprised of free blacks and escaped slaves.

Above the soldiers, hundreds of whom died in a hopeless assault at Fort Wagner, is the figure of a woman, not a Winged Victory, I think, but a gentle-looking angel of death, carrying an olive branch and poppies.

 

Detail from Saint-Gaudens beautiful monument to the 54th. If you look in the crook of the angel's arm, you'll see poppies.

Detail from Saint-Gaudens’ beautiful monument to the 54th Regiment. This is the plaster cast in the Nat’l Gallery of Art. If you look in the crook of the angel’s arm, you’ll see poppies.

 

In a sense, Memorial Day is “kept evergreen,” as the old folks used to say, because generation after generation has produced a new crop of fatalities to mourn.

 

 

 

A few years ago, another shrub and another piece of granite were added to our village green.

A “Rose of Sharon,” the national flower of South Korea, was planted as a remembrance of what some call “The Forgotten War”.

I don’t think our climate will allow a pool of lotus flowers for Vietnam, but we can grow hardy varieties of roses (Iraq) and certainly tulips (Afghanistan).

And so it goes.

 

Dogtags

Dog tags.  Afghanistan memorial at Old North Church, Boston

 

Reminders are everywhere.

The bronze Napoleons on our village green are from the Civil War.  The most popular cannons of the war, they could shoot a twelve-pound iron ball for nearly a mile, or shred infantrymen with grapeshot and canister.

The V.F.W. has a “Huey Cobra” helicopter on their lawn, to evoke Vietnam.  Over 3,300 of them went down during the war.

The American Legion sports a 37mm M3, a little antitank cannon, from WWII.  It’s shells proved effective against lightly-armored Japanese tanks, but bounced off the Nazi panzers like marbles.

Driving around this area, you’ll find a Revolutionary cannon, a Korean War jet, an armored car…it will just be a matter of time before they ship us a Humvee or a Bradley in desert paint.

 

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Winslow Homer’s sketch of a Napoleon. LOC

 

It would be nice to have more flowers around here, too.

There are poppies in the garden at home.

They blossom this time of year, but last a very short time, before the petals fall to the ground.

 

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row, 

That mark our place;  and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.  Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

John McCrae

 

 

 

Civil War, Decoration Day, First World War, FLX, History, Memorial Day, Uncategorized, Upstate New York, Waterloo, WWI

The 150th Memorial Day ~~ Waterloo, NY ~ May 1866

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Johnny Reb & Billy Yank

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Civil War, Decoration Day, First World War, History, Memorial Day, Waterloo, WWI

Memorial Day Postcards VII ~ ~ 1900 – 1945 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ” There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim”

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A very busy photograph, but that seems appropriate for Teddy Roosevelt. The real Teddy did visit Waterloo, but by train, on a whistle-stop campaign for Governor.

 

 

 

This small village lost fifty-eight men during the Civil War.

 

 

 

The actual observance of Memorial Day, and commemoration of the fallen, will be on the 30th, as it has been, every year, for 151 years.

 

 

 

I took a picture of an old Chrysler, and didn’t see the reflection of the flags until I got home. This is similar to the one owned by Harry Truman, who would drive with his wife Bess to NYC, to visit their daughter.  He drove it himself, with no Secret Service detail.

 

courtesy of the Truman Library, accession Number: 2004-213

 

This reminded me of the 1975 song by Robert Lamm of the band “Chicago,” who was not a fan of Richard Nixon –

Harry Truman

America needs you Harry Truman ~ Harry could you please come home

Things are looking bad ~ I know you would be mad ~

To see what kind of men ~ Prevail upon the land you love ~

America’s wondering, how we got here ~ Harry all we get is lies~

We’re gettin’ safer cars ~ Rocket ships to Mars ~

From men who’d sell us out~  To get themselves a piece of power ~ 

We’d love to hear you speak your mind ~ In plain and simple ways ~

Call a spade a spade~  Like you did back in the day ~

You would play piano ~ Each morning walk a mile ~

Speak of what was going down ~ With honesty and style ~

~ America’s calling Harry Truman ~ Harry you know what to do ~

The world is turnin’ round ~ and losin’ lots of ground

Oh Harry is there something we can do to save the land we love ~~~~~ by Robert Lamm

 

Civil War, Decoration Day, Finger Lakes, FLX, History, Memorial Day, Upstate New York, Waterloo

151st Memorial Day Parade, Waterloo, NY.

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“Burnside’s Bridge” across Antietam Creek. A bucolic scene of a graceful old bridge, built in the 1830’s by the local German-American farmers. On September 17, 1862, hundreds of soldiers were shot down trying to cross it. I kayaked under the bridge, and you can still see countless pockmarks from bullets.

 

 

The bridge in 1862. Hand-colored photograph from Library of Congress

 

 

The “Dunker” Church at Antietam. The German Baptist Brethren were a pacifist sect. Their simple church was pockmarked with hundreds of bullets during the battle, and served as a field hospital, filled with the wounded and dying. After the battle, it was used to embalm bodies – –  just one of the many wonderful areas of technological advances during 1861-1865.

 

 

 

 

 

Repeating rifles using metal cartridges were available during the war, but the majority of soldiers were still using muzzle-loaders. So to be a soldier, all you want for Christmas is your two front teeth, to bite off the top of the paper cartridge holding the gunpowder and bullet.

 

 

Old house overlooking the Antietam battlefield.  If I remember right, it looks out toward Bloody Lane.

 

 

Gettysburg

 

 

“Little Round Top” is a rocky hill at Gettysburg. General Gouverneur Warren climbed it and instantly realized that if the approaching Confederate forces occupied it, the battle was lost. Yankees won the race up the hill, and held it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Civil War, Decoration Day, History, Memorial Day, photography, Uncategorized

Memorial Day 2017. Pictures of Gettysburg & Antietam

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The Spanish-American War provided another opportunity for reconciliation between Civil War vets. “Fighting Joe” Wheeler, the Confederate general, later commanded the U.S. cavalry fighting in Cuba. (Although while watching the Spanish troops retreat, he forgot himself and yelled “Let’s go, boys! We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run!”)

 

An odd juxtaposition — a solemn admonition “Lest we forget” with pretty women in uniform.

 

I count 46 stars, so 1908-1912. Until the Spanish-American War, soldiers wore blue wool, winter or summer, and even after khaki was adopted, the blue survived as the dress uniform. I thought this hat was fanciful, but other than the gaudy gold trim, it’s actually the correct style of dress cap for that era.

 

1908. Horrifyingly indiscreet, but at least the young lady isn’t revealing any ankle.

 

In the 1890’s, this became a day for hugely popular bicycle races, followed in 1911 by the Indy 500. It’s a neat poster, but again, it seems like a strange partnering of soldiers, aged vets, and bicyclists. Library of Congress

 

This one puzzles me — has he enlisted to escape his formidable-looking wife? Or was he shooting at that hat by mistake, hoping to have pheasant for dinner?

Civil War, Decoration Day, Memorial Day, Uncategorized

Memorial Day Postcards IV ~ ~ ~ A Bit Less Serious

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c. 1900-1910 Even as the number of surviving Civil War soldiers dwindled over the years, cards continues to display the emblem of the G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic), a fraternal organization, and a powerful lobby for the interests of Union veterans and war widows. In later years, you also see the emblem of an offshoot, the S.U.V. (Sons of Union Veterans), which was formed in the 1880’s.

 

c. 1900-1910

 

c. 1899 “To My Comrade” A Spanish-American war uniform, however, with the G.A.R. insignia and badge

 

This postkarte, like a lot of the ones I’m posting, was printed in Germany, which may explain the unusual two-finger salute. As far as I know, it’s used in the U.S. only by the Cub Scouts, but hasn’t been used by our military. It was apparently more customary in the German and Polish armies.

 

c. 1917

 

illustration from a 1917 “Youth’s Companion”

 

 

 

Decoration Day, First World War, History, Memorial Day, Uncategorized, WWI

Memorial Day Postcards III ~ ~ ~ 1900 – 1918 ~ ~ ~ Passing the Torch

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c. 1917-1918.   Even after Veteran’s Day (originally called Armistice Day) was instituted in 1919, Memorial Day has continued to be an opportunity to honor not only those lost in the wars, but also the surviving veterans, and those currently serving in the military.

 

 

c. 1900-1910 Some historians estimate that 70,000 soldiers lost a limb during the Civil War. It has often been noted, that in 1866, the state of Mississippi spent more that half it’s annual budget on artificial limbs.

 

One of the philanthropists supporting this writing contest for one-armed veterans, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (Teddy’s father), had also supported the war effort, but did not serve in the army. Instead, he avoided the draft by hiring a substitute to take his place in the ranks.  LOC

 

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I just read that Hanger, Inc., a company providing prosthetic limbs, was founded by a one-legged Confederate veteran. J. E. Hanger enlisted at 18, and two days later, was hit by a cannonball. He may have had the honor of becoming the first known amputee of the Civil War. An engineering student, he developed a lighter, superior wooden leg made from barrel staves, and supplied them to the Confederate Army. He lived long enough to see his inventions used by another generation of soldiers, wounded in the First World War.

 

James Edward Hanger, from his company’s website

 

c. 1900 – 1914

 

When I looked at this particular portrait, I wondered if he survived the war.

 

1883 Reunion of Union veterans. LOC

 

LOC

 

“A Grateful Land Remembers All Her Promises Today”

 

 

Civil War, Decoration Day, History, Memorial Day, Waterloo

Memorial Day Postcards II ~ ~ ~ 1900 – 1918 ~ ~ ~ Veterans

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déjà vu, New York City, NY, statue, Uncategorized

Where do I know you from?

“Memory believes before knowing remembers.”  William Faulkner

Visiting an art museum in a new city, I saw this little statuette, and liked it.

I also had an immediate and very strong feeling…like I ought to know her from somewhere.

I’d never been to Pittsburgh before, so it was surprising to run into someone familiar.

There are countless statues like this, drawing on Greek and Roman religion and images, around the older cities of the U.S..  Our museums, public buildings, squares and galleries are pretty much an endless toga party in stone and bronze.  But somehow this one caused an instant sense of familiarity.

I don’t usually hang out with people dressed this formally.   So where had I met up with her?

A  protest march against palm oil production?

A militant vegetarian crosswalk guard?

An advertisement for Ivanka’s new “Agent Orange” line of radioactive spray tan?

It was closing time at the museum, and we were hurriedly hiking out of the back forty, having wandered way out there, out of our comfort zone, way past the post-Impressionists, lost in the surrealist and abstract boonies.  Footsore, and in my case, eyesore.

There are never any restrooms in the wings with the more avant-garde art, have you ever noticed?  And when there are, I always worry that the fixtures are just some sort of ironic statement, and not meant to be used.  I don’t want to get arrested for relieving myself on the priceless “Empty Black Suicidal Despair & Soulessness of Modern Life,” thinking it was a toilet.

Anyways…it was closing time, and we were being flushed out by the security guards, and didn’t have time to read the little sign. So a quick photo with my phone, and two days later, saw the the picture, it instantly popped into my head, where I’d run into this lady, years ago – – walking in the park.

Central Park

She’d looked bigger then, a bit more weather-worn, but it was definitely her.

We’d met at the southeast entrance to New York’s Central Park, near the Plaza Hotel.

On that busy corner, called the “Grand Army Plaza,” which holds memories for many people of chestnut vendors and horse-drawn carriage rides through the park, she has a companion.  Two, actually, if you count the horse.  She’s walking in front of William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general from the Civil War.

She symbolizes “Victory” or “Peace” depending on what tour guide you read.

The turn-of-the-century monument was created by Saint-Gaudens, and was his last major work — a middle-aged William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback, almost sixteen feet high.  It’s an excellent statue, like everything the artist did. He’d met with Sherman, and liked him.  But by the time the monument was dedicated, on Memorial Day 1903, Sherman had been dead ten years, and Saint-Gaudens had only a few years left himself.

 

You would think, after all these years, the horse wouldn’t freak out, every time a bird landed on him.

 

Sherman is famous for pointing out the obvious “War is hell.”  Well, the climate in New York ain’t such a picnic, either. Winters can be rough, even if you’re tough and brassy.  At the time I took the photo, years ago, both figures looked like hell.  Or I should say, like they’d been through the wars — peeling, patchy, leprous, badly in need of re-gilding.   The ugly blotched look seems like a distraction from this post, which is about memory, but just as statues are a form of memorial, I suppose loss of memory is a type of corrosion.

 

 

My first impression when I saw this scabby-looking statue of a woman, was that she was Moira, Goddess from the Department of Health, warning of the oncoming Pestilence on Horseback.

The artist incorporated pine branches under the horse’s feet, to symbolize Sherman’s March through Georgia.  Richard Brautigan wrote (with irony, I think) that the Civil War was “the last good time this country every had…” but perhaps the gold-leaf keeps flaking off, as a sign that the war was not all that shiny and happy an experience for some folks.

Periodically, the bronze statues are restored to golden radiance, waxed and buffed, in celebration of civil warfare and burning stuff.

 

In its distressed state, where the gold leaf had come off, the bronze underneath had oxidized to a very dark color, closer to black, than verdigris.

Turns out, under the Greco-Roman robes and gold paint, Victory was a black woman.  The primary model for the statue was a southerner, named Harriette Eugenia Anderson.  She was born in Columbia, South Carolina, although she lived most of her life in Harlem.

Anderson also posed for the figure of “Liberty” on the beautiful $20 double eagle, created by Saint-Gaudens at Teddy Roosevelt’s request, and minted the year the artist died, 1907. I saw on a coin collector website, that it is often reckoned to be the most beautiful coin this country has ever created, but almost all of them were melted down, when we left the gold standard.

Another artist relied on her for the 1916 “Walking Liberty” half dollar, and again for the “Victory” in Baltimore’s “Soldiers and Sailor Monument”.

Anderson was almost forgotten for many years.  Hard to understand now, but apparently her identity as the model for these beautiful golden works of art was kept hushed up for many years, because she was a person of color.

 

an elusive memory

 

When I saw the statuette in the museum, and got that strange sense of something akin to “déjà vu,” it got me thinking about what exactly happens, when we rack our memory.

We say, “if memory serves…” but sometimes, it just doesn’t.

Like a bad waiter, you can snap your fingers, slap your forehead, wave your hands in the air, but it continues to ignore you.

And yet, somehow, even when Memory has knocked off early and gone around the corner to have a drink, there remains a nagging sense of recognition and familiarity.

1870’s glass negative. LOC

People used to use the term “familiar” for witches’ little supernatural helpers, often disguised as cats.  And there is a sense, when that nagging feeling comes over you, of something hovering near you, but unable to be grasped.

Like a ghost of a memory, invisible but nagging at you.

 

 

 

Nerve fibers in a healthy human brain, MRI. Credit: Zeynep M. Saygin, McGovern Institute, MIT. Wellcome Images

Studies of the brain find a real difference between our sense of “familiarity,” and our “memory”.  They actually are completely different parts of the brain.  So what I was feeling when I saw the statuette in Pittsburgh, was technically not  déjà vu, because we’re talking about a delay in recovering a little-used memory, rather than a separate brain function altogether.

Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist and psychiatrist, described a man who had lost the memory of his wife, but who somehow still retained a strong sense of familiarity in her presence.  (Sacks himself suffered from “prosopagnosia” or “face blindness,” the inability to recognize the faces of familiar people, even those he saw frequently.)

Sacks wrote:  “Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”  

Proust’s version:  “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

Random Factoid:  In reading about this sensation of déjà vu , one site indicates that the people who experience it the most frequently, are age 15-25.

Healthy human brain viewed from behind, Credit: Henrietta Howells, NatBrainLab. Wellcome Images

I’m fascinated by the scientific exploration of memory, but don’t know enough about it, to discuss it intelligently.  All I want to suggest in this post, is that the next time you feel a sense of familiarity, or déjà vu, take a moment.  Pause, look around, breath in the air and its scents, identify the sounds you’re hearing, do a 360, treat yourself to a break from business & busyness for just a few seconds, to see if a memory floats to the surface.

 

Or “percolates” might be a better term.  Like spring water that’s picked up minerals as it passes through the soil and rock layers, our thoughts flow through that mysterious, porous gray matter, and sometimes little particles of memory enter the stream.

 

 

For me, the little glinting crystals of memory in the flow, are generally images.

 

 

Déjà vu literally means, “already seen,” and based on my limited understanding, it is generally a visual phenomenon.

 

Music, on the other hand, is preserved in our central brain, right down at the core, and long after all our phone numbers are disconnected and our passwords have passed away.  An old tune may bring back memories of a specific time and place, like the theme song from your high school prom, or that high whistling call a red-tail hawk gives, that evokes walking across the farm fields of Seneca County.

My father always talks about a particular train whistle, he’s never known which type of locomotive, that has a cast-iron association with childhood visits to a grandmother in Pennsylvania.  Not so much the usual whistle blast, more of a deep hooting horn, echoing along the Lehigh Valley late at night, when he was in an attic bedroom.  The vibration from the long trains, or from a thunderstorm, was always joined by a faint chiming sounds, a very musical reverberation from old metal coat hangers, hanging on a hook on the back of the bedroom door.  That train horn summons up a dormant memory, but not a mysterious one, since he knows the time and place.

Why do I always feel like I’ve forgotten something?

Our sense of smell is supposedly the most powerful prompter of memory, like Proust and his famous madeleines.   Personally, I love sponge cake, but the baking smell mostly brings on a mind-clearing “YUM!” and instant salivation, more than a seven-volume remembrance.   But every time I open a jar of thyme in the kitchen, the scent instantly carries me back to my grandmother’s house, where it grew in the cracks of her brick walkways.

Other sights may create a more diffused, vague sensation, not tied to a specific incident — the times when we never do recall or recollect a memory, leaving us with that puzzled or even spooky familiarity.

One article suggested it may be your brain discerning a visual pattern it’s seen before, even if you haven’t consciously identified the pattern, and aren’t conscious of the similarity.  Another article discussed our brains experiencing something like a computer’s processing delay, so that by the time the thought is complete, it registers as a memory, rather than happening in the present moment.

Well, that’s all I can remember that I wanted to say.

I’d be interested and appreciative, if anyone has a déjà vu experience to share.  If you happen to remember one, I mean.

 

 

 

 

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Civil War, England, History, NY, Ships, UK, Uncategorized, William Seward

American Civil War in the English Channel.

 

clockworks

If you don’t know him, William Henry Seward was Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and right-hand man.  Lawyer, Governor of N.Y., U.S. Senator, the man who purchased Alaska.  And expected to be the first Republican President, instead of Lincoln.

Wm Seward LOCI spent two summers as a docent in the Seward House Museum in Auburn, New York.  Seward’s prominent role in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helped attract even more visitors to this great old house,  located in an otherwise obscure town in Upstate New York.

The Seward family not only donated the house, but its contents – artifacts, pictures of diplomats and rulers from around the world, paintings, objets d’art, furnishings, etc.

An Inuit kayak, a glass humidor with more-than-century-old Cuban cigars, a blood-stained sheet from an attempted assassination – you know, the usual stuff found in any household.

 

Last of the Alabama Commodore Winslows grand victory march. L.N. Rosenthal chromolithograph

Celebratory sheet music. “Last of the Alabama ~ Commodore Winslow’s Grand Victory March” LOC

You simply cannot talk about everything in the plethora of art and artifacts.

But after spending hundreds of hours as a guide, one object stands out for me, as likely to be overlooked by visitors.

2010 grabbag 198It’s an old painting of two ships.  If you’ve got a couple of minutes, it’s a really interesting story from the Civil War.  And tells something about the wheels-within-wheels that a Secretary of State needs to operate.

First-time visitors are often a bit stunned by the sheer number of interesting bits and bobs.  They’ll pause to admire a gorgeous stone fireplace, one of many in the house, glance at the painting hung above it, and move on.

The paintings which draw more attention are the large Thomas Cole landscape, and the portrait of Seward’s daughter by Emanuel Leutze  (best known for “Washington Crossing the Delaware”).

 

Kearsarge Alabama Seward House painting

I think the J. W. Anderson painting in the Seward House may be the most historically-accurate. The small ship in the middle is the Deerhound. http://www.SewardHouse.org. 33 South St, Auburn, NY 13021

 

But this year, the museum is focusing on the painting with the melodious name Action between the U.S.S. steamer Kearsarge, Capt. J.A. Winslow, and the Alabama, off Cherbourg, June 19, 1864,  painted by a British maritime artist, Captain J. W.  Anderson.

One of the Civil War’s few sea battles, fought two miles off the French coast, and the only battle from that war, fought outside the country.   The CSS Alabama, a fantastically successful Confederate commerce raider, was finally sunk by the USS Kearsarge.

 

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Clouds of cannon smoke and steam, as the Alabama begins to sink. Manet, 1864. Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

F.D.R. (Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson), had a similar painting of the ships, and it hangs in the library at Hyde Park.

And yet another, the most famous, is by Manet, who also painted the Kearsarge when it visited France after the battle.

I love the contrast in Manet’s latter work, now in the Met — the harbor at Boulogne is filled with jolly little sailboats, buzzing around a stark and menacing black warship.

Manet Kearsarge

Manet, 1864. Metropolitan Museum of Art

This incident is also part of a larger story, about the complex and dangerous international situation facing the U.S. during the Civil War.  Like Farragut sailing through the mines in Mobile Bay, Seward often proved adept at navigating foreign relations and avoiding European recognition of the Confederacy, or even European military intervention.

Remember that at that time, Britain had the world’s most powerful navy, and an army stationed in Canada.  France’s militant 2nd Empire was busily doubling its overseas possessions, and sent tens of thousands of troops to Mexico in 1861 to install a puppet regime.  That same year, Spanish soldiers reoccupied the Dominican Republic.

The Monroe Doctrine did not appear to be holding water, and Seward must have felt like the Dutch boy at the dike.

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Seward had endorsed Winfield Scott’s plan to block off southern ports, but in 1864, the blockade was still a sieve.  Fast, custom-built blockade runners continued to bring European weapons and supplies to the Confederacy.  Huge profits compensated for the ships that were captured or run aground.

Coming just after the slaughter of The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, the highly-publicized sea battle, in international waters, buoyed the reputation of the U.S. Navy, and Lincoln’s war effort.

It’s sometimes recited in typical post-Reconstruction romanticism:  a sea-worn and outgunned Rebel raider, with its gallant Confederate crew defying the odds, and bravely sailing out to its inevitable Lost Cause doom, against the more powerful Federal behemoth.Eagle shield postcard 1907

I am biased, as an unrepentant Unionist, and in seaman’s terms, I think that’s a load of codswallop.  Let’s take a look.

 

Like so many Civil War commanders, the two captains knew each other from the Mexican War.  Both men had been given ships during the war, and both men had lost those ships in accidents.

Semmes AlabamaThe Confederate captain was Raphael Semmes – now a pirate, or a privateer, depending on whether or not you viewed the Confederacy as a legitimate entity.  During 657 days at sea, the his Alabama sank a Union gunboat, and captured or burned 65 American merchant ships.  She took boats all across the world, from Newfoundland to South Africa, Bermuda to the Straits of Malacca.

This Confederate raider seemed to be everywhere.  Everywhere, that is, except the Confederacy, which the ship never visited.

 

Alabama LOC

Alabama with one of its victims burning in the background. LOC

 

Finally, after two years of cruising and destruction, in June of 1864, the Alabama called into the port at Cherbourg for repairs.

The Union captain, John Winslow, anchored his ship, the USS Kearsarge just outside French waters, called in the older USS Saint Louis to re-stock supplies and help block the Confederates from escape, and sent a challenge to his old shipmate to come out and fight.

Semmes could have tried to sneak out on some foggy night, or left his ship docked in neutral waters for the duration, but he chose to respond to the challenge.

It was an interesting match-up.  Both “sloops-of-war” were hybrids – a combination of sails and steam/screw propeller. Steampower gave the ships much more maneuverability in than in the days of sail, but also created a vulnerability – a hit to the steam boiler could be as catastrophic as one to the gunpowder magazine.

 

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Along its sides, the Alabama mounted six 32-pounders, big five- or six-thousand pound cannons, basically unchanged from the days of Admiral Nelson, which could fire a 6-inch, 32 pound cannonball for up to a mile. The Kearsarge only mounted four.

This doesn’t seem like very impressive armament.  Lord Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory, had 110 guns.  During the evacuation of the Norfolk Naval Yard, at the start of the Civil War, the navy burned the old USS Pennsylvania (to keep it out of Confederate hands), a 140-gun ship, including 104 of these 32-pounders.

 

Alabama Currier & Ives LOC

Currier & Ives. LOC

 

However, the Alabama was packing something much more lethal:  two huge pivot guns (able to fire in a wide arc), a 68-pounder smoothbore, and a 7-inch rifled gun that fired a 100-pound shot with great accuracy.

 

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Pivot gun on the Kearsarge. This is a wonderful model at the Strawbery Banke Museum, near the Portsmouth Navy Yard, where the ship was built.

 

The Kearsarge also had pivot guns:  two 11-inch smoothbore “Dahlgren’s.”  Named for their inventor, an U.S. admiral, these were giant bottle-shaped cannons, each one weighing more than five automobiles, firing 110-pound projectiles. There was also a 30-pounder Parrott rifled cannon — smaller, but more accurate.

 

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A postwar postcard, showing the 11-inch Dahlgren gun “Winslow” that sank the Alabama. Library of Congress

 

There was another factor in this fight.  Both ships were wooden-hulled, but the Kearsarge, like an undercover cop, was wearing concealed body armor.

 

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Chain mail, last seen in these parts during the Norman Conquest, made a comeback.

Hidden under a thin layer of boards, heavy chains had been stapled to the sides of the Kearsarge, helping to protect the hull from cannonballs.

 

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So, anyways… true to her namesake state, Alabama come out shootin’.  It fired 150 shots, by some accounts, or more than twice that, by others.  But after so much time at sea, the Alabama’s gunpowder and fuses were contaminated and less effective. One shot hit the Kearsarge’s rudder, but luckily, the shell didn’t explode;  hits to the hull did not penetrate.

The Union ship shot less, but with more effect.  A cannonball punched through the Alabama’s hull at the waterline, flooding the engine room, and ended the fight.  As his ship sank, Semmes, in what seems like a dishonorable fit of pique or spite, threw his sword into the ocean, rather than giving it to Winslow.  Some accounts indicate that the Alabama struck its colors, but then got off a few more shots.  Teddy Roosevelt believed that his uncle, Lt. Irvine Bulloch, fired the last two shots (two of his maternal uncles fought for the Confederacy).

Kearsarge Alabama 1887 lithograph

1887 lithograph, with the Alabama sinking in the background. LOC

 

Winslow sent out a boat to pick up the pirates/privateers, and asked some of the “spectator” boats to assist, but then watched  as Semmes and some of his crew were whisked off to England by a private yacht.  This was the Deerhound, a fast steamship, built in the same shipyard as the Alabama, and owned by a rich industrialist who had come out to watch the fight, along with his wife and relatives, including children.

Despite the frustration of watching the raiders escape, Winslow refrained, wisely, from firing on the British yacht.  In any case, the Kearsarge had little room, and kept only a few Confederate officers.  The captured crew was simply paroled (basically sent ashore, on their word of honor to stop fighting).

 

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Looking down the barrel of a rifled cannon.

In the smoke of battle, we seem to have lost our Secretary of State (notorious for operating in a smokescreen of cigar fumes).

What does all this cannonading have to do with William Seward?

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Here’s a few things about this Confederate ship, that interested Seward so much.

It was a British-made sloop-of-war, armed with state-of-the-art British weapons (the rifled pivot guns), and had a primarily British crew, some trained by the Royal Navy.  The London Times proudly proclaimed that it was Portsmouth-trained gun crews that had performed the best on board the Alabama.  

 

So it was not Confederates, as a rule, in this fight, but British mercenaries, paid double wages in gold.

 

V0024799 Astronomy: various apocalyptic scenes, including a grieving Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Astronomy: various apocalyptic scenes, including a grieving widow, war, and the Duke of Wellington rejecting Harriet Winter [?]. Coloured lithograph, n.d. [c.1839?]. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Wellcome Library

“The Ancient Grudge” was an expression heard during the WWI period, and it has an old, fusty sound to it, like something your grandmother might say, about a disagreeable neighbor.   I might use it to express the distrust and hostility that persisted between the U.S. and Britain, for decades after the Revolution and the War of 1812 —  in tensions at sea, along the Canadian border, especially in the Oregon region, and in political and economic competition around the world.

Nowadays, we view history from a time when the U.S. and Britain are die-hard allies.  We’ve fought together, in two world wars, and various military adventures since.  But in William Seward’s time, the British empire-builders were not-entirely-neutral or well-disposed toward the former colonies.

Alabama claims LOC

A post-war British cartoon. Europe watches as John Bull/Gladstone, playing William Tell, with a diminutive Uncle Sam as his son, during the Alabama claims settlement. Britain doing the sporting thing with the little chap, what? Kaiser Wilhelm I, a more reasonable fellow than his grandson, referees from the sideline.

Some of this friction was simply profit motive.  Britain desperately needed cotton for its unemployed textile mills, and was happy to allow its industrialists to reap profits from the war.  Private gun-makers sold Enfield rifle-muskets to both sides — something like 900,000 all told!  Blockade-runners, many built in British shipyards, supplied the Confederates with Whitworth rifles (favored by sharpshooters), breech-loading cannons, Colt revolvers made in London, uniforms, and other supplies.  Also compelling was Britain’s desire to split and weaken the U.S., and protect Canada.

DSC00709U.S.-British tension was more serious than most people remember.  British leaders were debating not just recognition of the Confederacy, but even military intervention to force U.S. recognition, even at the cost of outright war with the U.S.  Eleven thousand British soldiers were sent to Canada.  And there were these ships.

 

Blockade-runners were considered by Europeans to be good clean fun, a legitimate enterprise under international maritime laws.   But armed raiders like the CSS Florida and the CSS Shenandoah, that captured or destroyed over one hundred Yankee civilian vessels, were also built in Liverpool and Glasgow.  Britain’s government employed Admiral Nelson’s trick, and turned a blind eye.  Ships were bought through third-parties, and then equipped with British-made cannons when they reached the Azores, Bahamas, or Madeira.  They re-supplied in Europe, Brazil, Cuba, and Cape Town, and then attacked U.S. cargo ships and whalers around the globe.

Luckily, Seward’s agents, using a network of consulates and paid informants, blocked many more raiders from taking to sea.

But finally, the pretense became obvious, as the Laird shipyard, which built the Alabama, began work on what were undeniably warships:  armored rams, with massive gun turrets.  (The Laird shipyard survives in some form to this day, and did some of the work on the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.)

Alabama cartoon John Bull LOC

A period cartoon, showing a disgruntled John Bull, who’s just realized the Confederate raiders were making out like bandits, and leaving Britain holding the bag, in the form of insurance claims for the lost ships and their cargoes. LOC

 

Seward’s people tracked the Confederate purchases, piling up evidence that was later used to successfully sue Britain for damages to U.S. shipping.  Britain was reminded of possible repercussions if the relationship went south:  American privateers’ toll upon their shipping in the past, the interdependence of Anglo-American trade and investments, and Britain’s dependence on American wheat.

British warships had been sent to Halifax and Bermuda, to intimidate, and to attack the East Coast in the event of war.  However, these sailing ships were now faced by an ever-increasing U.S. fleet, including armored monitors (low-slung steamships with revolving metal turrets, containing enormous cannons). The Confederate attack at Hampton Roads had demonstrated how easily an ironclad could sink wooden frigates.

“The secret of politics?  Make a good treaty with Russia.”  I don’t know if Bismarck really said that.  But the U.S., faced with a generally hostile Europe, found an ally in what seems an unlikely place, to modern readers, worried by the bellicose Vladimir Putin.

Seward cultivated friendly relations with Russia.  Two years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Tsar had liberated the serfs, and steadfastly refused to join any Anglo-French plans to intervene in the Civil War.  Russia’s refusal to join former enemies in such an alliance was hardly surprising, so soon after the bitter Crimean War.  Russian fleets arrived in the harbors of NYC and San Francisco.  Perhaps mostly to avoid being bottled up in the Baltic by the Royal Navy, in the event of war, but it was also taken by the U.S. as a much-appreciated gesture of support.

Spain, looking for opportunities to regain ground in the New World, was reminded that Confederate leaders had long advocated the takeover of Cuba.  And as the Confederacy continued to lose ground, Napoleon III understood that his forces in Mexico, already sustaining thousands of casualties, might face a large and experienced Union army on the Rio Grande in the near future.  (Indeed, Phil Sheridan missed the end-of-the-war Grand Review in Washington, hustling down to the Rio Grande with 50,000 men.  And U.S. rifles and ammo somehow ended up with Juárez’s anti-French forces. )

Finally, as Grant besieged Lee’s dwindling army twenty miles outside Richmond, and Sherman marched inexorably through Atlanta and toward the sea, with the Confederacy shrinking within the federal anaconda of armies and blockaders, and under Seward’s watchful pressure, Britain seized the armored warships from the shipyard.

Years later, as the story goes, Queen Victoria saw two ugly little gunboats, by then obsolete, chug by in a naval review, and asked if that was what all the fuss was about.

Alabama claims Harper's Weekly

Another postwar cartoon – America/Lady Liberty trimming British claws with shears marked “Alabama Claims”. The lion doesn’t look thrilled, but seems like a pretty amicable relationship. Harper’s Weekly, LOC

The issues and challenges faced by Seward in dealing with neutral countries, seem very current, in our modern age of  “Proxy Wars” and “Drone Wars”.   We fight without declarations of war, supply weaponry to rebels and secessionists, and to the Saudis and other anti-democratic regimes.  Confederate pirates/privateers were sometimes detained in Fortress Monroe, without trial, reminding us of Guantanamo Bay.  We pursue terrorists and guerrilla fighters into Pakistan or other “neutral” countries;  the raider CSS Florida was finally captured in a U.S. raid on a Brazilian port.  (When an international court ordered the ship be returned to Brazil, people were shocked, shocked! to learn it suddenly sank after a collision, and was never handed over.)

Today, the U.K. and France also continue to sell weapons, often to countries of questionable friendliness, as do Russia, China, Germany, and Israel.  And, of course, neutral, peace-loving Sweden.  And, of course, nobody peddles as many weapons as the U.S.

If you’re ever in Upstate New York, go to the Seward House and listen to a few stories about an amazing person and a memorable Secretary of State.  Seward demonstrated that, even in a time of swords, there’s still power in a pen, a diplomat, and sometimes, a really clever New York lawyer.

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Preserve the Union! Fenimore Art Museum.

 

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Civil War, Finger Lakes, FLX, History, Memorial Day, Upstate New York, Waterloo

Waterloo, New York — 150th Observance of Memorial Day

 

 

 

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Teddy Roosevelt. Spanish-American War

 

Rob’t E. Lee, working the crowd, as Frederick Douglass keeps a wary eye on him.

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statue of Frederick Douglass, outside the New-York Historical Society

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