Thursday, March 29, 2007

Embattled Mary

The more I study Mary Lincoln (above), the more I feel sympathy for this woman. Criticized for being a "western" woman, criticized for having Southern relatives, criticized for overspending, criticized for nagging her husband, Mary was always criticized for something. Mary had her issues, there is no doubt, but there are so many reasons! Abe Lincoln was not the ideal husband in many respects, and Mary was ill-equipped to handle many of the losses in her life. She deserves a more compassionate assessment.

On Saturday, April 28, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum (ALPLM) will unveil "Mary Todd Lincoln: First Lady of Controversy," a one-of-a-kind exhibit that will touch on many aspects of Mary's tragic life. This exclusive temporary exhibit can only be seen at the ALPLM and will include dozens of artifacts – many on display to the public for the first time.

"First Lady of Controversy continues the ALPLM's commitment to telling the Lincoln story, warts and all,” said Rick Beard, executive director. “Everyone agrees that Mary Todd Lincoln was one of our nation’s most controversial first ladies, but the jury is still undecided as to her true nature. This new exhibition won’t settle the issue, however it will certainly give visitors plenty of new evidence to shape their own conclusions."

Visitors can explore Mary's life beginning with her childhood through her courtship with the Springfield lawyer, to her role as wife and mother, and eventually to her position as the First Lady of the United States. The exhibit will also examine the darker times of Mary's life including the tragedy surrounding the Civil War, the death of her son, Willie, the assassination of President Lincoln, and the estrangement from her son, Robert Todd Lincoln.

Dozens of artifacts, many of which are displayed to the public for the first time, include:

Illinois Senator Orville Hickman Diary Passages - These passages from the diary of the Lincolns’ close associate Senator Hickman include revelations of misdeeds and unflattering information about Mrs. Lincoln.
Telegrams from Mrs. Lincoln – These newly discovered telegrams provide insight into the financial turmoil created by the First Lady’s shopping indulgences. Within the telegrams, Mrs. Lincoln uses the pseudonym of the White House housekeeper Mary Ann Cuthbert to communicate with merchants to whom she owed money.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Correspondence with Francis Spinner, United States Treasurer – These letters follow Mary Lincoln’s fight to obtain the remainder of Lincoln’s salary for 1865, following his assassination. Congress paid Mrs. Lincoln $22,000 of the $25,000 owed, some of which was placed in an account for a select listing of merchants from which to draw.

Copies of Mrs. Lincoln’s Arrest Record and Related Documentation – This collection of records documents her arrest record and Mrs. Lincoln’s outstanding debts that were used as evidence against her during her insanity trial.

Mrs. Lincoln’s Correspondence with Dr. Willis Danforth – This letter to her doctor depicts Mrs. Lincoln explaining her addiction to chloral hydrate as an underlying cause for her “insanity.”

Letters from Mrs. Lincoln’s Confinement at Bellevue Sanitarium and Subsequent Release – Uncovered letters regarding Mary Lincoln’s confinement and release from the sanitarium in Batavia, Illinois, show her sense of betrayal by her only living son Robert. Two days after the county court declared Mary Lincoln “restored to reason” she writes that “my heart fails me, when I think of the contrast between himself [Robert] and my noble, glorious husband."

Mrs. Lincoln’s Correspondence with Her Son Robert – In this angry letter, Mrs. Lincoln demands that Robert return all the items she believed he had stolen from her while confined in Batavia. “Send me all that I have written for, you have tried your game of robbery long enough…You have injured yourself, not me, by your wicked conduct."

Poor Robert! I feel so for that man who tried so hard to take care of his mother. Whenever I speak on Mary and Varina Davis (first lady of the Confederacy), someone inevitably asks about Robert and how mean he was to Mary. It's just not so. He was at his wit's end, poor man, and when he was in control of Mary's finances, actually increased her worth and returned control of all when she was well again. Robert also suffered terrible losses and never felt close to his father, something he regretted. So much sadness in this family!

"Mary Todd Lincoln: First Lady of Controversy" will run through Oct. 28, 2007. Exhibit access is included with a general admission ticket to the museum. Temporary Gallery tickets are available for sale for $4.50. For more information visit

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Morel Madness

Before discovering morels, I was merely a history geek like yourself. Now, I am also a mushroom geek.

Tom and I were camped at Abe Lincoln State Park, near Dale, Indiana. It is a glorious place surrounding his boyhood home (above) and includes the gravesite of his mother, Nancy Hanks. The church young Abe attended, with the graveyard where his beloved sister is buried, is also nearby. We were kneedeep in history when Tom began filling me with tales of morels. I was so taken by the gardens and the old-timey methods of farming that I couldn't imagine that this trip could get any better, so I had no hope of ever seeing the elusive morel. Tom's own parents never told him where they found them each spring, and they only let him have a small sample, so greedy were they with this delicacy. I listened patiently to his stories, knowing full well no one would share their secret stash with us, and on our own, we would never discover them.

So we were hiking along the trail to Abe's house when an object in the path caught my attention. I picked it up and showed it to Tom. "Is this the mushroom you're talking about?"

He was incredulous. "Where did you find that?" he demanded.

"It was just laying in the path. Some animal must have dropped it."

Feverishly we combed the area, and sure enough, found three or four small morels (right). We cooked them that night and a "shroomer" was born inside me.

We moved on to McCormick's Creek State Park, northwest of Bloomington. As we rode our bikes through the scenic woods, we noticed hordes of people heading into the forests with bags. We nosed around ourselves but found nothing. The next day I went into the nearest town, Spencer, for groceries. At the IGA I asked the gentleman who was bagging my purchases if they sold morels. He said, "Come back tomorrow. I'll bring you some."

When I returned the next day, there was a five-pound bag of 6-12 inch morels waiting for me--at no charge. I gave him a book. There's no doubt who got the better end of that deal.

I was so hooked. I bought mushroom books and began studying online. We were living back in Virginia, and every day I walked through the same woods I had grown up with. If I had seen a mushroom when I was a child, I was told to leave it alone because it might be poisonous, so I never bothered to learn more about them. Each day, I returned from the woods disappointed. Then, it rained, and it seemed that the forest floor was alive. There were coral mushrooms of every color, cauliflower mushrooms, chanterelles, beefsteak lichen--the variety seemed endless as did the bounty.

We've begun combing the woods and parks here in Topeka for likely spots for this season's crop of morels. A couple of years ago, I found two big ones in Tom's mother's yard. You just never know. But I'm thinking of making a sign and standing out by the interstate,

"Will write history for Morels."

(top photo by Mike Travis)
Mushroom Tour

Richmond, Missouri, is rich with history. The grave of William "Bloody Bill" Anderson is there, along with the graves of the Ford Brothers, as in, "The Dirty Little Coward Who Shot Down Mr. Howard." Join Tom and me on May 4 or 5 (tour each day) as we take a chosen few on a van tour replete with history, fun, and mushrooms!!! Email me to reserve your seat. $60 a person buys lunch and all the excitement you can stand!

Photo of the Day

Just so none of his generals forgot who was boss, Lincoln was in the habit of wearing his tallest stovepipe hat when visiting the battlefields.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Southern Stuff

I never realized how Southern I was until I came to Kansas to live. When Tom and I speak in front of audiences, he wants me to wear a sign that says, "Kansans don't talk like this." Just the other day, I was putting bright, yellow, silk tulips in the pots on my porch and my neighbor, Betty, shook her head and said, "It's just so obvious you're not from Kansas!"

There were other things I didn't realize were Southern. Like the day I was at a friend's house and we were talking about lunch. I told her I was just going to make me a banana sandwich (left. Now tell me honestly, is there anything that isn't better fried?). "Debbie, we can order out! You don't have to eat a banana sandwich, for God's sake!" It was tough convincing her that I really liked banana sandwiches.

I got a Christmas card from cousins back home and a photo of my dead great-uncle in his coffin was included. (My husband screamed and I picked the card up off the floor and said, "Well, I think he looks so natural.")

When I dropped my daughter off at daycare, I would say, "Give me some sugar before I go!" The other kids looked questioningly at one another, and her babysitter was forced to explain Southern words after I left. Talk about diversity training.

My frequent phonecalls back home to Mayberry are an anomaly to Kansans. My sister has a bookkeeping office and if I happen to call when she's busy she just passes off the phone to whoever is sitting there. I swear, it sounds like Goober (top) on The Andy Griffith Show. "Hey, Debbie, this is Jim. Gurney's here. Gurney says 'Hey!'"

"Tell Gurney I said, 'Hey!'"

In a land where the world revolves around food, Southerners hold court. My Aunt Mary had come down the mountain to visit Mayberry last week and someone wasn't doing well so she brought them five cans of greens. Now we're talking home-raised, home-picked, home-canned, greens. She also brought loads of pinto-bean fudge (right). Now everybody is better!

Something else my Kansas friends still find incredulous is the number of cousins I have. I can start a sentence with, "I have a cousin who __________" and then just fill in the blank. Anything will do. Such as, "I have a cousin who does body work." "I have a cousin who is a movie star." "I have a cousin who sells used cars and cement pottery." "I have a cousin who sawed off four fingers." (I was having lunch with my friend Cheryl one day when I said, "I have a cousin who is a monk in France." She responded, "Well, of course you do!")

Oh, wait, breaking news! I just got an email from my cousin who moved to Indiana. I'll share it with you:

Forget Rednecks, here is what Jeff Foxworthy has to say about Hoosiers...

If your local Dairy Queen is closed from October through April, you may live in Indiana.

If someone in a Home Depot store offers you assistance and they don't work there, you may live in Indiana.

If you've worn shorts and a parka at the same time, you may live in Indiana.

If you know several people who have hit a deer more than once, you may live in Indiana.

If you have switched from "heat" to "A/C" in the same day and back again, you may live in Indiana.

If you can drive 75 mph through 2 feet of snow during a raging blizzard without flinching, you may live in Indiana.

If you carry jumpers in your car and your wife knows how to use them, you may live in Indiana.

If you design your kid's Halloween costume to fit over a snowsuit, you may live in Indiana.

If the speed limit on the highway is 55 mph --you're going 80 and everybody is passing you, you may live in Indiana.

If driving is better in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow, you may live in Indiana.

If you know all 4 seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter, and road construction, you may live in Indiana.

If you have more miles on your snow blower than your car, you may live in Indiana.

If you find 10 degrees "a little chilly," you may live in Indiana.

This is why we love the South. (Though the biggest and best morel mushrooms we ever had were in Indiana! More on that tomorrow. We're planning a tour to Richmond, Missouri, for their annual mushroom festival so stay tuned!)


If you have events coming up that you'd like to share, just drop me an email. I know many of you will be traveling soon, and there are so many great festivals, rodeos, reenactments, historical talks--events that lots of out-of-town folks would enjoy if they just knew where to get off the highway.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Good Yankee

Lest y'all accuse me of being anti-Yankee, I would like to take the time to honor a Yankee that you may not know, but that I have come to admire tremendously. Edwin Vose Sumner was 63 when the Civil War started; an old man, a combat veteran, a friend of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. In many ways, he was their peer--a soldier of the old school, an honorable man doing his duty. His service in the Civil War was inglorious; he was not suited for the assignments given. Gen. George B. McClellan said of him, "in many respects [he is]… a model soldier, but unfortunately nature had limited his capacity to a very narrow extent."

In my humble opinion, the shining moments of Sumner's career came while stationed at Fort Leavenworth in the Kansas Territory. It fell to him to keep the peace between pro-slavers, freestaters, freesoilers, nuts, and fanatics. It was no small task. John White Geary, who would later distinguish himself as a Union officer, served as territorial governor of Kansas. The six-foot-six Pennsylvanian left Kansas for good one night in fear of his life. Geary admitted that he had never encountered such a challenge. But it was a challenge that Sumner met daily. Tom and I both believe that had a lesser man than Sumner--a man with more ego, perhaps, and more to prove--had such a man been the military commander, the Civil War would have begun here in Topeka several years before the firing on Fort Sumter.

Personally, Sumner was against slavery and against its expansion. The native Bostonian also believed it was not his job to sort it out. He was a soldier.

It fell to Sumner to break up an illegal meeting of the Free-State legislature in Topeka on July 4, 1856. The free-state community of Lawrence had been sacked and burned in May; John Brown and his followers had chopped to pieces five pro-Southern settlers south of Lawrence in retaliation. Tempers were short, temperatures were high (a hundred degrees by noon) and folks were armed and ready for a fight. Sumner rode into Topeka leading his troops and then the cannon matches were lit. He would use every force at his disposal to execute his duty, though it pained him. He meant what he said and people knew it. Legislators bailed out of the windows in their hurry to scurry, and an encounter that had the potential to ignite a nation fizzled out.
A couple of years later, Sumner had the occasion to be in Washington, D. C., where he called on his old friend and former boss Jefferson Davis. (Davis had been Secretary of War while Sumner was in Kansas.) Davis, now U. S. senator from Mississippi, was gravely ill and confined to his bed. The old soldiers would hold hands in the dark while Sumner told him tales of Kansas, of Northern Cheyenne, of John Brown. Though their politics would take them in different directions, thier feelings for one another remained true.

A mural depicting Sumner now covers the wall of Constitution Hall on Kansas Avenue (above, left). There should be a monument to this good man as well. So many times it was his level head that kept an insane situation in Kansas from escalating into full-scale warfare. Both sides were critical that he did not take their part. If the criticism bothered Sumner, he didn't let it show. He merely served his country, in whatever way his commanders saw fit. He died on this day in 1863 in Syracuse, New York.


Tennessee--Mule Days are coming up April 12 - 15 in Columbia. You never knew a mule could be so entertaining! Mules compete in categories such as Best Jack, Best Jennie, Best Pair of Horse Mules, Best Pair of Mare Mules, and Grand Champion of the Show "King Mule," which may be a mare mule or a horse mule, according to the rules. There are also contests for the two-legged visitors who can play checkers. clog dance, load logs, and even lie in an effort to best their neighbors. Visit the website for more than you knew there was to know about mules! Pennsylvania-- A 40-year-old intern with the National Archives stole about 165 Civil War documents including the War Department's announcement of President Abraham Lincoln's death, and sold most of them on eBay, according to wire reports. Philadelphia resident Denning McTague, who runs a website that sells rare books, worked at a National Archives and Records Administration site in the city last summer, prosecutors said. McTague has helped officials recover most of the missing items and plans to plead guilty, his lawyer Eric Sitarchuk said. "He has cooperated fully with the government in obtaining the return of the materials,'' Sitarchuk said. Of course, among many of our friends, this is a capital offense. There are so many artifacts in private hands and one reason people do not donate those to libraries and museums is that they are concerned about how things will be cared for or displayed. This intern's actions are not the norm, and most of the archivists we have dealt with have been superior!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hooker. . . . Cheap

A while back I came into possession of some copies of Ellis's Illustrated History of the United States, published in 1898. Several of the full-color plates had a little damage, but others were in pretty good shape. The only problem was, the illustrations were those of Yankees. Among many of my friends, there's just not a big demand for pictures of Yankees. Apparently, the same is true for most Civil War markets. Rebels just sell better.

So here I was, with pictures of Sherman (enough said), Sheridan (can't stand him!), Thomas (very good-looking because he was a Virginian, though still a renegade), and Hooker. "Fighting Joe" Hooker was from Massachusetts, and actually, he, too, was a fine looking officer. It's so obvious from this volume that winners really do write history, because the above image is Hooker at Chancellorsville, and the common, uninformed observer would assume from this image that the Union general was victorious. Instead, Stonewall Jackson cleaned Hooker's clock.
So who could possibly want this?

D. K. might!

D. K. Clark is a brilliant instructor at the Army's Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He knows everything about the Civil War and the Indian Wars. And I mean everything. NEVER argue with D. K. He wouldn't say it if he didn't know it. I remembered that he admired Hooker for some reason, so I popped in.

I pulled the images of George "The Rock of Chickamauga" Thomas and Hooker out of the brown paper bag and asked if he was interested. Several of his comrades looked on. The transaction had all the appearances of an illicit drug deal.

"How much?" asked the shrewd soldier.

"For you, right now, $10 each," I replied. D. K. quickly took a $10 from his wallet, grabbed Thomas and headed back to his office. Within ten minutes his colleagues had fired off an email,

"D. K. passes on $10 Hooker. . . . "


Today is the birthday of Edgar Buchanan, born in Humansville, Missouri, in 1902. (Yes, that's Humansville. Missouri seems to have cornered the market on odd place names. See Tom's blog "What's in a Name?" 11.2.06) Many of our readers will remember Buchanan as "moving might slow" Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction, but the list of his film and TV credits is nearly endless. He starred along with William Boyd in the immensely popular Hopalong Cassidy series. He also starred in his own show, Judge Roy Bean. Having trained as a dentist, Buchanan kept his license and practiced on the side for several years just so he'd have something to fall back on. He died in 1979.

On another note, did you know Abraham Lincoln was a blogger? check out an excerpt from his blog as well as reader comments at

Monday, March 19, 2007

Flag Waving

This is the Star Spangled Banner which flew over America when Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809. While plans are being made for the nationwide celebration of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, let us take a minute to talk about flags.

Every student of American history knows that Francis Scott Key penned the words to our national anthem while a prisoner on a British ship off the coast of Baltimore. Whether you can sing it or not, it makes the heart soar to hear his heartfelt words of joy and gratitude as he beheld the symbol of his beloved young country. What you may not know is that just decades afterward, his grandson was a prisoner at Fort McHenry, the very place Key saw the banner of freedom that stirred him so.

Following the assassination of President Lincoln, untold numbers of American citizens were arrested for "disloyal utterances." Most of these offenses were mere comments critical of the Lincoln administration. Among those jailed was Frank Key Howard, Key's grandson. Howard understood perfectly the cruel irony of his situation:

"As I stood upon the very scene of that conflict," the prisoner wrote, "I could but not contrast my position with his, forty-seven years before. The flag which he had then so proudly hailed, I saw waving, at the same place, over the victims of as vulgar and brutal a despotism as modern times have witnessed."

In 1861, when the Confederate States of America had held its first meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, in order to set up a government, discussions turned to the flag. Jefferson Davis saw no need to change.

"Mr. Davis was very averse to relinquishing the old flag," wrote Varina Davis, "and insisted that a different battle-flag would make the distinction enough between the combatants; but he was overruled. . . ."

Jefferson Davis had defended the U. S. flag in the Mexican War. During the American Revolution, his father had fought to ensure that it flew forever. Now a war would be fought to decide what the flag meant.

Our flag wars continue.

(Flag above right, the 1st National Confederate Flag, the "Stars and Bars.")

The Embattled Battle Flag

In response to yesterday's blog on the Confederate flag, I received some interesting comments. Among the most well-informed words are those from LTC (ret.) Ed Kennedy (left) of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. A word of advice: NEVER argue with Ed!

Miss Deb,

In 1900, 1906, 1929 and 1958 the U.S. Congress passed successive acts that recognized Confederate soldiers as American servicemen. This was in response to many Northerners that wanted to heal the wounds of the war and reconcile. The effects of these acts granted Confederate veterans similar rights to those of U.S. veterans of the war including burial in National Cemeteries with Federally supplied headstones and pensions. The captured flags were ordered returned to their respective states as honored banners of brave foes. The Confederate Battle Flag is an American flag. Its misuse by bigots as well as anti-Southerners is despicable. Courageous and brave soldiers fought under the flag just as those who fought under our U.S. flag. It is a military symbol. The KKK has no more right to the flag than the Iranians who both burn and define the U.S. flag as one of a "terrorist" country. The descendants of the Union Army soldiers recognize the Battle Flag as a military symbol representing a worthy foe. In a 2000 Sons of Union Veterans resolution they state: "
WHEREAS, we, as the descendants of Union soldiers and sailors who as members of the Grand Army of the Republic …, pledge our support and admiration for those gallant soldiers and of their respective flags...." Plainly stated, both the U.S. soldiers and descendants respect the Battle Flag and repudiate its, and the U.S. flag’s, misuse. The bottom line is that the misuse of the Battle Flag does not define it anymore than the U.S. flag, which is carried by their own rules, is defined by the KKK.

Lincoln' Birthday Begun

Kentucky--The town square in the central Kentucky town where the 16th president first saw the light of day is being transformed to accommodate as many as a million visitors next year when the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial birthday celebration begins. A roundabout is being built downtown to ease traffic woes and Early American-style street lamps are being added, the News-Enterprise newspaper reported. Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin near what is now Hodgenville. The modest "birthplace" cabin is now surrounded by a memorial befitting a king. Like the birthplace of Wyatt Earp (see Tom's blog today), this cabin is almost certainly not the one Lincoln was born in, though there may be a couple of original logs, and the remainder may come from the same time. (Is this a great country, or what?!!) Illinois--Following a $12.5 million renovation and nearly two years of work, Union Station in downtown Springfield is scheduled to reopen to the public today as part of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum complex. The building has been restored to its original appearance when it opened in 1898 as the Illinois Central Railroad depot. The first floor of Union Station will now serve as a visitor center where tourists can buy tickets to the Lincoln museum, receive information on other state tourism sites, book hotel reservations, and take advantage of free wireless Internet access, officials said. "In just two years, and over one million visitors later, the museum continues to be a top destination for folks across the country and around the world," Rick Beard, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, said. (Plus, they have a great gift shop, though the best book selection remains the gift shop at the National Park site nearby.)

Richmond, Virginia, then (circa 1880) and now.


Quote of the Day

Yet, Freedom! yet thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind
. -- Lord Byron

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Capturing the Flag

The image above seems terribly relevant today. It's the cover of Harper's Weekly, September 17, 1864, and the title is, "HARRY DAVIS CAPTURING THE BATTLE FLAG OF THE THIRTIETH LOUISIANA REGIMENT, AT THE BATTLE OF EZRA CHURCH."

Depending on your ancestry and point of view, the above instills pride, anger, sadness, sympathy, or lust for more. There's no mistaking my interpretation; I'm a Southerner. Seeing this image stirs something akin to grief. I don't see the furtherance of slavery in that flag; rightly or wrongly, I see a people invaded fighting back. That is part emotion, and part education. I acknowledge my bias. I understand that for my friends Mark Dunkelman or Andy Waskie, there is something closer to the "triumph of right" that swells in their chests. Whatever your reaction, the fact is that you will have some reaction if you're a student of the Civil War or a descendant of its veterans.

Thanks to a faithful reader, I just received a notice about the flag controversy in Florida. A display at the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee is offensive to many Southern Soldiers' descendants. The artist Robert Sims sees the battle flag as a symbol of racism and terrorism. His piece, "The proper way to display a Confederate Flag (right)," shows the controversial symbol hanging from a gallows. It is a powerful image, and that is why I want you to see it.

I am a huge supporter and defender of the Arts. Sometimes art is beautiful, sometimes it is repulsive. But art should comfort us and challenge us, cause us to see the world in a different way. To my friends, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, my heart is with you. But do not make this your battlefield. The expression of ideas, the freedom of the individual is what we've all been fighting for in one way or another. Rather, use the opportunity of this art exhibit to educate people, to let them know why you feel positively about the Confederate Battle Flag. I feel just as strongly as many of you that the stars and stripes is a more accurate representation of slavery, for that emblem waved over a slave-owning country for decades. The fact is, these are symbols. On their own, they mean nothing. It is the meaning we give them that matters. Let people know the meaning you give the Battle Flag is not one of hate nor racism, but of independence.

We have a minister here in Topeka, Fred Phelps (left), who has gained national notoriety for his anti-gay marches and protesting at the funerals of soldiers. I can't say I agree with anything he says, and when I see his children and grandchildren holding signs that say, "God hates Fags," I can't help but think their childhood has been stolen. But I also have a more comforting thought. As long as that man can publicly say whatever hateful thing he feels, we are safe.

People, our civil liberties hang by a slender thread. Don't be so quick to clip that thread because you're offended. When I look at that Battle Flag, I see my ancestors, those Scoth-Irish mountaineers who didn't own slaves, who only wanted to go home and be left alone to live their lives and make babies, make music, and make whiskey.

But that's another story. . . .


For more information, read The Confederate Battle Flag: America's Most Embattled Emblem by John Coski. John is the librarian at the Museum of the Confederacy and is level-headed, insightful, and just an all-around great guy. Another great discussion of the battle flag is Jack Davis's Myths of the Cause Lost.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

In Glory

While sitting at the computer yesterday and trying to think lofty thoughts, I found myself thinking about carousing with Custer instead. Our local NPR station was playing Irish music, which turned out to be several different orchestral versions of "Garryowen" and "The Girl I Left Behind Me."

Irish soldiers, like those of the 69th New York whose flag is at right, sang and played these tunes during the Civil War, and apparently one George Custer overheard the rousing drinking tune Garryowen and adopted it for his own. The tune itself dates back to at least 1788 and, when Custer took command, became the marching song for the 7th Cavalry. The air was played when Custer's men left Terry's column at the point where the Rosebud River empties into the Yellowstone. Leaving the gatling guns behind on the steamboat Far West, the 7th were armed with pistols and rifles, guts and nerve. And their spirits were bouyed by the words:

Instead of Spa we'll drink down ale,
And pay the reckn'ning on the nail
No man for debt shal go to gaol
From GarryOwen in glory.

To hear the tune, go to Be prepared to drink and march.

Another ditty brought to the States was "The Girl I Left Behind Me," which may date back to the reign of Elizabeth I, though it too, is believed to be originally an Irish song. Some sources say it was played whenever a regiment left town or a man-of-war set sail:

The bee shall honey taste no more,
the dove become a ranger
The falling waters cease to roar,
ere I shall seek to change her
The vows we made to heav'n above
shall ever cheer and bind me
In constancy to her I love,
the girl I left behind me.

This, too, was taken to the West, and one army wife recalled, "Then to his duty and I in a back room to my tears and prayers. I would choose a back room to shut out the tune. . . .'The Girl I Left Behind Me.' To this day when I hear that air tears come to my eyes." To hear this tune, go to

These tunes have stood the test of time because they are irresistible, memorable, and just make you feel good! Give a listen, make a toast, and thank the Irish for the background music they provided for our history!
Painting by Mark Churms at the top; Mark's logo, The Art of History, is so appropriate. Art has been used to communicate our history for centuries, and says much about what we believe about our past, which is sometimes as important as the actual facts. The illustration above left is a Zouave unit dancing in camp, and we'll bet they appropriated some Irish tunes as well.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Harpers Ferry Honeymoon

Eight years ago this June, (seems like 20, doesn't it honey?), Tom and I were wading in the Shenandoah River at Harpers Ferry. It was after hours, so most of the offices and shops were closed, but it was still daylight and we walked out into the sacred waters. We were nauseatingly in love then, and I couldn't think of a more perfect place to be.

We were living in our camping trailer and writing The Day Dixie Died. We had camped at the KOA in Harpers Ferry, which is like living in a migrant camp. KOAs are great for some needs; privacy and space are not among them. But you usually get your own sewer hookup, which you really come to appreciate, and they are generally located near the places you want to see, i.e. Harpers Ferry.

Harpers Ferry is my favorite spot in America. I have always hoped to live there, if just for a year or so. I was a kid the first time we visited Harpers Ferry, (though I had plenty of ancestors there with Stonewall Jackson several years earlier). It was shrouded in mist and I was spellbound. John Brown loomed in the shadows, and the thunder could easily have been cannon.

Tom and I go to HF as often as possible. Just a few months ago, we stopped in and spent the night with our friends Tish and Peter Appignani. (We try to locate folks strategically around the country!) A couple of years ago, we happened by while Gods and Generals was being filmed. The town had been turned into the set for Fredericksburg and soldiers were mustering next to the canal. I spied our buddy, former Harpers Ferry National Park historian, Dennis Frye; but, since Dennis was orchestrating troop movements for the film, Tom didn't want to bother him. I went over and said hello, and immediately Dennis asked, "Where's Tom?" and went with me to find him. So many good, good memories.

Now Harpers Ferry has a rather ignominious designation. It's on the top ten of our most endangered battlefields, according to the Civil War Battlefield Preservation Trust. I'm not the only one that wants to live there, and the demand for housing is threatening to choke so many sacred places.

Of course, it's just a given that Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Fredericksburg--anything within the epi-center of the Civil War--is threatened. I know it is always a balancing act; we can't save everything. But at some point in America, we have got to come to our senses when it comes to sprawl. Giving up the ground where our ancestors struggled and died just for Starter Castles and McMansions, Pizza Huts and WalMarts, and other symbols of "progress" is blasphemous.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Grave Matters

Oh, to be in Philadelphia for the cemetery tour!

The first time I was at Laurel Hill Cemetery, beautifully situated on a hillside overlooking the Schuylkill River, Andy Waskie was leading a group of little old ladies through the historic graveyard. They tittered and talked amongst themselves about how wonderful Andy was and we all ran to catch up as he hurried to the next stop. The second time I was there was for Andy and Carol's wedding in the cemetery gatehouse. But oh, I'd love to be there on April 14 for the Titanic Tour!

Apparently, 45 passengers on that ill-fated voyage were destined for Philadelphia. Twelve of those are entombed or memorialized at Laurel Hill and West Laurel Hill. For $75 you can have dinner and a lecture and get a tour of their graves, or you can just have the tour for $25. Visit their website at for more details.

Laurel Hill is a National Historic Landmark and is the second rural garden cemetery in the country (the first is Mount Auburn in Boston which was patterned after Pere Lachaise in Paris (right). Founded in 1836, it is the resting place of many notables not only in Pennsylvania history, but American history. Foremost is Gen. George Meade, Union commander at Gettysburg. Ironically, buried not far from him is Gen. John Pemberton, a Philadelphian who fought for the South and defended Vicksburg against Grant's siege, losing the same day Meade won.

Being a necro nut myself, the first thing I did upon moving to Topeka was write a book about its cemetery. I was struck by the history, the "stories in stone," and didn't think most people were aware of what a visual and historic treasure it is. A couple of years ago, thanks to our friends, the Roussels in France, we visited the "city of the dead," Pere Lachaise, where we found, after four hours, the grave of Confederate Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin.

Even if you can't get to Philly for the Titanic tour, stop by Laurel Hill some other time. Or stop by Topeka Cemetery, or Mount Auburn if you're in Boston. One of the most beautiful graveyards we've seen is Cave Hill in Louisville, Kentucky, the final resting place of George Rogers Clark, among others. Then there's the cemetery in Lexington, Kentucky, where Henry Clay, the Todd family, Basil Duke, John Hunt Morgan, and too many other Civil War figures to list rest peacefully beside one another (though in life they may have been enemies). Now that spring is upon us, just visit a cemetery. Help clean up a cemetery. Write a book about a cemetery. Believe me, once you visit you won't want to leave. Just ask the residents!
While We're in Philly. . .

Just received this photo of Charlie Zahm (left) at the recent Lincoln Ball held at Philadelphia's Union League. What a grand location for a party. Also attending was Brigadier Gen. David McMurtry Gregg, (below) aka Carl Popadick. Those folks are always having a fun! Of course, with Charlie's wonderful music, what's not to enjoy? This is the ideal time for you to check out his website and get the perfect background music for Saint Patrick's Day. My personal favorite is "Mingulay," about a small fishing village. It's like hearing a hymn. One of Charlie's reviewers said, “Charlie Zahm is a big man with a powerful and expressive singing voice. Listening to him sing Scottish and Irish music is like a deep draught of a thick, heady stout, rich in taste and body. His latest recording, 'Among the Heather,' is more like a luxurious dram of Irish cream--smooth and sweet, yet intoxicating all the same." I'll have a stout to that!

And while we're on the subject of Irish music, Connie Dover. Never did a Gaelic ballad have a better friend than Connie's ethereal voice. But Connie has a love for the West, too, and is doing more and more cowboy music. My favorite, "Where shall I go?" from her Wishing Well album. It is moving and wrenching, and if it doesn't get to you, you have granite for a heart.

News from the Blue Ridge

Our friend Tom Perry is speaking Monday night at the Carroll County Courthouse in Hillsville, Virginia. The program starts at 7 p.m., and the subject is "J. E. B. Stuart’s Long Ride To Yellow Tavern." Tom is the founder of the Jeb Stuart Birthplace Trust and I hope if you find yourself in southwestern Virginia you'll attend his talk or go by the birthplace in Ararat.

While we're talking about the Hillsville Courthouse.... There was a little incident there in March of 1912 that still starts arguments all over the county. One Floyd Allen, a distinguished citizen, was on trial for a misdemeanor charge for which he was found guilty and for which he was about to be sentenced to prison. (Many people believe this was politically motivated, and I'm inclined to agree). Anyhow, when Floyd stood to be sentenced, the shooting started and when it was over, the judge, the commonwealth's attorney, the sheriff, a juror, and a witness were dead. Floyd was injured. The melee was on the front page of Eastern newspapers from New York to Atlanta until a month later when the Titanic sank and grabbed the headlines.

For more on Tom's appearance, check out the

And now you know...the rest of the story!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Weather Report

Just returned from a bike ride, and ironically, the tornado siren went off. (See Tom's blog for today at I was riding at Gage Park (named for Civil War Veteran Guilford Gage, by the way), and Tom was riding on the Shunga Trail. So, I'm tooling along enjoying the balmy weather when the siren blares. I scanned the skies. Nothing. A few wispy clouds; but the air is a little heavy, and that's indicative of tornado weather. I watched the traffic on 10th Street. Nothing special; maybe fewer cars. I saw no one scrambling for cover. So I kept riding. Turns out it was a test. I probably failed.

I was driving back to Topeka from Manhattan a couple of years ago--Manhattan, Kansas, "the little apple"--when the most horrific storm came up. I was on U.S. 24, 2-lane most of the way. I thought the hail would break the windshield. As I passed homes along the way, there were the native Kansans, standing on their porches watching. Finally, fraught to a frazzle, I took refuge in a pizza joint with three teenagers manning the store. The power went out. We sat close to the plate glass windows and wondered if we should take cover somewhere else. But the sirens hadn't gone off, so we just sat and watched.

I often wonder about the Indians, and whether or not they ran for shelter, huddled and prayed, or just smoked and waited when these terrific storms swept the plains. Likewise, the early settlers. The canvas of a wagon seems a pretty paltry shelter.

Odds & Ends

The event season is upon us! So many things coming up, so many emails coming in. I'll try to get these sorted and pass them along. Spoke with friends in Denver this morning and spring is reaching the Rocky Mountains. In Charlotte, North Carolina, my daughter reports she's gazing at cherry blossoms outside her office window for two weeks. Our tulips are up, Tom saw daffodils today, the neighbors' crocuses are blooming, and I, ever the impatient one, have been putting out silk tulips and pansies on the porch and along the fence. Last night my neighbor came over to ask if they were real. "Nope," I replied, "Hobby Lobby."

She shook her head. "It's so obvious you're not from Kansas."

Photo of the Day

Although his visits to the battlefields were cordial, everyone knew that Abraham Lincoln liked to keep an eye on his generals.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Nothing New

There is NOTHING new under the sun.

According to various news reports, a senior Taliban commander was captured by Afghan troops near Kandahar. The man, Mullah Mahmood, was wearing a burqa, which is a tentlike, all-covering garment still worn by many women in the countryside. As with every single headline that comes across the screen, this reminded me of an incident from the Civil War.

Jeff Davis Captured in Hoop Skirts!

Jeff in Petticoats!!

He is Caught in His Wife's Clothes!!!

Thus ran the headlines when Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured May 10, 1865, near Irwinville, Georgia. Fleeing the falling Confederacy with his wife and a handful of escorts, Davis was awakened by the sounds of skirmishing on that fateful morning. When Varina figured out what was happening, she threw a shawl over her husband in hopes he wouldn't be recognized. He was not wearing a dress, though the Northern press had a field day reporting that "fact" and dozens of images of Jeff in disguise were printed. A few righteous souls, however, like this gentleman from Maine, spoke up:

I was with the party that captured Jeff. Davis; saw the whole transaction from the beginning. I now say . . . that Jeff. Davis did not have on at the time he was taken any such garment as is worn by women. . . . I defy any person to find a single officer or soldier who was present at the capture of Jefferson Davis who will say, upon honor, that he was disguised in women's clothes. . . I go for trying him for his crimes, and if he is found guilty, punishing him. But I would not lie about him. . . .

Good man that he was, no one was listening. They heard and believed what suited them best. Sometimes I wish I could watch the news and not be skeptical, and even though I really trust most reporters (afterall, I was one once), I don't always trust their sources. There is always too much politics involved, just as the sketch shows (above, right). This is the official War Department sketch of the clothing Jeff was supposedly wearing when captured. The actual garments had been placed in a safe. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, now effectively running the country since Lincoln's death, ordered these clothes placed on a mannequin and that is the image released to the press. The caption reads: "The clothes in which Davis disguised himself (from a photograph taken at the War Department by Alexander Gardner)."


From Scott Porter this morning. . . .

While at Barnes and Noble last night I picked a magazine named "Missouri Life." Inside of the Feb 2007 edition is a great article on the Confederate Home at Higginsville. Get this, the name of the article is..."HOME OF THE BRAVE." Its a GREAT article with lots of great pics of the old vets and buildings. At the end of the article it states "One of the best times to visit is during their annual memorial weekend, which is scheduled on a Saturday near the June 3 birthday of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The date for the 2007 memorial service is June 2. Graves are decorated with flags, and reenactors take on the roles of past Confederates, helping vistors to learn about life and issues of past times." Also inside the same edition a piece and picture on the Bushwhacker Museum (Nevada, Missouri).


DG-Thanks for passing along the tip. Scott is an instructor at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and a first-rate Civil War historian. If you've never visited the Confederate Cemetery (left), it is well worth your time to get off the interstate and make the short drive. Among the notables bured there is William Clarke Quantrill, Confederate guerrilla chieftan. Likewise, the Bushwhacker Museum is a great trip if you're in the neighborhood. Tell our good friend, Pat Brophy, we said "hello."

Fast Time

"I hate this old fast time!" Granny complained about few things, but when it came to setting the clocks ahead, she let it be known where she stood. She despised it. I inherited this trait, and few things tick me off like losing an hour in the spring. I nearly go "postal." Yesterday, everytime I looked at the clock, it seems it had in fact leaped forward, a half hour, 45 minutes, when I'm sure it had only been five minutes since I last checked! I hate this "fast time" and live to get that hour back in the fall. I only fear, that in my lifetime, they will take that hour and never give it back. When I was a kid, the deacon of the church would not observe Daylight Savings Time, since God observed Eastern Standard Time. So during the summer, he had the church keys and folks would show up an hour early, wait for him to open the door, some on time, some an hour late--never quite figuring out what time God was on. I'm with the deacon.

Photo of the Day

Like their annoying modern counterparts, the first generation of paparazzi staked out the homes of Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp, Lillie Langtry, and other Old West personalities. In the image above, we see an eager swarm of these pests waiting outside the North Dakota home of George and Libbie Custer.