Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Trans-Gender Woman in Custer’s Old West

     The thrice married Mrs. Nash joined Custer’s Seventh Cavalry as a laundress.  She always wore a veil, and is described as “rather peculiar looking.”  In 1872 she married a private named Noonan.  The couple lived together on “Suds Row”, east of the Fort Lincoln Parade grounds.  While Noonan was away on a scouting expedition, his wife died.  When her friends came to prepare the body for burial, they discovered that the much married laundress and popular mid-wife was not a female.  The news was reported to Custer’s wife Elizabeth (“Libbie”) Custer, who was much amazed.

     The Bismarck Tribune subsequently reported: “Corporal Noonan, of the 7th Cavalry, whose “wife” died some weeks ago, committed suicide in one of the stables of the lower garrison.  It was reported some days ago that he deserted, but no one this side of the river had seen him.  It now appears that the man had kept himself out of the way as well as he could for several days.  His comrades had given him a sort of cold shake since the return of the regiment from the chase after the Sioux, and this, and the shame that fell on him in the discovery of his wife’s sex, undermined his desire for existence, and he crawled away lonely and forsaken and blew out the life that promised nothing but infamy and disgrace.  The suicide was committed with a pistol, and Noonan shot himself through the heart.”


For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history. This book presents portraits of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn as they have appeared in print over successive decades and in the process demonstrates the evolution of American values and priorities.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reconstruction in Mississippi 1865-1875

Holly Springs, Mississippi

From 1865 to 1875 the state of Mississippi underwent “Reconstruction”, a plan to reintegrate the South into the Union. Three companies of Federal troops, under the command of Major Jonathan Power, were stationed in Holly Springs. A circular of instruction to post commanders read, “. . .you are particularly directed not to molest or incommode quiet and well disposed citizens and will be held to strict accountability that your men commit no depredations of any sort. Houses, fences, farm property, etc. will be secure and remuneration will be compelled and punishment inflicted for all infractions of the rule. The well disposed people must be made to feel that the troops are for their protection rather than for their inconvenience.”

In 1860 the population of Holly Springs had been 5,690; by 1865 the population had declined to 2,000. The survivors found themselves without money, cotton, horses, livestock or provisions. Most had lost loved ones and many had been burned out. For the vanquished ex-Confederates it was a period in which the social order was turned up side down. Individuals prominent under the old regime were disenfranchised, while former slaves and new men from the North took the most prominent positions in the state. The ex-Confederates struggled to regain power. Elections were characterized by bribery, intimidation and trickery.

The Democratic Party was comprised of Southern whites and a few blacks who remained under the influence of their old masters. The Republican Party was comprised of a few native whites known locally as, “turncoat scalawags”, interested in the spoils of office, Northern “carpetbaggers” and ex-slaves, attracted by promises of obtaining, “forty acres and a mule.”

Blacks were in the voting majority throughout Marshall County in 1865, having 3,669 males of voting age in the county while the whites of voting age numbered only 3,025, a large number having been disenfranchised because of their activities during the war. During the entire Reconstruction period, blacks formed more than fifty percent of the total population of the county.




A portrait of Holly Springs, a small but prosperous town in northern Mississippi’s Marshall County, during the years of the American Civil War and the era of Reconstruction. This is a glimpse of life in Mississippi during these dramatic years, relying on the words of the people who lived during that time and on other primary historical sources to tell the story.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Rape in the American Civil War

By Kim Murphy



This is a very gritty book that will forever change your view of the Civil War as a clash involving knights errant and their ladies fair.  War is nasty and brutish, and author Kim Murphy pulls no punches as she attacks the darkest side of the Civil War. 

In the chaos and disorder of war, the weak and vulnerable suffered the most.  Women and children bore the brunt of rape and brutality in the Civil War.  Poor women more than rich women, and black women most of all.  Reading like a police blotter, Murphy’s book catalogs in detail the crimes perpetrated against the weak.  This is the real history, of real people, often overlooked by those historians primarily interested in the military and political aspects of the war and not in the impact of war on ordinary people.  It is not a pretty story.

Murphy spent some seven years researching this book, and the end result is a remarkable piece of scholarship, in an area of the Civil War avoided by male historians.  Her spare style adds to the gravity of the subject.  Rather than editorializing, or pontificating, Murphy lets the facts speak for themselves, which makes the record even more damning. 

Most of the available records involve Union soldiers (most Confederate records having been destroyed during the war), and are an indictment of the military system of justice, up the chain of command, and including President Abraham Lincoln.  Many soldiers committed atrocities, but skipped away from their crimes either free or with minimal sentences because of their records as “good soldiers.”  Far more were excused than punished. 


This book is a must read for all serious students of the Civil War.


A brief look at the impact of war on civilians living around Manassas based on first person narratives and family histories.


Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Civil War Odyssey of George Washington’s Will

Two historically priceless documents, the wills of George and Martha Washington are housed in the Fairfax County Courthouse in Fairfax, Virginia. 

During the Civil War, Federal troops occupied the Fairfax area.  The Clerk of Court instructed his wife to take George Washington’s will to the home of their daughter near Warrenton, Virginia.  The will was placed in a chest, which also contained family silver, buried in the wine cellar and covered with coal. In 1862, the will was taken to Richmond for safekeeping. The will was folded when it was moved to Richmond for safekeeping. As a result, the brittle pages were damaged and every page was broken. In an attempt to prevent further breakage, some of the broken pages were sewn together with needle and thread. In 1865 the will was returned to the Fairfax County Courthouse.  In 1910 William Berwick, restored George Washington's will using a conservation process called crêpeline lamination. This technique involved coating each page of the will with a paste of wheat starch and water and then embedding a fine silk net into the paste.

During the Civil War, Martha Washington's will remained at the Fairfax Courthouse. In 1862, the courthouse was vandalized by Union troops and Martha Washington's will was stolen by Brevet Brigadier General David Thomson, who shortly before his death, gave the will to his daughter Mary Thomson. Miss Thompson sold the will to Wall Street financier and avid art collector, J. Pierpont Morgan.  The Commonwealth of Virginia pursued the will's return to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. In 1915, prior to the Supreme Court hearing the case, Morgan's son returned the stolen will to the Commonwealth of Virginia.



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Monday, May 04, 2015

George Armstrong Custer and African-Americans



Isaiah Dorman

In his 1984 book, Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn, Evan S. Connell talks at length about Isaiah Dorman a black interpreter with Custer.  While earlier historians either omit reference to Dorman or pass over his role quickly, Connell spends several pages talking about his origins, his marriage to an Indian woman, his friendly relations with the Indians and his slow and painful death at their hands when they believed he had betrayed them by working for the bluecoats. (Connell, 25-27)

Elsewhere Connell quotes Custer’s views on blacks, “I am in favor of elevating the negro to the extent of his capacity and intelligence, and of our doing everything in our power to advance the race morally and mentally as well as physically, also socially….As to trusting the negro…with the most sacred and responsible privilege, the right of suffrage, I would as soon think of elevating an Indian Chief to the Popedom in Rome.” (Connell, 125)

Connell discusses the life and lot of black soldiers on the frontier, noting at one point that the high desertion rate in the U.S. Army did not apply to black soldiers.  “In 1867, for example, twenty -five percent of the army simply vanished….It has been suggested that they (black soldiers) could not easily merge into frontier communities and for the most of them a soldier’s uniform represented a social step forward.  The only thing certain is that very few buffalo soldiers missed roll call.” (Connell, 151)


Connell’s breakthrough inclusion of blacks in the Custer saga mirrors broader trends which saw the general emergence of history’s “invisible people” (blacks, women, minorities) into popular and academic histories.




Views of Custer have changed over succeeding generations. Custer has been portrayed as a callous egotist, a bungling egomaniac, a genocidal war criminal, and the puppet of faceless forces. For almost one hundred and fifty years, Custer has been a Rorschach test of American social and personal values. Whatever else George Armstrong Custer may or may not have been, even in the twenty-first century, he remains the great lightning rod of American history.

Custer’s Last Stand: Portraits in Time
Paperback:
Custer’s Last Stand: Portraits in Time

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Men’s Clothing History: Suits and Coats



During the Victorian era, it was quite easy to tell a man’s social position by his style of dress.  Class distinctions were clear cut and rigid.  It would have been unsuitable for a working man to imitate the fashions of his betters; and indeed he had neither the wish nor the means to do so.

The standard suit of the 19th century was a modification of the military uniform of the Napoleonic wars.  Jacket lapels were derived from the high collared tunics of military uniforms.  To make themselves more comfortable, soldiers unfastened the upper buttons, and rolled back each side.  When the fashion spread into civilian clothes, tailors retained the notch (indicating the break of the original collar) and the buttonhole (where the tunic would have fastened at the neck).  As for the cuff buttons, it was the great Bonaparte himself who ordered that buttons be placed on the cuffs of his soldiers uniforms so that they could not wipe their noses on their sleeves.

 Whether single or double breasted, a man’s jacket always buttoned left side over right.  This design prevailed so that a man would not catch his sword in the opening, when drawing right handed.

By 1855 the bright colors, glitter and gold of the early 19th century gave way to darker, more uniform colors.  Sober businessmen felt that bright colors were not suitable in a hard working age; and they preferred clothes that were richly plain rather than gaily colored.  Black frock coats replaced the blues and greens of previous decades.  White evening waistcoats were exchanged for black ones.  Good tailoring became the mark of beauty and fashion in a suit.

In Victorian times, tailors would take a dozen fittings to perfect a suit.  Even Royalty accepted the importance of the way a suit fit a man.  Admiral Sir John (“Jackie”) Fisher once appeared before King Edward VII wearing a decidedly elderly outfit.  “That is a very old suit you are wearing,” said the King, “Yes, Sir,” he replied, “but you’ve always told me that nothing really matters but the cut.”

It was a sign of wealth to have a separate jacket for “sports”.  For, “in casting away clothes worn during working hours, the cares and worries of the daily round fly with them; a change of raiment makes a new man of one.”

Woolen tweeds like Cheviot, Irish, Scottish, Yorkshire and Saxony became the first choice among Victorians and Edwardian country gentlemen.  The blazer, so popular in our own time, made its appearance during Holmes’ heyday.  The origin of the blazer goes back to the Captain of the frigate H.M.S. Blazer, who was faced with a visit to his ship by Queen Victoria.  To smarten up his crew the Captain had short jackets in Navy blue serge, with brass Royal naval buttons, made up for his men.  Queen Victoria was impressed and the jackets became a permanent part of the crew’s dress.


A brief look at the life of the Victorian gentleman, based on the habits of the great detective Mr. Sherlcok Holmes. Included are: (1) Clothes, (2) Food, (3) Smoking, (4) Clubs, (5) Etiquette

Wine History: Wine and the English



     The English have always had a fondness for eccentrics.  Prime Minister William Gladstone, who presided over Parliament during much of the 1880’s certainly ranked among these. A man of many quirks and strange habits, Gladstone once observed, “I have made it a rule to give every tooth of mine a chance, and when I eat, to chew every bite thirty two times.  To this rule I owe much of my success in life.”

     Whatever the reason for Gladstone’s success, some speculate that his most important accomplishments may have been lowering the tariff on French wines and permitting grocers to stock and sell wine.  For the first time, the many varieties of French wines, together with German Rhines and Moselles, became widely available in England.

     By the late nineteenth century, a variety of wines were supposed to be set out for a proper dinner party:  sherry with soup and fish, hock or claret with roast meat, punch with turtle, champagne with whitebait, port with venison, port or burgundy with game, sparkling wines with the confectionary,  and for dessert port, tokay, madeira  or sherry.

     Although the Victorian’s enjoyed a variety of wines, they did not indulge in the excesses in quantity known in earlier times.  It had been the custom in Georgian times, for example, to drink a bottle, per person, after dinner.  Indeed, King William IV expected his governmental ministers to be two bottle men, if only to keep level with the typical Anglican cleric.

     Sherry came into fashion when the Prince Regent announced that he would drink nothing but sherry.  The Prince’s sudden conversion came about after a British privateer captured a French merchantman sailing between Cadiz and Le Havre.  In the ship’s cargo were two butts of a remarkably fine brown sherry destined for the table of the Emperor Napoleon.  Presented to the Prince Regent instead, sherry won an immediate and passionate convert.  

     Edward VII, while still Prince of Wales, is credited with having popularized champagne in England.  Edward preferred light Chablis and extra dry champagne, and these were produced specially for the English market, with spectacular results.  In 1861, some

three million bottles of champagne were exported from France to England.  By 1890, England was importing over nine million bottles of French champagne annually, almost half of all of the champagne being produced.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Lincoln Funeral Train


     In the spring of 1865, a private railroad car was constructed for President Lincoln’s personal use.  Ironically, this presidential car was employed for the first time as a funeral car to transport the slain Lincoln to his home in Springfield, Illinois.  Lincoln’s funeral train left Washington on April 21, 1865, and retraced much of the route Lincoln had traveled as president-elect in 1861.  The nine-car Lincoln Special whose engine displayed Lincoln’s photograph over the cowcatcher, carried approximately three hundred mourners.  Depending on conditions, the train usually traveled between 5 and 20 miles per hour.
    
The locomotive’s distinctive balloon stack was intended to control sparks from the burning wood fuel.  A cab offered protection for the engineer and fireman.  Most locomotives of this period had cowcatchers to minimize damage should the train encounter livestock on the tracks.  Each engine had a tender. Which carried wood, fuel, and water.

The practice of embalming came into its own during the American Civil War.  President Lincoln eventually sanctioned the procedure for all fallen soldiers.  President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865 but his body was not interred in Springfield, Illinois until May 4.  The passage of the body home for burial was made possible by embalming and brought the possibilities of embalming to the attention of a wider public.





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