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 crĂªpeline 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
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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Saturday, April 04, 2015

The Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery

     Several hundred Confederate dead were buried at the new national cemetery at Arlington by the end of the war in April 1865. Some were prisoners of war who died in custody, some were executed spies, and some were battlefield dead. The federal government did not permit the decoration of Confederate graves. Families of Confederates buried at Arlington were refused permission to lay flowers on their loved ones' graves.
     In 1868, families of dead Confederates were barred from the cemetery on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day). Union veterans prowled the cemetery ensuring that Confederate graves were not honored in any way.  Cemetery authorities refused to allow monuments to the Confederate dead or allow Confederate veterans to be buried at Arlington.
     Because of the Spanish-American War and the need to end still simmering sectional differences, the federal government's policy toward Confederate graves at Arlington National Cemetery changed. On December 14, 1898, President McKinley announced that the federal government would begin tending Confederate graves since these dead represented “a tribute to American valor”.  Several hundred Confederate soldiers buried throughout Arlington National Cemetery were disinterred and reburied in a “Confederate section” around the spot designated for the Confederate Memorial.  
    On June 4, 1914 President Woodrow Wilson dedicated the Confederate Memorial at Arlington. The Confederate Memorial was dedicated to peace and reconciliation and to the hope of a united future.  U.S. Presidents have traditionally sent a wreath to be placed at the Confederate Memorial on Memorial Day.

These fictional memoirs are based on the true story of a southern belle who defied convention to become a front line soldier and spy for the Confederacy. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Prince of Wales at Mount Vernon: 155 Years of History

Mount Vernon has always been a place of pilgrimage because of the tomb of George Washington, America’s secular saint.   Prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Mount Vernon was visited by HRH Prince Albert, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII).  On October 5, 1860 President James Buchanan accompanied the Prince on a tour of Mount Vernon and visited Washington’s tomb, which was not in very good shape.  A British correspondent wrote, “No pious care seems to have ever tended this neglected grave. . .It is here alone in its glory, uncared for, unvisited, unwatched, with the night-wind for its only mourner sighing through the waste of trees, and strewing the dead brown leaves like ashes before the tomb. Such is the grave of Washington!”

After the First World War another Prince of Wales visited.  On November 13, 1919, the future King Edward VIII visited Washington’s grave and laid a wreath.  The Prince also planted a small English yew tree near the tomb.

 On March 18, 2015, HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, and Camilla Duchess of Cornwall laid a wreath at Washington’s tomb.  The Prince, a major force in raising awareness about environmental issues, found Washington’s tomb in considerably better shape than did his great-great grandfather.  The yew tree planted by his great uncle was also pointed out to the Prince.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Prostitution in Victorian America

Prostitution was illegal under the vagrancy laws, but the laws were not well-enforced. Brothels flourished.  By 1890 there were an estimated 65,000 prostitutes working in America’s cities out of a total population of sixty two million (as a percentage of population, this would equate to some 300,000 persons so engaged today).  Parlor house brothels catered to upper class clientele, while so called bawdy houses catered to the lower classes. 

From books such as The Gentleman’s Directory, published in New York City, readers learned that “an hour cannot be spent more pleasantly” than at Harry Hill’s place on 25 East Houston Street. And they learned that Ada Blashfield of 55 West Houston Street had “8 to 10 boarders both blondes and brunettes,” playing host to “some of our first citizens.” Since prostitution was illegal, the The Gentleman’s Directory was ostensibly to tell men where not to go.  The book listed some one hundred and fifty bordellos (out of the five hundred such establishments in New York City) out of civic duty, “We point out the location of these places in order that the reader may know how to avoid them,” the book insisted, “and that he may not select one of them for his boarding house when he comes to the city.”

A Storyville Prostitute

Brothels and gaming houses became so prevalent in New Orleans during the late nineteenth century that they threatened to invade every part of the city.  In an effort to contain vice in the city, Alderman Sidney Story drafted legislation in 1897 designating sixteen square blocks just off the French Quarter as a legal district for prostitution. Once the law was passed, hundreds of prostitutes celebrated by staging a parade down Canal Street, marching or riding naked or dressed in elaborate costumes.  The New Orleans vice district soon became known as “Storyville” and housed some two hundred brothels and fifteen hundred prostitutes.

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