Civil War Photo Bonus

Posted May 26th, 2011 at 3:39 pm (UTC-4)
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In preparing the previous four stories about U.S. Civil War sites and their histories, I gathered and posted a number of related photographs. And I was left with dozens more to choose from. If you’re one who believes the old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and that photographs as well as words tell stories, you may be hungry for more images of the terrible conflict, and what’s left of the places where bloody battles took place.

So I’ve scooped up 25 more photos and, with a few lines of explanation, present them for your inspection and contemplation. The aren’t perfectly packaged from a graphic point of view. Consider them a slightly ragged pile of pictures that you came across and want to leisurely browse.

I’ve arranged them, as best I can, in roughly the same, chronological order as my previous narrative.

The vintage, black-and-white photographs of the period are taken from the Library of Congress collection. So are the photos of paintings.

The current photographs are the work of my peripatetic wife and traveling companion, Carol M. Highsmith, whose work adds so much to virtually every posting that I produce.

This assortment will give you one more taste, 150 years after it was fought, of the war that still resonates in American life and in the writings of historians and novelists the world over.

More than 150 years later, evidence of the shelling of Fort Sumter remains.

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The gravesite of Judith Henry, killed by Yankee shells at the First Battle of Bull Run.

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A lithographic depiction of the Battle of Cornith, Mississippi.

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This statue, called the “Altar of Remembrance,” was erected at what’s left of the Fort Donelson battle site.

_ Read the rest of this entry »

Gettysburg to Surrender

Posted May 24th, 2011 at 7:21 pm (UTC-4)
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Like a pesky fly that neither swatter nor sledgehammer can seem to catch and crush — or a hero who lived to fight another day in cliffhanger movie serials a couple of generations ago — undermanned but determined Confederate forces kept eluding certain destruction in the first two years of the American Civil War.

Robert E. Lee and his handsome, gray horse Traveller were unmistakable on the battlefield.  (Library of Congress)

Robert E. Lee and his handsome, gray horse Traveller were unmistakable on the battlefield. (Library of Congress)

 

When last we left it, the army of General Robert E. Lee had fallen back from a northern incursion at Maryland’s Antietam Creek, and blunted the North’s expected kill shots at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in Virginia.

Then Lee seemed to disappear while one inadequate Union commander after another lost face and his command, and Yankee forces milled about the environs of Washington wondering where Lee had gone.

Where he was heading was straight for the heart of northern territory once again.

 

Gettysburg

A hill called Little Round Top, shown here in a painting by Edwin Forbes, was the scene of an unsuccessful Confederate attack at Gettysburg.  (Library of Congress)

A hill called Little Round Top, shown here in a painting by Edwin Forbes, was the scene of an unsuccessful Confederate attack at Gettysburg. (Library of Congress)

July 1-3, 1863. What American does not know of this little Pennsylvania town and the momentous battle fought there? One hundred-sixty thousand men engaged. The survival of one nation, indivisible, north and south, in the balance. The Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, the Angle, and Pickett’s Charge, as legendary places where the great armies crashed together on this sprawling battlefield.

When the almost accidental clash of two great armies had played out, 7,000 soldiers lay dead. The Confederates’ last thrust to — as a Georgia private pledged — “let the Yankey Nation feel the sting of the War” ebbed forever in bayonet-to-bayonet combat on Cemetery Ridge.

Gettysburg is the story of Robert E. Lee, wondering after J.E.B. Stuart, his dashing cavalry general who was gallivanting about the countryside; ordering General George Pickett’s suicidal charge with the vow, “I will strike him there”; disconsolately telling survivors, “All this has been my fault”; and sealing the nascent southern nation’s fate by leading his defeated army back south, into Virginia, for a second — and last — time.

An old photograph, colorized and made into a post card, of the view from Little Round Top onto another battle site called "The Wheatfield."  (Library of Congress)

Gettysburg would forever be remembered as “the High-Water Mark of the Confederacy.” So pivotal was the battle there that 1,400 monuments and memorials, as well as the resting place of thousands of Union dead, would be consecrated on that field.

Desperate for a knock-out blow and rejoicing when it came, Washington arranged a day of proud, but somber, speeches for the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg in November.

A fine band and a bombastic orator — former Harvard University president Edward Everett — were booked for the occasion. Almost as an afterthought, squeaky-voiced President Abraham Lincoln was invited to say a few words as well.

They would be few, all right. Lincoln’s 256 words, delivered in just over two minutes to an audience that wasn’t entirely sure the president was even speaking and was astonished to see him done, became some of the most famous remarks in American, perhaps world, history.

Lincoln is depicted delivering his "Gettysburg Address," far more prominently than he actually appeared in a crowd that surged around him.

Many an American schoolchild has been asked to memorize and recite the entire speech, [1]beginning with Lincoln’s “Four score and seven years ago” reference to the founding of the American nation — and closing, as Lincoln did, with a resolution that the dead who lay buried before him had not died in vain and that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Chickamauga

September 19-20, 1863. Gettysburg may have been the Confederacy’s zenith in what its people called “the War of Northern Aggression,” but “The South’s Last Hurrah” came along a stream called Chickamauga, an Indian word that fittingly means “River of Death.” Having abandoned Chattanooga, Tennessee, on the strategically vital Tennessee River, General Braxton Bragg’s Rebel army faced the Federals in rugged terrain on the Tennessee-Georgia border in the southernmost reaches of the long Appalachian Mountain chain. These battle-hardened forces won the bloody fight and drove the Yankees back to Chattanooga in disarray.

Chattanooga

This is a 20th-Century view of an incline railway on Lookout Mountain, but it gives you an idea of the terrain that Yankee soldiers overcame in climbing up and overtaking the enemy artillery that commanded this formidable perch.  (Library of Congress)

This is a 20th-Century view of an incline railway on Lookout Mountain, but it gives you an idea of the terrain that Yankee soldiers overcame in climbing up and overtaking the enemy artillery that commanded this formidable perch. (Library of Congress)

November 23-25, 1863. After smashing Union general William “Old Rosy” Rosecrans at Chickamauga, Bragg’s Confederate Army of the Tennessee retook Lookout Mountain, an imposing redoubt from which he shelled Federal forces that had captured Chattanooga, 670 meters (2,200 feet) below. But on November 24th, Yankee troops’ brazen and victorious charge up the fog-swept mountain ousted the Confederates and assured continued Union control of the key city on the Tennessee River.

Andersonville

February 1864. This was not a battle site, but rather an unpleasant extension of clashes throughout the campaign. Built to house 10,000 Union captives, it was Andersonville Prison — which the Confederates called “Camp Sumter” after its location in Sumter County, Georgia. Read the rest of this entry »

Second Bull Run Through Chancellorsville

Posted May 23rd, 2011 at 1:47 pm (UTC-4)
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If you hear shots in the woods from Pennsylvania to Louisiana this summer, it may be Civil War re-enactors rather than hunters.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

If you hear shots in the woods from Pennsylvania to Louisiana this summer, it may be Civil War re-enactors rather than hunters. (Carol M. Highsmith)

In our short course on the U.S. Civil War, we — or rather Union forces —made it as far as the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, in 1862.  There the grinding war, barely a year old, might have been brought to a triumphant close had cocky, but overcautious, Union general-in-chief George McClellan pressed his advantage in men and materiel and kept pounding until his army overwhelmed the Confederate capital.

Instead, Richmond held, for a couple of reasons: McClellan was duped into thinking that the undermanned Rebels had superior forces that would flank him and launch a pell-mell attack on Washington to his rear.  And the wounding of southern commander Joseph E. Johnston prompted Confederate president Jefferson Davis to give brilliant, gallant Robert E. Lee command of what would soon be called the Army of Northern Virginia.  Lee stopped his dithering opponent in his tracks.

Union soldiers relax near an assistant quartermaster's "office" in the field.  (Library of Congress)

As McClellan, whom President Lincoln promptly demoted, slunk back north with his survivors, Lee would surreptitiously follow.

And the war would drag on for three long and gruesome years.

Second Bull Run

August 28-30, 1862.  Just as the Confederates were welcoming their courtly but cunning new commander, the Union brought in a winner as well.  John Pope had led Federal troops to victory on several western battlefields, and he was summoned to Washington to take command of the forces around the northern capital, including McClellan’s humbled remnants.  Pope envisioned only a brief rehearsal before the Union would, once and for all, march south again — surely triumphantly this time — straight to Richmond.

Stonewall Jackson's sly and unyielding maneuvers at Bull Run were noteworthy enough to merit this equestrian statue on the battlefield grounds.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Stonewall Jackson's sly and unyielding maneuvers at Bull Run were noteworthy enough to merit this equestrian statue on the battlefield grounds. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Lee had other ideas.  He and his men snuck northward, joined his bold and ruthless deputy, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and pounced upon Pope’s army along Bull Run — the very spot where Confederate forces had first routed the Union Army and deflated its notion of invulnerability a year earlier.

Second Bull Run was déjà vu in its humiliation of Yankee commanders, only this time, civilians, savvy enough not to count on a Union rout of the Rebel rabble a second time, were nowhere in sight.

Pope lost the battle, 10,000 men killed and wounded, and his command, as the Yankees again scrambled back toward Washington.

Antietam

September 17, 1862. Flush with success around Richmond and at Second Manassas — I’ll allow the Confederate nomenclature for Bull Run here since the Rebs won twice there — Lee pressed his advantage into the North itself, to the alarm of his bluecoat opponents and the sheer panic of the already jittery northern population.

Lee’s intent was to relieve war-weary Virginia, scare Washington half to death, and present Maryland’s harvest to his hungry troops.  More generally, the foray might entice France and England to recognize the Confederacy, win over sympathetic, border-state Maryland, or prompt northern Democrats to demand an end to the war.

Leaving troops behind to deal with Yankee resistance in western Virginia, Lee led his ragged army over the Potomac River into Maryland and occupied Frederick — which turned out to be not sympathetic at all.  Its townspeople spat on his men as invaders, not liberators.

And before long, not far away, Union general McClellan, pouting and simmering over his demotion but still sent to confront Lee, would find his backbone, if ever so briefly. Read the rest of this entry »

Fort Sumter Through the Peninsula Campaign

Posted May 20th, 2011 at 9:51 am (UTC-4)
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As I told you when I first started this written adventure, I’d be asking you to put up with occasional sorties into American history as a backdrop to what our nation has become today.  So pack your imaginary bags!

I promised last time that I’d take you on a two- or three-part written and visual tour of important Civil War sites, much as many visitors will be doing with their feet this summer and over four more 150th-anniversary years of that bloody conflict.  Since the Union won the war, I will use its terminology for the various battlefields; the Confederates often preferred different ones — as some southerners do to this day.

The fighting began at:

Fort Sumter, South Carolina

April 12, 1861.  Abraham Lincoln had been elected, but ineffectual James Buchanan was still president when seven Deep South states, led by South Carolina, stormed out of the Union.  Their state militias seized control of Federal customhouses and forts.

Fort Sumter was built to protect Charleston, not receive fire FROM it.  (Library of Congress)

Fort Sumter was built to protect Charleston, not receive fire FROM it. (Library of Congress)

But at Buchanan’s insistence, coastal installations — including Fort Sumter, guarding Charleston’s harbor — remained in Union hands.

On April 10, before a relief expedition could arrive, Confederate Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard demanded surrender of the Union garrison.  Its commander, Major Robert Anderson, refused, and two days later, Confederate batteries opened fire.

Declared or not, our great civil war was on.

The next day, Anderson began to evacuate.  Unlike deadly battles to come, not a single life was lost in the opening salvo of the Civil War.

Arlington House

 

Arlington House, seen today, looms over monumental Washington across the Potomac River.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

Arlington House, seen today, looms over monumental Washington across the Potomac River. (Carol M. Highsmith)

May, 1861.  For 30 years, from the time Robert E. Lee married his childhood sweetheart and distant cousin, Mary Anna Custis, until he left to fight for his native Virginia, their grand mansion overlooked the Potomac River, and Washington, D.C., had been their home.

It had been built by George Washington Custis, grandson of Martha Washington, the wife of our first president, as a memorial to his step-grandfather.

Custis toyed with the idea of calling it “Mount Washington” but settled on “Arlington House” after the family estate in Tidewater Virginia, which had been granted by England’s Earl of Arlington.  The Washington suburb of Arlington and Arlington Cemetery, which would later appear on the Lee-Custis Mansion grounds, carry the name to this day.

Rows of 'Wiard guns' await deployment at Washington, D.C.'s, arsenal.  (Library of Congress)

Rows of 'Wiard guns' await deployment at Washington, D.C.'s, arsenal. (Library of Congress)

Soon after Robert E. Lee left the property for Richmond, Federal troops occupied Arlington House and the surrounding hectares as part of a ring of fortifications protecting the national capital.  Fort Whipple — now Fort Myer — was built on the land as one of the fortresses.

First Bull Run

July 21, 1861.  War was a lark for the 35,000 Federal troops under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell as they marched from Washington toward Manassas Junction in the Northern Virginia countryside.  McDowell was in a hurry; 90-day enlistments of many of his volunteers were expiring.

His target was a rail line that, when captured, would carry the Federals “on to Richmond,” as his troops chortled while they marched.  There, they were supremely confident, they would make short work of the secessionist nation.  Thousands of giddy onlookers, packing picnic lunches, tagged along for the rout. Read the rest of this entry »

A Poor Man’s Fight

Posted May 18th, 2011 at 12:19 pm (UTC-4)
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The Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, depicted in a lithograph published in 1891.  (Library of Congress)

The Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, depicted in a lithograph published in 1891. (Library of Congress)

The transcendent U.S. Civil War historian Shelby Foote came across a slogan used by southern opponents of secession and war — of which there weren’t many in a region that romanticized the rectitude of the cause.

Poking the mighty northern bear, they warned, would lead to “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

It would indeed be a conflict fomented by “fire-eater” dandies extolling disunion over cocktails on South Carolina verandas, and high-born abolitionists denouncing slavery from New England pulpits — but fought, in places, by northern shoe clerks and shoeless southern farmboys.  It began as a rich man’s war and — for more than 600,000 ordinary soldiers — ended as a dead man’s fight as well.

Elements of the victorious Union army march in review in Washington in 1865.  (Library of Congress)

Elements of the victorious Union army march in review in Washington in 1865. (Library of Congress)

From the moment of the rebels’ surrender in 1865 to today, not just our nation, but also the rest of the world, has held tight to a lingering fascination with that savage conflict.  That’s due, in part, to what seems like the sheer stupidity of the South’s quixotic — those with an eye on slavery would say evil — quest for separation from what was still a young nation.

This year and the next, and the three after that — which mark the 150th anniversary of the war’s onset through the date of surrender — the poor man’s war will be restudied, and semantically refought, as never before.  Battle re-enactors are already donning their blue and butternut-gray uniforms, and even the war’s lesser-known battlegrounds are being rediscovered and re-trod.

That is where I want to take you in the next couple of posts: to the places where brave, undoubtedly terrified, men collided, screaming and hacking and firing, and by the thousands, dying.

Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox.  Grant graciously refused to accept Lee's proferred sword.  (Library of Congress)

Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox. Grant graciously refused to accept Lee's proferred sword. (Library of Congress)

The old axiom notwithstanding, hindsight is not always 20-20 when it comes to this war.  If it were, people would have stopped debating the nuances of that “great civil war.”  A century and a half after Confederate supreme commander Robert E. Lee surrendered his armies at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, we still wonder what would have happened had he seized the high ground at Gettysburg, up in Pennsylvania.  Or had Union commander George McClellan had more gumption when he marched his impeccably drilled army into the belly of the South.  Or had the Virginia — the captured former Federal ship Merrimack that the Confederacy clad in iron — been the only ironclad on the seas.

Yes, the Civil War still consumes us.  Propose flying the Confederate “stars and bars” battle flag above a great public building if you don’t believe it.

But why does it enthrall us, 55 years after the last Civil War combatant, Union drummer boy Albert Woolson, died?  Why do we watch the movie “Gone With the Wind” over and over again?  Why do we travel, sometimes half a globe away, to walk the Antietam battlefield in Maryland or inspect the salvaged Confederate submarine Hunley in South Carolina?  Why do we pull off the road to read rusted signs describing obscure maneuvers long ago? Read the rest of this entry »

The Last Days of Conversation

Posted May 16th, 2011 at 4:15 pm (UTC-4)
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The “Ted Landphair’s America” blog that provoked the most feedback was “Math, Smath,” about the pluses and minuses — if you’ll forgive the pun — of requiring high-school students to take Advanced Algebra.

Some of the replies broadened the issue into a discussion about modern education.  They were illuminating, and I particularly want to call your attention to this  fragment of a note from reader “Dave” :

Why should I have had to sit through those courses, even though I do not use those skills in my normal life?

The answer is that it makes us well rounded individuals. Because I can write properly, I can communicate with non-engineers to get my ideas across and further my career. Because I know something of literature and history, I can carry on conversations with people who couldn’t tell an ohm from a mho. It allows me to function in society with other people who are not like me.

If there were a hospice for moribund communication forms, conversation would be in it.  (HowardLake, Flickr Creative Commons)

If there were a hospice for moribund communication forms, conversation would be in it. (HowardLake, Flickr Creative Commons)

The word that jumps out to me is “conversations,” because I have just finished reading a clever but profound excerpt, titled “An elegy for conversation,” from Alexandra Petri’s washingtonpost.com humor blog.

The meat of it follows her lament about “Yammering Man, the One Who Speaks Loudly on a Cellphone in Public”:

Conversation has always been a bewildering art.  It dates back, like so many arts . . . to a mysterious and bygone epoch When There Was Nothing Better To Do. . . .

I miss the slivers of conversation that you’d hear in an elevator.  I miss the days when the people around me were engaged in anything other than checking their phones repeatedly.  I miss when I wasn’t doing the same.  I miss the voices.

She misses — that word again — conversation.

Sometimes in my “Wild Words” at the end of these posts, I’ll present an ordinary term’s current meaning and then take you back to its much richer roots in ancient Greek, Middle English or wherever.

The photographer of this image titled it, "Chatting during the break."  We "chat" at lot these days.  Converse, not so much.  (ahockley, Flickr Creative Commons)

Conversation is something like that.  Blurting back and forth on handheld text devices, for instance, is a threadbare imitation of conversation, a sort of rat-a-tat-tat exchange of fire between trenches.

Nor is posting your deepest thoughts in 139 characters “conversing.”  You don’t really converse on a cellphone, either.  When you finally connect, so often you’re on the go, in a rush, sitting in an office cauldron, or fidgeting with connection fades and drop-outs. Read the rest of this entry »

Oh Happy Day

Posted May 12th, 2011 at 1:44 pm (UTC-4)
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Money is often said to be capitalist America’s brass ring.  But judging by a recent spate of media stories, I believe that it’s happiness instead.

There’s an old saying that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” but those who say it are usually quick to add that a few bucks in your pocket make the road there a lot smoother.

Is happiness a state of mind?  Peacefulness in your heart?  Or a pleasant, passing moment with a baby’s smile or a songbird’s trill?

That four-color chute at the top is dispensing rings — mostly iron, some brass — to carousel riders in Santa Cruz, California.  (Bradley P. Johnson, Wikipedia Commons)

That four-color chute at the top is dispensing rings — mostly iron, some brass — to carousel riders in Santa Cruz, California. (Bradley P. Johnson, Wikipedia Commons)

Or is it life’s elusive brass ring?

Can you will happiness to yourself, even in tough times?  Work on it, practice it, build it up?  Or are some lucky, chipper people born with a “happiness gene”?

Is happiness the same thing as love, whatever THAT is!?

Or is it something not grand at all, such as ownership of a “warm gun,” as John Lennon wrote in a song on the Beatles’ White Album.  That would fit America’s culture.

Are there “secrets” to happiness — available while supplies last for $19.95 on a local cable channel or a bookstore near you?

Must it have a religious component, a connection with one’s maker or some ethereal spirit?

Can we be ambassadors of happiness, bringing OTHERS joy?  Or are we on our own when it comes to gladness and bliss?

Are there degrees and shades of happiness?  Tranquil sorts seem happy much of the time — content, anyway — but they aren’t very perky about it. And bubbly folks don’t seem all that deep.  Yet both are liable to tell you they’re happy as a lark, a clam, or a bug in a rug.

This lark, an eastern meadowlark, chirps a happy tune.  But it always seems nervous, so can it be happy? (Alan D. Wilson, Wikipedia Commons)

This lark, an eastern meadowlark, chirps a happy tune. But it always seems nervous, so can it be happy? (Alan D. Wilson, Wikipedia Commons)

**Note and homework assignment: Larks SOUND happy, but are they really?

You’ll notice that there are a lot more questions than answers here.

I have a VOA colleague who, from time to time, tells me that it’s foolhardy to chase happiness as a be-all and end-all goal.  Be thankful for bits of it where you find them, she advises, and don’t make a big deal out of it.

She would appreciate this quote from Sharon Salzberg, a noted meditationist — if there is such a word — who is best-selling author:

By engaging in a delusive quest for happiness, we bring only suffering upon ourselves. In our frantic search for something to quench our thirst, we overlook the water all around us and drive ourselves into exile from our own lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Reparations Simmer — On a Far Back Burner

Posted May 9th, 2011 at 7:00 pm (UTC-4)
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You may have heard the term “reparations.” It comes from the same root word as “repair,” and it refers to repairing, or correcting, a past wrong with some sort of tangible payment.

Richard Kobayashi, a Japanese-American confined at the Manzanar Relocation Center during World War II, holds cabbages that he harvested.  (Library of Congress)

Richard Kobayashi, a Japanese-American confined at the Manzanar Relocation Center during World War II, holds cabbages that he harvested. (Library of Congress)

The idea of compensating victims of terrible mistreatment is not new. Ten years ago or so, Austria established a $380-million fund to recompense tens of thousands of citizens from six East European nations who were forced into slave labor during the Nazi era.  Germany is still paying Israel reparations for Nazi atrocities against Jews. In 1988, the U.S. Congress voted to pay $20,000 and issue formal letters of apology to each survivor of Japanese-American internment camps during World War Two. And the state of Florida made payments to African-American victims of a 1923 mob massacre.

Yet lawsuits and legislation seeking monetary compensation for the descendants of American slaves have gone nowhere.

The World Conference Against Racism in 2001 shone a spotlight on the unsightly legacy of slavery.  (United Nations)

The World Conference Against Racism in 2001 shone a spotlight on the unsightly legacy of slavery. (United Nations)

In 2001, following more than three years of meetings in nearly every corner of the world, delegates met in Durban, South Africa, for the United Nations-sponsored “World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Other Related Intolerances.”  On that world stage, Africans and those of African heritage living elsewhere raised lingering issues related to previous centuries’ African slave trade.

Some heads of state attended this conference, which unequivocally declared slavery to be a crime against humanity.  The United States sent a relatively low-level delegation.

A group of African-American attendees came home determined to raise the issue of monetary compensation for the descendants of America’s African slaves — most victims themselves being at least a century dead, of course.  But the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, and a hijacked airliner over Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, diverted the nation’s attention and energy from any serious consideration of such a plan.

In Atlanta, Georgia, a captured store that sold glass, china, and slaves. Click on image to see front sign.  (Library of Congress)

In Atlanta, Georgia, a captured store that sold glass, china, and slaves. Click on image to see front sign. (Library of Congress)

Still, a “Reparations Mobilization Coalition” formed and began a global effort, and a focused campaign in the United States, to remind anyone who would listen about the outrages of slavery, and make the case for the payment of reparations to slaves’ descendants.

This got little traction in Congress or anywhere else that held the power of the purse strings, and the reparations movement bumped along as a mostly symbolic and rhetorical crusade.

John Conyers of Michigan, an African-American U.S. congressman, introduced several bills that would fund payments to the descendants of American slaves, but the measures never got out of committee.

Lawsuits were filed against certain insurance companies, railroads, and other corporations whose predecessor companies, the suits alleged, insured slave traders, transported slaves, or profited directly from the slave trade.  This brought the movement media exposure and the corporations ticklish publicity, but no reparations money — that I know of — has so far been collected.

The issue gained much more momentum in certain local communities, especially those with large, often governing, African-American populations. Read the rest of this entry »

U.S.A. “The Uninformed States of America”?

Posted May 5th, 2011 at 2:18 pm (UTC-4)
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A while back, Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker wrote a troubling piece in which she described a trend that doesn’t seem to bother the country much.  But it worries me!

She laid out the appalling results of two national studies, one that tested the “civic literacy” of freshmen and seniors at 50 universities across the country.  Parker didn’t specify exactly what was tested, but she reported that “the average senior failed with a score of 54 percent.”

Q. 1  This is (a) Donald Trump  (b) Joe Biden  (c) Ted Landphair

Q. 1 This is (a) Donald Trump (b) Joe Biden (c) Ted Landphair

College seniors, mind you, some of them, at the end of supposedly rigorous academic journeys, about to step into the world of work as what we’re fond of calling “the leaders of tomorrow.”   Leaders who, presumably from their dismal performance on such tests, quite possibly don’t know how many U.S. senators there are or who’s third in line as the leader of our nation should something happen to President Obama and Vice President Biden.

In the other study — something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered to children in the 4 th, 8 th, and 12th grades — only one in four proved “proficient” in American history, despite all the lessons, photos of George Washington hanging around, and school pageants in which the kids played Pocahontas and Paul Revere.

Want better results on surveys?  Ask our young people about this guy.  (Rob Stemple, Flickr Creative Commons)

Want better results on surveys? Ask our young people about this guy. (Rob Stemple, Flickr Creative Commons)

And judging by the previous study mentioned, it doesn’t look promising that their civic and historical understanding will expand much as they move on in school.

Yet, as Parker points out, “Students are brilliant, apparently, when it comes to popular culture, something we’ve all known.”  She cites still another survey that proves students know all about the rap star Snoop Dogg and the snarly cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-Head.

Has celebrity madness overwhelmed the intellectual parapets of our civilization?

Here, for me, was Parker’s most astute and troubling point:

Students cant be blamed for not knowing what they havent been taught.  An ACTA [American Council of Trustees and Alumni] study in 2002 found that most top universities and colleges no longer require any history courses. [And that was nine years ago!] Read the rest of this entry »

We’re Not in Mississippi Any More

Posted May 4th, 2011 at 2:22 pm (UTC-4)
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You may know the charming story of Dorothy, the Kansas farm girl who, with her cute little Cairn terrier Toto, was picked up by a howling tornado and transported to a magical land in Frank Baum’s book The Wizard of Oz, and in an even better-known movie.

No indeedy, we're not in Kansas!  (Wikipedia Commons)

No indeedy, we're not in Kansas! (Wikipedia Commons)

Astonished by their new surroundings amid little people called Munchkins and a winding yellow-brick road, Dorothy remarks, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

And coming out of the deadly spate of tornadoes that raked the American South this Spring, we’re hearing about somewhat similar, but entirely real, stories of things being picked up and carried a long, long way — though most don’t involve cute little girls and puppy dogs.

The New York Times reports that several massive, swirling funnel clouds that battered entire communities to bits picked up treasured pieces of the residents’ lives and carried them unbelievable distances before returning them to earth.

Seen from space, this is a huge line of tornado-producing thunderstorms, coursing across the eastern United States.  (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin.)

Seen from space, this is a huge line of tornado-producing thunderstorms, coursing across the eastern United States. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admin.)

According to tornado experts, heavy objects such as cars and humans cannot be “sucked up” into the clouds and carried long distances.  They are simply too heavy.  A tornadic cloud can, however, lift such an object into its vortex, transport it a short distance as the tornado dipsy-doodles across the landscape, and spit it out of the top of its whirling mass of air and water — almost certainly, in the case of a person or mule or household pet, hurling it to its death.

But light, fluttery objects are something else again.  The Times tells of several pieces of family memorabilia that had lain securely in people’s homes in one southern state one minute, only to be discovered more than a hundred kilometers away in another state a few hours later.

David and Sharon Newton stand stop what little is left of their home in Concord, Alabama, after one of this Spring's killer storms leveled it.  (Wynter Byrd/AP)

David and Sharon Newton stand stop what little is left of their home in Concord, Alabama, after one of this Spring's killer storms leveled it. (Wynter Byrd/AP)

A twister dipped into Mississippi on April 27th, for instance, killing Elvin Patterson and his wife and pulling a great deal of debris aloft.  Later, following a storm in her own community 282 kilometers (175 miles) away in Tennessee, a woman found a picture of Patterson, holding his family dog, in her office parking lot.

Suspecting that it was a photo of a storm victim, she went to a new Facebook lost-and-found page created by an Alabama woman who had found her own yard littered with other people’s mementos.  And on that site, on which more than 600 photographs of recovered objects had been posted within a few days of the storms, Elvin Patterson’s granddaughter recognized the photo.

“That man is my granddaddy,” Emily Washburn reported. “It would mean a lot to me to have that picture.”  And have it she would.

By the way, the dog in that photograph of her granddaddy was, or is — I’m not sure whether it survived — named “Yoyo.”  It’s not “Toto,” but it’s close enough to catch your eye.

****

Reaping the Whirlwind

I’ve heard that expression a thousand times and never completely known what it meant.  But since I’m talking tornadoes today, I figured that now would be a good time to find out. Read the rest of this entry »

Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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