Monday, May 17, 2010

Tommy Lee Jones: "Am I dead?" John Bell Hood: "You don't look like it to me"

Certainly Hood saw enough dead men to answer that question correctly. Back in 1994 I picked up a copy of James Lee Burke's In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, because it combined two interests of mine, murder mysteries and the Civil War (though in truth, it has virtually nothing to do with the Civil War). In the novel, detective Dave Robicheaux (the sixth installment with this classic, South Louisiana character) encounters the ghost of Confederate General John Bell Hood with whom he has a conversation or two. There's no particular reason to bring Confederate ghosts into the story, but the general serves to bolster the spirits of the struggling lawman while Robicheaux sees connections between a half-forgotten murder he witnessed as a boy and a string of present day serial killings. Hood's main purpose here seems to be to present the ideal of steadfast honor and adherence to principle.

Spring forward to 2010, last month in New Orleans, I was visiting the grave of John Bell Hood at Metairie Cemetery, and the statue at the Army of Tennessee tomb which provided artwork for the original dust jacket of Burke's book. I mentioned In the Electric Mist and was excited to learn from Civil War Forum member John Lancaster that they'd made a movie of the book. Incidentally, next to the Hood gravein which the Hood name is overshadowed in his wife's family plotis a large metal plaque giving a biography of the general. It's designed to look like a government issue sign, but as our guide told us, it was placed there by a Hood descendantthe same one, I'm pretty sure, who is on a crusade to rehabilitate Hood's military career, and who took out the ad in Civil War News to attack Wiley Sword for unkind words about the general. The plaque, I can report, is a fairly straightforward biography. I was glad it didn't end with a footnote about Sword being a damned liar.

Somehow, this movie (with the title shortened to "In the Electric Mist") passed me by completely, even though it's only from 2009, and had a fairly substantial cast, including Jones, John Goodman, Mary Steenburgen, Ned Beatty, Buddy Guy, Peter Sarsgaard, and Kelly MacDonald. Last week I finally got around to looking up the film on Netflix, and was pleased as punch to see it was among their "Watch Instantly" offerings. I made time for it the other night, and with no expectations at all, enjoyed it very much. Jones and Goodman work pretty hard at their accents, and pull it off for the most part.

Levon Helm of The Band fame plays the one-legged general, and who can resist that gravelly drawl? For all his range as a singer, it's interesting that Helm's on-screen roles seem only to call for a monotone delivery (and Levon, it's cavalry, not calvary). Take off the general's insignia, and this is pretty much exactly the same character that Tommy Lee Jones had a conversation with in the intriguing, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," except that then he was an old blind man in Mexico, not a dead Confederate general.

Please don't be alarmed by the severity of my comparison.

Below, Hood's grave, and the aforementioned marker.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Making the Civil War Strange Again"

The current issue of Prologue (Spring 2010, Vol. 42, No. 1) has a brief article by Bruce Bustard, curator of the new Civil War exhibit at the National Archives. The ingenious invention above (click to get a larger view) is featured in the article, and the exhibit. The caption reads: "In 1862 Louis Joubert patented this multipurpose device that could serve as a tent, knapsack, or litter. (Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, RG 241)."

Bustard attributes the phrase "make the Civil War strange again" to historian Edward Ayers. It is that spirit which gave the exhibit its name, "Discovering the Civil War"in the expectation that even seasoned students of the Civil War era can "rediscover" a familiar subject. I personally am really looking forward to seeing the exhibit on one of my trips to Washington this fall. The notion of making the war "strange" again is really apt, and not a difficult feat. Those of you who have gotten swept away into a years-long fascination (obsession?) with the Civil War periodwho, though you may have broad interests in the full spectrum of human history, continue to find yourself drawn to yet one more Civil War campaign study, one more biography, one more monograph on an aspect of the periodknow the idea.

It's a subject area that is so big, so all encompassing, so woven into the nation's fabric, so recent, that one can manage to find fresh reading material, and fresh insights, with virtually every trip to the bookstore. One thing I've noticed over the years, something hard to convey to people who don't share an abiding passion for American history (hereafter referred to as soulless robots), is that just when you think you might be getting burned out on the subject, just when you think you can't stomach any more glorification of horrific carnage, when you swear you can not tolerate one more tortured rationalization about fighting for the liberty to keep others in bondage, or one more cliched fairy tale about saintly motivations, something washes over your senses, making you remember why you became fascinated with the subject to begin with.

Some passing thought, or dawning realization, or new-found perspective gives you pause and fills you with awe, causing you to fleetingly graspin a moment of claritythat it's not just a familiar narrative to dissect and critique or challenge or substantiate, but something that actually happened, a strange and amazing story about who we are and where we came from.

History will always be bigger than our attempts to chronicle it.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
from "Little Gidding," T.S. Eliot

Monday, May 10, 2010

Some photos from the Civil War Forum's visit to New Orleans in April, 2010

(click to enlarge):

This first one is from the Army of Tennessee tomb at Metairie Cemetery. I'm convinced this soldier is the same one pictured on the original dust jacket of James Lee Burke's, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead. But I could be wrong.

Gallier Hall, on St. Charles Avenue, was city hall in 1862 when Federal officers from the U.S. fleet climbed the steps and demanded the surrender of New Orleans.

Monument to the acclaimed Washington Artillery.
And a boy who climbs on everything.

Henry Clay monument in Lafayette Square.

City archivist Greg Osborn, and Loyola history professor Justin Nystrom, begin our walking tour in Lafayette Square, opposite Gallier Hall.

Battle of Liberty Place monument, commemorating the Reconstruction Era fight between the White League and the Metropolitan Police, in 1874. If the South lost the Civil War, this, Nystrom pointed out, was where white supremacists won the peace.

Fort Pike on Lake Ponchartrain, now a Louisiana State Park. Theres' little in the way of interpretation, but the park staff are superb.

The fort was completely underwater after Katrina, though the moat seen here was part of the design.

Original burial place of Jefferson Davis, Metairie Cemetery. Eighteen months after he was buried here, wife Varina had his remains moved to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

Grave of General Richard Taylor, son of president Zachary Taylor, son-in-law of Jefferson Davis, and author of one of the best reminiscences of the Civil War, Destruction and Reconstruction.

Laura plantation, for many of us, one of the highlights of the weekend. A beautiful spot, quiet and uncrowded when we were there, with a wonderful guide. A unique example of a Creole plantation.

Photo of a slave on the Laura plantation. Note the line of slave cabins on either side of the image.

One of a few surviving slave cabins at Laura, along the Mississippi River. In the distance are sugar cane fields.

Oak Alley Plantation on the Mississippi River. The 300-year-old oaks are pretty stunning, and the architecture presents a classic image of the antebellum plantation, which also makes it one of the more touristy stops on the old river road.

The home of Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, from 1866-1868, in the French Quarter.

Bourbon Street. If you're looking for little beers, just keep walking.

This was a long-neglected display window at a liquor store at Canal and Camp. At first I thought that was a voodoo doll holding a giant cookee, but now I think it may be some kind of Aunt Jemima representation holding a tray. The doll, the alligator head and the Confederate battleflag shot glass all combine to broadcast the message that I cannot decipher.

Now this is a message I can understand, and perhaps the only football-related one I saw that did not say "who dat?"

I say, well done Saints!

Friday, May 07, 2010

Doonesbury takes on Virginia's Confederate History Month

It's gratifying to see that Gary Trudeau has turned his attention to another target rich environment. The Confederate History Month theme starts about one week ago, with this strip. Hit "next" to follow the whole string up to today's entry.

Monday, May 03, 2010

"Discovering the Civil War,"

a brand new exhibit, opened at the National Archives last Friday, and by all accounts is an important and substantive presentation. At the heart of it are six original documents, either rarely seen, or never before exhibited, such as Robert E. Lee's resignation from the U.S. army (photo at left).

It's a massive exhibit requiring two visits -- Part I is up and running, and Part II will debut on November 11. At the close of the National Archives show, the combined parts will hit the road for exhibitions at The Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn Michigan (Summer 2011), The Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston, Texas (Fall 2011 through Spring 2012), and finally at the Durham Museum, Omaha, Nebraska (Fall of 2013).

The exhibit web site is here.

I was reading Drew Wagenhoffer's superb blog this morning, as is my wont

Suddenly it dawned on me. We need to declare a moratorium on Civil War books with "Thunder" in the title, unless the subject of the book is an actual weather event.

Yes, the word evokes the rumbling sound of "deep-throated" artillery, but enough is enough.

Thunder on the River, Valley Thunder, A Distant Thunder, Echoes of Thunder, Thunder in Arcadia Valley, Thunder from a Clear Sky, A Deep, Steady Thunder, Silent Thunder, A Savage Thunder, A Voice of Thunder, Thunder at Gettysburg, Thunder at Hampton Roads, Thunder Along the Mississippi, A Rising Thunder, Fire and Thunder, Gray Thunder, Galloping Thunder. . . you get the idea.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

More on Who Do You Think You Are?

About a month ago I posted a little entry on the episode of NBC's Who Do You Think You Are featuring Matthew Broderick, who made a fascinating discovery regarding one of his Civil War ancestors. The seven-part television series came to a close last night with the genealogical adventures of director Spike Lee.

The concept of the show was pretty interesting, and will no doubt spark tons of subscriptions to, a not-so-subtle sponsor. Two of the seven "celebrities" were African Americans -- Lee, and former Dallas Cowboys running back Emmit Smith. Their stories illustrated the challenges of tracing one's ancestry through the institution of slavery. Not only are records incomplete, slaves were often listed by only their first name or no name at all, they were sold and relocated, and some who went by the surname of their owner later changed their name to something else.

Still, the paper trail exists to take many African Americans some generations back into antebellum days. In the case of Spike Lee, he was able to trace one of his lines back to a slave owned by a Griswold (of course this made me think of the National Lampoon Griswolds -- a different family). Spike Lee's Griswold was none other the man who gave the name to Griswoldville, Georgia, site of a Confederate armaments factory (at the time producing a knock-off of the Navy Colt revolver), and scene of the only thing approaching a battle during Sherman's March to the Sea.

Upon leaving Atlanta, Uncle Billy sent elements of his Right Wing on a feint toward Macon. On November 20, 1864, 100 men under Captain Frederick Ladd of the 9th Michigan Cavalry burned Mr. Griswold's operation, and his namesake town, to the ground. A couple days later, in what came to be called the Battle of Griswoldville, well-situated troops in Sherman's Right Wing under Brig. Gen. Charles Walcutt withstood assaults from a patched together force of Georgia state troops and militia (mostly old men and young boys), in the only serious infantry fight of Sherman's March.

Interestingly, in the annals of Black Confederate mythology, Griswoldville is one of the places pointed to as having slaves impressed into combat roles in defense of the town, but I don't believe Union accounts of the battle make any mention of these phantom soldiers (we'll let Kevin Levin sort that out in his future book on the subject).

The trail that led to Spike Lee's ancestor at Griswoldville ends with the battle, and there's a pretty good chance he moved on with Sherman's men toward Savannah. It was interesting to see Mr. Lee musing on the irony of his ancestor working to build weapons that would be used to kill the troops sent to liberate him. If you've got 40 minutes to spare, the show is pretty worthwhile, and rams home again why, for so many Americans, all roads lead to the Civil War (full episode can be seen online here). Reminds me of one of my favorite Walker Percy quotes:

The truth of it is, I think, that the whole country, South included, is just beginning to see the Civil War whole and entire for the first time. The thing was too big and too bloody, too full of suffering and hatred, too closely knit into the fabric of our meaning as a people, to be held off and looked atuntil now. It is like a man walking away from a mountain. The bigger it is, the farther he's got to go before he can see it. Then one day he looks back and there it is, this colossal thing lying across his past.

from "The American War," Commonweal 65 (March 29, 1957): 655-57; republished in Signposts in a Strange Land, by Walker Percy, edited by Patrick Samway (New York, 1991).