On the night of November 8, 1800, fire devastated the United States War Office, consuming the papers, records, and books stored there. Two weeks later, Secretary of War Samuel Dexter lamented in a letter that “All the papers in my office [have] been destroyed.” For the past two centuries, the official records of the War Department effectively began with Dexter’s letter. Papers of the War Department 1784-1800, an innovative digital editorial project, will change that by making some 55,000 long lost documents of the early War Department available online to scholars, students, and the general public. By providing free and open access to these previously unavailable documents, Papers of the War Department 1784-1800 will offer a unique window into a time when there was no law beyond the Constitution, when the federal government hardly existed outside of the Army and Navy, and when a new nation struggled to define itself at home and abroad.
Archive for November 2008
Jones, David H. Two Brothers, One North, One South. Encino, CA: Staghorn Press, 2008. 320pp, ISBN 13: 978-0-9796898-5-7, $24.95.
In his historical novel, David H. Jones tells the story of the the Prentiss brothers, William and Clifton, who fight on opposite sides of the American Civil War. The primary narrator is era poet, Walt Whitman, who befriends a dying William in the military hospital at the close of the war. In the young Confederate’s final days, he recounts to Mr. Whitman his experiences which Whitman, in turn, finds opportunity to share with brother Clifton, a Union officer, who lies wounded in the same hospital. They are joined by family members who collect around Clifton following William’s death.
The story tells of young Southern men dashing off to join the fight and courageous Southern women who persuade politicos to contribute arms and supplies to Southern recruits and who even become blockade runners to ensure that those supplies reach the troops. We are witness to a number of key battles of the war, introduced to the weapons used, and generally educated about what it would have been like to serve in, primarily, the Confederate ranks. There is significantly less information provided through the storyline about the war experiences of brother Clifton and the Northern perspective.
What is unique about the novel is that the brothers featured were real and many will find the facts surrounding their lives, so carefully researched, intriguing. The presentation of the novel is also stylistically unique in that it is written using the formal language of the era.
I had the sense in reading Two Brothers that Jones struggled to nail down the book’s genre as he set about writing it. The work often resembles non-fiction with much “telling” of history rather than the “showing” of character-driven action and drama that makes for good fiction. While the “telling” made for interesting history, as a piece of fiction, the book was less than satisfying. That said, Civil War buffs will enjoy the military aspects of the book which are well researched.
Just a note that I’ve picked up a copy of An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson. This book, the first in his Liberation Trilogy, won the Pulitzer Prize. I was quite impressed by Mr. Atkinson’s book, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, which I reviewed here.
Paperback: 768 pages
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; Revised edition (May 15, 2007)
I also purchased the second book in the trilogy, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, which many reviewers have indicated surpasses the first.
Paperback: 848 pages
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks; Reprint edition (September 16, 2008)
Even better, I’ve discovered that most of Mr. Atkinson’s books are available in audio format free from my local public library and so they will be on my MP3. Sweet!
Today I discovered a remarkable site, George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media which you can access here. It’s really about exploring history using digital media. It has three broad sections.
- Teaching + Learning
- Research + Tools
- Collecting + Exhibiting
Not only do I like the site’s premise but it makes available some outstanding tools including Zotero which I downloaded and began using today. It is an extension to Firefox designed “to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources.” It was very easy to install and is free.
Another find linked to the site is the “Papers of the War Department 1784-1800.”
The CHNM site is well worth a visit and some serious exploration for historians and students alike. I’ll be adding to my links. Highly Recommend.
Under the guise of a Christmas gift for my husband, I have acquired a copy of Alexander Rose’s new book, American Rifle, A Biography. I have reluctantly agreed with him that he should thus have the opportunity to read it first.
Hardcover: 512 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Press (October 21, 2008)
Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.5 inches
I’m very pleased to have received a review copy yesterday of Lincoln and His Admirals by Craig L. Symonds from the terrific folks over at Oxford University Press. You can view the book’s listing at OUP here. Being a student of both the American Civil War AND maritime history, I can’t think of a better read. I’m reserving this one for the Christmas holiday. This will also be my first introduction to the work of Craig L. Symonds. More to come on my review.
Hardcover: 448 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (October 17, 2008)
Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.3 x 1.5 inches
I believe the use of the phrase “peculiar institution” was intended to convey the highly contradictory nature of the practice of human ownership in a country based on equality and freedom. Regardless of what perspective one might have of slavery in America, it is difficult to argue against the fact that these contradictions existed. Historian Kenneth Stampp’s chapter titled “Between Two Cultures,” in his book, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, provides several compelling examples.
1. American culture was heavily influenced by religion and yet the South used that religion to justify slavery.
2. Morality of the day frowned on fornication and yet the laws of the day prohibited slaves from legally marrying, thus not only condoning but also encouraging slaves to live out-of-wedlock. Slave owners preached “virtue and decency…” but then wondered why there was widespread sexual promiscuity. Add to this the “hypocrisy in white criticism of their moral laxity” when masters used their slaves “to satisfy an immediate sexual urge.”
3. Rape of a white woman by a slave was punishable by death but “no such offense against a slave woman was recognized in law.”
4. The family was critically important to white culture but the “peculiar institution” condoned the intentional undermining of normal family structures among bondsmen because it best suited their owner’s economic goals as well as furthering command and control of laborers. “The family had no great importance as an economic unit.” And the Protestant South was highly tolerant of slave owners who separated spouses and families.
5. Stampp points out that “the enterprising, individualistic, freedom-loving, self-made man” attained the greatest respectability in white society of the 19th century. And yet slaves were given no opportunity to even hope to aspire to this level of respectability.
6. Rather than a society based on equality, the South developed a highly stratified caste system.
And so I contend that embracing slavery left the South at odds with itself, the North, and much of the rest of the world. And yet embrace it, it did. Use of the phrase “peculiar institution” instead of “slavery” was yet another way in which the South struggled to reconcile the irreconcilable.
Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South.
Many words lose their relevance and thus usage over time. Fortunately, slavemongering, is among them.
A monger is defined as a dealer or trader. To monger is to promote or deal in something specified. It is generally used in a composition. Thus a costermonger is an itinerant fruit-seller, a fellmonger is a dealer in skins, a fishmonger peddles fish, and an ironmonger is a dealer in iron goods.
Walter William Skeat’s An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, suggests as possible source of the word.
monger, mangere a dealer merchant formed with suffix ere from mang ian – to traffic barter gain by trading.
The relationship to the Lat[in] mango, a dealer in slaves, is not clear but the [English] word does not appear to have been borrowed from it. 
Slaves were “inseparable from any species of private property” and since “titles to slaves were transferable,” their owners had the power of conveyance.  Thus the legality of slavemongering, or the trafficking of slaves, was firmly established in the Antebellum South.
Slave owners seemed somewhat ambivalent to the idea of slavemongering. Some despised the idea but took advantage of it non-the-less. Thus one who found the sale of a bondsman distasteful or even bordering on amoral, could unburden themselves of their human property using a professional.
Franklin & Armfield had the distinction of being the the largest slave-trading enterprise in the South at least during the period prior to the Panic of 1837. Formed in 1828, its principles were John Armfield and Isaac Franklin. They each “accumulated fortunes in excess of a half million dollars” before retiring. 
Hundreds of small entrepreneurs engaged in slave trade but only a few made large sums of money. Among these few was Nathan Bedford Forrest who “was the largest slave trader in Memphis during the late 1850’s; he was reputed to have made a profit of $96,000 in a single year.” 
 Walter William Skeat, An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, accessed on the internet via Google Books, November 22, 2008 here.
 Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South.