New Maps, a little Sesquicentennial Derangement

I’m sort of a map junkie, and I know I’ve mentioned the Civil War Preservation Trust’s online map collection before. If you haven’t lost an hour playing with their animated maps, you’re missing out on one of the finer joys of Civil-War-related time wasting. That’s why I’m so excited to hear that the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park is putting together an interactive map of Fredericksburg. Spotsylvania, Wilderness, and Chancellorsville will come afterward, but this is absolutely fantastic in terms of making the park accessible from my desk.

Friday I swung out to Culpeper’s Remembrance Days for the sole purpose of meeting Brigadier General William “Extra Billy” Smith, as portrayed by David Meisky. Mr. Meisky studied for two years to take on the role of Extra Billy, and seemed to be having a good time of hit. He was even gracious enough to pose with Zille, my Sesquicentennial Emergency Backup Dog:
Zille, a sable German Shepherd, poses sitting next to General Extra Billy Smith, a grey-haired gentleman, clean shaven, who wears a grey-blue frock coat with a double row of buttons, grey trousers, and holds a brown beaver hat on his knee.  He is looking at Zille and smiling, tickled to death to be posing with her.  We will ignore the banner for the Sons of Confederate Veterans in the background.

Saturday Tink and I visited the 28th Massachusetts’s Camp of Instruction at Chatham Manor. The Washington Artillery was there, too, and a lone Revolutionary War re-enactor. He seemed quite pleased that he was the first one I’d ever seen, and I made sure to get his picture.

In actual Sesquicentennial news, the Democratic Presidential Convention of 1860 has been going on since the 23rd of April, and will continue until the 3rd of May. The Northern and Southern Democrats, however, will fail to come to an agreement on a candidate by the time the convention adjourns. The sectional differences in the country are ceasing to be cracks spanned by fragile bridges; John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry last fall burned a lot of the rickety attempts to span the divide. Instead, they’re becoming great, gaping chasms. With lava in the bottom. And possibly balrogs.


Smithsonian’s Civil War collection, CWPT’s Animated Maps

Every so often I totally fail to come up with something substantial to write, but I do run across a website that is inexpressably nifty. Today is one of those days.

You can go view some of the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s collection of Civil War Artifacts. It’s flash hell but it’s reasonably well-executed flash hell, so that’s all right.

Speaking of flash animation, if you’ve never lost part of an afternoon watching the Civil War Preservation Trust’s animated maps, then you should go do that while you’re at it.

Published in: on 1 January, 2010 at 07:24  Leave a Comment  
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His soul is marching on.

So here it is, the end of December, 1859. John Brown has been dead for weeks but the fuze he lit at Harpers Ferry continues to burn. Across the south, slaveowners who were always alert for the whiff of rebellion are beginning to reach new heights of paranoia. Sectional tensions after the bloodshed in Kansas (in which Brown had his part) were already running high, and here! Here was proof that abolitionists intended to see Southern whites murdered in their beds.

The still-young Republican Party, founded partly on abolitionist principles, moved to distance itself from Brown, while the Democratic party began to split down the middle like a rock split by ice. To top it all off, the country was about to enter an election year.

The Republicans would hold only their second nominating convention in May of 1860, but as 1859 drew to a close they were still casting about for candidates. They would eventually put 13 on the ballot at their convention. Among them were Charles Sumner, who had been beaten bloody by Preston Brooks four years earlier; and a Kentucky lawyer who had made his home in Illinois, named Abraham Lincoln.

John Brown’s Body Lies A-Mouldering In The Grave

On 2 December, 1859, at high noon, John Brown was hanged by the neck until dead.

The night before his wife had finally made it to Charles Town to visit him. They had dinner together but his jailers wouldn’t allow her to stay the night. Witnesses report that was the only time in prison that John Brown lost his composure.

On his way to the scaffold, John Brown handed one of his supporters a note, which read

Charlestown, Va
2nd December 1859
I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that withought very much bloodshed it might be done.

He mounted the scaffold, the rope was placed around his neck, the trapdoor sprung, and John Brown passed into history, to become a hope for the slaves, a song for the soldiers, and a terrifying specter for the south.

Published in: on 2 December, 2009 at 18:59  Leave a Comment  

Reading Material: John Brown’s Letters

I have just found the niftiest historical widget. has 202 of John Brown’s letters online and you can filter them by recipient, the place he wrote from, or the date he wrote. The filters aren’t perfect, but they are fascinating, and it’s a neat way to shuffle through Brown’s voluminous correspondance.

These 202 letters were written between 1833 and 1859, with the vast majority of them (56) being written in 1859. This is not particularly surprising given what John Brown was up to that year. Among other things, they have John Brown’s will, written on the 1st of December, the day before he was hanged. Most of his children got only a Bible from him, “as good a copy of the Bible as can be purchased at some bookstore in New York or Boston, at a cost of $5 each in cash. . .” His grandchildren were to receive Bibles worth $3.

The one-sided view we get of Brown’s correspondance is by turns tantalizing and poignant. What are we to make of letters like this:

Charlestown, VA., Nov. 30, 1859.

DR. THOS. H. WEBB, Boston.

MY DEAR SIR, I would most gladly comply with your request most kindly made in your letter of the 26th inst., but it came too late. It is out of my power. Farewell: God bless you!

Your friend, JOHN BROWN.

And then there is this one:


Dec. 1, 1859.


MY DEAR FRIEND, I have only time to say I got your kind letter of the 26th of November this evening. Am very grateful for all the good feelings expressed by yourself and wife. May God abundantly bless and save you all! I am very cheerful, in hopes of entering on a better state of existence in a few hours, through infinite grace in Christ Jesus my Lord. Remember the poor that cry,” and them that are in bonds as bound with them.” Your friend as ever,


Anyhow, it’s worth a little time to click over there and rifle through John Brown’s correspondance and watch him develop, as it were, pointing himself with greater and greater surety toward the tragedy at Harpers Ferry. Interestingly he never expresses anything but peace at the thought of his execution. One might almost think that John Brown wanted to be a martyr to the abolitionist cause.

Mahala Doyle and John Brown

I’ve previously discussed one woman who wrote to John Brown after his capture at Harpers Ferry. L. Maria Child was an outspoken abolitionist who admired John Brown’s “work” in Kansas and in Harpers Ferry. Later, though, John Brown got a different kind of letter.

In this world you have no abiding place

In my last entry I briefly touched on John Brown’s letters from prison before haring off and ignoring them entirely to deal with the interrogation of John Brown that took place after his capture. Sorry about that. Sometimes, I am a sloppy writer when I blog and my digressions get the better of me.

The end of that is not yet

We’re kind of killing time here. John Brown has been convicted and sentenced to hang and sits in prison in Charles Town, Virginia. His hanging marks the next Sesquicentennial on December 2nd. Meanwhile, he was writing letters. The letters and the interview with him in the Charles Town jail on the 31st of October can tell us a lot about what kind of man he was.

Reading Material: Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America

Just a quick hit because I’m sort of busyish. This essay by Barbara Jeanne Fields is freakin fascinating as all get out. 24 pages and definitely worth your time:

Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the
United States as primarily a system of race relations—as though the
chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy
rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco. One
historian has gone so far as to call slavery ‘the ultimate segregator’.
He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ‘ultimate’ method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa. No one dreams of analysing the struggle of the English against the Irish as a problem in race relations, even though the rationale that the English developed for suppressing the ‘barbarous’ Irish later served nearly word for word as a rationale for suppressing Africans and indigenous American Indians. Nor does anyone dream of analysing serfdom in Russia as primarily a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate, natural superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists.

Published in: on 4 November, 2009 at 04:00  Leave a Comment  
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