Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Fascinating Convergence

Maybe it is just me. Probably. But, when I get immersed in studying another era or another life, the daily events seem to run parallel or link back to that which I'm studying. For example, I'm reading the most amazing books and online information about the Civil War.

Did you know that soldiers -- some, not all of course -- carried photos with them of naked women? Who knew there were such Playboy-esque things in the 1860s. History books rarely cover that kind of behavior in our courageous soldiers. For me, I just accept that pin ups and 'girly photos' and the various magazines are part of the debris that fills a soldier's living space. I wonder how much Internet time is devoted to pornographic sites? Oh certainly not OUR soldiers! Well, yes, probably some....

But I hadn't associated that interest with Civil War soldiers.

The Civil War era items I am referring to are called carte de visite, a "type of small photograph which was patented in Paris, France by photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854." It didn't come as a surprise that this would be a French invention.

Carte de viste are the size of a 'visiting card' or what we today would probably call a business card and soon became popular as a trading card. Maybe the first trading cards. No, they weren't all nudes.... The first one, evidently was of Napoleon. And he was wearing his clothes.

It took the photographers a little time to figure out how well this photographic form would adapt to erotic images. If those soldiers' families had held onto those little naked images, they might be trading them in for a few thousand dollars today. Recently a French Erotic Stereoscopic Daguerreotype, a form of photography that preceded the carte de viste, but somewhat similar, sold at auction for $6-$8,000. Some of the carte de viste sell for much more, especially if of fully clothed celebrities of that era, say Abraham Lincoln for example.

Perhaps the link to today that came through most strongly upon learning of this type of photography and its erotic use, was the way media and historians did not include it in the information about the Civil War. Somewhere it was discovered by an enterprising individual, but the main historians covered it over. One writer, while reading records of military court martials, stumbled upon several cases of sexual misconduct and some included these photographs.

Is this detail important to the whole story of the era? It certainly wipes a bit of the romantic aura away and turns these god-like men of history into humans, where I think they should be. And it reminds me of recent media coverage of wars -- what is not being told? What is being covered up? Is there an aspect of the Iraq war that we should know but it is being covered up?

I think of the 9-11 coverage and where there were no photos of falling bodies. Very little reference to the hundreds, maybe thousands who jumped or fell from those upper stories of the trade building. Are we Americans unable to handle such graphic truths? I'm sure someone chose to exclude it worrying about children seeing it or sensitivity to such issues. Yet, aren't we adults? Shouldn't we be given the whole story and allowed to pick and choose what we want to see or not?

I also think of the sexual exploits of our presidents. Our media decided to focus on the Clinton adventure. But failed to put it in context with his predecessors. I don't condone his behavior; I appreciate it being uncovered; but being made more important than Bosnia or NAFTA or balanced budgets? Sex in the oval office between two consenting adults. That is news?

So, I'm wondering -- are historians and journalists required to report everything they see and know? Should they censor what they report? Or perhaps an alternative -- fit the information in context and importance to the times? I prefer the latter, let me see how it fits in with the scheme of things and let me make my own informed choices.

So, I'm learning about the Civil War, but evidently the most important lesson I've learned is about censorship, history, media, and what is being manipulated. Turns out I and my fellow Americans are the ones being manipulated. I don't like it. Just give me the facts, please. Allllll of them.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

History is only a day away....

If I could learn history from novels -- I'd be a happy woman. But, some authors don't do enough research or use too much literary license. Then I remember that it is a NOVEL which means FICTION which basically translates into NOT TRUE or at the least, unreliable.

I'm a grown up now. I eat my vegetables, avoid fatty foods, go to work every day, don't max out my credit cards. So, it is time I began to learn history from nonfiction sources. I picked up an audio recording of David McCullough's award winning "John Adams" and started listening to it while working on a quilt.

The quilt proved more difficult than I thought it would be (see Subversive Stitchers site for more about that). But, the book turned out to be much more compelling than I expected. Drawn from John and Abigail Adams letters, diaries and correspondences as well as those of other leaders of the times and public record and documents, the book is like being there. I can't wait until the HBO mini series starts later this month.

Since my little foray into history turned out so delightful, I started searching around for other topics I might find interesting. The Internet in its unlimited way brought me face to face with the Civil War prison on Johnson Island in Ohio. It was a prison for Confederate officers located just off shore in Lake Erie -- near the current site of Cedar Point amusement park. Apparently I am not the only one who thinks about this prison. Heidelberg College in Tiffin, OH, has an ongoing archaeological dig at the prison's site and they have posted some of their findings online. (They are digging in the prison's latrines -- eeeeewwwww.) The professor, Dr. David Bush, leading the dig wrote an article for Archaeology magazine and was gracious enough to send me a copy of it. His enthusiasm is contagious and his project can use all of the funding it can get.

Friends and Descendents of Johnson's Island Civil War Prison purchased a portion of the island to preserve the site from developers and individual beach homes or from being turned into an orchard or who knows what.

I wondered how many other historic sites in the United States are threatened? Dr. Bush suggested I visit the Civil War Preservation Trust since it was the one organization battling to save our Civil War historic sites.

It seems to be a fact of life that 'old' is not revered in the United States. Old buildings get demolished to make way for newer, shinier, more modern edifices. Frank Lloyd Wright's work gets some concern for preservation, but even that is waning. So when it comes to grassy battlefields standing empty -- some developer sees visions of strip malls and parking lots. It isn't like in Scotland where castles are allowed to stand for centuries, piles of stones have meaning beyond that of a pile of stones, and the battle fields -- Culloden comes to mind -- are revered. The anger and emotion of that battle that was fought in the 1740s still smolders. Maybe that is more like the Confederate or Southern remembrance of the War Between the States....

But, still the battlefields are disappearing. There are some that have been lost. But there is hope. The Civil War Preservation Trust writes:
Although many battlefields are in danger of being lost forever, CWPT is making significant progress. In 2007 CWPT rescued more than 1,600 acres of hallowed ground at legendary battlefields like Champion Hill, Miss., Shiloh, Tenn., and Petersburg, Va. Since our creation two decades ago, CWPT has protected more than 25,000 acres at 99 sites in 18 states. Despite such successes, our work is far from done. We hope this report energizes both long-time supporters and new allies to continue the fight to protect and preserve these priceless treasures.
Yet, for anyone who has studied the American Civil War at all, you've heard of Antietam in Maryland. This significant battlefield is number one on their 'needs saving' list. The CWPT describes Antietam:

September 17, 1862
The bloodiest single day in American history, the Battle of Antietam ended the Confederacy’s first attempt to invade the North in a resounding fashion. Though the battle itself was tactically inconclusive in its outcome, the 23,000 casualties left behind by the fighting shocked the nation. Moreover, Antietam’s proximity to major northern population centers and their emerging photography industries allowed Americans to see for the first time the true horror of war through the aftermath of battle.

After my day spent listening to John Adam’s story in his own words, and told in such an intimate way as if someone from his times were talking to me – history isn’t something from another time, it is something connected to me. 1776 isn’t that far away from today. 1861 is even closer. My grandmother was born during Reconstruction. My mother grew up listening to Civil War veterans tell their stories. She saw the old soldiers make a life with missing arms, legs, hands, fingers, eyes…. There is a Civil War memorial in the center of my home town and a portion of the local cemetery devoted to Civil War soldiers.

If nothing else, I realize I’m connected to the past which gives me hope that I’ll be connected to the future. And what is most important – we must remember. In order to remember we must make an effort to preserve historic sites, papers, ephemera, diaries, letters – and make sure those from our era are also preserved. Take, for example those old copies of Harpers Weekly and the art (as included here) of Winslow Homer. Definitely worth preserving and learning more about.