Thursday, June 24, 2010

Civil War Soap Opera

I thought I would share this with my readers. Last Saturday, I had this idea: if there were Soap Operas during the Civil War era what would they be called? You have to relieve that this thought crossed my mind after I had consumed an entire Costco cupcake. Well this is what I have come up with so far:


• As the Hoop Skirt Sways
• Northern Light
• All My Generals
and finally:

• Port Hudson

But wait there’s more! I began to think of prospective plot lines and I came up with instead of the modern story of a character coming “out of the closet,” the 1860s version would have a character coming out as an abolitionist.

Well there goes my reputation as a serious scholar…

Remarkable Stories of the Lincoln Assassination

First, I would like to say thank you to everyone who has sent me such positive feedback from my last post. Now with the official business, it is time to turn our attention to the next book.

Generally, I am not a huge fan of human interest books, even when they deal with the Civil War. A collection of badly edited and questionable stories usually leaves my searching for a way out after ten pages. But Michael Kanazawich’s Remarkable Stories of the Lincoln Assassination breathes new life into the historical human interest genre. Kanazawich serves the history community as a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg National Military Park along with conducting tours along the escape route John Wilkes Booth took after the Lincoln assassination. To become a Licensed Battlefield Guide is quite an accomplishment as the training is rigorous and all perspective tour guides are required to be experts in their field. Kanazawich uses his skill as a battlefield guide and as a talented storyteller in his brief but engaging look at America’s most notorious murder.

Remarkable Stories of the Lincoln Assassination is not a traditional study of the events of April 1865. Rather Kanazawich has pieced together relative unknown stories that shed new light on the major individuals’ involved. The book starts with John Wilkes Booth plan to kidnap President Lincoln in an attempt to force the Union to exchange Confederate prisoners of war back to the beleaguered South. Kanazawich briefly outlines Booth’s recruitment of the conspirators which included Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, Dr. Samuel Mudd, John Surratt Jr., Mary Surratt, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Lewis Payne (Powell). With the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, the kidnapping plot was disbanded. Within a few days a despondent Booth resolved that if he could not affect the outcome of the war he could still enact revenge upon the North by murdering Abraham Lincoln. Within the space of three pages Kanazawich offers a clear and concise summary of the assassination of President Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre and the attempted murder of Sectary of State William Seward at his Washington residence, the arrest of the conspirators, the death of John Wilkes Booth, and the military tribunal that sentenced the remaining conspirators to death or life imprisonment.

With the central facts regarding the events of the assassination established, Kanazawich delves into Lincoln’s lack of personal security throughout his term in office. Despite the threats Lincoln received throughout the Civil War, Lincoln turned a blind eye on these threats and was determined to live his life as freely as he did in Springfield—much to the chagrin of Lincoln’s aides. There was nothing unusually for Lincoln and his party to go relatively unguarded at public gatherings. Kanazawich sets the events of April 14, 1865 into context by examining the numerous times Lincoln became a target for assassination.

The next section of Remarkable Stories of the Lincoln Assassination delves more into folklore than established historical facts. After the assassination myths and legends spread that both Lincoln and Booth had premonitions that something evil was going to happen to them. Recounted is the myth of Lincoln’s dream in which he stumbles into his own funeral. More rooted in the historical record is Lincoln’s belief in dreams, as recorded by Sectary of the Navy Gideon Welles at Lincoln’s last cabinet meeting. Lincoln was expecting good news from General Sherman because the previous night he had the same dream that he had before all major events in the war. It should not be surprising that Lincoln had some interest in dreams. Even though Lincoln was interested in science and mechanics the nineteenth-century presented a paradox between rational belief and Old World superstitions. Both Abraham and Mary Lincoln were superstitious by nature as both grew up in the West were traditional Christian religious belief blended easily with folk beliefs inspired by European, African, and Native American traditions. Kanazawich then examines the lesser known stories surrounding John Wilkes Booth that come from his devoted sister Asia Booth. When Asia was sixteen she wrote a poem for her mother Mary Ann Booth is which the narrator speculates about the future of her baby son. This has been used by some amateur historians as proof that Mary Ann and Asia Booth were concerned that the impetuous Wilkes would eventually do something rash. In actuality the poem is a classic example of the melodramatic form of poetry that was favored by American Victorians during the mid-nineteenth-century. The poem is dark and atmospheric, steeped in Romantic imagery. The Booth family were actors and leaned toward being slightly over dramatic in their personal lives, it is not surprising that this type of poem was written by a sixteen-year-old girl as a gift for her mother. The second story, also spread by Asia Booth held that a gypsy predicted a dark future for the teenage Wilkes Booth is also questionable. Asia Booth was hopelessly devoted to her older brother and did everything in her power to try to soften the image of her beloved brother.

The author now turns to the conspirators; Kanazawich does not believe that Mary Surratt was an entirely innocent victim. Mary Surratt frequently welcomed the conspirators, including her son, in her boarding house and even ran errands for John Wilkes Booth. It can be debated if Mary Surratt knew about the assassination before hand, but she was clearly involved in the kidnapping plot. The stories Kanazawich presents about Edman Spangler, Dr. Samuel Mudd, George Atzerodt, and Lewis Payne adds new light into their character and role in the conspiracy. For instance Edman Spangler felt more grief over not being able to eat a meal than almost being sentenced to hang. Kanazawich easily disputes the myth of Samuel Mudd as the simple, innocent country doctor. Mudd knew Booth and met him several times before he arrived at the “good doctor’s” doorstep in the middle of the night with a broken ankle. George Atzerodt’s family truly represented a “house divided,” while Atzerodt served as a courier for the Confederacy his brother John served as a deputy for the Maryland provost marshal. One of the reasons Atzerodt was captured so quickly after the assassination was because of the information supplied by John Atzerodt to his superiors. Unfortunately the story about Lewis Payne provides no new information; it is a simple recitation of his arrest at Mary Surratt’s boardinghouse.

Kanazawich now moves to the trial of the conspirators by a military tribunal. The trial is traditional presented by historians as a kangaroo court set out to revenge the death of the martyred president. The military tribunal attempted to incorporate the fledging theory of police science into the trial through the entry of Lewis Payne’s boot as evidence. From the trial the author moves to the execution of Mary Surratt, David Herold, Lewis Payne, and George Atzerodt on July 7, 1865. The author includes the chilling story on how the youngest witness to the execution was thirteen-year-old John Collins. Kanazawich then recounts the tragic effects Lincoln assassination had on those who were with him that night. Mary Lincoln and Henry Rathbone were never the same. Tragically Henry Rathbone would end his life in a German mental hospital after murdering his wife Clara Harris who was also with the Lincoln’s at Ford’s Theatre. After the loss of her husband, Mary Lincoln lost her anchor and the remaining years of her life were tragic. Mary Lincoln finally left this world a bitter, lonely woman in her sister’s Elizabeth Edwards home in 1882 never fully recovering from the loss of her beloved husband. These stories show that Lincoln was not Booth’s only victim. Michael Kanazawich ends his study with anecdotes and an exploration of some of the myths and ghostly lore that surrounds the locations and people central to the assassination.

Michael Kanazawich’s Remarkable Stories of the Lincoln Assassination is an entertaining look at one of the nation’s darkest events. I thoroughly enjoyed the time it took me to read this short, fun book—and normally I don’t like human interest books. The best thing about this book is that Kanazawich sources were he gets his information from. This made it easy while reading to see exactly where the author got his stories from and most came from reliable sources. Kanazawich employed primary sources and some of the best historical literature in the Lincoln assassination field. Most history books written by amateur historians don’t source their work, to the frustration of the reader. While not every story in the Remarkable Stories of the Lincoln Assassination is trustworthy, Kanazawich presents the stories and lets the reader decide for themselves. The best part about Kanazawich’s book is that even the expert in the Lincoln assassination can find something new within its pages. I recommend this book for both the novice and experienced history reader.

Remarkable Stories of the Lincoln Assassination. By Michael Kanazawich. Orrtanna, PA: Colecraft Industries, 2008. Pp. 102.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"Mrs. Lady President" and the Women of Washington Society

Greetings! Hope everyone is enjoying this beautiful first day of summer. With the summer season many are embarking on the annual rite of the season: summer vacation. I just returned last week from a fantastic nine-day trip to Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. The purpose of the trip was a mix of fun (touring the many wonderful museums and historic sites) and homework (researching my master’s thesis). In the coming weeks as I unpack and recharge I will be posting some of pictures along with my impressions of some of the sites I visited which included the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Oak Ridge Cemetery (the Lincoln Tomb), and Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Park. Besides touring, and taking lots of pictures, I also made my contribution to the local economy by sampling the best of the museum gift shops.

For the meantime, dear readers, you will have to be satisfied with my thoughts and impressions on some of the titles I came across during my travels. The first work to be reviewed is amateur historian Peggy Dunn’s “Mrs. Lady President” and the Women of Washington Society. Dunn’s work is a simple examination of the fashion of Washington, D. C.’s high society during the Civil War. Central to this story is Mary Lincoln’s transformation from Illinois housewife to the First Lady and the cold reception she received from the society dames (in other words “snobs”) of the nation’s capital.

Dunn begins her book with Mary Lincoln’s hasty departure from Springfield, Illinois with her young sons Willie and Tad. The threats against the President-elect life had convinced Abraham Lincoln’s aide’s that it was safer if he traveled to Washington in the company of his wife and children. From this point Dunn jumps back to the period immediately after Lincoln’s election where the rise to the first office in the land convinced Mary Lincoln that she needed to update her wardrobe. Traveling to New York City in January 1861, Mary was courted by the city’s department stores while being snubbed by New York’s high society. This began a pattern that would plague the First Lady for the remainder of her stay in the White House. Mary Lincoln was viewed by the eastern elite as a social outsider. While socially and politically prominent in Illinois the Lincoln’s were social nobody’s in the entrenched world of East Coast society and politics. Despite winning the Republican nomination and the Presidency, many still viewed Abraham Lincoln as an uncouth, uneducated country hick—his wife was guilty simple by association. To make matters worse, Mary Lincoln was unwilling (or unable) to play by East Coast society rules which dictated that all newcomers must make an alliance with one of the accepted matrons who would then, when she dictated it was time would then introduce the newcomer to her wealthy friends. Mary Lincoln was the ultimate social outsider, who was resented because she was an outsider.

The Lincoln’s received a warm reception during their twelve day journey to Washington, D. C, as Dunn illustrates, until the rumored assassination plot in Baltimore, Maryland put a damper on the President-elect’s entry into the nation’s capital. While Mary Lincoln received enthusiastic praise in the press, once in Washington, Mary was again given a cold shoulder by the city’s high society. The reasons were simple: she was viewed a social outsider and her southern ancestry and family raised questions regarding her loyalty to her husband and her nation. Mary Lincoln desperately tried to seek legitimacy as the head of Washington society, by over dressing and over spending on herself and the White House. While the press applauded her refurbishment of the dilapidated White House, Washington’s social matrons derided her for her style and overspending during a war. Instead of rising above the cruelty of Washington’s elite, Mary Lincoln got consumed in her desperate need for approval and acceptance. The reader is left with the impression of a very sad, lonely, and deeply insecure woman.

This is a unique book, rather than attempting an over reaching narrative, Dunn provides a series of sketches of Washington society and 1860s fashion that gives the reader a better understanding of the world Mary Lincoln lived in. Of note is the examination of the fascinating relationship between Mary Lincoln and her seamstress Elizabeth Keckly. On this level the book succeeds, Dunn’s work is geared for the general reader. The book is well illustrated, with images of all the main players and a liberal use of 1860s fashion plates—so the reader actual can see what the author is talking about. The main drawback of the work is that some of the writing is unpolished, which is seen in many works done by amateur historians. All that is simply needed if this work is updated is the skilled hand of an editor to smooth out some of the more awkward phrases. Also there is one factual error that this reviewer found, on page ten Dunn has listed Mary Lincoln’s first known photograph taken in either 1846 or 1847 as being taken in 1864 by Matthew Brady. Despite this error Peggy Dunn’s “Mrs. Lady President” and the Women of Washington Society is an enjoyable book and is a must read for Civil War living historians.

“Mrs. Lady President” and the Women of Washington Society. By Peggy Dunn. Springfield, IL: History on Fire, 2005. Pp. 120.