It is hard for me to write in general these days, because there is so much going on that depresses me and things just continually seem to get worse. It constantly feels like things are on the precipice of getting completely out of hand, and our national leadership seems intent on saying and doing things that generally don’t help and sometimes actually make things worse.
I suppose that compared to a deadly global pandemic, economic disaster, and widespread civil unrest across the country, the loss of a single statue in Madison, Wisconsin, is not that big a deal. But I still can’t help but feel a little affected by the destruction of the statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg last night.
It’s funny that I have been a pretty serious student of the Civil War for almost 30 years, and yet I am still learning and discovering so many things that I really did not know much about. Lately a lot of that has been due at least partially to Private Moses Beaulieu. I have been trying to follow his (my Civil War ancestor’s) journey through the war. Most recently, I have been studying the last great campaigns of the war for his unit, the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, in the Army of the Potomac.
When I first joined the National Park Service as a volunteer, it was so I could join the living history program at Stones River. My first year I probably put in something like 150 to 200 hours of volunteer work, and afterward I was probably regularly doing at least 75 to 100 hours a year. Even after I moved back to Huntsville and lived 2 hours away, I still managed to put in some hours for the NPS. Why did I do this? Because it was wonderful. In fact, I view my time with the NPS as one of the most positive experiences I have ever had. The people were just great, and I truly enjoyed interacting with visitors and the public in general. Although I had done some public speaking before, I really developed that skill with the NPS. It also gave me the chance to interact with some great historians, like Ed Bearss.
But right now, the NPS suffers from being massively understaffed. The Trump administration apparently thought they could alleviate some of the effects of the shutdown on the National Parks by allowing them to be open during the shutdown, as opposed to closing them like the government did back in 2013. It sounds great, at least on paper. But allowing the public to continue to use the parks even though most park service employees are absent means that no one is cleaning the bathrooms, or handing out maps, or emptying the garbage cans. It also means no one is collecting admission fees or enforcing rules. And so the amount of wear and tear that is taking place is pretty bad. And so many sites are being forced to close their doors. A recent article from a Nashville TV station showed that many of the Civil War sites where I had volunteered are being affected by the shutdown.
So I hope that the shutdown does not last too long, as I hate to see so many of these parks get wrecked with no one to do any cleaning up. And maybe one day I will be able to do some history volunteering again. We’ll see.
Before I start talking about this particular Park Service ranger, I wanted to put it in context of my own relationship with the Park Service. I have been a fan of the Park Service for a very, very long time, at least since I was a boy. And for about a decade in my twenties and early thirties I was a volunteer for them at Stones River National Battlefield (in fact, you can occasionally still see a photo of me in my Union Army Civil War uniform in old park literature) in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Occasionally I also did programs at other Civil War battlefields and sites. I miss it, frankly. Perhaps one day I will be in a position to do that sort of volunteer work again.
Anyway, I still read a lot about things going on with the Park Service and I generally try to keep up with things going on with NPS. Like any organization, NPS has its celebrities. I had the privilege of meeting one of them, Civil War historian Ed Bearss, now retired, on several occasions. Ed is a warm, funny, extremely intelligent and knowledgeable guy with an incredible work ethic. And in that regard I am reminded of him by Betty Reid Soskin, another NPS celebrity. Betty is an extraordinary woman who also happens to be the oldest serving U.S. Park Service Ranger. She currently works at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Park in Richmond, California. In fact, Betty was absolutely instrumental in the creation of that historic park. And since she herself lived through the events preserved at the site, she has her own unique and fascinating stories to tell about that time in our history, including what it was like to be a woman of color in that segregated era.
Last year she lit the National Christmas Tree and got to meet President Barack Obama, who gave her a special commemorative coin as a souvenir and gift. At the ceremony, she carried a photograph of her great-grandmother, who was born a slave in 1846 and died in 1948 at the age of 102. She carried the same photograph in her pocket in 2009, when she witnessed President Obama’s inauguration.
Well, something terrible happened to her this past Monday. She was beaten and robbed in her own home there in Richmond. And one of the things the a**hole thief took from her was the coin the President gave her.
What kind of person does that? Who attacks a 94-year-old woman? How utterly depraved and/or desperate do you have to be to do that? God, I hope the police catch whoever did this to her. And the President has already said that he will replace the coin.
Luckily, she seems to be recovering. But if you want to help her, the Rosie the Riveter Trust has organized a fund to help Betty out with her expenses while she recovers. And being the awesome person she is, Betty has already said that any excess funds will be used for a special documentary film history project about her life.
Glad you are still with us, Betty, and from the East Coast, we all wish you the very best and hope you get well soon. We love you.
As many of you already know, I am a lover of history. Maritime history is especially one of my favorite sub-fields of history, and I love to see historic ships or reproductions of historic ships at any opportunity. I am lucky enough to live in a state (and a region) that has many.
So I went to the old Navy Yard in Charlestown on Saturday, since my back was feeling a bit better and I was feeling up to doing some walking around. And I am so very glad I did, because for the first time ever I got to take a tour of the inside of the USS Cassin Young, one of the museum ships kept there by the National Park Service.