Yesterday, July 18th, was the 156th anniversary of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, where the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry (Colored) made its spectacular but tragic charge and cemented its place in history. The story of the 54th is kinda-sorta told in the movie Glory, which came out thirty years ago and is still one of my favorite movies of all time.
Imagine, if you will, a little boy whose family was from Massachusetts, who read a book about the Civil War and learned about a brave unit, also from Massachusetts, that suffered some 44% casualties in its first major battle. The accompanying artwork was something that has stayed in my memory ever since.
So you can imagine my excitement when they actually made a movie about the 54th. The movie is far from perfect, both from a historian’s perspective and from a moviemaker’s perspective, but still, it is just a superb film and I love it. And the fact that they show how Colonel Shaw and his men were buried just makes the ending so powerful. The Confederates reported that they buried some 800 dead bodies in front of Fort Wagner that day, July 19th, 1863. They had intended to disrespect Colonel Shaw by burying him with his soldiers. But his parents, when asked if they wanted to try to recover his body, said that they could imagine no better place for him to be buried than with the men of his regiment.
One of the bloodiest battles of the Revolution was fought on the Field of Logan (as it used to be called) in July 1775 between Massachusetts militia and two British army regiments: The Royal Regiment of Foot, Light or ROFL Regiment; and the Western Tottenham Regiment of Foot, or WTF Regiment. They were supported by a battery of artillery known as the Twickenham and Sussex Artillery, or the TSA.
June 25th is one of those days that is permanently in my memory because of a historical event. Today, it is the 143rd anniversary of the Battle of Little Bighorn, the battle during the Great Sioux War of 1876 in which Civil War hero George Armstrong Custer and five companies of the 7th Cavalry Regiment under his command were wiped out by a much larger force of Native Americans. Since my teenage years, my view of the battle has been largely shaped by a (somewhat) obscure book called Son of the Morning Star, by Evan S. Connell.
It is largely because of Libbie Custer that her husband’s reputation and his memory in general did not suffer as much, at least for the first century or so after his death. And frankly, it probably should have suffered. Custer was brash, egotistical, vain, stubborn, and reckless with the lives of those who he led. There is a reason he graduated dead last in his West Point class of 1861. He was a controversial figure while he was alive, much less afterward. It is largely because of Libby Custer that the view of Custer as a tragic hero perpetuated for so long (see the movie They Died With Their Boots On, with Custer portrayed by Errol Flynn).
But what actually happened at Little Bighorn is much more complex than what was portrayed in popular culture for so long. And Son of the Morning Star (the book AND the movie) does a much better job than anything before or since in portraying the battle and what happened. That’s my opinion, for whatever it’s worth. Here’s a clip of the opening titles and scene, where the column under General Alfred Terry (played by Terry O’Quinn!) arrives on the battlefield to see they have missed the fight. Note also Captain Frederick Benteen played by David Strathairn. Also note that the story is largely narrated by the two women.
I don’t know if this film will ever find its way to DVD, much less Blu-Ray, but it should.
On this day in 1811, Harriet Elisabeth Beecher was born to prominent minister Lyman Beecher and his wife Roxana Foote Beecher in Litchfield, Connecticut. She was the seventh of an eventual thirteen children.
Harriet Beecher was fortunate in that she received a thorough classical education at a time when most women did not. She would meet widower Calvin Ellis Stowe in the mid-1830’s after she moved to Cincinnati. They would marry in 1836.
By 1850 the Stowes were living in Brunswick, Maine, where Calvin taught at nearby Bowdoin College. Harriet was inspired to write something after the new Fugitive Slave Law was passed in early 1850. She wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, publisher of the antislavery newspaper The National Era, and told him she wanted to write something in serial form to be published in his paper. Stowe was paid $400 (a not-inconsiderable sum for its time) for the story, which was published from June 1851 until April 1852. The story, Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly, was published in book form soon afterward. The book became a bestseller, selling over 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over 1,000,000 copies in Great Britain in less than a year, thus becoming the second most-popular book in English in the 19th century (its sales were exceeded only by the Bible).
By current standards the book portrays a lot of offensive racial stereotypes of African-Americans. But it is hard to overstate the influence of the book on attitudes of the 19th century public towards slavery. In the South, negative reaction to the novel was widespread, and the book was banned and burned in many places. People caught with copies of the book in the South were at best ostracized by their peers, and at worst they became victims of mob violence and vigilante justice, like a bookseller in Mobile, Alabama who was driven from the city. But many Southerners instinctively recognized the power of Stowe’s story, and so the novel inspired an entire genre of Southern literature that became known as anti-Tom literature or plantation literature. But even the bestsellers of this genre never came remotely close to the popularity of the original Stowe novel.
In the North and in other countries, the book was hailed as an agent for social change. Within five years the book had been published in twenty languages. In addition to its political themes, the book was a popular culture phenomenon. One of its characters inspired many parents across the Northern United States to name their daughters Eva. The book inspired numerous plays and dramatic readings. It would eventually inspire a number of film adaptations as well.
Geoff and I haven’t been able to get to Brimfield for the last 3 years. We’ve both missed it a lot. But we were able to come this year. Some things have changed (new vendors, more food options, less parking, more 45 supporters) others have stayed the same (bargains if you know where to look, unpredictable weather, good and bad crazy, nice people).
Per usual I documented some of the odder things we encountered. Enjoy.
A lot of Game of Thrones Fans were disappointed when the Battle of Winterfell seemed to be somewhat anticlimactic, particularly since most people felt that the fight between the living and the army of the Dead would be THE BIG BATTLE of this final season of the show.
Well, then last night happened. Season Eight, Episode Five: The Bells.
If there is ANYTHING you can say about last night’s episode with 100% certainty, it is that the episode was decidedly NOT anti-climactic. And it was one of those things that you just couldn’t stop watching. Like the Red Wedding, but orders of magnitude worse.