Civil War time lapse map

January 31, 2010

A super cool map of the American Civil War. A “time-lapse” rendering of the major battlelines and territory held by both sides throughout the war.

The Civil War in Four Minutes

Remembering Haymarket

September 7, 2009

It is the end of the Labor Day weekend here in America, and many people (including myself) had the day off today. Unfortunately, like many 3-day weekend holidays – the origin and significance of the holiday itself has been lost. These days, it’s all about football, hot dogs, and getting away. That’s fine, all well and good. But I believe it is important to remember what price was paid so that we could have this holiday.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Haymarket Riot.  May, 1886, Chicago. Workers marched in protest, advocating for an eight-hour workday. In the events that followed over the next few days, 2 workers were killed, seven policeman died, and seven labor leaders were sentenced to death, though only four were executed.

Haymarket is a complex story, and one that I am still struggling to grasp and understand, myself. But what is important to me to remember this Labor Day weekend is that people died so that I could have the things I take for granted today. I count all of the people who died in the Haymarket events to have paid the price for benefits that I enjoy today – so many of which I take for granted. Like the eight-hour workday. And a holiday off.

The battle for the eight-hour day did not end at Haymarket, and in fact, was entirely derailed because of the violence and controversy surrounding those events. It wouldn’t be until after World War II that the eight-hour day became law.


The Dramas of Haymarket from Chicago Historical Society – lengthy and detailed essays about the history and significance and lasting impact of Haymarket, and links to digitized materials.

Super short summary and links from Kent State.

Episode on the PBS program, History Detectives about Haymarket.

History of Labor Day from U.S. Dept. of Labor

© writingreading 2009

Page Smith’s Sweeping History

March 23, 2009

I’ve been meaning to write for sometime about Page Smith’s huge and sweeping multi-volume “A People’s History…” series.

First, let me say that I’ve only read one volume of this eight volume work. Each book is massive. Vol. 4, entitled The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years weighs in at slightly more than 1000 pages. Umph!

But let me tell you why you should read it, or any of the other volumes in this series. Forget the boring history textbooks of high school or college. Smith’s work is both vast, and detailed. He covers all of the basic historical ground – politics, presidents, wars, economy, exploration and so on. But he also has fabulous chapters about cultural life – theatre, literature, religion, and more. He impressively combines narrative of larger historical events with eyewitness history, built from diaries, letters, newspapers, and other first hand sources. These first hand accounts breathe life into the old dusty facts that died in a history class long ago, and are now revived with vigor in Smith’s work.

Sure, it is a massive tome, and one that may take quite some time to read. But I found it interesting, educational, and a helpful way to quickly dig into specific subjects and areas of interest, even if I wasn’t interested in the whole thing.

However, I did have two small problems with it. One, is the lack of an index. This means if you happen to recall reading about something several hundred pages ago – but can’t recall which chapter, there’s no easy way to go back and find it. The second problem I have is a related one – and that is a complete lack of footnotes. The good news is that he is pretty good about including at least a general source citation within the text, like “So-n-So wrote in his diary…”, but I miss having the specifics.

© writingreading, 2009

Thomas Paine’s “American Crisis”

July 2, 2008

In honor of the Fourth of July holiday, I picked up Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis. Even if you’re not familiar with the title, you probably will recognize at least one of its quotes. This is where the famous quote, “These are the times that try men’s souls” comes from.

And if you’re not familiar with any of this, Thomas Paine is more commonly known, today, I think, as the author of Common Sense. He was an American printer at the time of the American Revolution, and his incendiary Common Sense called for the establishment of an independent country, separate from the British, in January 1776 – a full six months before the Declaration of Independence made it official.

I feel certain I must have read The American Crisis, long ago, in an 8am college history course, though I remember nothing but sleepiness from that. But rereading it now, many years later and much more conscious, I am struck by not only Paine’s eloquence and passion – but how much of our fundamental American ideals are contained and elaborated in this series of essays.

He talks about colonialism, royalists efforts to suppress the will of the common people, economic instability, the folly and costs of war (and sometimes its necessity), honor and deception among leaders, the willing sacrifices made by American citizens, and so very much more. I found it not only a surprisingly easy read – but also fascinatingly relevant in many many ways to today’s world. It truly took me back to the most fundamental aspects of our American democracy – our virtues and our faults – and maybe most importantly at this time of year, our ideals.

The essays are short enough they can be read on a short bus or train ride while commuting, or an hour without TV, or maybe while you are waiting for it to get dark enough to shoot off fireworks on the Fourth. Get back to basics, read about American ideals and freedoms, and take a look at this American classic.

© writingreading 2008

Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of – #2 – Callie House

June 29, 2008

Callie House is not an everyday name in women’s history, or even in African-American history. But she should be. An African-American washerwoman who had been born into slavery in 1861 in Rutherford County, Tennessee, she later moved to Nashville where she would launch a movement in the late 1890s for justice and civil rights that loomed so powerful and seemed so threatening to the established order of things that high-ranking officials in Washington, DC had her arrested, imprisoned, and repeatedly took a variety of measures to suppress the movement.

Her cause? Federally paid pensions for former slaves, who had toiled for years and decades without wages. Motivated in part by the Federal pensions paid to former Union soldiers, and a similar, but different, type of ex-slave pension movement begun by white Southerner Walter R. Vaughan, House believed that only through activism within the African-American community could the cause be brought to fruition in a way that would be truly beneficial to the black community. Vaughan’s plan did not have the best interests of African-Americans at heart; he simply wanted to bring more financial wherewithal to blacks still living in the South, as a way to prop up the South’s economic woes. Ultimately, he sought an “economic stimulus package” for blacks, who would then spend their funds with white merchants, thus growing the economy of the post-Reconstruction white South.

House partnered with an African-American man, also from Rutherford County, and a former agent for Vaughan, named Isaiah Dickerson. Together, they established the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, hosting their first convention in 1898. The organization grew quickly, with local chapters established throughout the country. Not only was one of the stated aims of the organization to introduce and secure passage of a pension bill in Congress for former slaves, but it was also to provide assistance to members of the local communities, such as providing support for orphans and covering burial expenses.

As the movement gained strength and numbers, the Federal Government became increasingly suspicious, and House’s noble cause became one of unceasing struggle. House and other officers of the national organization were accused of fraud. The government charged that the organization was a mere sham, a way for House and others to make money by requiring membership fees which provided no service whatsoever. Eventually, House was imprisoned, but her cause continued. Time and again the government charges of fraud were proven to be unfounded, and time and again the charges would be resurrected. There was even division within the black community, with many middle-class blacks believing the unfounded charges of fraud, or preferring to pursue Booker T. Washington’s accomodationist message.

House died in 1928 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Her movement for ex-slave pensions continued, but was never the same after her imprisonment. By the 1930s, those persons born in bondage were dying off. The Depression made it difficult to sustain the few chapters that remained, although their dues were often a dollar or less. By the end of the decade, the organization essentially ceased to exist.

There is much more to the story than I have provided here. This is simply a summary. The full story about Callie House and the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association can be found in My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations by Mary Frances Berry, an excellent and detailed work about this tragically forgotten woman, and her heroic struggle for justice and civil rights. Berry spends the bulk of the book creating a detailed biography of House, and the growth and eventual death of the organization, but she also provides a helpful epilogue sketching out the legacy of House’s work throughout the twentieth century, and the continuing campaign for reparations for slavery, even today.

Although I enjoy reading about strong, little-known but heroic women of the past, I found Berry’s work especially intriguing, simply because House’s work – until now – was so tragically ignored and unknown.

© writingreading 2008

Think History is Boring?

June 22, 2008

If you are one of the millions that think history is boring, get a load of this. The setting is Fairland, Texas, sometime in the 1880s. George Gautier had insulted the Pitman family and the women in particular by calling them lazy. Soon thereafter, Gautier’s wife was visited by the offended ladies. George wrote: “The Pitman women got angry and the next day came to my place, hoisted their clothes and patted their rear parts at my wife.”

This would be amusing and humorous enough if it ended there, but sadly and unfortunately, the feud turned deadly. The situation continued to escalate over several days, and finally George had had enough. He took his loaded pistol and a broom handle with a nail through it, and went to where his wife was receiving a “tongue lashing” from Mrs. Pitman. When he saw that Mrs. Pitman was giving his wife a genuine lashing with a bull whip, he proceeded to strike her with the broom handle. Mrs. Gautier had a small stick too, and she went to work. Gautier’s son joined in by throwing rocks, then went to the house to get a shotgun. By this time, Mr. Pitman had arrived, and threw a rock at Gautier, then tried to wrest the gun from Gautier’s hand. He failed, Gautier fired twice, and Pitman was dead.

George Gautier was eventually found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary. He believed he was defending his wife and family, and although expressing some regret, with periods of deep remorse, on the whole, he was relatively unapologetic. He felt like he had been drawn into the conflict. “Let women go to fussing and they will never stop until they get the men to fighting – that is my experience,” he wrote.

Gautier is an interesting, if tragic man. I’ve read a lot over the past few years about vigilante violence, and I’ve always been fascinated with the “darker” aspects of history, but I’ve never read anything like his memoir. I’ve not encountered anyone who writes so matter-of-factly about the vigilante actions he was part of.

Gautier served both as a formal member of a Texas cavalry unit, but was also involved in guerrilla activities. For a while, he was a member of the early Klan in Arkansas, and before the war, and been involved in some vigilante actions in the late 1850s in Texas. He also took part in the great hanging at Gainesville, during the war. His life is bathed in blood.

What is unique about his account is the matter-of-factness approach he takes to his involvement in these events. He freely talks about numerous hangings and killings he participated in, and occasionally punctuates it with brief paragraphs of poignant remorse – but one wonders if he can possibly be sincere, when his regret seems so short-lived. Another interesting thing about him is every so often, he will interrupt his story to include a poem that he has written! A complex man, with many facets. A brutal hangman who writes poetry!

No, history’s not boring. Just let George Gautier tell you his story….

© writingreading 2008

Text referenced is:

Harder than Death: The Life of George R. Gautier, An Old Texan, Living at the Confederate Home, Austin, Texas written by himself, 1902, pp. 30-35, 39.

Reviving Women’s Lives through Cookbooks

June 19, 2008

I wrote a post recently about Carol and her dread of cooking. This was from a book called Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano. As I’ve continued reading this book, I just have to comment further.

This is a fascinating, extraordinarily detailed examination of, well, as the subtitle indicates – unearthing and resurrecting women’s lives and social surroundings through a detailed examination of various cookbooks. It’s not as boring or far-fetched as I may have made it sound, here. That little synopsis just simply doesn’t do it justice.

What Theophano does is to go far beyond the mere printed words on the page, to examine the ways cookbooks link multiple generations of women (heirlooms); how cookbooks also serve as guidebooks to womanly and wifely duties and decorum; how cookbooks were a way to gain or promote literacy among women; and how cookbooks, through the exchange and gathering of recipes, are a communal activity – and therefore can reveal a myriad of social interactions which often crossed boundaries of race and class which were otherwise insurmountable, given the time and place of their writing.

I am truly impressed with Theophano’s versatile range and analysis, and her ability to shed light on women’s lives and culture through this method. She is truly talented in the way she brings these women back to life, through something that on the surface seems so ordinary and mundane – a cookbook. And many of the women discussed in the book are otherwise obscure or unknown – simply everyday ordinary women. Now and then, there is a prominent authoress or lordly lady, but by and large, most are ordinary women.

I’m certain that my poor attempt to convey the drama and interest of this book falls short, but if you are interested in learning more about our foremothers, the history of home cookery, or general women’s studies, this is one not to miss!

©2008 writingreading