I had an enjoyable visit recently to the Princeton Day School, whose sophomores are reading A Little History of the United States. (More on that soon in a future entry.) One student's book caught my eye: her neatly colored tabs calling out key pages in the narrative.
Some people respond to color immediately; others seem oblivious to its effects. When first putting together the college American history survey I'm a part of (Experience History; also its shorter version, US: A Narrative History of the Republic, both McGraw-Hill titles) one element I paid close attention to was the coordination of colors used on maps. Too many charts seem to use colors in random fashion: blue for this value, orange for that. But suppose you have a chart for the time it took Americans to travel on a journey starting in New York City during the early years of the Republic. This is how it looks in our text:
In theory, you could choose any color for any value here: blue for 6 days, yellow for 5. I've seen plenty of maps done in that haphazard fashion. But the values shown here represent a progression, from shorter to longer trips. The map becomes easier to read if the colors are chosen as a progression too. I asked production to move from hot colors (purple, red, orange, yellow) into cool colors (green, dark green, blue) to connote fast travel (hot) and slow travel (colder).
Similarly, in showing which nations of the world are the heaviest Internet users, I came across this map in Wikipedia:
It does have a color-coordinated gradation, but to my mind, the gradation is counterintuitive. The heaviest Internet usage here is shown in dark purple, then moving to blue and light blue as usage declines. My guess is that it would make more sense to use "hot" colors like red and orange for the heaviest usage and cold colors for places where the fewest people use the Web. In doing our own map, we started with black as the fewest users ascending to blue, light blue and so on...ending with red as the color for the "hottest," highest percentage of users.
There are complications in achieving this coordination. Graphic designers begin the production process by choosing a "color palette" for the entire book, so that the look and feel of the text is consistent throughout—a good thing. But those restrictions sometimes limit the number of colors available. Bottom line is, being sensitive to color in design makes for better history!
There is potentially no limit to how far you can take a sensitivity to color. The most striking example I'm aware of personally, was in the living room bookshelves of the poet Lucie Brock-Broido. She had her books arranged not alphabetically or even by subject matter, but by the color of their spines! It made for a striking appearance in terms of interior decoration...but I'm thinking she had to have a good memory for the colors of specific books, or she would have spent a long time poking around looking for a particular title!
One of my distinct summer pleasures is returning each year to our Adirondack camp. Here one finds the usual outdoor pastimes, from canoeing and hiking to just sitting on the dock listening to the calls of the loons. But the pleasure I’m referring to now is accomplished indoors, a process of turning the clock back in time. That is to say, browsing through the various camp libraries, whose volumes reach back a century and more.
I use the plural because there are several small-scale libraries here, tucked away in different buildings, each with a different identity. Where I’m sitting now, in a boathouse overlooking the lake, four bookshelves are crammed with paperback mystery and suspense novels, collected over the past thirty years. Some are familiar to me, such as Elmore Leonard’s Swag or P. D. James’ Devices and Desires. Other authors’ names ring a bell, though I’ve never read their books, including Sara Paretsky and Lawrence Block. Still others I’ve never heard of, yet clearly prolific creators whose volumes populate these vast sub-fields of idle diversion. There is “Edgar Award-winner” Sharon McCrumb, also Stuart M. Kaminsky, creator of “the Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov Mysteries,” and Diane Mott Davidson (no relation), a writer who specializes in a “unique blend of first-class suspense and five-star fare,” and whose back covers boast such gastronomic encomia as “a delicious whodunit” (Bon Appétit) and “a rich feast” (Publishers Weekly).
I am usually good for about one volume a summer plucked from these shelves, though never more. Back in the 1940s critic Edmund Wilson wrote two classic screeds bemoaning the quality of detective fiction; and as the years go by, I find myself increasingly in agreement with his acerbic assessments. Still, these shelves yield up occasional treasures.
In the main living room, however, the selections are much more unpredictable and engagingly odd. Each side of the fireplace boasts a glass-protected shelf filled with volumes acquired by various camp owners beginning sometime after 1911. The great majority are hardbacks, though great literature most are emphatically not.
As a historian, I enjoy the encounter with the popular predilections of decades gone by, where the questionable taste of readers is not merely dull, as Edmund Wilson might have it, but unpredictably exotic and strange. I wandered in this morning and, running my finger across the titles, pulled one book off the shelf that I had never noticed before:
I have no idea who Grace Denio Litchfield is. The book was published in September 1904 and the title page informs us that she was also the author of “In the Crucible” and “The Moving Finger Writes.” That volume ought to have been titled “The Moving Finger Writes Tremulously,” judging from the first page of The Letter D:
I could not bear to read further, but did flip the book open, at random, to page 109, where I found a fellow named Robert walking with Ruth on an April afternoon, a wind “chill with the memory of March...sweeping down the street.”
Well? Wasn’t this worth a tug off the shelf? I confess that, upon reading these words, a rose tint suffused my pallid cheeks as I felt the shadow of Grace Denio Litchfield hovering o’er. And then the shade of another creature—destined, decades later for a Boris Karloff picture—in which Dr. Frankenstein, like Robert, brays those immortal words, “It’s aliiive!!”
All right. As one writer to another, I owe Litchfield an apology. We authors should be humble about the bookshelves our works are likely to end up on, to be taken out decades later and trod upon with glee. Grace Denio Litchfield made an apparently satisfactory living from her output. (Yes, I googled her after I began writing this, and discovered that she published at least a dozen novels and poetry collections. In the Crucible is her account of being nearly crushed to death during an earthquake in Italy.) The hilarity derived from her pages gives proof of how fickle popular tastes can be, including our own. What will future owners of this camp, pulling books off the shelf, derive perverse pleasure from? Will they include sentences which, today, strike us as discerning prose but decades hence will seem trashy or horribly overwritten?
“The little I have read has been only of the best,” Robert assures Ruth. Our goal is the same. Yet a little voice whispers that our notion of what truly lives, moves, and “is the real thing,” may prove as ephemeral as Robert’s or Grace Denio Litchfield's fancies.
Two postscripts. As I began posting this entry, my eye lit on something on the cover of The Letter D. Scroll back and see if you notice it. It's the letter F! Tucked in the lower right corner of the six inscribed letter D's on the cover. What can it mean? It's the only wiggle in the novel that has thus far aroused my curiosity, and it tempts me to skim further to see what the title means and what that subversive F is all about. But I could not quite bring myself to haul the book home and continue to delve. If there are any Litchfield devotees out there who can provide an answer, drop me a line! Otherwise, I'll see how strongly I'm drawn to return to the puzzle next summer...
Finally, when I began this post, I intended to talk about two other books that caught my eye, but for now they must wait. The Letter D was where the moving finger, gliding along the dusty shelf, abruptly landed. That's the fun of this odd time machine tucked away in a wilderness camp.
Last month I attended my fiftieth college reunion, at Haverford College. There, I was part of a panel discussing "Statues, Monuments and the Moral Tide of History." Also participating were fellow classmates Jack Rakove, a historian now teaching at Stanford University, and John Hough, Jr., a fine novelist whose work includes Seen the Glory, about the battle of Gettysburg. Glenn Swanson, another classmate who has long taught American history, acted as moderator. Finally, and most pleasing for the rest of us, Roger Lane was present, emeritus professor of History, who taught us all fifty years ago and today remains as insightful as ever (far right, photo above). I'm posting below my own talk for that morning, "The Ecology of Confederate Monuments." For those interested in hearing the remarks of all the panelists, this video is available from Haverford.
The Ecology of Confederate Monuments
Comments for a panel at Haverford College
Class of 1968 50th Reunion, June 2, 2018
© 2018 James West Davidson
First, I want to say what a thrill it is to be back in class with Roger Lane! He really was the guy who first brought history alive for me. And the number of students who would echo that sentiment, I know, are legion.
I want to enlarge on Roger’s themes, though coming at it from a slightly different direction, which, metaphorically speaking, is ecological. The discipline of ecology shifted the gaze of biologists from the analysis of individual species to understanding the relations among plants and animals within their larger habitat. Similarly, I want to focus less on the monuments themselves than on the historical context which encouraged their creation—their original habitat, so to speak.
Roger has appropriately referred to slavery as America’s Original Sin: a system of racial slavery, he adds. But by the time these monuments were created, legal slavery had been struck down for decades. After 1865 race and slavery were no longer yoked together. This separation had significant consequences for understanding the role played by race.
Geneticists have established the scientific futility of trying to define race, be it black, white, red or brown. But as a social construct, race remained of tremendous import in the post-emancipation South. Most significantly, it was a construct whose definition was being transformed to suit new social needs. One might even say, race was being reconstructed.
We’re familiar with Reconstruction as the process undertaken by the Union to bring the seceded Southern states back into proper national relation. That process ended formally in 1877, with the elevation of Rutherford B. Hayes to the presidency. And the standard survey textbooks treat Reconstruction pretty much as over and done with by 1877. But in fact, the reconstruction of race as a concept was still very much under way in the 1880s and 1890s. In pre-Civil War days, the law of the land prescribed a legal status, slave, which could be regulated and legislated. But once the legal props of slavery disappeared, it became a good deal more difficult for one group of people to keep another in an inferior position.
Race became the key. During the 1880s and 1890s a line was drawn—“the color line,” it was called—that was increasingly buttressed by new laws, customs, and sanctions, until finally it became established that a person with any “black blood”—even a single drop—was on the far side of the color line. Historian Martha Hodes has brilliantly laid out this transformation. “Without the legal status of slavery and freedom as a dividing line,” she said, “white Southerners had to rely on the fickle categories of “black” and “white” to define white supremacy. The color line, therefore, had to be...established first by stricter racial definitions, which would come to fruition in the late nineteenth century with a codified “one-drop rule.” It also had to be established by distinct political, economic, and social castes for white men and black men, a task that required constant vigilance on the part of white people in order to ensure that no black man crossed over into the territory of political power, economic independence, or social authority.”
Continue The Ecology of Confederate Monuments
In earlier posts I've noted that Yale Press has licensed various foreign editions of A Little History of the United States, most recently an edition published in the People's Republic of China. Yale had sent me a copy of the edition, so I knew what it looked like, but only recently have I received word of its actual presence on the mainland.
From time to time I have corresponded with a Chinese citizen, William Wang, from the city of Xi'an in central China—originally the eastern terminus of the fabled Silk Road, if my information is correct. Mr. Wang found his way to this website after happening upon a copy of a college text I've collaborated on, Nation of Nations. (Alas, only Volume 2 was available to him.) For the last year or two we have exchanged emails from time to time on various subjects. But a recent communication, including the photo below, brought word that he had finally connected with A Little History:
No disappointment that he didn't buy the book—one must be thrifty and Mr. Wang prefers to work on his English by reading books in their original format. It was very good of him to send along a photo.
In addition, I am pleased to report that in the past few months, Yale has also licensed Japanese and Thai editions of the work. Not out yet, but they will be added to the queue along with a promised South Korean edition. Delighted to see the Asian market spreading!
Easter morning here, and I spent part of it reading the Sunday Times. (In my younger years, I liked to jibe that Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses, whereas in this more secular era, the Sunday Times is the opiate of the middle classes.) Opiated or not, I was struck scanning the lead stories on the front page that a striking change had occurred over the last couple of decades. I went back and hunted up the Easter Sunday front page from twenty years ago, and sure enough... Take a look at a listing of the primary front-page stories two decades apart. (The fact that it's Easter has nothing to do with it!)
April 12, 1998
Political Interests Arouse Raging Debate on Census
Steven A. Holmes
In W.N.B.A., Hope for Union of Their Own
Can-Do American's Patience Paid Off With an Ulster Pact
A Straight-Arrow Policeman Turns Loose Cannon at C.I.A.
Evidence Is Scant that Workfare Leads to Full-Time Jobs
April 12, 2018
Years of Claims of Harassment in Justice Dept.
Extortion or the Price of Freedom? Bail Bondsmen Accused of
Exploiting Poor Clients
Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Shaila Dewan
Taliban’s Move into High Tech Puts U.S. in Bind
Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Jawad Sukhanyar
Cuomo Budget Sticks Thumb in Mayor’s Eye
Vivian Wang and Jesse McKinley
Catching a Whiff of Faded Ballpark Memories
Hey, Alexa, What Can You Hear? And What Will You Do With It?
Notice anything? This is not an earth-shattering revelation, but out of the five main stories fronting the 1998 paper, four look to be done by white males. Compare that with the by-lines of 2018. The diversity of the reporting staff has increased sharply, both in terms of gender and ethnicity. My admittedly impressionistic sense is that same diversity extends through the paper as a whole; and the OpEd section has gained a much wider and more diverse line-up as well. All to the good.
A good copyeditor is a thing of beauty and a joy forever.
Was that Keats who said that? Hmmmm. A good copyeditor would send you back to check, or might even correct your mistaken quote. But the best copyeditors are as scarce as hen’s teeth. Forty years ago, the good ones would probably also tell you to use quotation instead of quote in the sentence above, the latter being a verb, not a noun. These days, the more informal usage has become fairly common.
When I started writing in the mid-1970s, I was young and innocent and ignorant of how valuable a good copyeditor could be. Partly, I didn’t fathom that bit of wisdom because the best copyeditor I’ve ever had, bar none, was for my first book, which I wrote with John Rugge: The Complete Wilderness Paddler. I was astonished at some of the things she caught. (I think it was a ‘she’ but I can’t say for sure. They were sometimes anonymous and even when not, you never meet them.) I still remember her changing Jello to Jell-O, though I can’t remember whether she put a trademark symbol after the word. Also, she would write things like, “On page 40, you mention a book called The Bark and Skin Canoes of North America by William Tappan Adney and Howard I. Chapelle. But in the bibliography on page 258 you say it is 'Howard T. Chapelle.' Which middle initial is correct?” That may have been the point when I first went out and bought a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style.
My next book, The Logic of Millennial Thought, had a fairly dismal copyeditor —and this was Yale University Press! He/She actually introduced an error into the text. I had Samuel Sewall "poring over a manuscript” and the copyeditor “corrected” it to read “pouring over a manuscript.” As if Sewall had other things to do with his beer than drink it! Fortunately in page proofs I caught one other mistake that was missed…a misspelling of the title of my book smack dab on the title page! It read The Logic of Millenial Thought instead of Millennial Thought. It’s a bit tricky because millennial has two n’s but millenarian, a similar term, has only one. I almost missed it. Then there is my Oxford book, ‘They Say:’ Ida B. Wells and the Reconstruction of Race. The theme of the book revolves around identity, and how you define yourself over and against how others define you. What they say, in other words. And in fact, Ida Wells for a while wrote a newspaper column entitled “They Say”…sort of news notes about goings on in the African-American community in Memphis. So the title of my book has “They Say” within quotation marks. The copyeditor on the book was only so-so, and using the quotation marks seemed to me to be logical. Only some years later did I go back and, by accident I expect, discover that, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, it was improper to include quotation marks in a book title, even if the title included a quotation, like “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” Patrick Henry and the Rise of Specious Eloquence. This makes sense to me now, but I regret to say I didn’t think about it at the time. And neither did my copyeditor.
The best copyeditors are at trade houses supposedly, like Knopf or Viking or Little Brown. Textbook and university press copyeditors vary much more in quality. Sometimes copyeditors will have specific issues they focus on that others have ignored. I remember that for the third or fourth edition of After the Fact, we had a copyeditor who went through and systematically changed every reference in which we used "black" or "white" as a noun . (E.g., "a number of whites converged at the waterfront..." was changed to "white men" or "white people.") That was the only copyeditor we had used who made those changes, which earlier copyeditors had not flagged. But sensitivities do change over time. I note that the same distinction became an issue in 2007, when the Associated Press wrote an article referring to Barack Obama as "the lone black" in the U.S. Senate. A faculty member of the Poynter Institute for journalists explained the thinking on using black or white as a noun:
The best copyeditors have an eye both for detail and for larger meanings. It’s seldom that one gets someone who does both chores well. For A Little History of the United States, my editor told me I was given one of the house’s best copyeditors, and I can believe it. As every copyeditor does, she kept a style sheet of how key terms and names were treated, for consistency (Vietcong, not Viet Cong; use a comma after the full name, separating it from Jr., as in Martin Luther King, Jr.) But she asked larger questions. For example, my manuscript spoke of the huge toll taken by disease in the Americas during the sixteenth century, noting estimates of something like 90 million deaths over the course of the century. She queried: "This might be fine, but it’s my job to question! It’s said [in an earlier chapter] that there were 8 million Indians in North America in 1492. Granted that here you’re talking about Central and South America over a period of a hundred years, but still... 90 million? Please verify."
I replied, "Quite all right to query—the figure is astonishing and the estimates extremely difficult to make. The population die-off estimates vary widely and have expanded greatly from those made by scholars in the first half of the twentieth century. A very rough estimate (but such estimates must inevitably be rough given the paucity of record-keeping), is that North American population was around 8-10 million (I went with the lower range of the estimate, and some scholars out of the mainstream, notably Henry Dobyns, have suggested 18 million). Central and South America had about ten times as many people, estimates suggest. And calculations are that the successive pandemics killed off over 90 percent of the population. Charles Mann, 1491, reviews the debate between so-called “High Counters” and “Low Counters.” You’ll see I changed my figure of 90 million above; I think it does make sense to give a range, so that people get a sense that when we say about 50 to 90 million, we’re talking wide variation. I do tend to lean toward the High Counters’ side (though I’m no expert, just have read in the literature). Even if we’re talking 50 million, it’s still a bigger loss than in any other century of recorded world history."
To sum up: Praise be to sharp copyeditors! They make life immensely easier for authors; and, while invisible to readers, make life better for them too.
I graduated over fifty years ago from The Harley School in Rochester, New York and was delighted to receive the above snapshot from Karen Saludo, who works at the school now. "I was walking down senior hallway and saw your book!" she reports. "You can see it has been used quite a bit."
In fact I knew that, having corresponded with Sandy Foster, who teaches American history there. He assigns it as summer reading to help students get up to speed before they take his class there in the fall, and reports high student engagement, which I'm glad to hear. This specimen seems well thumbed, certainly, which would seem to indicate a dogged devotion to the work!
I've been doing picture research and returned the other day to the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Office of War Information (OWI) digital archives, the wonderful treasure trove for the Great Depression and home front during World War II. (An earlier post about the collection's color slides can be found here.) This is one of those shots, the color muted but deep, and striking.
Photographer John Vachon took it in 1942, of a worker in a carbon black plant on the Texas panhandle. These factories "make carbon," Vachon explained, "which is powdery black stuff in big bags worth 3 cents a pound, used in making tires, paints, & numerous other places." He described to his wife what it was like to approach:
Natural gas was the raw material for carbon black and these factories were quite extensive. The one Vachon visited had about 300 smaller buildings, called "hot houses," where each house contained several hundred jets burning natural gas. The gas was deliberately burned without sufficient oxygen, which produced the black powdery residue, then collected into bags. Even visiting the plant, Vachon got "dirtier, that is blacker, than I have ever been in my life. Really black all over. Right through the clothes it goes. I washed carefully my face and hands, but I'm leaving the rest for a while, it's really kind of beautiful. It gets very shiny when you rub it."
Obviously, the work went on decades before clean air and workplace safety regs were in place!
In the summer of 1981, John Rugge and I canoed down the George River in northern Quebec, retracing the routes taken across the Labrador-Ungava peninsula by Mina Hubbard and Dillon Wallace in 1903. We were writing a book about the subject, Great Heart: the History of a Labrador Adventure, which was published in 1988. (For more about that, look here.) Our good friend, filmmaker Sam Kauffmann, was along with us. The river flows north into Ungava Bay, whose extreme tides of forty feet make for a muddy landing, when the tides are out.
In 1905, the mouth of the river was the site of a post maintained by the Hudson Bay Company, the spot where Mina Hubbard and Dillon Wallace ended their expeditions. The settlement, George River, was still there in 1981 when we pulled our canoes up over the mud flats, though it had moved its location slightly. There we spent a pleasant day or two waiting for weather to permit a short flight to nearby Fort Chimo (now Kuujjuaq), where we caught a plane back south to Montreal. Our photographer Sam snapped a couple shots of the children around the settlement, including this energetic crowd:
I liked the photo so much, I used it as my Christmas card that year. And then we went on with our lives, wrote Great Heart, and thought fondly of George River Post—but never had occasion to return.
This year, Rugge and I and our spouses signed up for a cruise mounted by Adventure Canada, which begins in Greenland, traverses Davis Strait, and proceeds down the Labrador coast, ending in St. John's, Newfoundland. (Highly recommended: more information here.) And the first Canadian settlement we stopped in, crossing over from Greenland, was George River, now renamed Kangiqsualujjuak. The community, which numbered roughly a thousand souls, generously welcomed the ship's visitors with tents set up to sell crafts and walking tours of the village. Anticipating our return after 36 years, I had brought a copy of the photo of these youngsters and, once ashore, asked one of the residents if they recognized anyone. She immediately named each and then turned to the shelter nearby and called, "May! May, come over here!" It turned out that May was the girl on the right, and now in her forties, surprised and delighted to find this photograph from her past turn up, like a note in a bottle that had long been floating in the ocean.
I had one other photograph that Sam had taken in 1981, of a toddler in the lap of a man on a motorcycle.
The villagers recognized them too: a father with his daughter. And the daughter was now leading one of the walking tours of the village. She was over at the school and so we went there, a bright new building where students were getting out at the end of the school day. Found her, presented the other photo, and smiles all around.
What a wonderful day! It was marvelous to see Kanigiqsualajjuakk prospering and it felt as if a circle had been closed, in the same way that the life of a river is circular, starting as a panoply of rivulets in the highlands, gathering its tributaries and making its way to the sea, where the water eventually evaporates into the clouds to begin the cycle all over again. As we returned to our landing this year, I took a photo of two young girls I spied perched on a boulder. I hope a return to the village will be sooner than another 36 years, and if so, I'll have with me a photo and someone else to look for.
John Brown on the way to his execution (Library of Congress)
Almost any geographic site can prove to be a crossroads, historically speaking, where major protagonists meet in ways that are long remembered. It's more unusual to find a spot in which paths cross before the significant events have taken place. But the sleepy countryside around Harper's Ferry proved to be that place in the autumn of 1859.
John Brown's raid on the federal armory brought them there. The raid was the beginning of a clumsy attempt to free slaves in a region of western Virginia where few slaves lived, and it raised tensions to a fever pitch in the months before civil war divided the United States. The Currier & Ives lithograph above, created during the war, romanticized a somber scene. It was based on an erroneous newspaper report that, on the way to the gallows after being convicted of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia, Brown encountered an enslaved African American mother and her child, and that Brown tenderly kissed the youngster. That never happened. Nor was it likely that behind Brown inside the jail, Virginia's state flag waved with its motto prominently emblazoned: Sic semper tyrannis--thus always to tyrants.
But six weeks earlier, as local militia surrounded Brown and his men where they were holed up in the arsenal firehouse, an army colonel was called to command the marines sent to capture Brown. The colonel normally served in the army in Texas, but he had returned home to Virginia on a brief leave and was placed on the special mission by President James Buchanan. This was Robert E. Lee, the officer who would soon take command of the Northern Army of Virginia during the Civil War. With him was a friend, cavalryman J.E.B. Stuart, known as Jeb to his friends. Stuart too would soon become famous, his cavalry serving as Lee's eyes and ears during much of the war. When Brown refused to surrender that morning in 1859, Stuart gave the order for the marines to attack.
Lee was in town six weeks later when Brown was led from the jail to a horse-drawn wagon, which would convey him to the place of execution. The wagon contained Brown's mahogany coffin in a crate, upon which Brown sat as he rode to the gallows. Several companies of Virginia militia escorted the procession.
In a cornfield outside of town 82 cadets from Virginia Military Institute stood before the scaffold, dressed in tall, plumed hats, gray trousers and red shirts, with white cross-straps across their chests. Next to them stood VMI's howitzer detachment, commanded by an instructor from the academy who taught the subjects of natural and experimental philosophy. Also, of course, artillery. Although Thomas Jackson was unpopular enough to have received the nickname "Tom Fool" from his pupils, once the war broke out, his refusal to retreat at the first Battle of Bull Run earned him a new moniker, "Stonewall." Jackson too would become a Lee stalwart.
Lee watched the execution from a distance, up on Bolivar Heights about a mile away. Afterward, he accompanied the coffin to the rail station, where he turned the body over to Brown's widow. At her request, the undertaker pried the coffin open with a crowbar and she removed a gold ring from her husband's fourth finger before Lee rode off.
To add to this interesting mix, consider a photo long believed to show a group of Confederate soldiers during the war. I first encountered it when it was used in an edition of my middle grades American history text, but it has been widely published and is still available at the Library of Congress.
Recent research, however, by Angela Smythe, has convincingly argued that the photo does not show Confederate soldiers, but was taken in 1859 at Brown's execution, of a group of "Richmond Grays," one of the Virginia militias. And Smythe identifies the man at left toward the rear (just behind the soldier at center) as the actor John Wilkes Booth, who had joined the Richmond Grays.
For Booth too was at the execution, drawn to it by John Brown's outsized character. He had come to Harper's Ferry the day before and asked the sheriff if he could visit the prisoner personally, a request the sheriff granted. (Brown had been allowed—or perhaps we should say, saddled with—more than a few visitors, eager to see him or shake his hand.) "Poor old Brown," Booth recalled later. "He was a brave old man." At the execution Booth stood only about thirty feet from the gallows, and watched as the abolitionist mounted the scaffold and then scanned the crowd and the hills beyond, perhaps pondering whether any surprise party might attempt to free him. Though Booth was firmly proslavery, he felt "a throb of anguish as he beheld the old eyes straining their anxious sight for the multitude he vainly had thought would rise to rescue him," recalled the soldier next to him. Then the feet of the condemned man were tied together and a linen hood placed over his head. "Be quick," Brown urged, though some minutes passed before the sheriff took a hatchet and severed the rope holding the trap door. Watching the kicking legs and shuddering arms, Booth "got very pale in the face," recalled his companion; said "he felt very faint" and "would give anything for a good drink of whiskey."
Robert E. Lee...J.E.B. Stuart...Stonewall Jackson...and John Wilkes Booth, the man who would shoot Lincoln. All gathered at this strange crossroads. They were joined by one additional spectral presence. In 1860 poet Walt Whitman wrote "Year of Meteors (1859-60)," in which he described Brown's execution:
Was Walt Whitman really there? His biographer, David Reynolds, says no. "Whitman, as usual, was taking poetic liberty: he was not 'at hand' at the hanging of Brown." But he looked upon this crossroads as he did the unsettling meteor shower that appeared a year later over Manhattan, "dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads." Of these blazing stars, he said, "I sing—with gleams of them would I gleam and patch these chants / Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good! year of forebodings!"
With violence, John Brown set the spark for war. With violence, John Booth ended it, crying out Sic semper tyrannis as he fled. Lee, Stuart and Jackson carried forward the rebellion in the years between. And all crossed paths in the year before—the year of forebodings—at Harper's Ferry.
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors