Thursday, November 14, 2013

Civil war reenactment survival kit

First, it occurred to me that you never got to see what my finished ammunition crate looks like.  (I made a long blog post with instructions how to build your own HERE) Here it is:

Isn't it just glorious and super authentic looking?  For the paint color, I chose a dark olive drab I created by mixing dark grey and green house paint at Home Depot. It's darker than it looks in the picture.
I marked it with the Frankford Arsenal because that arsenal supplied the Northern Pennsylvania regiments of the Union Army,  which would make it appropriate for a Bucktails camp setting.  I decided to date stamp it with "1861" so it won't look out of place, no matter what year of the war we are portraying.

Were you wondering how I got the lettering so perfect? After several lousy tries by hand and coats of paint to cover it up, I ended up laying it out on the computer with a stencil font and took it to a sign shop to get a vinyl stencil made of it. That way I could stick it on to the wood, paint in the letters and then peel it off after it dried. During wartime they supposedly used a brass stencil plate and applied the letters in white paint with a hand brush.

...So now that I have my very own ammo box to leave laying around in camp, what do I use it for?  At first I carefully covered the inside with plastic and duct tape to make a small drink cooler. It holds about 2 six packs of beer or four Gatorade bottles laying down.
This does work, it is waterproof and it does keep the drinks cool if you pack it with ice.  Just be sure the lid stays on tightly.

That worked as an ice cooler for one or two events. It saved my behind at the 150th Antietam and the Gettysburg 2012 where it was 110 degrees in the shade.

Now I came up with another use for it...a survival kit, tool box and carryall!  Here's all the stuff I keep in it now:

Going from right to left, I'll give you 'pards a breakdown of what's in here at all times...

You will notice there is a teapot. What is the teapot for?

This pretty cheap, worthless old dented teapot was a lucky find at a flea market.  I actually use it for boiling water to clean my rifle. See the narrow spout? It fits perfectly into the muzzle of a .58 Enfield, and if you tip it up the hot water pours straight into the barrel with no spillage. It really works! I don't need to take the barrel off or remove the lockplate to prevent water seeping in, because the water goes into the barrel and nowhere else. (I really should make a post about my gun cleaning method passed down from my family firearms expert the late Uncle Bill. He found a way to clean the entire gun in as little as 5 minutes)

Next is my shoestring budget musket cleaning kit, pictured below.

The case (upper left) was handmade out of tarred canvas with a drawstring.  Below that are the segmented cleaning rods.  

Here's a cheap way to assemble a cleaning kit. Go to Walmart and buy one of those universal kits for pistols, rifles and shotguns. Take the patches, the brushes, the wire scrapers and the rods out. You'll need to buy two kits to get the right length of rods to go all the way down the barrel, and then you also have plenty of extra pieces left over and extra rods in case they break. They could break. Use the swab brushes and wire brush meant for the 12 gauge shot gun. The real skinny swab and wire brush are for cleaning the touch hole the nipple screws into.  The patch holder jag for the shotgun will work just fine.

Three special tools you can't buy at Walmart are the nipple wrench (mine is for an Enfield), the bore scraper and the cleaning picks. I also bought two spare nipples (*ahem "percussion cones") in case I lose mine.  You'll also notice a square piece of tough brown leather. I use that piece to plug the percussion cone hole against the hammer when I pour the hot water down the barrel for the initial "shake & bake" rinse. The flexible piece of plastic tubing next to that is meant to fit on the end of the cone, to divert the water away from the stock and lock plate when the rifle is inverted. 

All of the stuff pictured above fits into the black cloth bag.

Here's my bottles and cans of cleaning fluids. The 3 old glass bottles hold Neatsfoot oil (for treating leathers), olive oil (to prevent rust on the outside of the gun), and Linseed oil (to treat the wooden stock). I have two wads of triple-ought "000" steel wool to shine up brass.  The can of Ballistol and Stock Rejuvenator are two modern essentials.

These are my homemade cleaning patches. I cut them up out of clean undershirts. Don't cut them any bigger than 3 inches square.  One package of undershirts from any clothing store will make enough patches to last you a year or more.  Don't waste your money on them at the sutlers.

And here's the mending kit I carry with me in the field. I have coils of string, twine, rope and leather shoelaces. These can be used for so many things. Tie your tent poles together to keep your tent up. Tie together a broken leather strap. Lace up somebody's shoe with it.  I have a folding jacknife I also carry in this black bag. The thing at top right is part of a cotton canteen strap, in case anybody needs it.

Then I have a few more modern tools for emergencies nobody should really be without.  I got a nice Leatherman with plenty of tools on it, including a tiny saw blade and a pair of scissors.  The small keychain flash light cost me 99 cents from the bargain aisle of Target. It makes a perfect bore checking light to make sure your rifle barrel is clean and shiny. I got a flat bladed screwdriver for undoing the barrel band screws on an Enfield rifle, because I find the flat tip of the nipple wrench is too small and slips out, gouging the wood around it. The small thing with the blue screwdriver handle is an awl. For punching extra holes in leather belts and straps, of course. 

....And then I also carry a tiny plastic baggie in my ammo box with a handful of cartridges in it. Why in plastic? Say there's a downpour on Saturday night, your cartridge box gets left out in the rain and your powder gets wet and useless. I'll slip you this bag with some dry rounds in it and it's got enough to hopefully get you through Sunday's battle so you don't have to go to the sutlers and buy more. 

And last but certainly not least, I still have room to carry my folding pocket campaign lantern. When it's closed it makes a nice sturdy dry box to hold my Lucifer matches in.

Just so you know guys... I will always have this box near my tent in camp, and anyone is welcome to borrow what's inside with my supervision if they need a quick repair, ammo gets wet or need to check out their gun. I will have a sewing kit too, and I know how to mend torn seams and sew buttons back on to your uniform.  Just come to me if you need anything.

By the way, here's what I look like.  My real name's Jeff.  I am in the Mifflin Guard with the 42nd Pennsylvania Infantry, sometimes the 13th PA Reserves, and sometimes the 1st PA Rifles. (we're all the same group depending what the battle is). I watch out for my brothers. If you're at an event and you think you might need anything you see in this reenacting survival kit, come find me. I hardly ever sleep so my tent is open 24 hours. Just drop in and say hi.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

More Civil War Sketchin' Time

These are recent additions to my 1860s sketch journal for your viewing pleasure. The sketches are only about four inches by six inches. I tend to draw very tiny.

The eagle as a symbol of the Union was depicted more during this time than any other in the nation's history.
Many of my sketches are renditions of engravings found in recruiting posters, political cartoons, mail envelopes and Harper's Weekly newspapers of the period.  I like the way they repeatedly used the motif of the eagle as a symbol of strength and freedom, perhaps you have noticed a bit of a fixation.  Eagles eat snakes, an animal which has sometimes been used to personify the Confederacy. There is a lot more meaning behind symbols than many of us realize.

The idea of Liberty personified as a woman wearing stars and stripes also originated around the year 1860.

 Call me a Yankee if you must, but personally I think eagles are awesome.

...And if you were curious, here's what my 19th century drawing kit looks like that I take to events so I can sit around and sketch. 

The pencil case is made of wood and has a sliding cover that won't slide completely out. I don't know what kind of wood it is, but it smells like pine. I draw with cedar pencils and when the tip gets dull, I whittle it to a point it with my folding jacknife. There are some sticks of vine charcoal, some very old drawing instruments like a compass and dip pen (how old I'm not sure, they look like 19th century), and a natural rubber eraser.  I like to sit around the fire and draw in camp because it gives me something to do besides loaf around, talk and eat. When I practice sketch at home, sometimes I like to work by candlelight and listen to some camp songs to get me "in the zone." Something about putting a pencil to paper in the dim flickering light of a fire makes me forget what century it is. I find it a good atmosphere to create in.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Civil War Battle of Gettysburg - Culp's Hill

This is very dramatic and well done. Blue-Gray Alliance 150th Gettysburg...The Culp's Hill battle I wasn't allowed to fight in but was lucky to be close enough to watch.

I was there. I saw this.

Video credit: HistoricSandusky

Civil War Sketch-a-Palooza

Some recent sketches in my Civil War sketch journal I forgot to scan.  Okay, so I really like eagles. You got a problem with eagles? 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Civil War in Technicolor

The picture above is almost impossible for any Civil War junkie not to have seen... the three (until recently) unidentified Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg. It is true...these three men now have names and their living descendents have been found.  But here we see this iconic image in a new way: in startling color. Suddenly, a picture in a million books becomes a window into their reality.

Two longtime Reddit users,  Mads Dahl Madsen and Jordan J. Lloyd, who started a company for digital image restoration, have changed selected pictures from the Library of Congress into color and brought new life into these 150-year old images. Check out the link below and see it for yourself.

Amazing Civil War Photos Turned Into Glorious Color

As a digital artist who makes heavy use of Photoshop, and as a historian who likes to stare at old photos, I know that restoring old and badly damaged photographs from another era is not as easy as it looks.  Software makes it easier than ever before to add color to a monochrome image, but certain details, like hair and beards on people's heads and leaves on plants, are very challenging. I don't pretend to know how they did these so well, but they really are doing a fantastic job at making these long dead soldiers come alive.

Maybe my experiences as a reenactor have given me the sights, sounds, smells and sensations of living in the 1860's, and this grants me a connection to these images that normal people simply don't have.  I feel like I am there, and these are actually living, breathing people again in these photographs. I know how hot and humid it was on those battlefields in the summer, and how scratchy their wool uniforms are.  I know what it is to be tired, footsore and hungry after hours of marching with inadequate food. In a way, I know how some of how these men felt and I have seen some of the things they saw.  I feel a sense of brotherhood with those incredibly tough, brave and rugged men. When I study their expressionless faces somehow I can still feel their anger, longing and sadness over their nation in turmoil.

The same thing happens when I look at photos of my grandparents, and their colorful past which I grew up mostly unaware of. I am grateful as a living historian for a chance to travel back in time and see some things through their eyes.  It has certainly made history real for me, and not dead and buried legends in stuffy academic books.

For me, this seems to erase the century and a half between us and somehow bring them closer.

For more examples of the past as you've never seen it before, here's the ColorizedHistory page itself.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Best Part about Reenactors Marching in a Parade

...Is that we can look at a person dancing front of us wearing a giant ketchup bottle suit and not feel so bad about what we have to wear.  (Like at the Middletown Peach Festival.  I wish I had a picture of that to show how ridiculous it looked)

Friday, July 26, 2013

My First Reenactment

I don't remember where I found this, I think it had been used as a bookmark a very long time ago and forgotten about.  This is a scanned program from the first Civil War reenactment I ever witnessed, it was in May 1994 at Brandywine Creek State Park, a large field on a hill with a stone wall less than 3 miles from where I live.  This was a year after the Gettysburg movie came out in theaters, and there was a brief resurgence in mainstream popularity similar to 1989 when Glory made its debut.  I would have been nine and a half years old at the time.

The only things from this event I can remember with any clarity are: my brother tripped and fell near the Confederate camp and hit his knee on a rock. He started to make a fuss and, staying totally in character, a Reb soldier walked up, knelt down beside him and said "Are ya wounded, sir!" and washed the cut with some water from his canteen. At one of the sutlers I bought a small set of plastic Blue & Gray army men with little cannons and horses.  They sold Sarsaparilla in old glass bottles and it was delicious. 

Interestingly, this reenactment was sponsored by the Fort Delaware Society and the Second Delaware Volunteer Infantry, the first reenacting group I joined. There were two separate companies within the 2nd DE and were both a part of Smyth's Brigade, an organization which no longer exists.  They were not a part of Vincent's Brigade with the 20th Maine, as they are now. On the flip side of this you can see how the camps and skirmish areas were laid out.

Every time I go to the ground this battle took place on, I think about how I was there years ago and what a great place it is to have a battle. With the stone wall on top of the hill and a long slope leading up to it, you could hold a variety of scenarios there involving the high ground and the strategic advantage it offers. It appears this event in '94 had a small scale recreation of Marye's Heights at Fredericksburg on Saturday, and a scene from the stunning southern victory at Chancellorsville on Sunday.

 It would be fun to have another reenactment so close to my home.  I sorta want them to have another one.  Currently Brandywine Creek only hosts one annual reenactment, and it's a Rev War event. (The land itself was part of the enormous Brandywine Battlefield in 1777, which spanned a huge area from Wilmington almost up to Valley Forge) I cannot picture the Fort Delaware Society being able to raise the funds for another one of these, as broke as historical places are these days.  Or maybe the people who organized this one aren't alive anymore.  Who knows, maybe someday...

At that age, the battle seemed quite scary and dangerous.  I vaguely remember asking my parents "what if someone had a loaded gun and he shot and killed you by accident?" 

I never dared to imagine that almost twenty years later I would be doing this.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Iced Earth - Gettysburg (1863)

Just wanted to put this up one more time before July 2013 is over and the Gettysburg memories start to fade. One of the most epic heavy metal masterpieces ever recorded. About the monumental, gut-wrenching struggle of the three day battle of Gettysburg and the terrible sadness of the aftermath. This is taken from a rare DVD edition with appropriate visuals, battle sound effects, officer dialogue and on screen lyrics. Iron Maiden is another band that writes songs from history and folklore, and in fact is one of Iced Earth's biggest influences.

This needs to be heard.

From "The Glorious Burden" 2003

0:00-12:14 - July 1 1863: The Devil To Pay
12:15-19:20 - July 2 1863: Hold At All Costs
19:21-31:59 - July 3 1863: High Water Mark

Monday, July 15, 2013

Monday, July 8, 2013

Gettysburg - A poem in Harper's Weekly


GRANDLY the army wrought, on the murderous field of battle;
It has wiped the stain of defeat from every soldier's brow:
Mid the clash of steel on steel, and shouts, and the harsh death-rattle,
The Army of the Potomac has won a victory now!
Honor to ye brave men, from the battle wounded and gory!
Honor to ye brave men, whom the angel of death passed by!
Ages on ages hence shall others rehearse your story,
And pray that when duty calls like you they may live or die.
Though your worldly lives be obscured in the light of freedom's dawning,
Though the very graves ye rest in be marked with dimness and doubt,
Angel voices shall call to your resurrection morning—
God Himself is your Captain, and He will leave no man out!
Ye, who for weary months have suffered loss and disaster,
Going from love and home to scenes of hatred and pain,
Gaze on your flag with pride, and press toward the enemy faster!
Deck every brow with laurel, and lift up your heads again!
Then kneel reverently and call on the name of Jesus.
Be every head uncovered—each heart in silence adore.
He has crowned us with His love—He has blessed His erring creatures!
His be the power and glory forever and evermore!

--Anonymous poet, Harper's Weekly. July 18, 1863

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Memorable Moments at the "BGA" 150th Gettysburg

For those of us who attended last weekend's Blue-Gray Alliance rendition of the 150th Battle of Gettysburg, the weekend was really a mixed bag. Personally I was glad I went, but some parts of it recreated genuine Army misery.  For example, it rained every evening of the event. Some reenactors will say a Civil War reenactment isn't complete without muddy roads, burning hot sun and torrential downpours.  Well in that case, the "BGA" Gettysburg delivered.  But rather than come up with a huge list of everything I didn't enjoy about the first weekend--which I'm sure many are about to do once they get home from the GAC one-- I wanted to post some photos I did manage to take, and why they made the weekend a memorable experience for me.

Our camps were in a wooded area at the highest point of the battleground, which I thought was one of the few things they did right this time around. It provided much relief from the heat during the day being in the shade, and some protection from the pouring rains we had each afternoon. The humidity was like a jungle, and nobody stayed dry.  But one of the best things about it was waking up Saturday morning and seeing the sunlight coming in beams through the trees and the smoke. It was a nice cinematic effect which I captured below:

This felt like a scene in a movie. Couldn't have asked for better lighting.

The ground on this particular farm was very rocky. Due to the close quarters of the campsites among the trees, our company street was so small that nobody left room for me to set up my tent. So I slept under an extra one that belonged to the company.  It appeared to be over soft high grass, but Friday night it felt horrible and I couldn't find that nice spot, I was poked all over by rocks hidden beneath the grass.  Well as it turned out, they were very sharp and jagged rocks, many of them buried with the pointy side up!  I spent a good portion of the night digging at these rocks with my bare hands, trying to dislodge them from the hard ground so I could sleep.  The roads through camp we had to march on were large embedded stones, which felt horrible on our shoes.

This is the rock quarry that lurked beneath my blanket.  I counted and there were over a hundred of them!.  A pard started using some of them to build a low wall around our company street.
The forested area we were encamped on was on the high point of the farm property. There was a steep embankment at the far end which looked a lot like Little Round Top.  Coming out of the trees, we had a sweeping panorama of the surrounding valley which was a good vantage point to watch the battles from.

The long road to the sutlers in the morning mist.

Watching Buford's cavalry engage the rebs from our amazing vantage point. This may be my favorite photo of a reenactment so far.  Compare with this picture taken in 1862 of soldiers overlooking Federal camps on the Pamunkey river.

There was a night tactical as the sun went down on Friday.  I really wish I could have captured it, but it was too dark.  The fog hung in a low blue shroud several feet above the ground, mixed with the smoke of Federal cannons on the hills.  There was artillery volleying back and forth, and I'll never forget the sound the cannons made as they echoed around the hilltops.  It was more of a continuous rumble. Of course the muzzle flashes from our guns looked cool, too.

The next day the Mifflin Guard was to take part in the Wheatfield scenario.  This battle was one of the worst tactically of the entire event.  We were marched to the edge of the field, but received no order to go in, or somehow missed our cue.  Maybe we were cut off by another regiment that wasn't in the right place and blocking our maneuvers.  Anyway, we stood there, helpless and without orders, as the Irish Brigade charged into the fray without us.  It was kind of stupid, really.   There we were at the edge of the field, we had Confederate rifles shooting at us the whole time and no command was given to fire or charge as the scenario dictated.  On top of that, there was a house or a barn blocking us from the spectators, so they couldn't see us anyway.  We were simply the background noise.

There was a point in each battle where something didn't seem right.  Whether it was a two and a half-mile march to just sit and watch a two-hour battle without taking part as the sun barbecued us with no ice,  or marching and counter-marching, marching obliques and shuffling around or colliding with other Federal regiments while we're being fired at by laughing Confederates, things seemed to never go right until the very end.  I won't be pointing any fingers at my own unit or any other battalion, but somebody messed up.

Weapons inspection, preparing to go into the Wheatfield battle.

Here we are, just standing around while the officers discuss something we should have been doing.

Just a minute after the above photo was taken, after that terrible bow in our line was straightened out, we formed into ranks and commenced firing.  At that instant, a tiny baby deer ran out in front of our volleys and found itself in front of an entire division of the Union Army!  The poor thing looked terrified.  It ran up and down the line to look for an escape, darting its head left and right with scared black eyes the size of walnuts.  We opened up a few gaps in the ranks for it to pass through; we cheered when it finally did.  Then as it ran up the hill unseen behind us, a ground shaking cannon volley nearly knocked us off our feet.  A tall soldier standing next to me said "Well that deer just crapped himself!"

Watch the exact moment of the deer incident at 05:45-05:59 in this Youtube video.

This was during that night tactical of the Culp's Hill scenario of which I took a video. The rifles and shouting in the dim light of the dense woods made the fight very claustrophobic and real.

Marching out on the guidon with the Mifflin Guard in tow. The gentleman on the left behind the boy is about a foot taller than me.

I don't know who this guy is, but I like his choice of hat decoration.  It appears to be the severed claw of an eagle flipping "the bird" at the enemy.  And no, he wasn't looking at the camera. This was zoomed in pretty far.

Then of course, we saw Pickett's Charge on Sunday.  We were at the extreme right (our right, spectator's left) of the Union defense along the wall.  I was able to take this shot because I went out as a "waterboy" (whatever a male vivandiere is called).  I gave tin cups full of ice to wounded men on the field in front of us, even as the guns were firing. With the artillery shaking the ground and men screaming, moaning and shouting over the rifle shots all around me, let me tell you it was the most intense couple minutes of my life.

Has anyone besides us reenactors ever experienced some 8,000 screaming men with rifles charging directly at us from over a mile away?  I certainly hope no one ever has to.

Granted, while many aspects of this past weekend left some to be desired, I for one am glad that I participated, and felt that I got my money's worth.  I saw something on the field that hot Sunday afternoon that may not be seen for another fifty years, or until the next movie of the battle of Gettysburg is made.

And what did they give me to commemorate this unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime historic anniversary event?  A wooden nickel, about as cheap as you can get.  A wooden nickel which then started to warp in the heat and humidity inside my trouser pocket, and before the end of the weekend it had snapped in half.

The GAC boys the next weekend have no right to complain.  No matter how badly this other event goes, no matter how terrible the weather is, how long the lines are or how poorly scripted the battles end up least they get a real bronze medal.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Civil War Sketchin' Time

The 1860's sketch diary is a thing I came up with to give me something to do in a period camp setting besides the usual sitting, talking, eating & drinking. I keep my cedar drawing pencils in a small box with a sliding lid and dovetailed joints.  These drawings are undated and in no particular order, but they have all been created in the last year.

Map created by Yours Truly for Greenbank Civil War Day

Crossed rifles hanging from a tent at New Market, Virginia. I thought it looked interesting.

This is a real steamboat I actually saw on a river while I was going over a bridge on the way to a battle in Virginia.  I labeled it as "Steamboat on the Rappahannock" but it actually might have been the Potomac. I don't recall what state I was in.

Add caption

Some Bucktails saw me working on this one at the annual company meeting in February.
This is the newest one.

...Can you tell I like eagles?  The Bald Eagle has been my favorite bird (or of any type of animal) since I was a very small young'un and, well... if you like eagles then the Union Army is the place to be!  The eagle is a symbol of strength, predatory grace and courage that was used by the Austrian Empire, Germany and the Kingdom of Poland long before Americans adopted it as the symbol of their country's pride.  Face it, eagles are just awesome creatures.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The New Aristocracy (--slight rant alert)

The Civil War: A Narrative by Shelby Foote is the 3-volume monster that almost every reenactor or Civil War buff has collecting dust bunnies on his or her bookshelf at home, though very few of us actually plan to read them.  Weighing in at exactly 2,934 pages and (not kidding) 9.8 pounds in the hardcover bound edition, it is of course, a towering and monumental effort of one man who was considered THE authority on the War of the Rebellion.  But amazingly, he wrote all this over the span of his life without even citing any of his sources. I guess fifty years ago you could get away with a lot more than you can now...

While I don't think I will live long enough to read it in full, I do occasionally open to a random page in one of the volumes and start reading when I badly need a cure for my late-night insomnia.  Sometimes, a fragment of contemporary sentiment from the period makes it into his writing, and I can't help but notice how amazingly relevant these passages still are, and how unstable our economy and political climate is becoming as of late. Honestly, our 2012 presidential election was about as ugly as Lincoln vs. Douglas in 1860. 

This particular passage, on page 148 of volume II: Fredericksberg to Meridian, is part of Foote's treatise on the origins of the term "shoddy," coined during the war as meaning any cheap and poorly made product of abysmal quality and high price. In a rare impulse, the author actually thought to mention the source as the "New York World," a newspaper at the time. Though he doesn't bother to say what year or date it was printed, so we have no way of ever finding the primary document he got it from.

But here it is exactly as written:

"The lavish profession in which the old southern cotton aristocracy used to indulge is completely eclipsed by the dash, parade and magnificence of the new northern shoddy aristocracy of this period. Ideas of cheapness and economy are thrown to the winds. The individual who makes the most money--no matter how-- and spends the most money-- no matter for what-- is considered the greatest man.  To be extravagant is to be fashionable. These facts sufficiently account for the immense and brilliant audiences at the opera and the theatres, and until the final crash comes such audiences undoubtedly will continue. The world has seen its iron age, its silver age, its golden age, and its brazen age. This is the age of shoddy.

The new brown-stone palaces on Fifth Avenue, the new equipages at the Park, the new diamonds which dazzle unaccustomed eyes, the new silks and satins which rustle overloudly, as if to demand attention, the the new people who live in the palaces, and ride in the carriages, and wear the diamonds and silks--all are shoddy... They set or follow the shoddy fashions, and fondly imagine themselves a la mode de Paris, when they are only a la mode de Shoddy.  They are shoddy brokers on Wall Street, or shoddy manufacturers of shoddy goods, or shoddy contractors for shoddy articles for a shoddy government.  Six days in the week they are shoddy business men.  On the seventh day they are shoddy Christians."
These words are frighteningly relevant if you ask me.  We, as a modern country, have become weak and our political infrastructure is rank with corruption.  We are no longer the great nation, envied by all, that won every single war we ever fought. We are now a police state that gets involved in foreign conflicts to "protect freedom," when really all we are protecting is the lavish retirements of our congressmen.  We barely manufacture anything over here anymore, and instead our corporations cut our wages, cut our salary and farm out our lost jobs to people overseas who will produce cheap, poor quality products at a fraction of the cost. While our Congress moves to increase taxes on the working class, raise the cost of living, make groceries and utilities unaffordable and abolish government aid and universal healthcare, they continually vote again and again to block any and all efforts to fix this upside-down former-Capitalist economy gone wrong, and then promptly take a vacation and a salary bonus.  They don't care if nothing gets done, as long as nothing gets done while the opposing party is in office.  Bi-partisanship has completely gotten in the way of progress.  

In fact, the words in the above article still ring so unabashedly true in the year 2013 that it makes me very, very sad to see how little has changed in spite of all our progress.  Let me translate the above newspaper column into a more modern context and you will see what I mean:

"The lavish and luxurious lifestyle in which the "Greatest generation" Baby-boomer aristocracy used to enjoy is completely replaced by the glitter, glam and "swag" of the cheap aristocracy of the New Millennium.  The individual who makes the most money--no matter how-- and spends the most money-- no matter for what-- is considered the most successful.  To be excessive is to be trendy. These facts effectively explain the immense and fabulous glorification of the celebrities like the Khardashians and the Royal British Family, wealthy people with no talent whatsoever and far too much money to spend in a lifetime, and until the Zombie Apocalypse comes, people will continue to pay upwards of $100 a month for Verizon FiOS and Comcast digital cable so they can watch their dysfunctional lives play out in their living rooms. The world has seen its iron age, its silver age, its golden age, and its brazen age. This is the age of reality trash.

The new multi-million dollar palaces of the internet giants on HGTV, the new diamonds on Lady Gaga's bikini bra and thong ensemble which dazzle the teenage youth of the nation, the new violently clashing neon Reebok sneakers and ugly Crocs which scream in technicolor, as if to demand attention, the new "beautiful people" who live in the palaces, with the teenage sons driving Mustangs, and wear the diamonds and Gucci, Dior and Prada--all are trashy and trendy... They set or follow the trendy-trashy fashions on Twitter and Facebook, and fondly imagine themselves to be living this "charmed" life, when they are only festering in their own garbage.  They are the terrible brokers on Wall Street, or terrible manufacturers of cheap "planned obsolescence" electronics that break down at only 13 months and must be replaced before the end of their one-year limited warranty, or cheap contractors for cheap poisonous lead-paint-covered plastic toys made in China.  Six days a week they are cheap business men.  On the seventh day they go to church to pray that their football team makes the playoffs."

Not too much of a stretch, is it?

Beneath this passage are words by Foote himself.
Nor were journalists and previously wealthy men the only ones to express a growing indignation.  Wages had not risen in step with the rising cost of food and rent and other necessities of life, and this had brought on a growth of the trade-union movement, with mass meetings held in cities throughout the North to protest the unequal distribution of advantages and hardships."

...And we all know how kindly the authorities took to the Occupy movement.

He goes on to say, or claim, that Lincoln addressed Congress with the following message:
 "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor. and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

The Civil War: A Narrative: Fredericksberg to Meridian, p. 148-149. 
 Because of those and other beliefs about equality in the American people, Lincoln was shot in the back of the head, just as Kennedy was shot for thinking much the same things.  Martin Luther King was assassinated almost 100 years after the Civil War ended, for saying that free black Americans should enjoy the same basic privileges and rights as their white counterparts.  Could it be that great people who make positive change in our country are not allowed to exist, because they make the rich lose money and try to uplift the poor and suffering who struggle every day for survival?

Think about this.   

Our country is broken, and anyone who tries to fix it will be murdered. Anyone in a position of sufficient power who wants to speak out against greed, injustice and intolerance must be silenced.

The old hatred still runs very deep in some areas of our society, and this is one of the ugliest facts of our heritage that many Civil War historians won't touch with a 30-foot pole.

I don't know where this is going, but the reality of living in this supposedly "free democratic God-loving country"  makes me sad and angry.  I'll say no more for now and leave the rest to this guy:

People say they like to do reenacting to bring history back to life. I just use it to escape the daily reality I am forced to live in.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Mighty Adirondacks

You just don't see views like this where I'm from.

Almost since their discovery by the first hunters and pioneers, the Adirondacks have been a destination for tourists and New Yorkers escaping the city.  I discovered by reading that the use of the word "vacation," as we know it today, was coined by New Yorkers when they 'vacated' their homes in the city to take the trains to the Adirondacks! (Prior to the mid-1800s getting away from one's home was traditionally called a 'holiday') So this was actually the original vacation destination of America.

In keeping with the subject of this blog, I found the following article about the mountains as a tourist destination from 1864:

A CENTRAL PARK FOR THE WORLD. New York Times editorial, August 9, 1864
Within an easy day's ride of our great city, as steam teaches us to measure distance, is a tract of country fitted to make a Central Park for the world. The jaded merchant or financier or litterateur or politician, feeling excited within him again the old passion for nature (which is never permitted entirely to die out) and longing for the inspiration of physical exercise and pure air and grand scenery, has only to take an early morning train in order, if he chooses, to sleep the same night in the shadow of kingly hills and waken with his memory filled with pleasant dreams, woven from the ceaseless music of mountain streams.

To people in general, Adirondack is still a realm of mystery. Although the waters of the Hudson, which today mingle with those of the ocean in our harbor, yesterday rippled over its rocks, and though on all sides of it have grown up villages and have been created busy thoroughfares, yet so little has this wonderful wilderness been penetrated by enterprise or art that our community is practically ignorant of its enormous capacities, both for the imparting of pleasure and the increase of wealth.
It is true that the desultory notes of a few summer tourists have given us a vague idea of its character. We know it as a region of hills and valleys and lakes, we believe it to abound in rocks and rivulets and have an ill-defined notion that it contains mines of iron.  But as yet we have never been able to understand that it embraces a variety of mountain scenery unsurpassed, if even equalled, by any region of similar size in the world; that its lakes count by hundreds, fed by cool springs and connected mainly by watery threads which make them a network such as Switzerland might strive in vain to match; and that it affords facilities for hunting and fishing which our democratic sovereign-citizen could not afford to exchange for the preserves of the mightiest crowned monarch of Christendom. And still less do we understand that it abounds in mines which the famous iron mountains of Missouri cannot themselves equal for their quality and ease of working; and that its resources of timber and lumber are so great that, once made easily accessible, their supply would regulate the prices of those articles in our market.

And this access is what we are now going to secure. The gay denizens of Saratoga this season are excited by an occasional glimpse of a railroad grade running north from that town toward the Upper Hudson and aiming directly at the heart of the wilderness.  A thousand men are now cutting down and filling up and blasting and bridging "on this line." ...With its completion, the Adirondack region will become a suburb of New York.  The furnaces of our capitalists will line its valleys and create new fortunes to swell the aggregate of our wealth, while the hunting-lodges of our citizens will adorn its more remote mountainsides and the wooded islands of its delightful lakes. It will become to our whole community, on an ample scale, what Central Park is on a limited one. We shall sleep tonight on one of the magnificent steamers of the People's Line, ride a few cool hours in the morning by rail, and, if we choose, spend the afternoon in a solitude almost as complete as when the Deerslayer stalked his game in its fastnesses and unconsciously founded a school of romance equally true to sentiment with that of feudal ages.
 And here we venture a suggestion to those of our citizens who desire to advance civilization by combining taste with luxury in their expenditures. Imitating the good example of one of their number who upon the eastern slopes of Orange Mountain has created a paradise, of which it is difficult to say whether its homes or its pleasure-grounds are more admirable, let them form combinations and, seizing upon the choicest of the Adirondack Mountains, before they are despoiled of their forests, make of them grand parks, owned in common and thinly dotted with hunting seats where, at little cost, they can enjoy equal amplitude and privacy of sporting, riding and driving whenever they are able, for a few days or weeks, to seek the country in pursuit of health or pleasure. In spite of all the din and dust of furnaces and foundries, the Adirondacks, thus husbanded, will furnish abundant seclusion for all time to come; and will admirably realize the true union which should always exist between utility and enjoyment.

 Being almost inaccessible by horse and buggy due to absence of paved roads, most vacation-goers of the 1860s would have entered the mountains on a long ride by locomotive or by steamboat.

There was one notable early photographer who captured life in the primitive days of the Adirondacks, and my grandma had a book full of his pictures that enchanted me as a kid.  His name was Seneca Ray Stoddard (born 1843, died 1917) and his pictures are like the romantic paintings hanging in art museums of the great North frontier, only they are real.  For the historians and reenactors, it is a life of freedom and adventure in unclaimed wilderness that we can only dream of today.

This is one of my favorite photographs by Stoddard, taken in 1889. It shows a bunch of hunters telling stories by a campfire deep in the forest, lit only by firelight and a small oil lamp hanging under their rough pine shelter.

As the hunters, explorers and fur trappers tamed the vast reaches of wilderness and opened the way for travelers, many resorts and secluded getaways sprang up around its over 1,000 lakes.  Frequented by citygoers, the wealthy and those recovering from illness, the pure mountain air and natural spring water helped some to be brought back from the brink of death, and live healthy for many years afterward. If there ever was a Fountain of Youth, it probably could have been found in a place like the Adirondacks.

This is a 19th century way to camp in the Adirondacks. The canvas tent and fly are exactly the same construction as our familiar Civil War tents, only these are pitched over a raised wooden platform.  Open to the air, these would be very susceptible to cool mountain breezes and at the time were a popular treatment for recovering Tuberculosis patients.

As much in love as they were with the Adirondacks, my grandparents were not born in upstate New York. My grandfather was a city boy from Philadelphia, and my grandmother was from New Jersey.  It was after the end of World War II that they were married in 1947, and Hugh got a job working for the Department of Defense in the 1950's, building radar domes in the North Country.  Only two or three years after my mother was born at their home then in Doylestown, they decided to move to upstate New York. 

My grandpa used to hike the Adirondacks with an old Navy buddy in the post-war years, and really enjoyed the awe-inspiring mountain vistas and unpolluted air up north. They are using camping gear from WWII surplus; notice the USMC blanket rolls and leggings.

This small photograph, taken between 1948 and 1950,
is of grandpa actually camping in a lean-to built of pine logs.

A modern replica of the same type of shelter.
These enclosed cabins provided better shelter in the winter.

Standing outside a log cabin wearing his '42 mountain rucksack,
Corcoran army boots and canteen. Picture from 1953

His passion for wilderness surroundings and a simple existence has certainly been inherited. The next post will be about my trip to the Adirondack Museum.