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.

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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.