Monday, March 24, 2014

Documentary Review: Civil War: The Untold Story

Nearly 150 years after its end in 1865, the American Civil War still holds the imagination and fascination of millions not only in our nation, but of many more around the world. Indeed, historians and political scientists point out that in many ways the war is still being fought, from controversies over civil rights to lawsuits in Southern states over the "right" to display the Confederate flag.  The continued fascination can be seen in the endless stream of new books, documentaries, CD's, and magazines which are released every year.

Debuting April 1, 2014 on many PBS stations around the country comes "Civil War: The Untold Story," the newest documentary about the great conflict which killed, according to the latest estimates, approximately 750,000 Americans. Written, produced, and directed by Chris Wheeler of Great Divide Pictures (based in Denver), "Civil War: The Untold Story" is a five-part series focusing mainly on the Civil War battles which took place in what is considered the "Western theater" of the war. All too often the great battles of the Eastern theater (Gettysburg, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Bull Run) seem to receive much focus while the ones in what was then the "west" are overlooked. "Civil War: The Untold Story" has the goal of helping us understand the battles of Shiloh, Vicksburg, Corinth, Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, Chickamauga, and Kennesaw Mountain.

The series features an excellent balance between the military strategies of the battles themselves and how the war affected the soldiers and their families. Instead of being dry or dull, the viewer is treated to re-enactments, animated maps, and detailed explanations of those battles by various historians in a format made so popular by documentarian Ken Burns. While several historians are featured in this series two in particular stood out for this reviewer. Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College (PA). He is the author of several outstanding books on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  Dr. Amy Murrell Taylor is associate professor of history at the University of Kentucky, with interests in the 19th century U.S., the Civil War, and Gender and Women's studies. Their analysis is engaging, informative, and clear. Especially informative was Dr. Taylor's description of how the war caused suffering among the wives, mothers, and sisters who were left behind when their men went off to fight.

"Civil War: The Untold Story" also presents excellent information about slavery in the U.S; reminding the viewer that the first African slaves were brought to this continent in Jamestown, VA as early as 1607. Although the international slave trade had been banned in the U.S. in 1808, the ban did nothing to halt the exponential growth of the population of enslaved people. By the start of the Civil War in 1861, there were 4 million captive humans in the United States of America.  The series rightly explains that slavery was the main cause of the American Civil War, regardless of the claims of certain libertarians, neo-Confederates, and people who honor the "heritage" of treason and ownership of human beings. 

The main narrator of "Civil War: The Untold Story" is the famous actress Elizabeth McGovern (Downton Abbey, Ragtime). Her narration is clear, beautifully phrased, precise, and even moving. This reviewer found the selection of a woman to narrate a documentary about the worst conflict in our history to be a welcome change. Her narration brings a certain empathetic tone which is perfect.  Bravo, Miss McGovern. 

Most of the series was filmed on location at the various battlefields. The viewer is treated to lovely footage of the mighty Mississippi River and other southern locales which belie the horrors which occurred there 150 years ago. 

The one nitpick that this reviewer noted was that the documentary felt "rushed" in the final episode titled "With Malice Toward None." General Robert E. Lee's surrender, Lincoln's death, and other momentous events of the closing weeks of the war seemed to be almost an afterthought. But this is only one person's opinion.

"Civil War: The Untold Story" is one of the finest Civil War series or documentaries this reviewer has had the pleasure of viewing in many years. It's informative, entertaining, and fascinating. It does an overall excellent job of describing the battles, the ordeals of the soldiers and their families, and of course the struggles of the humans held in bondage. It deserves a national audience on PBS as part of "American Experience" instead of a smattering of PBS stations across the country which have deemed it worthy of showing.  That's a pity. While nothing can quite match the majesty of Ken Burns' "The Civil War," Chris Wheeler's "Civil War: The Untold Story" ranks up near the top of the rest.  

If the reader would like more information about "Civil War: The Untold Story" visit and "like" the Facebook page here.

Please check your local PBS station(s) to see if "Civil War: The Untold Story" will be broadcast in your area. The following is a list of the PBS stations which have scheduled the series. All times are local. (Special note to the PBS stations in my home area of NE Ohio: WVIZ (Channel 25) and Western Reserve Media (Channels 45 and 49), you should be ashamed of yourselves for not scheduling this wonderful series)

Civil War: the Untold Story
April 2014

Oregon Public Television – Tuesdays at 1pm beginning April 1 on OPB-Plus

KPBS – San Diego – Tuesdays at 11p beginning April 1

KHUT – Houston – Wednesdays at 10p beginning April 2

Louisiana Public Broadcasting – Wednesdays at 10p beginning 4/02

WNIN – Evansville, IN – Thursday, April 3, 8-10p; April 10, 8-10p; April 17, 7p

Nashville Public Television…Thursdays at 8p beginning April 3

KERA – Dallas…Thursdays at 10 beginning April 3rd

WMVS – Milwaukee, WI – Saturdays starting April 5

WNET/New York City – Saturday 4/05 at 1p, 2p, 3p;  Saturday 4/12 at 1p, 2p

Arkansas Public Television - Sundays beginning April 6 at 1:30p

KLVX – Las Vegas…Airs Sun 4/6 & Mon 4/7 repeats Sun 4/13 & Mon 4/14 on Vegas PBS Jackpot COX Cable 111

Alabama Public Television – Sunday, April 6, 2-6p, April 13, 5p
Iowa Public Television…Iowa PTV World, April 6, 6p -11p

Kentucky Educational Television (KET) – Sundays at 3p beginning April 6; 10p on KET2 beginning April 6

WETP – Knoxville – Sundays beginning 4/6 at 7p

WHRO -  Hampton Roads/Norfolk, Virginia…Sundays at 6p beginning April 6

WTCI – Chattanooga – Sundays at 7p beginning 4/6
KETC – St. Louis – Sunday thru Thursday, April 6 -10 at 10p

South Dakota Public Television – Sundays at 10p beginning April 6

KNCT – Kileen, TX…Thursdays at 8p beginning April 10

Rocky Mountain PBS…Thursdays at 9 beginning April 10

South Carolina Public Television…Thursdays at 10p beginning April 10

KLVX – Las Vegas…Airs on Jackpot! Sun 4/6 at 9p, 10p, 11p & Mon 4/7 10p and 11p;  repeats Sun 4/13 & Mon 4/14 on Vegas PBS Jackpot COX Cable 111

WHUT – Howard University, Washington DC…Mondays at 10p beginning 4/14

WCVE – Richmond, VA  - Mondays at 10p beginning 4/14

WVIR – Charlottesville, VA – Mondays at 10p beginning 4/14

KOCE, Los Angeles…Tuesdays at 11p beginning April 15

WILL – Springfield, IL – Sunday April 20, 1- 4p; Sunday April 27, 1-3p

Mississippi Public Broadcasting …Sundays at 5p beginning 4/20

KNME – Albuquerque – Mondays at 9p beginning April 21

WTVS – Detroit…Tuesdays at 11p beginning April 22

WCET – Cincinnati, Ohio – Sundays 4/27 at 4p

WPTO – Dayton/Oxford, Ohio – Sundays beginning 4/27 at 10p

WKNO – Memphis, TN – Tuesdays at 8p beginning April 29 

KBDI – Colorado Public Television…Wednesday April 30 at 8p, 9p, 10p; Thursday May 1at 8p, 9p

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Book Review: "I Am Abraham" by Jerome Charyn

In time for the 205th birthday of Abraham Lincoln comes the latest work from the prolific author, Jerome Charyn, a novel titled "I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War." Charyn has written numerous works over his career, including short stories, plays, histories and at least 30 novels. He has been called one of the most important writers in American literature. He has been the recipient of two New York Times book awards in his long career. 

Charyn now tackles the subject of Abraham Lincoln in this fictionalized account of Lincoln's days from New Salem, Illinois up to his assassination. Written in the first person, this is "Lincoln's" own story, as told by Mr. Lincoln himself. It's an inventive approach, one which blends historical people and events with imaginary occurrences as the reader journeys with Lincoln from 1832 until 1865. The reader shares both triumph and tragedy with Lincoln as he chronicles the events which make up his life. 

All too often, we think of our historical figures as if they were near demi-gods, above the cares and concerns which life brings to everyone else. We see them in photos or paintings, visit their homes, and see countless statues honoring their deeds. In the end, the real person is lost to us, as cold as their statues. 

Charyn succeeds mightily in bringing Lincoln "alive" for the reader of "I Am Abraham."  The Lincoln we come to know in this book shows not only determination and ambition, but warmth and humor as well, just like the real Mr. Lincoln. The result is captivating and moving until the reader can almost believe that the real Lincoln actually wrote this work.

Some readers of "I Am Abraham" may be surprised by the "earthiness" of Charyn's Lincoln. Certain words and phrases come from "Lincoln's" mouth in this book, words that we may not have ever imagined the real Lincoln uttering. But it must be remembered that Lincoln was a product of what was then the frontier, surrounded not by the refined elite, but by people who lived a hard life, dirt farmers, carpenters, and the like. And it's quite true that the real Abraham Lincoln enjoyed telling off-color and ribald stories and jokes while he was in the company of men. 

Indeed, this is not a novel for young readers, so parents beware. The reader encounters graphic depictions of atrocities during "Lincoln's" recounting of gruesome violence during the Black Hawk War of 1832. Brutal descriptions of his involvement with "The Clary's Grove Boys," (who were the real Lincoln's enemies at first, later turned friends) are given. Prostitution is featured in "I Am Abraham" in graphic scenes. And yes, the reader encounters a brief, but descriptive, sex scene or two between Abraham and Mary Lincoln.  This reviewer admits to be taken aback about "Lincoln" being depicted having sex, but of course the real man fathered four children, and the scenes do help bring Lincoln "alive" for the reader.

For this reviewer, the best achievement of "I Am Abraham" is how the novel portrays the emotional struggles of Lincoln's wife Mary. Even on her best days, Mary Todd Lincoln was nervous, easy to anger, and emotionally highly-strung. Some historians believe she would be called clinically "bipolar" today. To be fair, poor Mary Lincoln suffered terribly from the loss of her mother at an early age, the emotional distance of her father, mistreatment by her step-mother, and by 1862, the deaths of two of her children. The strongest person would be affected by such grief. The scenes in "I Am Abraham" which show Mary at her most unhinged are nearly painful to read. The reader shares in her pitiful attempts at contacting her dear departed son, Willie, in seances run by a charlatan. Her excruciating migraines are vividly depicted.  And her public and deeply embarrassing (to Lincoln) meltdown during their visit with Generals Grant and Ord and their wives at City Point, VA toward the end of the war is emotionally powerful in the book (and true). 

The only quibbles for this reviewer are a matter of personal preference. "Lincoln's" trip to Gettysburg to give his immortal Address is told in only two or three pages, while his involvement with The Clary's Grove Boys seemed to drag through several pages. It would have been nice to read more about his struggles to find a good general or two and less about Mary's financial shenanigans. These quibbles, however, didn't ruin the overall enjoyment of the novel.

Author Jerome Charyn has succeeded "I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War" where even some history writers of Lincoln and the war have failed. He skillfully blends fact and fiction, tells the true (mostly) story of Abraham Lincoln, and above all, keeps the attention of the reader. A highly enjoyable, informative, and captivating read.

"I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War" is published by Liveright and is available nationwide at book stores or online.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0 log cabins

Friday, October 11, 2013

Patriotism At The Lincoln Memorial

(image courtesy Washington Post)

The partial shutdown of the U.S. government has entered its second week as I write this blog post. Intransigent politicians within Congress, mostly Tea Party "patriots," have closed the government, forcing hundreds of thousands of federal workers to be furloughed, resulting in the prevention of vital services such as food safety inspections.  The economy is beginning to feel the ripple effects of this crisis as private sector employees and business owners in disparate industries like tourism, manufacturing, and banking are losing their jobs or seeing reduced business. 

One of the most visible impacts from the shutdown is the closure of all National Parks and Monuments throughout the United States. The National Park Service (NPS) ordered them closed as it was required to furlough its employees. Domestic and tourists from other nations cannot currently visit the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, national seashores, or hike trails in Yellowstone National Park.  Nowhere is the closure of National Monuments more visible than in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.  

Enter Mr. Chris Cox originally from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.  As written in the Washington Post, Mr. Cox was appalled to see overflowing trash cans and the unkempt grounds at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He didn't complain about it.  He took action. Cox bought a used lawn mower, new leaf blower, and a rake or two, and began tidying up the Lincoln Memorial grounds.  He mowed the grass, emptied trash containers, and even cut up a limb which had fallen across a sidewalk.  

The article in the newspaper quotes Cox as saying "I found it my duty to be here. The building behind me serves as a moral compass, not only for our country but for the world. And over my dead body are we going to find trash pouring out of these trash cans,” he said. “At the end of the day, we are the stewards of these buildings that are memorials.”  The U.S. Park Police eventually made Mr. Cox leave the grounds, but not before he accomplished what he set out to do.

Chris Cox is an example of what's right in the United States of America.  The delicious irony that he's from South Carolina shouldn't be lost on anyone. The two U.S. Senators from that state, Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham, are two of the biggest Tea Party politicians in Congress. And of course, the state is where the American Civil War began in April 1861.

While Senators and Congressmen who profess to be "patriots" delight in their attempt to destroy the Federal Government and ruin our economy, Mr. Chris Cox shows us what it means to be a true patriot.

Bravo, Mr. Cox.  Bravo.  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A New Lincoln At Gettysburg Photo Claim

The above image (magnified) is the only undisputed photograph of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, PA on November 19, 1863. Taken either during or just after his delivery of his immortal Gettysburg Address, the photo depicts a hatless Lincoln in the middle of other dignitaries on the speakers' platform as thousands gathered for the dedication of the National Cemetery that day.

Nearly 6 years ago, I posted this article about a claim which was made by John Richter of Hanover, PA that he had found Lincoln in another photograph taken that day in Gettysburg.  That claim has been the subject of much discussion and even controversy since it was reported in 2007. Even strong magnification of the image could not settle the issue as some (including me) said that the gentleman in that image looked too heavy to be the gaunt Abraham Lincoln.

Now another gentleman has claimed to find "Lincoln" in that photo, but this "Lincoln" is apparently several yards in front of Richter's gentleman.  This month's issue of the magazine Smithsonian contains a lengthy article relating the claim of a former Disney animator and current professor Christopher Oakley that he has found "Lincoln" in a different spot in that photo of the crowd. As the claim made by Richter has generated controversy, there are disputes over this latest claim.

Copyright considerations preclude me from publishing the blown up photos from Oakley and the Smithsonian story.  But since the original photograph of the crowd scene is part of the public domain, I include it below. The original article I posted in 2007 and referenced above contains Richter's "Lincoln."  The article in Smithsonian contains images of the gentleman Oakley is claiming is "Lincoln."  I'll let the reader decide for himself or herself if either of these "Lincolns" is in reality President Lincoln.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Gettysburg College "First Walk" Honors Lincoln

I sometimes search the Internet for news items pertaining to Abraham Lincoln. While searching earlier today, I learned about a tradition at Gettysburg College (Pennsylvania) which I'd never heard of before now.

Each year upon the resumption of the new academic year, Gettysburg College holds "First Walk" for its incoming Freshmen. Older students, faculty, and members of the community escort the Freshmen on a walk which retraces the steps Lincoln took through the town when he was there on November 18 and 19, 1863 for the dedication of the National Cemetery. Lincoln walked with students of Gettysburg College (founded 1832) and this annual walk commemorates the original one.

The "First Walk" participants walk through Gettysburg to the National Cemetery where a speaker addresses the incoming Freshmen.  This year's speaker was Susan Eisenhower, head of the Eisenhower Institute at the college, and a granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. She read a few lines from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and encouraged the students to take his challenge to make the nation a better one.

You can read more details about this year's "First Walk" in this article as well as this one. The first link provides video and audio coverage of both the walk and Eisenhower's speech.

It's wonderful that Gettysburg College annually commemorates Lincoln's walk through the small village as he was about to give the greatest speech in United States history.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Lincoln Document Found In Switzerland

The country of Switzerland is known secretive banking, cheese, neutrality, skiing, and majestic beauty as this image of the Swiss Alps shows. Now it can be known as the site of a recent discovery of a document which contains the handwriting of Abraham Lincoln.

NBC-affiliate station KSDK (St. Louis, MO) reported that researchers with The Papers Of Abraham Lincoln project at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) were contacted by a gentleman from an Australian university.  He remembered seeing a Lincoln document in Switzerland while doing research there, and thought the people at the ALPLM would like to know about it.

The researchers contacted the Bibliotheque de Geneve (Library of Geneva) who confirmed the authenticity of the document in question.  It was written in May 1863 by famed minister and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), as a letter of introduction for a female journalist.  Nearly two years later, Lincoln added his own comment to the letter, stating that while he didn't know the person in question, if Beecher had vouched for her, he would as well.

The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project is actively searching the world for any documents which were written or signed by Lincoln.  This new discovery, while not significantly important, shows that there are hopefully more Lincoln documents waiting to be found.

The entire article from KSDK, complete with the text of the letter, may be found here.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

New Project Marks Lincoln's Visit To Iowa

Sometimes a chance discovery is all the impetus a new historical project needs to get under way.  Council Bluffs, Iowa is the setting for a new effort to commemorate Mr. Lincoln's visit to that city in 1859.  

According to the Omaha World-Herald in an article published on August 12, 2013, a local historical society was looking under a pile of books when he found a plaque which marked Lincoln's visit to Council Bluffs.  His curiosity piqued, the gentleman and other local historians further researched Lincoln's 4-day 3-night visit to the town.  

It seems that Lincoln came to Council Bluffs to look at 17 town lots which his campaign manager Norman Judd had offered to Lincoln as collateral for a personal loan.  He arrived in August 1859 and spent the next few days visiting with Judd, other friends, attending a church service, and giving a speech. Unfortunately, there is no text of that speech and the only account of it is from a Democrat newspaper of the day, which was unkind in its review of his address.

The new project resulting from the discovery of this forgotten plaque aims to mark the location of the original lots which Judd did deed over to Lincoln in November 1859 for that loan which amounted to $3,000. Judd later paid it back in full plus interest to Lincoln's widow Mary and her son Robert in 1867. 

Lincoln's visit to Council Bluffs is actually more important for his later decision to make that city the legal eastern terminus of the first transcontinental railroad built in the United States.  While in Council Bluffs, he met with railroad engineer Grenville Dodge. He peppered Dodge with questions about the possibility of a railroad stretching from the east to west, and asked him where the best route would be.  Dodge replied from the village they were currently standing in across the Platte Valley and then west.  He pointed out its relatively close proximity to all the railroads in and around Chicago and the rest of Illinois. Lincoln accepted Dodge's recommendation only a few years later when Lincoln officially named Council Bluffs, Iowa to be the eastern terminus of the railroad across the nation. The above image is an old postcard which shows a memorial erected in 1911 to Lincoln's visit to the city. It looks out across the Mississippi River to the west, honoring both the railroad and Mr. Lincoln.

The article to which I linked above provides more details about this new effort in Council Bluffs to mark Mr. Lincoln's visit. A project begun after the chance discovery of an old plaque which provided only scant details of that day when Lincoln came to town.  

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