Sunday, September 28, 2008

Book Review "Bitterly Divided"

I'm thoroughly enjoying doing these book reviews, and am really starting to find and refine my style and approach. There are lots of ways to break down a book, and for an alternative tack that is very effective, please avail yourself of the Civil War Librarian's efforts or those of Brett Schulte at TOCWOC. I've been following these blogs for some time and find the book reviews to be very well done. Onwards to today's effort...
Dr. David Williams new text, entitled "Bitterly Divided" brought with it the promise of a discussion of dissent within the Confederacy and an examination of the effects of this turmoil on the Confederate war effort. This was a topic I felt had been heretofore underserved in my reading and education on the Civil War, and I thus proceeded with great anticipation.
In his introduction Williams asserts "between 1861 and 1865, the South was torn apart b a violent inner civil war, a war no less significant to the Confederacy's fate than its more widely known struggle against the Yankees." So we have a text setting out to not only illustrate southern dissent, but to show how it had a striking effect on the war's outcome. He then sets out to prove this ambitious hypothesis by working through: the battle over secession, the struggle at home and women's revolts, draft evasion by the rich, desertion and Unionism, emancipation and black resistance, and finally, Indian insurrection.
Dr. Williams takes on a substantial task with his premise not only of a Confederacy riven by dissent, but that this same dissent spelled doom for the Confederate effort. He has a tall order to fill, and we are provided with reams of anecdotal data to establish this hypothesis. By anecdotal, I mean letters, diaries, individual quotes, editorials, etc. These anecdotes do a reasonable job of painting a picture of dissent throughout the South, but let us remind ourselves of the import and relative strength of an anecdote.
While it is a primary source, and thus strong in that respect, an anecdote is the isolated opinion or action of one or a handful of people. They can be very emotive and descriptive, and are used to great effect in many aspects of historical writing (not to mention in today's local and even national news broadcasts.) That said, they are not adequate for describing the overall effect or opinion of a larger body, ie, they are not generalizable. We cannot ascribe the opinion or action in an anecdote to an entire army, population, race, etc. To illustrate from another profession; in the medical literature the anecdote is the weakest form of evidence for proving the efficacy of an intervention.
This same weakness is present in "Bitterly Divided." For example, we are given his descriptions of deserters being tortured, maimed, and killed, women rioting over food, troops writing about their reason for desertion. While these anecdotes are provocative, sad, and illustrative of parts of Southern society struggling with itself, there is no way to generalize that behavior across the Confederacy. What is needed is some data collection and interpretation to help prove this general discord. Why not a map of the Confederacy with locations of food riots pinpointed? How about tables showing anticipated muster numbers with discrepencies and numbers of deserters? Show me the research and the hard data, the population studies and large-scale analysis, this is supposed to be an academic effort!
Each of the components of southern dissent addressed carry multiple anecdotes, but we finish each segment not just without the backing of data, but without any link to outcome either. Recall that Dr. Williams' hypothesis is that this dissent had a tremendous effect on the war's outcome; however, he does not tie these events to reverses in the field or seminal, destructive changes in Confederate policy or war aims. Yes, this dissent existed, but a causal link to the final endpoint of Confederate defeat is not established.
To be sure, Dr. Williams attempts to provide this sort of evidence, but time and again, he places an unsupported statement without footnote or reference into the text. That is something I cannot take seriously. An example: on page 55 in discussing absence from General Lee's army, Williams states "thousands of men like Atkins abandoned the army that fall and winter, but few were volunteering to take their place." No reference is given.
But most egregious is not the fact that these bold statements are not just unsupported, they are inconsistent as well. In addressing the issue of southerners fighting for the Union Army we have the following, all without footnote or reference:
"...the Union may not have been preserved, that chattel slavery may not have ended when it did, without the service of nearly half a million southerners in Union blue." (Pg 7)
Then we have this, "In total, about three hundred thousand southern whites joined the Union armies." (Pg 150-151)
Finally, and in the last sentence of the book, Williams writes, "And so the Confederacy was defeated, not only by the Union's military - nearly a quarter of which was comprised of southerners - but also by southerners on the home front." (Pg 250)
Simply put, the tremendous inconsistencies and lack of references in this series of quotes puts the veracity of the whole premise into serious question. (Note: for some excellent examples of how a rigorous academic analysis is done, please see Joseph Glatthaar's article "Everyman's War: A Rich and Poor Man's Fight in Lee's Army" in the 9/08 edition of "Civil War History", or the appendix of Gordon Rhea's "Cold Harbor".)
As I moved through the sections and saw these same issues of anecdotal glut and broad, unsubstantiated statements, I was hoping that the final chapter called " the People at Home" could somehow tie this all together. Unfortunately, Dr. Williams managed to send this whole train off the tracks when he wrote, without context, notation, or proof:
"Certainly defeats on the battlefield sapped the Confederacy's will to fight, but those defeats came largely because so many soldiers had already lost their will to fight and deserted the army." (Pg 243)
Dr. Williams doesn't prove his hypothesis with good data, and then launches an absurd assertion in the tail end of his book. All I could say when I read that was "What?!" All Confederate General George Pickett would have said (and did say in regards to the Confederate defeat) is "I think the Army of the Potomac had something to do with it."
This book does give voice to the idea of Southern dissent both in the antebellum period and during the war itself, and it is an important voice. Dr. Williams does demonstrate that the South had significant internal strife to deal with, and this is a worthy topic. His effort would have been much better spent in perhaps linking it to our memory of the South today and the Lost Cause mythology. Instead, he attempts to link it to the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy and, on the basis of poor and unsubstantiated data along with some downright bizarre assertions, comes up far short.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

My Civil War Community, And Yours Too

One of the best parts of blogging about the Civil War is the feeling of connecting with the Civil War community and landmarks, something that is otherwise difficult to do in California (San Diego Civil War Roundtable notwithstanding). Linking up with other bloggers, historians, park rangers, authors, students, etc and chatting about our shared interest is a huge part of what makes this a satisfying hobby, otherwise I sometimes feel like I'm just spinning my wheels.
All good things start at home, and the import of having The Jess share this interest is far and away the best part. I've also found a few wonderful niche communities out there and have tried to mention them to draw you into these circles as well, if you like. Things like the SDCWRT, Civil War Network (just finished program two, review is coming, but it's dynamite), links to other blogs are all part of this, but I want to be more comprehensive in this project, because it really is a ball. So I've added a label called Civil War Community and will be sure to add it to posts that fall into this category.
This post's contribution is the Civil War History Ring, which I joined today. If you look on the right toolbar, you'll see the blue icon. If you click it, it'll show you other sites that have subscribed. I do not vouch for their content or views, that's for the individual to decide, but there may be something there you enjoy. Remember to click on the red icon above it for the Civil War Top 100 sites, many are daily stops on my web tours. On the same sidebar, I've started a blogroll so you can share other sights that are a frequent part of my Civil War learning. Don't worry, I've included some choice mixology and coffee blogs as well.

Friday, September 26, 2008

How We Remember

Kevin Levin on his fantastic blog Civil War Memory recently posted a segment from Time Magazine's Robert Hughes' series entitled American Visions. This is from the 4th episode entitled "The Gilded Age and is the first of five parts available on youtube. Please watch before moving onto the discussion below.

This video is a fascinating study on the role of historical accuracy versus hyperbole based upon several of the memorials it depicts, so let's unpack it a little bit.
The first scene in the clip after the montage of modernity is footage of a memorial ceremony at Virginia Military Institute. It is held annually on May 15 to commemorate the Battle of New Market, which occurred in 1864. During the battle, 257 VMI students from the Cadet Corps , many of whom were first-year students, were used to plug a hole in the Confederate lines. On a day that would end in Confederate victory, ten cadets died. During the annual ceremony seen in the film, near a monument where 6 of the ten men are buried, each man's name is spoken and a representative from the same company in today's Corps answers, "died on the field of honor, Sir."
The second memorial we see is the monument to the 54th Massachusetts. As we look at it, we get a focused discussion on the regiment's fighting history. The battle spoken of is the Battle of Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. We are told that "they were killed almost to the last man" and I remember the penultimate scene of the movie "Glory", where Morgan Freeman and Cary Elwes lead a handful of men along the parapet of the fort, only to disappear in a blaze of fire and smoke.
The reality is that the 54th suffered 272 casualties in the assault, including 116 men killed. This was out of a total force of just over 1000 men, so the "last man" notation is not accurate.
This provides an interesting juxtaposition of Civil War memory. The Battle of New Market saw the deaths of 10 cadets, each one tragic and deserving of a somber memorialization. We do not hear about all of the cadets present that day dying, but instead each man is honored. The 54th Massachusetts also saw combat and suffered horrific casualties, but we hear an exponential exaggeration of the facts. This also occurred while examining a sculpture that doesn't directly investigate the fighting at Fort Wagner, but of the journey of the men in the 54th as a whole. That single statement can easily pervert the solemn subtlety of the 54th's monument, and this comparison begs the question of the right way to remember what these troops, and fighting men and women in general, suffer through. To truly honor them, we must do so with our facts in order.
We move next to Lexington, VA and the tomb of Robert E. Lee. Please recall our recent discussion on the Lee Mythology as part of the Lost Cause and how he is remembered compared to how he was. Now, with the video rolling, we are told how he is "the archetypal cavalier" and grieving visitors lay flowers at the base of the monument. Problem is, he is not buried there. His corpse is in a different part of the chapel. Again, we are reminded that memory and reality surrounding Robert E. Lee are two different things in that room and in our culture.
We must also ask the question why Lee is not buried at his home, as was tradition at the time. Well, Lee's home was at a place called Arlington, VA, now the home of Arlington National Cemetery. In 1864, Brig. Gen. Montgomery Meigs declared that a cemetery for Union troops would be established there, ensuring a dignified resting place for casualties of war, but also (and this is well-documented) to guarantee that Lee and his family could never return to their home. There is an undeniable irony that Lee's ancestral home became the eternal home for thousands of men his army, his rebellion, and his treason had a role in killing.
The last monument is of General Sherman and Nike, the goddess of victory located in New York City. This is a man reviled as a demon and a destroyer throughout the South, and yet here he is cloaked in gold, walking with the immortals. I would argue that neither representation is correct, and the deification or damnation of those who came before us does not help us understand their efforts, results, and personalities in context, but instead divides us along lines too long riven between different parts of our country.

A Video Clip About The Gettysburg Cyclorama

As an augmentation of my previous post about the Gettysburg Cyclorama, check out this video report from the Washington Post.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why We Need A Museum Of Slavery In The United States

If you've been following along with this blog for any amount of time, you've surely noticed that the institution of slavery and its ramifications are frequently addressed. There is no single issue in our nation's history since the 18th century that had as intense an effect and more profound and lasting aftereffect that the "peculiar institution". It brought about a civil war that cost 600,000+ lives and demolished the southern United States, it cast a segment of our melting pot into the role of pariah, and it continues to confuse and poison race relations today.
It is this same size and scope that makes it so difficult for us to come to terms with it, to acknowledge it and say it happened, it was a horrible tragedy, how do we make it something to learn from and move beyond?
So I'd like to repeat an exercise I've employed before. Take a moment and think about how you learned about slavery in America. What was the tone presented by your educator? What perceptions did you take away? What books, artworks, movies, etc were used in the process?
If your primary education on the subject was anything like mine, it received a cold treatment, one devoid of responsibility or healing. There was nothing tangible, nothing to look at to bring home the enormity of what occurred, no way to acknowledge how it lingers in our communities today.
This sort of education makes it difficult to come to grips with issues of race in our country, because the single biggest cause of division remains ethereal and a void remains. To provide thorough understanding and tangible acknowledgment, we need a museum of slavery. We need a place to archive and present the infrastructure of slavery, a space to lecture and learn, a chance not only to read, but to sense.
I can give a personal attestation to the importance of such an undertaking. As a Jew, a large part of my religious education was learning about the Holocaust and trying to understand what it means to the Jewish community. Not until I visited The Holocaust Museum, however, did I understand the enormity of this tragedy. It takes this sort of visual, auditory, and emotional immersion to bring such complex events into focus.
So I was well-pleased to learn that The United States Museum of Slavery is under development in Fredericksburg, VA. Spread over 38 acres, the museum will have over 100,000 square feet of exhibition and lecture space. As I perused the website, I noticed that there was no published date of opening available. Financial support and development of the museum seem to be bogging down in multiple issues with, in an ironic and unsurprising twist, race and perception of slavery near the forefront.
The difficulties in getting this museum off the ground underscore exactly why it is needed. The void in our understanding continues to trip us up as a society, and this museum would be a huge step in the right direction. There is an excellent article from the NY Times working through the museum's history and battle to get it off the ground, don't miss the slideshow that goes with it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Unveiling Of The Gettysburg Cyclorama

When The Jess and I visited Gettysburg several years ago, we skipped the visitor's center, aside from a brief foray to set up our tour, for two reasons: first we had only one day and wanted to spend it on the ground (which was exhilarating and both physically and emotionally draining), secondly much of it, including the famed "Cyclorama" were under construction.
The brand-new Gettysburg Museum and Visitors Center opened a few months ago to mostly positive reviews (keeping in mind much of what I read about it comes from other Civil War bloggers) and now the renown depiction of Pickett's Charge is being unveiled after several years of renovation and restoration. This re-release will be part of the official grand opening of the new facility. Here are a few links with images included (click here and here) and thanks to Dmitri Rotov at Civil War Bookshelf for the tip.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Breaking News On The Cocktail Front!

Dinner is almost ready, and The Jess mentioned that she had fresh-squeezed, unpasteurized OJ in the fridge. Duly prompted, I sprung into action, and here's what we're drinking as I write this, and it's really good!

Tipsy Orangeade
1.5 oz Tanqueray Ten gin
1.5 oz fresh-squeezed OJ
juice of 1/4 lemon
one teaspoon simple syrup
Schweppes tonic water

Pour gin, OJ, and syrup into rocks glass. Squeeze in lemon juice. Fill glass to 3/4 full with coarsely crushed ice. Top with tonic water and stir gently with bar spoon. Garnish with lemon wedge.
This one is winner-winner-chili-dinner!

On The Refreshment Front

Two interesting new recent refreshments that need to become part of the repertoire here, and the first is all because it's melon season!
The Jess and I sojourned to The Fruit Stand just up the road, and after a fabulous session of percussing, hefting, and sniffing, selected what has proved to be the single greatest cantaloupe either of us has ever tasted.
When we cracked it open, dissected it, and chopped it into a bowl, my brain sprung toward a complementary beverage. It was time for dessert, so we needed a sweet, fruity pairing that could be served cold with the chilled melon. Where to turn...
There is a maxim in our household, being I'm of South African parents, that any food item made or invented in South Africa is primo-delecto good. (Anyone remember our wedding cake?) I applied this rule in the dessert drink category and selected a bottle of Amarula. A double served in a rocks glass with ice for each of us, and a bowl of fresh cantaloupe...this was heaven!
I know this doesn't strictly classify as a recipe, not that you shouldn't try it, but here's one that will blow your mind!

Cantarula With A Spoon
1/2 sliced and cubed cantaloupe (preferably chilled)
1/2 cup Amarula
2 scoops good vanilla ice cream

Add cantaloupe to bowl. Put ice cream on top. Pour Amarula over the top of that. Find your spouse/partner/best friend/companion and eat the whole thing out of the same bowl. Repeat if necessary.
Alternate: dump the fruit/ice cream/Amarula mix in blender for a short burst. Drink out of a highball glass.
On the coffee front, I'm experimenting with my first blend. Up to this point, I've done one varietal at a time in my roaster and my cup. Today I found myself needing to roast and having just a small amount of three different beans in the cupboard. So, I did them all together. To err on the side of caution, I went with a Full City + roast; the smells are amazing right out of the roaster, the beans are dark and oily...this blending thing seems to hold a great deal of promise!
Here are the components of this first blend:
Guatemala Antigua Finca Relana Yellow Bourbon
Guatemala Fraijanes - Finca Agua Tibia
El Salvador Matapala Estate Peaberry

Thomas Friedman For Your Reading Enjoyment

When NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman is at the top of his game, I like to share his columns in this space. Yesterday's piece was just such an effort, so please enjoy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Anniversary Of The Battle Of Antietam

Today is the 146th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, fought September 17th, 1862 near the town of Sharpsburg, MD along the Antietam River. It is the costliest single-day battle in American history, with over 23,000 casualties, and was the springboard for President Lincoln's issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Jess and I haven't been to the field yet (though it's at the top of the list for our east coast swing), but here is a link to the National Park Service website for you to enjoy. As we mark this day, here is an interview with James McPherson from NPR's archives discussing the battle and its aftereffects. During my NPR archives search, I found this interesting segment about a pocketsize copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that was issued to soldiers in early 1863. I've actually seen one of these, our friend and fellow book collector Paul has this item in his collection. Talk about holding a piece of history!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Book Review: "Lee Considered" Plus An Examination Of Robert E. Lee In The Lost Cause

When I found "Lee Considered" by Alan Nolan on the shelves of the Adams Avenue Bookstore with a pristine book jacket and plastic cover, I knew I had a winner for the collection. I was optimistic going in that I had a winner for my continued study of the Lost Cause mythology as well. The author of "Lee Considered", the late Alan Nolan, was an expert on this subject with a number of related books and essays to his credit. Now that I'm finished, I'm pleased to say this is an excellent discussion of Robert E. Lee the man, the general, and the tradition.
That said, I'm also a little bit irritated.
Given that this review will also be covering what is known as the Lee Tradition within the Lost Cause mythology, I'm going to fold this into our ongoing discussion of the Lost Cause, and again refer you to my previous posts on the subject to get yourself up to speed. Also this post has some meat to it, so please take your time and hang in there, there is some important stuff at the end.
So here is the Lee Tradition in a nutshell (as an exercise, try to recall what you learned about Lee in school, perceptions of Lee you have, and representations of him you've seen in movies, art, books, etc). He is broadly remembered as an ardent anti-secessionist who only joined the Confederacy because he couldn't draw his sword against his native Virginia and was forced into making a choice, as a man against slavery despite being a slaveowner himself, a great conciliator in the post-war period, and most importantly, one of the greatest, most talented military leaders in history, and certainly the premier general officer during the Civil War. Basically a man who's record and reputation stand untarnished and unchallenged, a great man and brilliant general with his name on schools, buildings, and famous cars on TV.
Sound at all familiar?
Mr. Nolan sets out to demystify the man and explore each of these features of his reputation individually. He starts by explaining the genesis of the title "Lee Considered" instead of reconsidered; that despite piles of books on the subject, no single text has done. Nolan reminds us, in the words of Samuel Eliot Morison to the American Historical Association ,"The fundamental question is what actually happened, and why?..After his main object of describing events "simply as they happened, the historian's principal task is to understand the motives and objects of individuals and groups...and to point out mistakes as well as achievements by persons and movements." His point in writing this book is that this sort of attention has (and I agree) not been given to General Robert E. Lee.
In a stepwise fashion, Mr. Nolan moves us through the different tenets of the Lee Tradition, starting with Lee and slavery. Nolan works through Lee's prewar views, his opinion on arming and enlisting slaves into the Confederate army, and his postwar statements concerning his earlier beliefs. This is a skillful way to break down a difficult question based on the understanding that Lee was born into being a slaveholder and was in a society were it was taken for grant. We read letters from Lee's hand where his level of racism is no different than that pervading most people, North and South. We are also shown how Lee jumped on the post-war bandwagon trying to dissociate slavery as the primary reason behind secession and war. The point of this chapter is not that Lee was a hardened slave driver who forever hated black people, but that the answer is much more nuanced than, as the mythology would have us believe. This chapter really demonstrates well the lack of historical attention paid this man and the complexity of the issues surrounding him.
Nolan then moves to the secession question where the Lee Tradition would have us believe that Lee was against secession to the bitter end, but was tragically and honorably driven into fighting for the South and for his home state of Virginia. Thus, we are told, Lee has no accountability for his actions, that he was subject to "tragic forces". In a handful of pages, Nolan completely debunks this and uses Lee's own writings to show that Lee's loyalty was ambiguous at best. He does this by taking us through the timeline of Lee being commissioned a colonel in the US Army to his resignation 20 days later and accepting the commission of the newly seceded Virginia's commission as major general two days after that. This rapidity superimposed on the timing of the secession crisis and Virginia's secession, shows that Lee knew exactly what he was doing and that he made a conscious decision about where his loyalty lay. The point again is that when rigorously studied, Lee is far more flawed than our popular understanding.
The central section of the book analyzes Lee's war record and massive, rarely challenged reputation as the preeminent Civil War general and one of the best generals in American history.
This is the cornerstone of the Lee legend and one that brings up sharp opinions and feelings. Nolan is smart here in that he doesn't get bogged down dissecting campaign after campaign, or getting into the mire of comparing him to one general or another. He steps back and expands the context in which Lee, and any general officer should be evaluated (and most great ones, Eisenhower, Patton, Schwartzkopf, etc have been subjected to). He examines whether Lee's strategy at the tactical level matched with and furthered the overall strategic goals of the Confederacy.
Lee made his reputation for audacity and aggressiveness, and won fame on fields like Chancellorsville and Second Manassas. Nolan shows how this same tendency not only systematically bled his army white, but how consistently offensive warfare also went in contravention of the South's need to prolong the war as long as possible until the North gave it up (which came very close to happening on several occassions.) The view of Lee as an unfailingly brilliant general does not hold up under this sort of examination, so it follows that another part of the Lost Cause mythology was that, as the name suggests, the Confederacy was doomed to defeat from the beginning of the war, thus Lee was in charge of an army with no hope of victory, and he pushed the Union as hard as possible. Nolan makes his point and shows how the mythology of Lee as a superior general also doesn't stand up to close or broad examination.
The book doesn't fail to address the idea of Lee as conciliator and a quiet gentleman detached from the turbulent post-war period that the mythology teaches us. It is clear that he was quite active not only defending his actions and the actions of the South, but took an active role in writing and developing what would become the Lost Cause mythology; his correspondence with Jubal Early are solid proof of this.
The final chapter of the book, titled "The Lee Tradition and Civil War History" is simply a masterful summary of the Lost Cause, the role of the Lee Tradition within it, and how our perception of the Civil War has been so long and so comprehensively skewed. The fault here is not Lee's, it is those who would pervert his actions to further a goal, and those who would allow it to happen. Again, the question of the history of Civil War history is absolutely fascinating and should be the subject of academic treatment, but I digress...
In the final pages, Nolan writes that "the facts contradicting the Lee tradition...are not newly discovered. They are not obscure." Nolan's point is that for the early writers of Civil War history these facts "are exorcised, disregarded, or rationalized." Nolan then writes:
"The distortions of fact that mark the Lee tradition are not unique in Civil War history; on the contrary, they are suggestive of a larger and more widespread problem. Fiction - in the form of misinterpretation or the form of outright misrepresentation - is endemic to the study of the history of the Civil War...These fictions have ousted teh facts and gained wide currency, so that what is treated as the history of the Civil War is instead a legend, a folk epic told over and over again."
This is a premier study done by a clear expert on the man as well as historical method. It is well-written and challenging, with a great flow and rhythm to it. That said, Nolan has a bad habit of when quoting a primary source, he adds italics to the text and writes afterwards "emphasis added". Also, he continuously brings up the work of Douglas Southall Freeman, to the point where that name leads off more than one chapter.
My irritation I mentioned above comes from the fact that I felt a bit manipulated by all this: there is no need for added italics to prove a point. If you, to borrow a bit of poker parlance, have the nuts, then why jazz it up? There's no room for that in rigorous historiography and few are the authors that do it. The continuous invoking of Freeman, even leading off a few chapters with his name, lent a certain clumsiness to the discussion. Yes, Freeman's books are a substantial part of this mythology, but aren't the sole part. The constant bashing away at one entity was a bit heavy-handed and awkward, like there was some personal grudge being exorcised. The examination was of the Lee Tradition as a whole, not one author's role in building it.
These issues are not major detractors from the overall quality of the book, nor change the facts regarding the Lee Tradition and Lost Cause. The damage done by this mythology is slowly being undone and this text pushes that movement and learning further by leaps and bounds. Highly recommended.

What Really Happened At Appomattox

Amazing footage of Lee's surrender at Appomattox just surfaced on Youtube! Let it load all the way, then fast forward to 1 minute 28 seconds. I am not responsible if you watch/get in trouble/are offended by the content preceding or following this history-making film, but I am responsible if you start laughing out loud when you see history come alive.
Thanks to The Jess for the perfect title.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Gettysburg Witness Tree Rehabilitation

If you recall, I recently posted about the damage to one of the few "Witness Trees" still standing in Gettysburg National Park. So named because these trees were arborial witnesses to the battle, they are a closely protected part of the park. One of them, a honey locust tree, was damaged in a storm and thought to be lost. Or so I thought...
Here is a link to the NPR discussion about the effort to rehabilitate this treasure.

Loving The Civil War Network And Virtual Book Signing!

Here is a luxurious hour spent on a warm Sunday afternoon: stretched out on the floor with my head on two pillows, award-winning Rwandan coffee lovingly roasted by The Jess in my cup, and the first episode of The Civil War Network playing on a pair of brand new Bose speakers. To wrap up, a review of The Abraham Lincoln Bookstore's latest offerings on
To start, let's discuss the premiere episode of Francis Rose's brainchild, The Civil War Network. Right from the getgo, a most encouraging sign; excellent production and sound quality. This man clearly knows what he is doing. The audio was crisp even though the interviews are done over the phone, the editing is smooth, and he is a well-informed, engaging, and professional interviewer. All those combine for a great program and tons of promise for future episodes.
Mr. Rose introduced us to Jenine Culligan from the Huntington, WV Museum of Art. She spoke about the various exhibits of ACW photography and art they have available and I want to go! Next was a blogger and author named Harry Smeltzer who discussed his blog Bull Runnings, which is his attempt to digitize an entire Civil War battle, the First Battle of Bull Run. This is quite a story, he is self-motivated and working without compensation and is digitizing all pertinent records to do with the battle; ie orders of battle, casualty lists, medal citations, and the records of the hearings of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. He was asked if this is a project he will ever finish, and he answered a definitive "no". He's just plugging along, ensuring that this one piece of American history is recorded for posterity and for free.
Part three was a talk with Dr. Carroll Van West and a newly designed southern Tennessee Civil War driving trails guide called "Civil War Trails: Fighting for the Rails". His discussion of how the 47 points on the tour were selected was really amazing. First of all, large fields managed by the National Park Service (Shiloh, Missionary Ridge, Chattanooga) were excluded. Secondly, each spot was evaluated on whether it provided a "sense of place": did it capture and preserve the environs present nearly 150 years ago. Third was a quest for balance. These stops cover the war at the state and local level, addressing soldiers, women, children, slaves, Union and Confederacy. This is how to bring the Civil War home to us today, put us in the middle of it and give us a chance to understand face to face.
The fourth segment was a conversation with Civil War book collector Paul Taylor, keeper of the blog With Sword and Pen. This one was auditory bliss, being a Civil War bibliophile myself. He gave the three most important rules of collecting (condition, condition, condition) and also mentioned the importance of always buying books you want to read, but buying 1st editions if possible. I stick to buying books I want to read that I can afford, first edition or not, and sometimes let the condition go by the wayside. I ain't sellin' 'em, but sure wanna buy 'em.
The finale was certainly grand, being an interview with Pulitzer-Prize winning author of "Battle Cry of Freedom" James McPherson. He was discussing how he gives tours of famous battlefields, focusing primarily on Gettysburg. That being the only field I've visited, and that I read his book "Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg" cover-to-cover the night before The Jess and I walked the ground for ourselves, this was a tremendous interview. There is no one I would rather have as a tour guide on a Civil War battlefield, this interview tells you why. If you want more, here is an NPR interview with Dr. McPherson from 2003.
I'm a pretty enthusiastic guy, as my first post about this endeavor surely showed, and it was justified and more after listening to the first episode of The Civil War Network. The second episode is in development, and you'll know as soon as I do when it's released.
If this wasn't enough, had a program yesterday morning with two of the premier ACW authors. Unfortunately I wasn't able to watch the live broadcast and ask questions (working, always working), but the archived broadcast will be available soon. Though I missed out on the Q and A, my copies of each book will be in the mail this week. Dr. McPherson will be on in November discussing his new book about Abraham Lincoln. Again, oh yes, please.

US Open Wrap-Up (A Bit Late, I Know...)

I'm a bit behind and most people have moved on to bigger and better things, but the climax of the 2008 US Open does merit some comment.
On the women's side, I love the way Serena Williams stepped into the leadership void and seized not only the title, but what should have arguably been hers for the past several years; the number one ranking. Clearly her commitment to the game has been rejuvenated, and with some improved fitness and motivation to back up her massive game, there is no one (her sister included) that can hang with her. Should she keep this up, 2009 should be the year she cements herself as one of the greatest, maybe the single greatest, woman to ever play the game of tennis.
Speaking of legacies, Roger Federer showed how his legacy should focus not on his titles, but on the sheer guts and determination that this champion possesses. Written off by nearly every tennis pundit after a down year, Fed showed more passion, more grit, and more heart than we've ever seen from him before in seizing his 5th consecutive US Open and 13th overall Grand Slam title. So let's take a fresh look at the year: semis at the Australian (while admittedly ill with mono), the finals of the French Open, the finals of Wimbledon, and the US Open championship. By any other standard in the men's game, this is an incredible year, but universally regarded as a "down" year for Federer, thus showing how high he set the standard.
Now, with a chance to rest and refocus, we'll see what Federer is capable of next year.
The only downside of this entire tournament was the lack of televised coverage of the men's final on Monday. San Diego's CBS affiliate was the only one nationwide not to show the event, so we were left to find bits and pieces online. The idiot program director at San Diego's affiliate figured that Oprah and Guiding Light would get better ratings in a city with the most tennis players of anywhere else in the country. Good choice and thanks a bunch, you moron!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Huge Burst Of Blogging

OK, I've just published 5 brand-new posts, should be enough to tide you over for the next few days. There's a little something for everyone: some tennis, a book review, a robust discussion of coffee in our communities, and a champion earning his crown.
Here are links to each post so you can take your time and refer back if you get confused.
US Open recap for today
Coffee in our Communities: Part One
Coffee in our Communities: Part Two
Book Review: "The Impending Crisis"
SkySports broadcast of my cousin Guy winning the World Tenpin Masters Championship (one of bowling's Grand Slam events)
Enjoy, friends and loyal readers!

Five Set City At The US Open

On this gateway-to-the-quarterfinals day, it was a battle of attrition throughout.
To start the morning, we had third seeded Novak Djokovic battling 15th seed Tommy Robredo. This one went the limit, with all of the requisite ups, downs, injuries, shotmaking, and drama you need. Djokovic was gimping around on a bum hip and ankle, Robredo fell down and tweaked his shoulder. In the end, Djokovic had just a bit more in the tank and beat Robredo to move into the quarterfinals.
As this match was winding down and Roger Federer's match against Igor Andreev was building up, qualifier Gilles Muller continued his unlikely run through the tournament, knocking off 5th seed Nikolay Davydenko in 4 tough sets. He got back to the locker room just in time to watch the next thriller of the day, as the Federer vs Andreev clash started to heat up.
Andreev is a player more comfortable on clay, but possesses arguably the biggest forehand in the men's game, which on hardcourts is a great equalizer. Federer dropped the first set, then stormed back to take the next two. Just when it looked like vintage Roger was ready to put the hammer down and close out the Russian upstart, he faltered and Andreev seized the opportunity to push the match into a fifth set.
Shouting, gesturing, and emoting all over the place in a way I've not seen before, Federer found another level just in time and took the 5th set 6-3. With Boris Becker and John McEnroe in the booth, Federer channeled them and rediscovered the net. He won 16 of 20 points when he attacked the net in the 5th set, and looked cool as the other side of the pillow up there. He said after the match he "rediscovered" his confidence at net during his run to the doubles gold medal, and (you heard it here first) this is going to be the way he forges into the future. He'll use that first serve that goes in about 70% of the time, his quickness, size, and confidence to take his game back to the highest levels. On his way there, you'd better believe that he's glad to be facing the qualifer Muller instead of the 5th seeded Davydenko in the quarters
On the women's side, we met our first two semifinalists: Elena Dementieva and Jelena Jankovic, who coasted through their quarterfinal matches and will square off in a few days (I got this one half right; who knew Dementieva had gotten so mentally tough?)
It fell to Andy Roddick to change the tempo of the day, and he looked tremendous in his three set crushing of Fernando Gonzalez. He'll be facing Djokovic on Thursday in the quarters, promises to be something special

The State Of Coffee Drinking In Our Communities: Part One

Few beverages are as ubiquitously consumed on a daily basis as coffee. It crosses ages, demographics, social circles, any number of artificial barriers. It's enjoyed on the run, quietly at home, amongst friends and strangers alike. I love it, you love it, and we have the rare opportunity to be part of a coffee renaissance, both at home and beyond.
We all remember when the ever-present emblem of the coffee industry first came on the scene. It was admixed with Seattle grunge and cold weather, and it raced from corner to corner covering first our major cities before moving into smaller and smaller towns. Before that smiling green goddess logo arrived, most of us made do with freeze-dried stuff or maybe a few solid local coffee houses. I grew up in a tea-drinking household, given my South African parentage, and my coffee exposure came in trips to Lyon's Restaurant for a quick caffeine hit before hanging out with friends.
Then came the Starbucks juggernaut, and our coffee expectations were forever changed. This was a masterstroke of marketing, because these coffeehouses managed to convince us that we wanted a premium product (brewed coffees, espresso drinks, etc) and that it was acceptable to pay a premium price. I will never forget their featured display that ostensibly showed why Starbucks coffee was worth so much loot.
It was a glass-in case with 4 individual sections. One held green beans, one held lightly roasted beans, one held chocolately brown beans labeled "supermarket quality", one held dark brown, shiny beans labeled "Starbucks quality". Thus was the quality of coffee forever defined for us as something based on a dark roast, instead of what really counts, which is freshness.
Having learned a great deal about home-roasting coffee, I have come to understand just how effective this marketing scheme was. Starbucks didn't lie or anything like that, they simply capitalized on the ignorance of the marketplace to set artificial standards. Dark roasted coffee is not necessarily better, it's just darker. It's also much more uniform, as a longer roasting process cooks off much of the compounds that make a bean unique, and leaves a much stronger, reproducible flavor regardless of the bean used. Thus Starbucks was able to buy huge quantities of beans, roast the hell out of them without regard for what roasting profile would make those beans really stand out, and put them on the market as a marquee product. Those "supermarket" beans? Well, that light roast or City roast, may have been just perfect for that particular bean, but there's no room for subtlety here.
In this structure, Starbucks convinced us that a dark roasted coffee is a good coffee (remember that espresso does not denote any particular bean, but again is simply a very darkly roasted bean, thus a perfect fit) To provide this model to the customer, volume is the key and we lost track of what really matters with coffee, which is a properly-roasted bean and FRESHNESS.
Remember, once a bean is roasted, it materially degrades over several days, and most are stale in a week. Once it is ground, it is stale in hours, thus instead of focusing on a dark roasted bean that sits around, premium coffee is one that is roasted with some subtlety and craft to promote the unique profile of the bean and used while fresh.
This is not how Starbucks does it, and their beans sit around for who knows how long. Before this new "Pike's Place" house brew, they never told you when the beans were roasted, now they do, and when I peek in, it's hard not to laugh. I've seen 2, 3, sometimes four week old beans being touted as a marquee item. Would you spend any money, let alone top dollar, for bread more than a few days old? Of course not, because it's not fresh. The reasoning with coffee is exactly the same, because you're buying stale junk when you shop at Starbucks, or most major coffeehouses, for that matter.
It's not just the coffee, either, for there are multiple ways in which Starbucks manipulates those who walk into the ubiquitous cafes: using headsets in busy stores to encourage customers to stay in line, thus making the famous "line out the door", purveying all manner of corn syrup-engorged items that have nothing to do with standard coffee house fare. Indeed, now he have the Vivanno, which is a 270 calorie banana milkshake that has no place in a respectable coffeehouse (or our stomachs, for that matter.) There's even a blog run by former Starbucks employees detailing how the company does business.
Admittedly, I'm a bit conflicted in ripping Starbucks and saying we shouldn't shop there. The problem is that when these stores close (and they are closing like mad), it's young people who are losing their jobs. However, independent coffee shops also hire out of the same demographic, so not only can you make the most delicious choice, but one that fits with the larger theme of keeping our money in our community and keeping local businesses thriving. The good news is that the slow-growing, locally driven coffee movements are building in both strength and breadth, and these artisan coffee shops seem to be thriving. In part two of our analysis, we'll take a look at the multiple directions in which these movements are going, so stay tuned.

The State Of Coffee Drinking In Our Communities: Part Two

I'm fresh from an amazing experience at what is clearly San Diego's finest coffee shop called Caffe Calabria and, to be honest, still enthralled by the coffee experiences The Jess and I had in Portland, so in that spirit we go forward in our exploration of what's new and exciting in our coffee community. To capture the spirit in which it's written, and because there are links to some newspaper articles, get something nice to drink, and take your time.
You make recall, avid reader, that The Jess and I hosted a coffee cupping a few weeks ago, which was a great success, after having learned about the process at Stumptown Coffee in Portland. What made this so much fun was not just the variety of flavors and smells we experienced, it was having a communal process like this that was cheap, interactive, and highly entertaining. No need to go to a wood-paneled tasting room at a winery to explore the subtleties of a choice beverage, this same level of sophistication can be enjoyed anywhere and with anyone.
This is no longer a grassroots effort, either, as artisan coffee shops around the country are realizing that their clientele want more from their beverage experience than grab and go. Here is an article from the NY Times detailing the growth of the cupping movement.
Not only are we, the novitiate, beginning to break the shackles of the mass-produced junk from Starbuck et al, but there is a new cohort of experts finding their way into our communities and neighborhood coffeehouses to bring expertise and enthusiasm to this movement. The Los Angeles Times documented this new education a few weeks ago.
There is no hope of cupping and discussing high quality coffee unless it is roasted properly, and that is, in my opinion, where the true artistry of this process lies. Delicately controlling such roasting variables as temperature, duration, intensity and manipulating them to bring out the true taste signature of a coffee bean is a most exacting science. I haven't even begun to manipulate temperature myself, just trying to figure out roasting duration. There is a tremendous demand for skilled roasters, because more and more customers expect locally roasted, fresh beans. Now the call sign for a marquee coffee house is no longer a trademark name, it is being able to serve expertly roasted beans that have been prepared either onsite or nearby. This art form and the demand for it has also drawn the attention of the NY Times, and I just love the fact that newspapers with the size and scope of the LA Times and NY Times are showcasing this movement!
Caffe Calabria subscribes to this roasting protocol, as does Stumptown in Portland. The Bay Area is studded with wonderful coffee shops that are roasting their own beans (check out this wonderful blog for updates and reviews of Bay Area coffee shops.) There are even two coffeehouses in my hometown of Santa Rosa, Ecco Caffe and Flying Goat, which are roasting and spreading the gospel to nearby stores and customers.
You may have noticed that oftentimes the coffeeshops on the cutting edge of this movement are often referred to as "specialty" coffeehouses. I think it's high time that this appelation is dropped, as it connotes a certain aloofishness, not to mention expense, which simply do not apply. These are coffeehouses, stripping the bean down to basics and showcasing the fundamental greatness of coffee, so lets save the "specialty" nomenclature for stores serving banana milkshakes.
Let's go back to Caffe Calabria for a moment, because it captures what happens when a single entity subscribes to this approach. As I walked from my car, I saw a man get out of a Caffe Calabria truck. I introduced myself and asked about the store. We started chatting, turns out his name is Arne Holt and he's the owner!
We went in and he took me all around the store: we went into the shopping area with all the coffee equipment you could ever want, we saw the roastery just behind the cafe area and I watched a batch of beans go through their paces under the watchful eye of Jesse, the roaster. We finished by checking out the upstairs cupping room (cuppings at 8:15 Mon-Fri) and chatted about The Jess and I taking a barista course. I went down to the cafe and got ready for a tasting.
I selected my standard measuring stick, the latte, and it was PERFECT! Smooth, sweet, with beautiful latte art on top. These baristas are clearly at the top of their game and proud of what they do. We had a great conversation as I enjoyed my coffee. They do the iced toddy, which is the favorite cool beverage of The Jess, and take tremendous pride in pulling first class espresso shot. The WiFi is free, the pastries incredible, and the coffee is as good as you can make it.
San Francisco has Ritual and Portland has Stumptown. San Diego has answered that challenge with Caffe Calabria, and answered with vigor!
The cornerstone of all of this, and what I believe to be the final common pathway for coffee enjoyment is roasting coffee at home. Easy, fun, cheap, social, environmentally responsible, you name it, this hobby provides it, not to mention delivering knockout coffee. You can easily source beans from, and can choose organic, fair trade certified products. The roasting is quick, the cleanup is quicker, the end result is heavenly!
In whatever form you choose, coffee preparation and drinking no longer needs to be a rushed and banal experience underwritten by huge businesses. It is now a delicious, accessible, and responsible way to recreate, socialize, and wake up in the morning.

Book Review: "The Impending Crisis"

It's been awhile since my last book review, and it's because I was tackling "The Impending Crisis" by David M. Potter. It is a massive and thorough analysis of the years 1848-1861 and the multiple complex issues, ideas, personalities, and events that formed the kinetic and challenging antebellum period. This book is, in short, a masterwork of historical method and covers a huge and complex expanse of our nation's history in a brilliant and staggering way.
There are three principles that Potter adheres to most vigorously as he crafted this tome:
1. a commitment to primary sources and rigorous citation, thus giving credibility and immediacy to the issues under investigation.
2. drawing the reader into the moment being discussed while at the same time keeping the scope of that moment broad, so as to demonstrate the multitude of variables at work.
3. a strict avoidance of editorializing or bloviating, he lets the facts do the talking.
This first point is one that is incredibly striking in nearly every chapter, you are pulled into the moment and the immediacy of the issue because you are reading just what was said at the time. As Walter Cleamons of Newsweek said, "The rejection of hindsight, with the insistence of trying to see events from the point of view of the participants, was a governing theme with Potter...watching him apply it is a revelation." As you are taken through, for example, the Lecompton crisis, you are presented with the records of what was said, by whom, and what the direct effects of each action was, it's as close as you can get to a time machine.
The second point is one that always keeps us in touch with the larger context as minutiae is explored. We are always reminded of the ramifications of an issue throughout the Union and beyond, for example, Potter points out the virulent anger in the Midwest over secession as it would jeopardize access to the Mississippi; find that point in any other text.
By sticking to the third point, Potter is able to maintain his credibility as an objective writer. He does not inject himself or his biases into the discussion, we are left newly informed and free to draw our own conclusions.
With this understanding of his approach, we can really look at how the author structures his approach to the myriad issues in the period. Potter takes the turbulent years of 1848-1861 and breaks them into pieces based upon theme, not time. There are chapters on John Brown, Dred Scott, the secession crisis, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, etc. This thematic structure gives significant chronological overlap, so you really get a flavor for how much people were trying to digest and deal with at any one time, from the farmstead to the White House.
Each theme chapter has a similar structure: Potter sets the context and introduces a few of the primary characters, then skillfully dissects the minutiae of the issue in question. This latter part he does masterfully; he is clearly at the top of the heap in addressing legislative history and Constitutional law. To watch him break down and analyze a legislative agenda (an example being the Compromise of 1850) is really quite incredible. He closes each chapter not by a gray recitation of facts, but by putting us again in historical context, discussing the repercussions of what has just occurred, and setting the stage for the end game.
In taking this approach, Potter builds the suspense quite brilliantly, as we see issues that are disparate in nature slowly being pulled towards a single conclusion through the overlap of time and attitude. Potter shows us clearly how for example the end of the Mexican-American War and the Dred Scott decision, though separated by years, personalities, and issues, were part of the inexorable tide that brought Civil War. We are drawn into the final chapters where we see the election of 1860, secession, and eventual war, and all of the pieces fit together. We are shown plainly and without judgement how the United States came to its darkest years. The chapter entitled "The Nature of Southern Separatism", for example, is a brilliant summary of the Southern attitudes and rationalizations towards the Republicans, Lincoln, abolitionists, and secession and is, for me, the most evocative section of the book.
This is a tremendous book, plain and simple, and paints an amazing picture of this incredible time in our nations' history. Make no mistake, it is a long read and takes time to properly digest, but don't let that daunt you. If you find your way to this book and read it, you will not only have an amazing understanding of the antebellum period, but will have shared in a magnum opus of American history. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Watch My Cousin Become The World Tenpin Masters Champion!

If you recall, I wrote a post about my cousin Guy winning the World Tenpin Masters Championship this past April with one of the gutsiest finishes you've ever seen. This incredible victory was a wonderful moment for Guy, and for the family as a whole. We are quite scattered from South Africa to Israel to Canada to the US, but this gave all of us a simultaneous chill and a huge thrill.
Now we've got the footage, so everyone can join in. No more grainy hand-held shots, here is the SkySports broadcast of the event. It takes about 25 minutes to watch all four, definitely go for it, it's a blast!
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four (this part obviously has the incredibly dramatic finish, but try to watch each part in sequence and tell me if your heart isn't pounding at the very end!)
I also found a wonderful interview Guy did a few months ago at a tournament in San Marino, he is just made for television, that kid is.
I'll leave you with that incredible photograph one more time.

UCLA Football Triumphant! (Nadal Too, But Barely)

Wow! Wow! Wow! What a victory for the UCLA Bruins tonight! Honestly, I'm just reeling at the size of this last-second, come from behind overtime 27-24 win over 18th ranked Tennessee. I mean, we were supposed to be terrible; no quarterback, no O-line, an overhauled coaching staff. This wasn't supposed to be close!
In true gutty Bruin spirit, this team came together under new coach Rick Neuheisel and put together an effort for the ages. How many teams could lose three starters in the first quarter and still win? How many quarterbacks could throw 4 interceptions in one half in their first start and come back with a Montana-esque second half? How many defenses could keep their much maligned offense in the game for so long without a drop in morale or confidence.
One. Your 2008 UCLA Bruins football team.
I wish I was still writing for the Daily Bruin after a game like this one, the storylines just overflow the keyboard: Neuheisel's homecoming, Kevin Craft's unbelievable second half performance, the touchdown drive followed by Tennessee's field goal at the final gun to tie, the game-winning field goal, the genius of coordinators DeWayne Walker and Norm Chow, that unreal defense!
What a boost to the team's confidence, what a shot in the arm for recruiting, what a way to start the year! Think the team doesn't feel it? Check out Coach Neuheisel celebrating with the fans after the game.
OK, I've caught my breath, so on to today's US Open action, and we'll start with the women. My pick to win, Dinara Safina, stormed into the quarters in two easy sets, as did the Williams sisters. Older sister Venus gave a serious beating to Agnieszka Radwanska and will face her sister in the quarterfinals on Wednesday.
On the men's side, I caught the last set of Mardy Fish's easy win over Gael Monfils, and I'm not sure what to make of it. Not that Fish didn't deserve to win, but Monfils had clearly thrown in the towel and was pretty much goofing off in the third set. I wish players wouldn't do that, just have the integrity to play hard regardless or get off the court.
Monfils could take a lesson from top-seeded Rafa Nadal in the effort category, and Nadal needed every ounce he could muster in a brutal 6-2, 5-7, 7-6, 6-3 win over Sam Querrey. This one I watched from beginning to end, and Querrey gave the number one player in the world all he could handle. There was a stretch from late in the second set to just before the 3rd set tiebreak where Querrey had Nadal pretty well befuddled, and his forehand was just tremendous; it's effort like today's that will push Querrey into the top 20 if he keeps it up.
Just as he can build on the positive, he needs to see where the next step in his game is, and we go back to the central dogma of tournament tennis: big players play big on big points. Querrey basically got out of Nadal's way in the 3rd set tiebreaker after brawling his way into it, and after going down a break at 4-2 in the fourth set, he had a total of seven break point chances on Nadal's serve, but couldn't convert. Still, a fantastic effort.
Tomorrow we'll see the rest of the quarterfinal brackets filled out, but in the meantime, click here for all the UCLA football coverage you need while you listen to the mighty Bruins roar!

San Diego Civil War Roundtable Website

The website for the San Diego Civil War Roundtable is back online. Please check it out at, the September issue of our newsletter "Skirmish Line" is available for your enjoyment.