BLOG, or DIE. Author Bio
Sunday, 11 April 2010
Month, or no month, it shouldn't matter.
I had planned to avoid this subject like the plague but an event today changed that... Things have been going surprisingly well after I announced that I was leaving the Civil War era behind and focusing all of my studies on the colonial period. Since shifting subjects I believe I’ve grown immensely as a historian. I feel a renewed sense of vigor for the first time in years and I hope to make a big announcement on my next book project very soon.
That said, it is completely unrealistic for me to believe that the Civil War will ever be completely removed from my life. I remain vice-chair of the National Civil War Life Foundation, copywriter for artist Mort Kunstler, and co-producer of the upcoming documentary on “The Angel of Marye’s Heights.” I’m also giving a keynote address in Lexington this summer on Jackson’s 1862 Campaign, and will be signing books at events like the Gathering of Eagles and Gray Ghost Winery's Authors Day.
It seems that no matter how much I immerse myself in this new genre, I will always have one foot planted in the 1860’s. Yesterday I personalized a copy of The Southern Cross for Mr. Chuck Rowe, the great-great grandson of Nathan Bedford Forrest and today at church I was handed a folder of primary source material and personal documents from a senior couple who are the descendents of Frederick Alber, an infantryman in Company A of the 17th Michigan. Alber was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving a lieutenant on May 12, 1864 during the Battle of Spotsylvania. The couple asked if I would consider writing the story of their great-great grandfather for publication in The Free Lance-Star. They added that they had been turned down for publication years before because he was a Yankee.
Of course I agreed.
In light of all of the arguing that is going on over Confederate History Month, I think it would be quite fitting that an author of five books on the Confederacy would pen a tribute to a Union soldier who has apparently received due-credit in Michigan, but not here in Virginia. So, for the short-time being, I will be taking off the tri-corner hat, dusting off my kepi, and trying to get Frederick Alber some overdue recognition here in Fredericksburg. It is an honor to be asked to do so.
That is what preserving our collective history is all about. Instead of arguing over whose month is whose, we should learn to work together to see that no one's history is forgotten, regardless if there is a month named after it or not. In other words EVERY month should be Confederate History Month, and Union History Month, and African American History Month, etc. We shouldn't need a formal declaration by any government official to care about it.
Now back to our regularly scheduled century...
Friday, 9 April 2010
St. Georges Episcopal Church, Fredericksburg, VA
ABOVE: St. George’s Episcopal Church vintage postcard (Published by W.L. Bond, Fredericksburg, VA)
Located at the corner of Princess Anne and George Streets, Fredericksburg's original church was built by Colonel Henry Willis in 1732. The current Roman Revival–style structure was built in 1849 and is the third church to be constructed on the premises. Colonel John Spotswood, son of the colonial governor, donated the church’s original bell in 1751. (It was later replaced in 1788 and again in 1856.) The Fredericksburg City Council placed a clock in the bell tower in 1851. During the Battle of Fredericksburg, the church survived many artillery strikes. It also served as a meeting place for the Confederate officers and a hospital for wounded Union soldiers. In 1995, the congregation celebrated its 275th anniversary and continues to function as one of the largest churches in the area. The green spire of St. George’s steeple stands out today as the tallest marker in the city’s skyline.
St. George’s Episcopal Church has several rather unique distinctions that set it apart from the other congregations of Fredericksburg. Foremost, it was the first church that was established at the original settlement of Germanna in 1720 as St. George’s Parish by the House of Burgesses of colonial Virginia. Eight years later, the assembly formally established the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia. Therefore, St. George’s is the only church in the entire city to be actually mandated by English rule. At the time of its construction, this primitive house of worship was designated to serve the residents of the original frontier port city. As the settlement grew, so did the church.
According to Paula S. Felder’s study, titled Forgotten Companions: The First Settlers of Spotsylvania County and Fredericksburgh Town (With Notes on Early Land Use), the Church of England’s history in Virginia is one fraught with personal conflict. It stated:
The Protestant Reformation which swept Europe in the sixteenth century took a different course in England, principally because of the marital problems of King Henry VIII. Determined to divorce his first wife, who had produced no male heir, Henry sought Papal dispensation to nullify his marriage. His quarrel with the Catholic Church became a jurisdictional conflict in which he sought to assert the authority of the state against the supernational church. In 1533, Parliament passed the Acts of Appeals, which cut the legal ties between the English Church and the Papacy; and in 1534, Henry was declared supreme head of the Church of England, the legally established form of Christianity in England.
The first colonists in Virginia brought with them the canon (church) law of the Established Church as well as the common law of England. As there was no bishop in the colony, the church came under the legislative authority of the General Assembly as early as 1689. Many years later, in 1869, the Bishop of London appointed the Reverend James Blair to serve as his representative or Commissary. Blair became a powerful figure, founder and president of the College of William and Mary. But even in fulfilling his responsibilities for representing the Church, he functioned through secular channels as a member of the Governor’s Council.
Along with the English church came English rules and regulations. Many of the punishments for breaking the covenants of the church were also brought over from England to the New World. This included a myriad of public ridicules and non-lethal tortures, which were used to enforce both civic and congregational codes. The Act of Assembly in 1705 established a strict list of “Religious Offenses” and appropriate punishments. The offenses included: the willful absence from attending church services for over a month; failure to conduct oneself in a decent and orderly manner while in church; participating in any disorderly meeting; gaming or tippling on the Sabbath day; making a casual journey or travel upon the road other than to and from church on the Sabbath; and finally, working in the fields, stores or any other labor calling on the Sabbath.
The punishment for these “crimes” varied from a fine of five shillings or fifty pounds of tobacco for each offense, to ten lashes on the bare back. More serious offenses, such as adultery, were punishable by time in the public stocks and severe fines up to one thousand pounds of tobacco and cask. There was also a rule condemning the act of religious dissention that was drafted in an obscure act of Parliament that was passed in 1689, although it has been recorded that other religious groups may have existed outside of the Church of England at the time.
Historian Robert Beverly discovered accounts of what appeared to be three small Quaker groups and two smaller Presbyterian groups coexisting with St. George’s in 1705. Spotsylvania County court records dated June 1, 1742, present a case in which Henry Brock (religion not provided) had charges against him dismissed after it was proven that he was not a dissenter of the Church of England, but another denomination’s practitioner.
Despite its strict code of conduct and ties back to England, St. George’s prospered and grew into a bustling church in early Virginia. During the colonial period, the church was responsible for the health and welfare of orphans, widows and the sick. It also assisted the poor and downtrodden. As a spiritually educating pillar in the community, St. George’s also established male and female charity schools, as well as Sunday schools for black children.
When the newest church building was constructed, the box pews were sold or rented to the families for a monthly subscription fee. These funds went to cover the cost of the facility as well as day-to-day church operations. The names of many of these original members are still engraved on the pew doors. This resulted in the equivalent of assigned or reserved seating at every service, thus making it fairly easy to keep track of individual member attendance, even in a sanctuary as large as St. George’s.
Throughout the mid- to late 1700s, members and friends of the Washington family begin attending services at St. George’s Church. This included William Paul, brother to America’s father of naval warfare, Commodore John Paul Jones, as well as George Washington’s brother Charles and brother in-law Fielding Lewis, who also served the church as a vestryman. Jones would not be the only congregational member with famous military ties, as blood ancestors of the World War II hero General George Patton also attended the church. Several of them are buried in the adjacent cemetery.
Following the Revolutionary War and victory for America’s independence, the country’s church-state ties were dissolved and the denomination was incorporated into the newly formed Episcopal Church of the United States. Unfortunately, this was not the only war to touch St. George’s, as another fight over independence came knocking at its door, the American Civil War.
Today St. George’s Episcopal Church remains as one of the largest congregations in all of Fredericksburg and it has become a favorite tourist attraction. Although extensive postwar rehabilitation required the patching of over twenty holes made by artillery rounds, the building resumed regular services as early as May of 1865. Since then the church has restored a spectacular forty-six-set pipe organ and installed several priceless Tiffany stained-glass windows.
A major attraction at St. George’s is the colonial-era cemetery that fills the adjacent courtyard. In 1951, church member Carrol H. Quenzel published a directory of the gravesites titled Burials in St. George’s Graveyard. Her book used the inscriptions and notes that were copied by George H.S. King in 1940. Among the noteworthy graves that can be visited today are John Jones (buried in 1752), Anthony and Virginia Patton (relatives of General George S. Patton) and John Coalter (former owner of Chatham Manor). View a complete list at St. George’s Cemetery.
Excerpt from Historic Churches of Fredericksburg: Houses of the Holy by Michael Aubrecht (The History Press, 2008)
Tuesday, 6 April 2010
Thomas Jefferson was a man of many talents. As an accomplished architect, planter, author, and politician, he was a shining example of the early-American “renaissance man.” His life was lived during a period when art, science and enlightenment ruled the day. Inventions were a passion of Jefferson’s and his magnificent home at Monticello features some of the niftiest gadgets ever devised to increase productivity and heighten efficiency. In order to accomplish as much as Jefferson did over the course of a day, several items of ingenuity were designed to expedite his workload. One of his most admired tools (and my personal favorite) is the revolving bookstand.
This brilliant device was constructed in the joinery on Mulberry Row and it allowed Jefferson to view multiple books while taking up a minimal footprint on his desk. The stand could expand to hold five books open at adjustable angles, allowing the reader to consult multiple works at once. The slave Isaac Jefferson recalled that Jefferson had an “abundance of books,” with as many as twenty down on the floor at one time. Constructed of solid walnut, the cube-shaped stand has five adjustable rests; one book rests on the top and one sits on each of the four sides. The rests can be folded down to form a cube. A central pole enables the bookstand to rotate at the bottom. (A hole in the bottom suggests the possibility that the bookstand originally was supported by a tripod base.)
According to Monticello’s online catalog: “Among the many ingenious devices found in Jefferson's Cabinet, this one perhaps most clearly suggests Jefferson's passion for knowledge. One can imagine him turning the stand, completely engrossed, consulting five books at once to find the answer to a burning question. Our bookstand is a line-by-line reproduction of the original, which was made in the joinery at Monticello, probably from Jefferson's own design. It's great for cross-checking information from several sources or just keeping reference books and current reading handy. Made of solid mahogany with a soft, hand-polished finish, the rotating stand holds five books at adjustable angles on rests that fold down to form a 12" cube. Imported. Price includes a $20 extra shipping charge.”
The cost for such an item? The official reproduction (sold by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation) goes for a whopping $618! Quality reproductions can cost up to $1000 and the cheapest imitation I found was $399. This bookstand is my personal “holy grail” so to speak and perhaps someday I will be in the position to splurge on such a luxury item. Until then, I’ll have to admire one from afar and silently mock myself for not paying attention in shop class. For those of you who are handy with a hammer, here is a PDF with plans, as well as a link to a video showing how to build your own.
Image source: Monticello.org
Thursday, 1 April 2010
I just want to know if they know.
ABOVE: George Washington was a Free Mason who is said to have incorporated
the Order’s tradition, symbology and ritual into the nation’s earliest foundations.
Last night I watched a fascinating, 2-hour documentary about the history of the Free Masons on The History Channel. I don’t usually get my ideas for research projects from the television, but this particular piece ignited an interest in the way that the history of the Free Masons is presented to the Free Masons. It is no secret that some of our most prominent Founding Fathers were members of the Order and as a result, Mason symbology can be found throughout our nation’s most sacred identifiers including our monuments and currency.
As the legacy of this secret society is so well-protected, there must be a conscious effort to internally preserve and present the history that helped to define it. I wonder if there is a formal obligation to share the Mason’s heritage among its members, generation after generation. Since their inception, the Free Masons have been the target of countless naysayers who have accused them of being a dangerous organization. Some critics have even referred to them as the occult. I believe these kinds of blanket accusations are based on ignorance. This ignorance, albeit unintentional at times, is due to a lack of knowledge, which in a way is completely understandable when you are talking about a secret society. People tend to fear what they don’t understand.
There is a fraternal brotherhood among the Masons who are sworn to absolute secrecy. It would be a waste of my time to ask them to divulge anything that would go against their code. Personally, I have too much respect for them to do that. At the same time, I am “literally” interested in their history. What I would like to ask openly (to any of you Free Masons who wish to post a comment either by name or anonymously) is this: Are you taught the history of the Order? Are you expected to learn the history upon receiving membership? Is the history in itself, part of the process?
There are piles of unsanctioned “Secrets of the Masons Revealed-type books” out there spreading what is considered by many to be propaganda. At the same time, there are a growing number of “Behind the Free Masons-documentaries,” like the one I watched on THC. These shows appear to have Mason members as official consultants and claim to tell the truth. And who can forget the whole Dan Brown-Illuminati fad that resulted in an entire movement of misinformation about the Order. The bottom line is that when you are examining the Free Masons (as an outsider), it’s virtually impossible to know what is legit and what is speculation.
Perhaps the mass confusion and misinformation surrounding the true legacy of the Free Masons is all part of the process of protecting it? I just want to know if they are expected to know their real history.
Wednesday, 31 March 2010
Edits and Egos
This week I am busy fine-tuning the article version of my talk about Mary Ball Washington for Patriots of the American Revolution. The final word count was around 3,000 and I found some excellent sources for illustrations including several books published in the 1880’s. This 20-minute speech is rapidly growing into a much larger and more scholarly project. In addition to the upcoming feature in PAR, I am also giving a 1-hour presentation on George’s mother to the Stafford County Historical Society in October. I also anticipate posting the video version of this from the VA Farm Bureau Women’s Conference next week. (Stay tuned)
My commute has me casually reading through Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson and I am gaining a whole ‘new’ perspective on Dr. Franklin. Much like his associates John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, Franklin was also a brilliant, multi-talented entrepreneur. Unlike them, he also appears to have held the nefarious title of “playboy.” Let’s just say that Benjamin Franklin was a very busy man…who stayed busy…in three countries.
Although I have zero interest in his sex life, I am very interested in how he handed personal relationships. More specifically, I am interested in the personal and political relationships between Franklin and Adams and Jefferson. These three egos in one room must have been a sight to behold. I have read that there was a mutual respect and competitive spirit surrounding their kinship, as well as periodic animosity.
The first sign of tension between these giants may have come during their early collaboration on the Declaration of Independence. As the most eloquent writer of the group, Jefferson was tasked with authoring the first draft, which was then reviewed by Adams and Franklin. Both critics were adamant that a document of this magnitude could not be created in it’s entirely by one man. Their fellow colleagues from the Continental Congress also injected their opinions, which in turn, led to protesting from the original author.
As portrayed in the HBO Mini-Series John Adams, Jefferson is said to have been visibly apprehensive with the editorial comments made by his peers. I was curious as to the level of “apprehension,” so I did some research into this episode and found an account that was written by Franklin’s grandson, William Temple. It was later published in William Temple’s Diary: A Tale of Benjamin Franklin’s Family In the Days Leading up to The American Revolution. It reads:
June 23, 1776
The awesome day has come and gone. Father made the proposed “tenderness and delicacy” impossible. In no uncertain terms, he told the Provincial Congress that they were an illegal body, definitely not representative of the population of New Jersey. He called them “pretended patriots,” “insidious malcontents bent on replacing British liberty with Republican tyranny.” He refused to answer the questions asked by the President of Congress. At some point, Mr. Witherspoon, President of Princeton College, lost his temper and alluded sarcastically to Father’s “exalted birth.” It was finally decided, with the approval of the Philadelphia Continental Congress, that the governor should be removed from New Jersey and sent under guard to the custody of Governor Trumbull in Connecticut. Exactly what Father had predicted!
As my aunts shed copious tears, I wondered whether this was Father at his worst — unbearably arrogant — or at his best — true to himself, whatever the cost. “To thine own self be true...” a nice Shakespeare quotation that might comfort Aunt Jane in a calmer moment.
On the very day of Father’s trial, Grandfather, now back home and feeling much better, was looking over Mr. Jefferson’s draft of a Declaration of Independence. Mr. Thomas Jefferson, a tall, lanky man with reddish hair, lives only a couple of blocks from us on Market street. The motion for such a Declaration was proposed some time ago by a fellow Virginian, Richard Henry Lee, but is acted upon only now. Known to be an excellent writer, Mr. Jefferson, also a Virginian, was quite upset by the many changes to his text suggested by various congressional colleagues. Grandfather told me that he had recommended only one important change. In the introductory sentence, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable...” Grandfather suggested replacing those two qualifiers by the word self-evident, and Jefferson agreed.
BELOW: Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration with Adam’s and Franklin’s marks. (Source: Independence Hall Association) View an enlarged and legible version of the draft at Constitution.org.
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