Civil War-Era Musical in SF

Readers in the San Francisco Bay area should note there’s a new stage show currently playing at the Berkeley Rep Theatre. It’s profiled in the NYTimes, though the focus is on the fact that its producer is Garth Drabinsky – a name we Canadians know and note less for his lavish productions than for the criminal activities of his production company! That said, his productions were always of excellent quality, and seeing as how Stephen Foster’s music is heavily used, this would be a must-see for me.

“It’s about two brutalized peoples, Irish and African-American, one fleeing famine, and one fleeing slavery, who meet in the Five Points, and, for a brief moment, change the flow of American history, until America catches up with it,” Mr. Kirwan said. “It’s not kumbaya, but it happened, and that’s what’s hopeful about it.”

It has a score that is at once familiar and new: rearranged and re-lyricized songs of Stephen Foster, the 19th-century composer celebrated for his contributions to early American pop music but criticized for his work on minstrel shows. Foster spent the final months of his life in the Five Points neighborhood, and is a prominent and problematic character in the show — talented but often untruthful, ambitious but often intoxicated.

Source: The Producer Has a History. So Does This Civil War-Era Musical. – The New York Times

Alabama Claims

An article about Grant’s Chief Justice nomination made an offhand mention of the reparations Britain paid after the Civil War. I haven’t done enough reading about the post-bellum period, and the Alabama Claims were news to me. It’s a pretty fascinating little footnote in history, not least because it involves a fast-tracking of British Columbia’s entry into Confederation.

After international arbitration endorsed the American position in 1872, Britain settled the matter by paying the United States $15.5 million, ending the dispute and leading to a treaty that restored friendly relations between Britain and the United States. That international arbitration established a precedent, and the case aroused interest in codifying public international law.

Source: Alabama Claims – Wikipedia

Looking Back On The First Government Shutdown

On the eve of the latest government shutdown ending, NPR takes a look back to the first shutdown, which also had its roots in racism. Plus ça change, America? I’m filing this blog post under “reenactments”.

GONZALEZ: At the time, African-American men were allowed to vote, but they tended to vote Republican. So Democrats didn’t want them voting. Sometimes, it resulted in violence at the polls. And the government would send troops. Nineteenth-century Democrats hated this. So when they gained control of Congress 14 years after the Civil War, they come up with this idea.

RICHARDSON: Simply starve the government until they did what we wanted by holding a gun to the head of the Treasury.

GONZALEZ: Fund the courts and the Army but only if the government stops protecting black voters.

RICHARDSON: There are a number of cartoons in the newspapers about how the Confederates have taken back over Washington and how they are deliberately starving the United States Treasury the same way that they starved Union prisoners.

Source: Looking Back On The First Government Shutdown In U.S. History : NPR

Hidden History

A brief, but interesting, history of Fort Monroe. Landing site for the first black slaves in America, and site of the “Doctrine” that started Emancipation down its track.

Ellis Island, New York, was the gateway to freedom for millions of European immigrants. They fled poverty and oppression, for a chance to achieve the American Dream.

Well, one noted historian says there was another Ellis Island, for African Americans.

Source: Hidden History: Army Post Played Major Role in Civil War, Offered Freedom to Slaves

Life in One Union Prison Camp

This was a three-part story, I see, though the paper doesn’t bother linking to the previous two entries. This one deals with one soldier’s “last post”; a Union prison camp. I went through a phase of research in my teens where I read widely on Southern prisons – Andersonville especially – but I can’t recall many accounts of Northern stockades. After reading of Andersonville’s horrors, it was a bit jarring to read about set tables for twice-a-day dinners and debate clubs founded by the prisoners, but it’s worth remembering that thousands died in these comparatively improved camps, too.

Source: One soldier’s story: Pvt. Asaph Wilson Sherrill and Deep Creek, the only Civil War Battle fought in Jackson County | History |

Testimony of Wesley Norris

There was a Reddit discussion about Robert E. Lee, whose birthday was celebrated by some yesterday. While I have the utmost respect for Lee as a military commander, and I have no doubt he’d have been an admirable man to work with or for, I cringe when I see people defending his choice to go with Virginia.

There’s a lot of mythology about the fact that Lee “didn’t like slavery” and that his entire motive lay in “defending his country”, but I finid those arguments as specious as the ones used to defend Thomas Jefferson. In short, both men were well heeled Virginians who made full use of their slaves to better their own lives while at best doing nothing to help their “property”, and at worst doing some pretty horrific things to another human being.

Here’s a first-person account by one of Lee’s slaves over the punishment Lee administered to him after he tried to run away.

We were immediately taken before Gen. Lee, who demanded the reason why we ran away; we frankly told him that we considered ourselves free; he then told us he would teach us a lesson we never would forget; he then ordered us to the barn, where, in his presence, we were tied firmly to posts by a Mr. Gwin, our overseer, who was ordered by Gen. Lee to strip us to the waist and give us fifty lashes each, excepting my sister, who received but twenty; we were accordingly stripped to the skin by the overseer, who, however, had sufficient humanity to decline whipping us; accordingly Dick Williams, a county constable, was called in, who gave us the number of lashes ordered; Gen. Lee, in the meantime, stood by, and frequently enjoined Williams to lay it on well, an injunction which he did not fail to heed; not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.

Source: Testimony of Wesley Norris. In NATIONAL ANTI-SLAVERY STANDARD (1866-04-14)

President Trump’s Civil War History

Drunk is probably the best way to be during this particular period of history, but comedy is a good fallback for the teetotals among us. Here’s Donald Trump’s less-than-eloquent take on the Civil War reenacted by the Daily Show.

Source: President Trump’s Civil War History |

Kennesaw Mountain Park growing

Some rare good news when it comes to preservation: Lawmakers in Georgia are debating expanding some of the states’ Civil War sites, including the Kennesaw Mountain battlefield!

The only site in metro Atlanta is Kennesaw Mountain, which had 2,593,725 visits in 2017 — making the Civil War battleground the 37th most-visited federal park site, ahead of Mount Rushmore, Bryce Canyon, Mount Rainier and Death Valley.

Source: Effort to expand Kennesaw Mountain, other Georgia parks faces hike

Political Violence

Mother Jones interviews Joanne Freeman, author of The Field of Blood, examining physical violence in Congress in the run-up to the Civil War. If the book is as fun as the interview, it promises to be a rollicking read!

That’s a great example both of the performative aspect of it and the ways in which it’s more than performance. Both North and South had an enormous response to the caning, partly because it came after a string of Southern attacks against Northerners, partly because of the brutality of it, and the fact that it took place within the Senate chamber itself—which Brooks tried to avoid. He tried to catch Sumner outside so that he could avoid precisely what happened, which is the symbolism of a Southern congressman striding into the Senate and beating an abolitionist to the ground. I remember reading through Sumner’s letters, and letter after letter after letter, from adults, from schoolchildren, [they’re] not even sure what to do with their emotions, talking about crying when they heard what happened. The power of that moment for Northerners is easy to underestimate.

The same goes for the other side of the equation. Many Southerners took abolitionism generally—and abolitionists specifically—as an insult, as well as a threat and a danger. There was a feeling that Brooks gave Sumner just what he deserved. Sumner had stood up and made a rousing speech attacking the spread of slavery into Kansas, had insulted the South, had even insulted a few Southern congressmen. So to many Southerners, their response was, “Thank you so much for defending our honor and our interests and silencing him.” There was one letter I found from a woman who was a Northerner, and I believe she married a Southerner, and she says in the letter, “If Brooks had done it anywhere but in the Senate and not over the head, then nobody would have any objections at all.”

Source: If You Think Congress Is Bad Now, You Should Hear About What Happened in 1838 – Mother Jones

‘Human lives were not of value’

I mentioned Douglas Blackmon in a previous post. Turns out his research is newly relevant again – a graveyard from one of Texas’ bigger prison farms has been unearthed during new construction. The Houston Chronicle spoke to Blackmon and other experts to discuss the history of these farms, what life was like, and some first-person accounts from afflicted inmates.

The convict-leasing system began in Texas and other southern states shortly after the Civil War, when officials realized they had a large population of prisoners to care for and very little money, according to author Donald R. Walker in “Penology for Profit,” a book about the Texas system.

The main income for the state came from property taxes, but poor collection and Texans’ hesitance to pay meant little money was coming in, according to Walker. When the Civil War ended, the state treasury showed a balance of over $3 million but only about $145,000 was considered valuable currency.

Politicians thought leasing the prison to outside parties could be profitable. Private individuals would make regular payments to the state for the services of convicts, while the state would oversee inmate care and supervision.

Source: ‘Human lives were not of value’: African-American remains awaken history of convict-leasing system – Houston Chronicle