The Roots Legacy


With all the talk these days about the Steve McQueen film 12 Years a Slave it is readily apparent that critics and reviewers alike proclaim this the most important mainstream media effort to portray American slavery from the perspective of a slave. Fair enough. And allow me to pause for a minute and give credit where credit is due. I think 12 Years a Slave is an important work – it explores the life of a free man suddenly thrust into involuntary servitude. It captures several of the nuances of paternalism in a slave society along with the brutalities of the system that one might expect from a film about slavery.

But to suggest that this film is the most important mainstream media event may be something of a leap. In January 1977, for eight successive nights, ABC Television aired what I feel is the most important media event concerning American slavery to date. Roots, the television miniseries, enthralled a vast cross-section of Americans – the viewership transcending race, ethnicity, and economic demographic. The final episode alone received a 71% ratings share with over 36 million tuning in. And all this on the heels of some of the most heated racial conflict the nation had ever witnessed.

Roots was based on Alex Haley’s 1976 true-to-life novel tracing his personal family history, Roots: the Story of an American Family. It tells the story of Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte, his capture and sale into the Atlantic slave system, and his descendents through the Civil War period and emancipation. Critics praised the series, and it received many well-deserved accolades. Most importantly, Roots told a story from the slaves’ perspective – and it did so for a nation of viewers.

Haley’s book has since come under intense scrutiny. For one, accusations of plagiarism hounded the author – many noticed the striking similarities between the book and a 1960s publication called The African. Further, there was and still is speculation that Haley fabricated much of his evidence concerning his specific West African origins. Regarding the television series, critics in time began to chip away at the show’s analytical bent, suggesting it relied too heavily on brutality and that it lacked historical depth – especially concerning the slave South’s paternalistic system.

Without question, the series had flaws. But that is far less significant that what it actually accomplished: the series confronted an institution before a nation. In terms of popular culture, the story of American slavery was suddenly in 36 million living rooms – a topic of conversation and of further inquiry.

12 Years A Slave is part of a cultural legacy that Roots most profoundly set in motion. Yet few people talk about it today. It’s cultural resonance seems only slight in comparison to other works. Most of my students, in fact, have never heard of it. Which is a shame.

With compliments,


Harrison Gray Otis and the Burning of the Blue Sulphur Springs Resort


This morning I received an inquiry from a reader who was wondering if I had any information on Harrison Gray Otis’s involvement in the November 1863 burning of the Blue Sulphur Springs Resort in West Virginia. As both Union and Confederate armies had used the resort during the war as a camp and a hospital, Federals wanted to ensure that the Rebs could no longer utilize the structure and surrounding area for their war effort and the resort was fired. Only the Pavilion, a Greek Revival structure, remained.

You may recall that Harrison Gray Otis enlisted in the Union Army as a private and climbed through theharrison_gray_otis ranks to Captain in short order. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and enjoyed a prosperous career as a journalist and editor. My reader has found information suggesting that Otis gave the order to fire the resort – but cannot verify these reports.

I turn to you – my knowledgeable amigos…did Otis give the command? (we’ll need proof, of course)

With compliments,


Starr King Post #52, GAR – Santa Barbara’s Civil War Veterans

The Starr King Post pictured in 1922

I came across a rather interesting webpage concerning the founding and commemorative activities of Santa Barbara’s GAR post: the Starr King Post #52. Most of the information is typical – dates, names, places…what you might expect. And I particularly enjoyed descriptions of GAR Comrades parading down State Street to the beach. I am a little suspect on the analysis, however, and troubled by the sloppy research. King died in ’64 not ’66. But hey, why pick at the details? The author emphasizes the forgetfulness of the Union veterans suggesting that the former soldiers had long forgotten all war-time issues. Well, I do know that that the Post invited Confederate veterans in the area to participate in some Memorial Day commemorative activities – but it’s a bit of a leap to assume that the old soldiers had left the war behind. Reconciliation and forgetfulness are not the same thing – not at all.

Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. But it’s worth it to have a look for myself, and a trip to Santa Barbara would be fine and dandy. I’ll be looking closely at any Memorial Day speeches, news articles, and post minutes that I can find. If our friends in Santa Barbara are anything at all like their comrades throughout the rest of the country, I doubt that they forgot much of anything.

With compliments,


General Rosecrans Says Back Up Your Files

BookReaderImages(2)As I work through and organize some of the research I have been doing on Union veterans in Southern California I am reminded that technology can sometimes inexplicably and unexpectedly fail. A couple of summers ago my hard drive crashed and I lost a TON of work on former Union General William Rosecrans. As you all know, he migrated to California after the war and was up to all sorts of things, specifically: politics, land speculation, and veteran organization. I guess I will just move on and do the work again. It won’t be the first time I have had to go back to the archives. Fun fact: the “Genius” at the Apple store said that hard drives have a 100% failure rate. Meaning…your machine is going to die sooner or later. I guess he made a lot of sense – though I never thought it would happen to me.

I moped about my tragic loss for a while this morning but did however come across an old (Cosmic America) blog post that reflected a tiny shred of my Rosecrans research – it had to do with the former general and his relationships with a few ex-Rebels…including Robert E. Lee. Here’s a snippet:

[quote]I came across an interesting correspondence in that collection that I thought I would share here. It turns out, General Rosecrans was not in sympathy with the government’s policy towards the southern states in the immediate postwar years. The radical measures enacted for the reconstruction of the South seemed, to him, harsh and vindictive. In August, 1868, he wrote General Robert E. Lee requesting him to confer with leading citizens of the southern states and prepare a statement that would reflect the wishes and sentiments of his people with regard to the future of the South. General Lee’s reply is known as the White Sulphur Springs Letter.

Here is a segment of the letter dated August 26, 1868 – concerning former slaves:

It is true that the people of the South, in common with a large majority of the people of the North & West, are, for obvious reasons, inflexibly opposed to any system of laws which would place the political powers of the country in the hands of the negro race. But this opposition springs from no feeling of enmity, but from a deep seated conviction that at present, the negroes have nether the intelligence nor the other qualifications which are necessary to make them safe depositories of political power. They would inevitably become the victims of demagogues, who for selfish purposes, would mislead them to the serious injury of the public. The great want of the South is peace. The people earnestly desire tranquility & a restoration of the Union. They deprecate disorder and excitement is the most serious obstacle to their prosperity.

RE Lee

This letter is indicative of Lee’s public position on freedmen and the restoration of the Union. Privately he spent his days in bitter reflection. But when he conferred with former enemies on public statements, he often took up this conciliatory tone of moderation.

The collection is rich with others’ response to the letter – published throughout the South. Nathan Bedford Forrest, P. G. T. Beauregard, and John Brown Gordon number among the many former Rebels who wrote Rosecrans in support of both the letter and Rosecrans’s efforts to to initiate correspondence with Lee on the subject. Even Lee himself wrote a brief note of thanks. [/quote]

Anyway…enough reminiscing. Time to back up some files and get back to work. I’ll be heading back to UCLA special collections shortly to dig into the Rosecrans Papers (again). Expect some more juicy tidbits in the near future.

With compliments,