Los Angeles Plaza – 1860s

Screen shot 2014-03-29 at 10.50.44 AMI am doing a little work on the Los Angeles Plaza and the things going on there during the nineteenth century – eventually I want to look at twentieth-century efforts to preserve the area as an historical landmark. Public memory in action in the City of Angeles! Here’s a shot of the Plaza in the late 1860s, before the city turned it into a park. The image is part of the California Historical Society Collection at USC.

With compliments,


Mysteries Abound – Whatever Happened to the Body of Confederate General Richard B. Garnett?

Well, it seems we have a bit of a mystery on our hands. Those of us who are captivated by the Battle of Gettysburg story know that Confederate general Richard B. Garnett was killed in the battle.

Garnett, as you probably know, was a brigade commander in George Pickett’s division…and led his troops in the ill-fated Pickett-Pettigrew Assault on July 3rd, 1863. There are a couple of eye-witness accounts of how he was killed.

Apparently, Garnett got within about twenty feet of the famous “angle” on Cemetery Ridge where he was shot in the head while waving his men forward with his hat. Soon after, his courier’s horse was also hit and fell on the dead general’s body. The courier in question, one Robert Irvine, pulled Garnett’s body from under the horse, and managed to retrieve his watch before moving on. This wasn’t shady or anything, later Irvine gave the watch to the brigade adjutant – or that’s at least how the story goes…

Now this is where things get sort of cloudy. First, there are conflicting reports as to whether or not the general’s horse made it back to the Rebel lines. Second, and more important, Garnett’s body was never recovered. More than likely, he was buried in a mass grave along with his men.

Which means we have a very probable resting place for Richard Garnett. In the early 1870s, Ladies’ Memorial Assocaitions were instrumental in reinterring the Confederate dead of Gettysburg in Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. Bodies were removed from mass graves and brought south (for a fee) where they would Screen shot 2014-03-28 at 10.05.14 AMhave a proper – Confederate – burial.

So many, including military historian Robert Krick,  believe that Garnett is there. Probably, but we cannot be certain. In 1991, the Hollywood Memorial Association just flat out assumed he was there and erected a cenotaph in his honor. Nothing else has ever surfaced concerning Garnett, with one notable exception. Soon after the war, his sword turned up in a Baltimore pawn shop…where it was purchased by former Confederate general George H. Steuart.

So there you have it – mystery not (entirely) solved.

With compliments,


Sherman’s March and the History Channel

Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 10.49.54 AMIt seems that lately I have been unleashing a disproportionate amount of criticism on our old friends at the History Channel. And why shouldn’t I? I mean…a channel with all claims to be the go-to network for history airs programming dedicated mostly to truckers, pickers, restorers, pawners and others of their ilk – but little history. And…when there is a program dealing with history – we get this. Sherman’s March…in all its predictability.

We get about what we might expect in Sherman’s March – a sort of post-Vietnam analysis of an army on a rampage (with a little edged in on Sherman the reluctant liberator). It is pretty dull really – the same old story…Sherman helped bring the South to its knees and in the process invented total war (and the film is poorly acted, by the way…bordering on the ridiculous at times). Now I am not saying that Sherman didn’t do his fair share of damage to the glorious South, but the narrative relies heavily on the claims of Sherman himself – making Georgia howl and all, and tends, whether intentionally or not, to sound a bit like the old articles in Confederate Veteran Magazine – you know the ones…those that paint Sherman with the evilest of strokes.

In fact, there is little to nothing in this program that even those with only a slight familiarity with Sherman’s March haven’t already heard. So let me add in a touch to get you thinking.

Of course, Sherman’s March to the Sea – conducted from Atlanta to Savannah Georgia in late 1864 – left behind a swath of destruction, it terrorized those it in its path, and it gave Lincoln Savannah – an important port – as a Christmas present. Then he turned left and raised holy hell in South Carolina – the hotbed of secession. But did his grim work actually damage the Confederate cause as much as we might think? Could the March have hurt the Union war effort? There are scholars who believe that this might be the case.

Did Sherman’s invasion of the Georgia hinterland and subsequent march to the Carolinas actually galvanize Confederate civilians? Did Confederate resistance prove effective and prolong the war? Confederate women especially may have been instrumental in supporting and sustaining the war effort during this volatile time – not just passive victims of a ruthless invading host. For an interesting look at the Rebel response to Sherman in Georgia and the Carolinas check out Jacqueline Campbell’s When Sherman Marched North from the Sea. It might change how you think about the war in the deep South. Then you can write a letter to the History Channel and complain.

With compliments,


The Great Lee/Grant Debate

Screen shot 2014-03-26 at 9.26.28 AMOh if only Grant and Lee could once again meet face to face to debate the great issues of the Civil War…a “what if” that even I will ponder. And wouldn’t it be great if they could meet on a bizarrely conceived 1970s game show called “Risk Your Reputation” where they could both engage in surreal recreations complete with a cheese ball host and leotard-clad narrators? That sure would be fantastic…


With compliments,

The Americanist Independent: A Monthly Journal of United States History

A Word or Two about the Los Angeles Premiere of The Birth of a Nation

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In February, 1915, The Clansman, later titled The Birth of a Nation premiered at the Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles (pictured above – now a parking lot). I want to say just a few words about 1) the public reaction and 2) how we think about this film today. Now, if you have been paying attention, you know that the film is as racist as it can be. For example, there are scenes depicting shoeless black people dancing, eating chicken, and leering at white women while serving in the South Carolina legislature during Reconstruction. If that’s not enough – there are plenty of scenes of blacks lusting after white women (who have to kill themselves to avoid being raped).

By our standards, this film is an easy target. But the usual analysis by film historians is pretty flat. It goes something like this: Yes – the film is racist but innovative at the same time. D. W. Griffith set the bar for future film makers…blah blah blah. How much longer are film scholars going to keep blathering on about the same old stuff?

Scholars of Civil War history have looked at this film too. Some of them (myself NOT included) have noted that the film was met across the (white) nation with a sort of general acceptance. White people (North and South) in 1915 seemed to agree that Reconstruction was a bad deal for the South and that blacks should have been kept in their places. Thus, these white people could relate to the “heroic” KKK in the film’s climax.

One reviewer at the 1915 LA premiere made a note of it. The audience applauded at scenes of whites triumphing over blacks attempting to assert their rights.

As modern observers, we have a tendency to recognize the widespread racism existing in 1915 and believe that most white people would get on board with the film’s message. After all – The Birth of a Nation was a tremendous success all over the country – not just in the South.

But that may not be exactly right. Sure, white northerners were certainly racists by our standards but that didn’t mean they supported the Confederate cause or the white South after the fact. Only 50 years earlier loyal citizens of the United States had fought a war to suppress a rebellion and the degeneration of law and order that the Confederate cause had represented. A film about mob rule was not necessarily a welcome thing. And just to add fuel to the fire, some of these guys who had shouldered muskets for the Union were still around to vent their anger!

And their legacy was still around too. Members of Union veterans’ organizations like the GAR made sure that US citizens knew what that war had been about. And they were not about to let a Confederate interpretation take hold that easily.

With compliments,