Archive Page 2

The Silence at Promontory Summit Was Deafening

By John N. Vogel

PhD alum John Vogel reflects on a recent visit to an iconic historic site.

The silence at Promontory Summit was deafening.

I find the significance of silence often encountered at historically prominent places is proportional to that of the event that occurred. The impact of silence is reflected in one’s pensiveness, and how lost one can be in the event, the site of which is being observed many years later. So it was as I recently visited the National Park Service’s Golden Spike National Monument.

We all know, at least to some extent, of the driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory promontory-summit-golden-spike-photo-loc-2Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869.  The moment was captured in the famous photo to the left (courtesy the Library of Congress).  It was that spike, in both a real and ceremonial sense, that physically united the nation–which for the first time had been tied together in a functional and intractable way.  That first transcontinental connection inspired an untold number of histories that have expressed affection or derision for the railroad, as well as offered all sorts of analysis.  It is unquestioned that Thomas Durant, of the Union Pacific, and Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins, all of the Central Pacific, were interested in making money with the railroad they built.  But that does nothing to diminish the physical and national accomplishment that was the first transcontinental link.

That portion of the route passing through Promontory Summit was bypassed between 1902 and 1904 with construction of the Lucin Cutoff across the Great Salt Lake. The new route provided a straighter, flatter and shorter path across northern Utah than the original alignment to Ogden.  Rail traffic through Promontory Summit was thereafter limited to local trains.  The route was eventually abandoned and in 1942, just after the beginning of the Second World War, the track was removed for use in the war effort.  Promontory Summit was designated a National Historic Site in 1957.  About a mile-and-a-half of rail was re-laid in order to accommodate the replica locomotives that provide a dramatic way of commemorating the site’s history.

On the day I visited this iconic spot, the Park Service’s interpretive center closed at 5:00 PM and the parking lot was almost immediately empty. There is nothing around Promontory Summit except a few ranches off in the distance. I was alone on the high plains, waiting for the sunset that would occur three or four hours later on a partly cloudy jnv-promontory-summit-2012evening.  I alternately walked along the tracks, sat on a nearby bench, and read and re-read the various commemorative plaques and monuments at the site.  Constant throughout the evening was the wind so common to the high plains.

As I waited for sunset, I was reminded of the classic Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novel, Mutiny on the Bounty. Nordhoff and Hall wrote of a character, Roger Byam, who returned to Tahiti many years after the fateful mutiny.  As he looked over the island, Byam observed that  “suddenly the place was full of ghosts, shadows of men alive and dead . . .”  I saw no ghosts that evening.  Yet I found the spirit of all those who built that first transcontinental railroad was inescapable.

Promontory Summit is a place of unquestionable significance in the history of our nation. East and west were tangibly tied together as one and have been ever since.  Yet despite the thundering importance of this place, the silence at Promontory Summit was deafening.

John N. Vogel graduated from MU in 1989 with his Ph.D. in American History. He is the President and Senior Historian of Heritage Research, Ltd., an environmental and public history consulting firm that works with states, engineering firms, municipalities and others to research and produce components needed for environmental impact statements, business and institutional histories, and legal research. He is also author of Great Lakes Lumber on the Great Plains (1993).  

“The Troubles of His Country Were His Own”: Rev. N. A. Staples

By James Marten

This year two parts of my lives collided: my work as a historian of the Civil War era and my membership in the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee.  First Church is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, and I’m helping the congregation commemorate the milestone by organizing speakers and writing a monthly blog.

First Church was formed in the spring of 1842, but a few months earlier a notice had appeared in a local newspaper asking Unitarians interested in starting a church to gather at a local meeting hall “at early candlelight” to talk it over.  Although the congregation has had its ups and downs–in fact, it suspended services at least twice in the nineteenth century, and once had its mortgage foreclosed–since 1892 it has been housed in a brick church at Ogden and Astor, on Milwaukee’s lower east side.  The denomination as a whole and our congregation in particular is noted for its social activism; today it is one of the largest congregations in the denomination with around 800 members.

My January blog highlighted the unique life of one of our earliest ministers, N. A. Staples. He was an unusual character–kind of hard to live with, it seems–but he represented the radical abolitionists who helped spark the Civil War in 1861.  The blog is based largely on a biography and collection of sermons written and compiled by one of his close friends, but Staples’ complicated personality comes through as clearly as his passion for reform and his belief in the liberal Christianity promoted by Unitarians.

You can read the blog here.

Jim Marten is chair of the MU History Department and has been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee for over twenty years.

Christmases Past: A Holiday Blog

By James Marten

It’s no coincidence that the most benign and popular of the three spirits who haunt Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Although in the end Ebenezer’s journey through select moments of his holiday memories are more bitter than sweet, this first of three ghostly tours reminds us that the ways in which we and our families celebrate Christmas—or any holiday, really—create a shared history among family members that can become treasured memories or dramas fraught with ambivalence.

Part of that memory-making, at least for some of us, threads through popular culture, whether it’s the smooth jazz-infused A Charlie Brown Christmas, the jerky stop-motion animation of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or the star-studded, over-the-top music specials that have flooded the airwaves since the 1950s (anyone remember David Bowie singing “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby?).

But three iconic representatives of the genre are grounded in history, and self-consciously reflected that history when they were made. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (actually published in 1843 as A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas), christmascarol1843_-_184has appeared in countless plays, cartoons, radio shows, and movies. Each version, in its own way, has captured conditions on Victorian England familiar to any historian: the class conflict reflected in the presence of the urban poor (the waifs revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Present), the barely-getting-by lower middle class represented by the Cratchits, the comfortable middle classes shopping and feasting throughout the story, and the wealthy folks who barely appear but are clearly present; the overburdened system of private charities and over-used work houses and prisons so loved by Scrooge; even the massive dislocation of the provincial population to London and its fabulous economic opportunities and worrisome dangers. Indeed, one of Dickens’ motivations for writing the little book was to offer not only a heart-warming holiday story, but to highlight the egregious conditions in which many Londoners lived.

Less concerned with societal ills than with individual redemption, It’s a Wonderful Life traces everyman George Bailey’s life from the 1910s through the 1940s, with major events like the World Wars and the Great Depression neatly framing the movie into three acts.  Smaller episodes reflect those times, from the druggist’s near-disastrous grief from losing wonderful-lifehis son during the WWI to the run on the Baileys’ building and loan in the early 1930s that ruins the George and Mary’s honeymoon, to the incredible energy poured into the war effort on the WWII home front.  Along the way we glimpse the effects of eastern European immigration and the development of the kind of the kind of suburban housing that would be made famous by the post-war Levittowns.  Every one of these and many other historical moments plays a role in the life George resents—and every one provides a specific kind of Christmas memory showing why his presence enriched the lives of others.

It’s a Wonderful Life appeared in 1946, as soldiers returned from war and adjusted to peace (like George’s hero brother Harry—a pilot like Jimmy Stewart, acting in his first movie since returning from several years of active duty) and as the country tried to glimpse a little optimism after the shattering destruction of the war. Eight years later, White Christmas came out at a time when, despite the Cold War, Americans felt more confident and the world was more or less at peace; filmed in living color and featuring peppy musical numbers, it occupies a place on the spectrum of Christmas movies about as far from It’s mmwhitechristmas02Wonderful Life as possible.  Yet even a bit of fluff like White Christmas is rooted in war-time and post-war America, from the GIs longing for home at the make-shift show put on by comrades just before they go into combat to the sudden rise to entertainment prominence of television to the bittersweet reunion of already aging veterans who gather to honor their old general after he’s been rejected by an army too modern to need an old-school soldier like him. Despite its modern sensibilities, White Christmas seems to have been produced to create nostalgia.

Whether these or other Christmas classics are on your must-see list, or if you simply watch a few minutes here and there while channel-surfing, for many of us these stories—and no doubt countless others—firmly meld fictional Christmases into real history and into our lives.

Happy Holidays on behalf of my colleagues in the Marquette University History Department!

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  He’s a little sheepish about admitting that one of his favorite holiday movies is Love Actually.

 

 

 

A Fulbrighter in Azerbaijan

By Robert Borowik

During my senior year at Marquette University, I was awarded a Fulbright Grant, and I am currently working as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant and U.S. Cultural Ambassador in Azerbaijan. Through this program I have the unique opportunity to live in a part of the 1world that few Americans have visited while teaching English to Azerbaijani high-schoolers. With the grant came several unexpected opportunities, such as attending parties at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence or even shaking hands with Pope Francis during his first visit to Azerbaijan!

 

I teach at the Physics, Math and Informatics Lyceum, a high school in Baku where a large portion of the students are from the regions of Azerbaijan and live at the school. During my first weeks here, I worked with the teachers to set up a new English Center with 2support from British Council and the Azerbaijan Ministry of Education. Since its opening in late October (see picture to the right, which includes Robert, Dr. Carole Crofts, British Ambassador to Azerbaijan, and representatives of British Council and the Azerbaijan Ministry of Education ), I have been leading conversation classes with small groups of students where they practice their English speaking skills as we discuss various topics regarding the United States and the world.

In addition to teaching, I have been exploring the fascinating, yet little-known, history and culture of Azerbaijan. The country is home to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Qobustan where 6,000 petroglyphs dating back tens of thousands of years cover a 3mountainside (featured in the photograph to the left). Historic synagogues and mosques can be found in the city of Quba where Muslims and Jews have lived side by side for centuries. Memorials dedicated to more recent historical events, massacres of Azerbaijanis perpetrated by Armenian Bolsheviks in 1917, dot the entire country. But through their difficult past, Azerbaijanis have maintained a warm hospitality to visitors of the country.

As an American, Cultural Ambassador, and English teacher, my role is multifaceted. Not only do I teach my students English, but I am also exploring the fascinating culture and history of Azerbaijan that was so heavily impacted by decades of Soviet rule. Working with the Fulbright Program in Azerbaijan has changed my perspectives on the world, as I need to be amenable to the ever changing situations in which I find myself. I am very grateful for what I have already experienced and excited for what lies ahead.

Robert Borowik graduated from Marquette University in spring 2016 with majors in secondary education, history and economics. He was the president of the Polish Club and was a board member of Phi Alpha Theta, the history honor society.

With Your Indulgence: Corporal Tanner Redux, for Veterans Day

By James Marten

“It was a pleasure reading . . . America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace,” the email from James Fitzpatrick of Chevy Chase, Maryland, began.  Historians rarely hear from non-historians who have read our work, so it was great to receive this kind piece of fan mail.  But it proved to be much more.  “With your indulgence,” the message continued, “this email shares something of my forebears’ relationship to Tanner, in hopes it may interest you.”

I first wrote about Corporal Tanner in February 2012, a couple of years before America’s Corporal was published (see “Reflections on a Man With No Feet“).  Tanner was an eighteen-year-old corporal in the Union army when he lost the lower thirds of both legs at the Battle of Second Manassas in 1862. He went on to become a powerful advocate for veterans and the disabled, a Republican operative, and a famous speaker at Chautauquas and other public venues. He eventually became one of the most famous men from the late nineteenth century who you’ve never heard of.  I also reported two other “out-of-the-blue” contacts.  One included three letters written by Tanner at different times in his life (see My Dear Comrade: Adventures with Corporal Tanner [continued]), while another was from a New Jersey woman named Sabrina who wondered why a letter from Tanner had showed up in her dead grandmother’s effects (see “It will sound rather strange to you…”: A Phone Call, a Letter, and the Corporal). I couldn’t help her, but the Tanner letter (one of the few surviving letters he wrote) provided a poignant end to America’s Corporal.

Sabrina had no idea who James Tanner was; she was trying to figure out how he fit into her family. The September 25 email from Mr. Fitzpatrick was quite different. So in honor of Veterans’ Day, here’s a little story about my continuing journey with Jim Tanner.

Mr. Fitzpatrick’s family enjoyed a close relationship with the Corporal during the quarter century before his death in 1927). Several documents and photographs had come down through the generations, and Mr. Fitzpatrick recalled several family stories about the Tanner family.  He hoped that I could fill him in on a few details about the Tanners; unfortunately, I wasn’t able to help much. Indeed, I’m afraid I learned more about the family from Mr. Fitzpatrick than he learned from me.  Here’s the list of the many links between the Fitzpatricks and the Tanners (the names get a little confusing—“Mr. Fitzpatrick” refers to my correspondent in Maryland):

–Tanner, who worked as a pension attorney for many years, probably helped Fitzpatrick’s great-grandfather apply for his Union army pension and, later, may have helped his great-grandmother complete her widow’s pension application;

–the Tanners (Jim, his wife Mero, and their daughters) lived in the same Washington, DC, boarding house as Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandfather, John Fitzpatrick, around the turn-of-the-twentieth-century;

–Tanner may have served as best man at the wedding of John and Mary (Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandparents);

btf-james-tanner–John and Mary named their son (Mr. Fitzpatrick’s father), Berchmans Tanner Fitzpatrick, after the Corporal (they are pictured to the left);

–Tanner’s daughter Ada, a long-time federal employee, sometimes drove out to Chevy Chase to give Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandmother Mary rides in her car (Ada and Mary may also have worked together);

–on at least one occasion Mary came home to find John hosting a card party with the Corporal and other men that included drinking and smoking cigars (she poured the alcohol down the sink);

These are wonderful anecdotes, but two more took my breath away:

tanner3–James gave two books to young Berchmans, both on the Civil War; one he inscribed, “I present this little volume to my dearly beloved friend and namesake,” while in the other, written when Tanner was nearly eighty years old, he poignantly refers to the book as “Some record of the days where [when?] youth was mine.”

–Berchmans Fitzpatrick, who would later become a noted attorney in the federal government, worked for two summers as a kind of intern in the District of Columbia’s Register of Wills office, which Tanner ran for the last couple of decades of his life. Tanner wrote a heart-felt thank you note after the summer of 1925, when Berchmans returned to law school: “I cannot in justice to you let you go without saying how eminently satisfactory has been your work while you have been with us during vacation time.  I knew you had intelligence enough to discharge faithfully the duties assigned to you, but outside of that your courtesy, your readiness, your strict attention to business have been noticeable by all the members of our office force. . . . You go with the best wishes of every member of my force.  We all wish you every possible happiness that God may see fit to bestow upon humanity.”

These last two items meant that there were only two degrees of separation between the Corporal and me. This is obviously fun, and interesting, but it meant more to me than that.

The exchange with Mr. Fitzpatrick came just a couple of months after I’d completed my “Tanner pilgrimage.” A couple of years ago, while in Washington for a conference, I’d walked past the Du Pont Circle townhouse he’d shared with his daughters for two decades; his Washington apartment next door to the Peterson House, where he had taken testimony in shorthand while President Lincoln died; and the magnificent Pension Building (now the National Building Museum), where he had worked briefly as Commissioner of Pensions.  This last summer I drove to within one or two hundred yards of the spot on the Manassas Battlefield where he’d been wounded; visited the Virginia Theological Seminary, where he had been treated at an army hospital for several weeks; and Arlington National Seminary, where he and several members of his family are buried near a rustic amphitheater that was recently renamed after him (see below).

tanner-2                tanner-1

My low-level stalking of a long-dead old soldier was a personal attempt to get closer to the Corporal. Although I do feel I got to know the “legless corporal” fairly well—he was a shrewd, funny, outgoing man—I also wondered if the persona that emerged from the public documents, newspaper articles, speeches, and bits of memoirs revealed the “real” Tanner. Thanks to Mr. Fitzpatrick, I now have a few more hints as to the kind of guy Tanner was, and more information about the kind of people who admired him.

James Marten is chair of the MU history department. His two most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2012) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2013).

The Law, the Blog, and the Historian

By Alan Ball

I started a blog on the Wisconsin Supreme Court a few years ago at the urging of my wife, an appellate lawyer whose career has ranged through both the civil and criminal fields. Apparently, no one had been providing statistical studies of the Wisconsin Supreme Court of the sort created by SCOTUSblog about the United States Supreme Court, and it was suggested—“even you could do this”—that I have a try.  For my part, this seemed like an interesting change of pace as well as a challenge, so I enrolled in a statistics class here at Marquette during my last sabbatical and launched SCOWstats—SCOW standing for Supreme Court of Wisconsin—(www.scowstats.com).

scotusNow, a few years later, I’m still finding my way in some respects, but the response to the blog has been sufficiently encouraging to maintain my enthusiasm for the project. From time to time, Journal Sentinel reporters have relied heavily or entirely on SCOWstats posts for articles of their own, and SCOWstats has been the subject of articles in such publications as Milwaukee Magazine and Minnesota Lawyer.1  Other groups and publications across the ideological spectrum have circulated SCOWstats posts as well, most often via Twitter, though also by means of links to SCOWstats on their own sites.  SCOWstats “followers” include the Federalist Society, the Wisconsin Law Journal, and the State Bar of Wisconsin (whose “Inside Track” publication has drawn on SCOWstats posts for appraisals of recently-concluded supreme court terms). For someone like me, accustomed to the extended gestation period of scholarly volumes, the pace of creation, and especially response, has been exciting.

Along with highlighting SCOWstats overviews of supreme-court terms, the Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Bar’s publications have cited posts on such issues as the voting patterns of justices in Fourth-Amendment cases, the question of whether the late Justice Crooks really was a “swing vote,” the degree of polarization among the justices, and the dramatic decline in the number of decisions filed in recent years. Most encouraging of all have been the opinions written by Supreme Court Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley that included citations to SCOWstats in support of their arguments.

From the outset, an important goal has been to provide readers and myself with a sense of how unusual—or not—the voting and other behavior of the justices might be. Initially I sought to furnish some perspective by comparing the performance of current justices with that of their colleagues in earlier decades, and with this aim in mind I plan to continue pushing farther back into the court’s past.  However, I’ve also begun to explore other vantage points from which to assess the work of the justices in Madison, which has led me most recently to weighing the work of the Wisconsin Supreme Court against that of supreme courts in neighboring states.  To this end, the first of two posts comparing Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin appeared in September, with the second planned for publication in October.  I’m hoping that in the months to come I will have time to expand this spectrum to include the supreme courts of other states.

In the more distant future, I’d like to do something regarding sentencing disparities for various ethnic groups. Although this would have a less direct connection to the supreme court, the present Chief Justice has commented on the topic, and that could serve as a sufficiently-green light for me.  I’m also thinking that during my next sabbatical, I’d take a formal class or two on coding to supplement (that is, eclipse) my current rudimentary knowledge.  If nothing else, this would be a stimulating challenge, and it could equip me to do more with the visual side of the project.

Meanwhile, SCOWstats is sponsoring a fantasy league in which teams of law firms gain points based on the frequency of their appearances before the justices and their degree of success in representing their clients.  Now that our inaugural season is in the books following this summer’s (virtual) awards banquet, I’m sure that the Wisconsin legal community is anxiously awaiting the Selection Committee’s winter meeting, when the rosters for the 2017 season will be determined.

1 Matt Hrodey, “The Truth on Trials. A Historian’s Unique Perspective” Milwaukee Magazine, July, 2015; Mike Mosedale, “Report: High Courts in Minnesota, Wisconsin a Study in Contrasts,” Minnesota Lawyer, July 7, 2016.

Alan Ball is professor of history at Marquette University. He teaches course on Russian and Soviet history and on the Cold War.  He is author of Russia’s Last Capitalists: The Nepmen, 1921-1929 (1987); And Now My Soul Is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia, 1918-1930 (1994); and Imagining America: Influence and Images in Twentieth-Century Russia (2003).

Renewing, Revising, and Reviving: The Scholars’ Workshop

By Bryan C. Rindfleisch

Our colleague, Bryan Rindfleisch, was one of just six non-tenured historians who had the opportunity to join the Omohundro Institute for Early American History & Culture this summer to institutework on his manuscript. The Omohundro is a think-tank for scholars of early America, based out of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Over the course of a month, Rindfleisch workshopped his manuscript – which focuses on the intimate dimensions of family, community, and power/colonialism in the Native South, British Empire, and Atlantic World in the eighteenth-century – with the Omohundro historians and staff. The following blog is a reflection on his time at the Omohundro: http://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/reflections-omohundro-institutes-lapidus-scholars-workshop/


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 61 other followers