CSI: American History

 “were they taken by the sickness
were they hunted down like scum
was there poison in the water
was it cholera or murder”

So ponders the haunting lyrics in the song “Duffy’s Cut,” which tells the tale of Irish laborers who came to Philadelphia in 1832, only to die months later during a cholera outbreak. While many of the details are unknown, the general story is that 57 Irish immigrants were hired off the ship John Stamp by fellow Irishman Philip Duffy to work on mile 59 of the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in Chester County. But while the official record states that only 9 men died, local stories maintained that all 57 had perished, under sinister circumstances.

More than 150 years later, a team at Immaculata University is working to uncover the mysteries of Duffy’s Cut. The ongoing project has already dug up several bodies, which possess blunt force and projectile wounds which suggest that not all of them died from sickness. Although the whole story of Duffy’s Cut remains unclear, one prevailing theory the team has developed is that when cholera broke out among the 57 laborers, locals murdered the rest to make sure the disease did not spread.

Last week, Jim Kopaczewski and I got the opportunity to visit Immaculata and meet with Dr. William Watson, who along with his brother Frank is the leader of the Duffy’s Cut Project. In fact, the project got started when the Watsons were going through old documents from their grandfather, an executive assistant at the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Dr. Watson shared with us the history of Duffy’s Cut as well as stories about the vast project. He showed us artifacts and even drove us to the site, eerily in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

Not only did Dr. Watson tell stories about the fascinating yet mysterious history of the site, but he shared insight about the challenges a project like this can entail. As students of history, we tend to think about the men and women we research as long-removed from the present-day. But that is not the case when you want to dig up their bodies, as the project had to cooperate with local law enforcement and legal officials. Fortunately, Dr. Watson said that the Malvern area has a large Irish-American population, so, with a few exceptions, they had the community’s support. This came in handy when getting permission to dig in the neighborhood, though there has been much more red tape on the portion of the land still owned by AMTRAK. Even getting the historical marker had its political frustrations, though with the support of local politicians and organizations the marker was finally approved in 2004.

                                                                    The New York Times

Progress on the Duffy’s Cut Project has been exciting. Of the original bodies already dug up, one has been identified as eighteen year old John Ruddy. The Watsons were invited to return the remains to Ireland, where through DNA testing they even found present-day members of the Ruddy family. They also identified a second body, a woman, who they hope to return to Ireland in the near future. The rest of the bodies were buried in a Pennsylvania cemetery. Furthermore, Watson believes they found the burial site of the rest of the bodies. Though the site is on AMTRAK property, they hope to run tests on the soil soon.

The mass grave at Duffy’s Cut serves as a grim reminder of the challenges Irish laborers faced in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. Except for a local blacksmith and nuns from Philadelphia, these laborers were denied care, and it appears even murdered to prevent the spread of disease. Buried in an unmarked grave, the records were altered and hidden to hide the deaths of dozens of immigrants who had been in the United State less than a year. But hopefully the project directed by Dr. Watson and Immaculata University can continue to shed light on the laborers of Duffy’s Cut and help us understand history of ethnicity and labor in the United States.

To learn more about the Duffy’s Cut Project, check out their website, which also includes images and videos.


The Lighter Side

Historians are well aware that their discipline faces many troubling problems. The dismal state of the academic job market. The abysmal lack of knowledge of American history by the nation’s own citizens. Being constantly reminded of these things by our non-historian friends.

But there is a problem more daunting than any of these. I’m talking, of course, about the never-ending nature of our discipline. While each day brings clarity and understanding to the scientific community, it provides us with only more events to analyze and master.

For future generations of students, this is what the American History since 1865 textbook will look like.

This realization brings hope that historians will always be needed. But what kind of Sisyphean existence will it entail?

Read more here.

Thanks to Dr. Giesberg for sharing the article.

William Sherman Continues to Play Mind Games on the South

This weekend, the Georgia Historical Society and the Georgia Battlefields Association erected a plaque to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” The brief passage on the plaque explains that Sherman’s men, who attacked both the ability and the will of the Southern people to wage war, “demoralized Confederates, hastening the end of slavery and the reunification of the nation.”

March to the Sea Historic Marker, erected in commemoration of the 150th Anniversary (The New York Times)

But the details that are coming under scrutiny among Southern communities are the explicit claims that Sherman’s army “only destroyed property used for waging war,” and specifically state that they did not target residential areas. Such assertions fly in the face of the collective Southern memory of the past 150 years, of “Billy the Torch” ravaging the South, destroying house and home.

A recent piece in The New York Times examines the struggles over Sherman’s memory, exacerbated recently by the Sesquicentennial and the erection of the marker. The article looks at how recent scholarship has been more favorable to Sherman. Historians are defending his actions against the public memory which has prevailed for generations. But while some seek to justify Sherman’s actions, others criticize such efforts as attempts to whitewash history. Stephen Davis, author of What the Yankees Did to Us: Sherman’s Bombardment and Wrecking of Atlanta, claimed that such men and women were “bending over backward to give Sherman a whitewash that he does not deserve.”

The article is thought-provoking, especially in light of Dr. Rubin’s talk a few weeks ago. How powerful (and reliable) is historical memory? In her talk, Dr. Rubin also suggested that Sherman’s army targeted primarily the facets of war. She added that his legacy has been vilified in Southern memory, due in no small part to Gone with the Wind, which the article also suggests. But Dr. Rubin also commented on the reliability of memory. She cited stories with questionable details, and others which could not have possibly happened. This is not to say that southern vilification of Sherman is unjustified, but perhaps the memory of “Billy the Torch” is tarnished by memories not completely based in fact.

For the past few years, the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War has allowed (or in some cases forced) us to revisit and reconsider the legacy and memory of the conflict. In the case of Sherman’s March to the Sea, one of the most controversial moments in our nation’s history, the Sesquicentennial has brought out both defenders and detractors. How do we balance memory with trying to uncover historical truths? In the case of such momentous events like Sherman’s March, is it possible to separate the two?

Anne Rubin Discusses the Legacy of Sherman’s March, the Future of Digital History

On Wednesday, October 22, Historian Anne Sarah Rubin gave a talk at Villanova on Sherman’s famous (or infamous) March to the Sea and African American memory. Her talk stemmed from a chapter in her new book, Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory, which coincides with the upcoming 150th anniversary of the March.

In her talk, Dr. Rubin focused on the memories of African Americans of the March, a group often left out of the legacy of the momentous event which hastened the end of the war at the expense of tremendous destruction to Southern communities. By looking at records of African American experiences of Sherman’s March, most notably Works Progress Administration interviews of former slaves conducted in the 1930s, she found that Sherman was not unilaterally hailed as a great emancipator, spreading freedom on his march through the Confederate states.

To be sure, Sherman’s Army was a catalyst for the destruction of slavery in the areas through which it marched. But Rubin argued that Sherman tended to tolerate emancipation more than he embraced it. While some memories of the WPA interviewees tie Sherman to freedom, many more detailed his cruelty. Much like the memories of Southern whites, African American men and women remembered Sherman destroying property, and, more importantly, confiscating food that could have gone to their families. Rubin also described Sherman’s disdain for any African American families (not including young, single men who the Army could put to work) who sought to follow the marching army.

1868 depiction of Sherman’s March to the Sea (Library of Congress)

One striking instance of Sherman’s disregard for fleeing African Americans was a December 1864 incident at Ebenezer Creek in Georgia. Seeking to escape approaching Confederate cavalry, one of Sherman’s officers ordered the construction of pontoon bridges across the water. But after they crossed, the Union soldiers disassembled the bridges, condemning hundreds of African American families to death either by drowning or from the Confederates. While Sherman did not give the order personally, he did not condemn it either.

Indeed, Sherman’s now-famous order of “40 acres and a mule,” Rubin argued, was not an altruistic action, but rather a utilitarian move, both a response to outrage over the Ebenezer Creek incident and a means to prevent more African Americans from following his army in the future. The failed implementation of this order only added to the anger of African Americans during Reconstruction and beyond. Much of this anger was directed at Sherman.

Overall Dr. Rubin’s talk was a thought-provoking look at the legacy of Sherman’s March. She explored the nuances of Sherman’s ambivalence toward emancipation, and how even if he delivered freedom to thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of slaves, his legacy is tied just as much (if not more so) with the destruction he wrought in the South.

Her talk also provoked questions about the power, but also the risks, of memory. In thinking about the former slaves telling their stories to WPA interviewers, how have emotions changed in seventy years? Moreover, Rubin found false memories, things that did not actually happen. How do incorrect details influence the usefulness of the memories themselves?

In conjunction with Through the Heart of Dixie, Dr. Rubin is also developing a website tracing Sherman’s March and highlighting important areas from the memories of both soldiers and civilians, and even landmarks in tourism and fiction. Following the lecture, she joined Dr. Giesberg and several graduate students for a discussion on the process and prospects of digital history. She predicted that the prospect of a legitimate digital history project taking an equal place with a dissertation or book in traditional scholarship is still a ways off, but found that historians are increasingly using digital tools to practice their craft. While she admitted that she is no computer expert, her experiences with digital tools have allowed her to develop a working understanding of the basics, or enough to know what questions to ask, as she put it. Her advice was to dive in and experiment. Once you are comfortable in knowing that you cannot irreparably break anything, playing around with tools such as WordPress is a great way to begin incorporating digital tools into historical study.

Students discuss digital history with Dr. Rubin. (photo by Dr. Judy Giesberg)

Students discuss digital history with Dr. Rubin. (photo by Dr. Judy Giesberg)

Special thanks to Dr. Rubin for a great talk on Sherman’s March and a thought-provoking discussion on Digital History. It is safe to say that the University owes her an appointment with Sherman’s coat once they get it back from the Union League.

Anne Sarah Rubin is an Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Digital History and Education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. You can check out her website here.

Her website, Sherman’s March and America: Mapping Memory is set for a full launch in mid-November.

Joe Biden, He’s the Assistant President Right?

Last week, influenced by the events in Colorado I wondered if it was possible to offer unbiased history education in schools.

This week I find myself willing to accept any form of history and civics education in classrooms.

After a visit from Vice President Joe Biden upset traffic, Jimmy Kimmel took to the streets to see if Americans actually knew who Joe Biden was. These types of things are nothing new (think back to Jay Leno’s Jaywalking), but each new edition is no less frustrating to watch.

In high school, my U.S. History and later U.S. Government teacher used to end class every Friday with a General Information Quiz, a test of current events and random trivia. While the exercise was for fun, he was also testing us to see, as he put it, who paid attention to the world around them and who wandered the streets with a cloud around his or her head. Sadly, the people in this video fall into the latter category, quite literally the case for the guy who admitted to being high as a kite.

I am aware that when groups do these sorts of things it takes many tries to find the people who give such terrible answers. But as someone who advocates the importance of history and civics education, should I be alarmed?

A few weeks ago I got stuck on I-95 when they shut the highway down for Joe Biden’s visit to Philadelphia. I was no less mad than anyone else. But at least I knew who I was mad at.

Breaking News: Some High School Students Care About History!

This week students in Jefferson County, Colorado, staged protests over changes to the United States History Curriculum proposed by the School Board. According to The Denver Post, the recently elected board is seeking to promote the “positive aspects” of the nation’s history while deemphasizing “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

Here is the stipulation causing the outrage, which calls for a review committee to oversee and report on the United States History Curriculum:

Review criteria shall include the following: instructional materials should present the most current factual information accurately and objectively. Theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in history should present balanced and factual treatment of the positions.

Protesting students and teachers are criticizing the proposal as an attempt to whitewash history. They have also taken to Twitter, using #JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory to poke fun at the implications of the new proposal (my personal favorite: “Roe vs. Wade was about the best way to cross a river”). Instead, the students are demanding a more complete story of American history, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Or as Oliver Cromwell supposedly said, “warts and all.” (Wikimedia Commons)

Of course, concerns about political influences in education are nothing new. Last year I particularly liked the frantic claims that Common Core was indoctrinating a generation of Communists or Nazis.

But events like the protests in Colorado raise important questions about the nature of history education and the role political ideologies should play in school curricula. The United States isn’t perfect (I’m Cherokee, I should know), and in an ideal world, why shouldn’t students be exposed to the complete story of American History (or world, European, etc.)?

I understand the desire of the School Board to emphasize what makes America great, and I think it is important to encourage patriotism and national pride. But is it not just as important, if not more so, to promote civic responsibility? Rather than telling their students that America is the best, or America is the devil, shouldn’t we be able to count on teachers to lay the cards on the table and teach their students to form their own opinions based on facts and informed interpretation?

In middle school history I remember having to debate from the Southern perspective on why slavery was a good thing; in high school I had to write an essay on why George Washington was a lousy military commander. At Notre Dame I attended a heated discussion by two scholars (both priests, adding an extra element of intrigue) who debated whether dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was the right decision. All three were valuable exercises in considering alternative arguments and respecting historical viewpoints in context. Not everyone is going to grow up to study history, but shouldn’t everyone be able to consider both sides of an argument and form an informed opinion on their own?

Am I being too idealistic? Is it possible for educators and administrators to leave politics at the door? The Denver Post recently reported that the School Board is revisiting their proposed changes, so while perhaps there is hope, this remains an ongoing issue that cannot be ignored.

This might be a divisive issue. But to conclude, can we all agree that it is a pleasant surprise that there are high school students who actually care about history?

WWII – A war that saved the publishing industry?

As students of history, we are all well acquainted with books. And lots of them. Just look at the boxes of books that used to be scattered across my room before I was told that that was an “unacceptable way to live.” I have since gotten shelves.

But I digress. The point is that the world of books is second-nature to us. But do we have World War II to thank for that?

An American serviceman stationed in Iceland relaxes with a book. (United States Army)

That is the argument Yoni Appelbaum, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University, makes in his new article for The Atlantic, “Publishers Gave Away 122,951,031 Books During World War II (And, in the Process, They Created a Nation of Readers.)” (I assure you, he spent more time on the article than he did coming up with a title).

According to Appelbaum, prior to World War II, “proper” books (excluding cheap westerns or mystery novels) were limited to hardcover and beyond the means of the middle class. But when war broke out, publishers, led by W.W. Norton, recognized an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. By sending millions of copies of their best works to soldiers overseas, publishers not only did a patriotic service to the United States, but they created a new cohort of readers who would buy books upon coming home. This boom in book purchasing, Appelbaum contends, was also bolstered by the new acceptance of  paperback books stemming from the widespread use of GI copies during the war.

Appelbaum suggests that the publishers’ gamble paid off. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example, went from being a non-seller to a staple of high school English classes due to its popularity among the troops.

So it seems that making the United States a nation of book owners is yet another thing we have to thank the Greatest Generation for. Or curse them I guess, depending on how much you like to read. 

It is easy to think about how war changes political environments. But articles like these provoke other questions about how war changes society in other, perhaps more subtle, ways.