July 11, 2012
On July 11, 1864, Lieut. Gen. Jubal Early stood contemplating the outline of the Capitol on the horizon as he prepared to launch an attack on Washington, D.C. The Confederate army had suffered a series of losses and Early was left with an exhausted but determined army looking to claim a significant victory. Remembered as the only time a president has ever been shot at in combat, The Battle of Fort Stevens is typically recalled as a small skirmish, if recalled at all. But it was a moment of panic for the Union as federal workers awaiting reinforcements were forced to arm themselves against invading troops.
The small plot of land where Fort Stevens stood is fewer than five miles from the White House, but it is easy to overlook. Historian David C. Ward of the National Portrait Gallery admits he has yet to visit. “I was looking at the map and the aerial views and it’s right down the road,” says Ward, “And I’ve never been!”
Though the two-day campaign seems inconsequential compared to other Civil War engagements, it was an electrifying shock to the Union at the time.
“It’s a huge scare for the Union,” explains Ward. “The Union strategy had always been that you have to protect the capital and they always had a lot of troops stationed here. Lincoln and the politicians were very fearful about leaving the capital unguarded.”
Early and his troops spent the night in Silver Spring, drinking stolen wine and anticipating the next day’s events. But when morning came, so did the steamboats of veteran Union soldiers. Early’s brief window to catch the capital unprepared, armed only with a ragtag team of convalescences and panicked federal workers, had passed.
According to Thomas A. Lewis writing for Smithsonian magazine in 1988, “The citizens of Washington regained their courage. Ladies and gentlemen of society and rank declared a holiday and swarmed out to picnic and cheer the intrepid defenders.”
Among those watching the battle unfold firsthand were Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.
Ward describes the incredibly odd incident saying, “There’s something a little bit supernatural about the fact that, at 6’4″, Lincoln goes and stands on top of the Fort’s wall and comes under fire.” He didn’t even remove his conspicuous top hat.
“I think he feels this responsibility to see what he’s ordering other men to experience,” says Ward.
It was Union General Horatio Wright who offhandedly invited the president to get a closer look and he later wrote, “The absurdity of the idea of sending off the President under guard seemed to amuse him.”
In the end, Lincoln was unharmed and the Union won. Total numbers of those injured or killed is estimated at 874, according to the American Battlefield Protection Program.
“What would have happened if Early had been more aggressive or the Union hadn’t gotten decent troops?” Ward speculates that the Confederate troops wouldn’t have been able to hold the city but that a symbolic victory like that could have had disproportionate consequences. It would likely have cost Lincoln the election, says Ward, and, called into question the entire war.
Fort Stevens is now just a corner of grass shaded by a neighboring church. Lewis wrote after visiting the site, “I was greeted by a couple hundred feet of eroding breastworks and concrete replicas of a half-dozen gun platforms, awash in fast-food wrappers and broken glass.”
The National Park Service is currently overseeing a much-needed renovation for the battle’s approaching 150th anniversary. NPS also offers audio tours of Fort Stevens and other historic sites for download.
July 9, 2012
Tuesday, July 10 Is This Art?
“My kid could do that,” is a common accusation flung at works of modern and contemporary art. So why isn’t the genius of “Billy, age 4″ decorating the white walls of MoMA? Defining art is, at times, a tense debate: what to a critic is groundbreaking is to an audience member inert. To make matters more complicated, artists including Duchamp and Warhol have reveled in the very non-art status of their art. Whether you’ve already chosen a side or are still fuzzy on the artistic merits of a urinal, the American Art Museum is hosting a facilitated, open discussion to help clear things up. Bring Billy. 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. Free. American Art Museum, Lincoln Gallery.
Wednesday, July 11 Handi-hour
Though few of us still use snail mail, none can deny that it is far more exciting to receive a handwritten letter than a typed up email. Colorful fonts and closing quotes aside, emails just don’t have the aesthetic appeal of the real deal. Revive the dying mail arts and craft to your heart’s content while catching up on correspondence with the Postal Museum’s handi-hour. Brad Pugh of Practically Einstein provides the music and Churchkey/Birch and Barley provide the beer. 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. $20 cash-only at the door (entry, two drink tickets, snacks and crafting materials), ages 21 and older. Renwick Gallery.
Thursday, July 12 Jeff Shaara on the Battle of Shiloh
The Civil War sesquicentennial fever is in full swing here at the Smithsonian. As part of a lecture series on the historic event, author Jeff Shaara will discuss the 1862 Battle of Shiloh. After writing 11 bestsellers of historical fiction, Shaara focuses on this battle in his most recent novel, A Blaze of Glory. The Battle of Shiloh went down in history as one of the bloodiest in the Civil War and provided a Union victory in the Western theater. Shaara approaches it from a less conventional perspective, incorporating junior officers and conscripts into the narrative. Our own Smithsonian blog reports that it was after this battle that soldiers reported “glow-in-the-dark wounds.” 6:45 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. $40. Museum of Natural History, Baird Auditorium.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
June 28, 2012
This past weekend’s release of the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter raises the question of how other American presidents might have dealt with monsters and conspiracy theories. Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of the National Museum of American History’s Division of Political History, fields questions posed by Smithsonian magazine editorial intern Kat J. McAlpine.
In the event that the United States was attacked by an army of zombies, which president would best direct a defensive military campaign?
I think if it was a small, local uprising, a young Andrew Jackson would lead the campaign. As a frontier fighter, he would do a good job. His frontier experience, battle-tested organization skills and abilities proven during his defense of New Orleans in the War of 1812 showed him to be a strong military leader with the ability to rally a band of people. However, it is young, pre-presidential Jackson that would do well against a zombie uprising; when he was the president, he would have been too old to lead a battle against zombies.
On the other hand, if it was a large, international-scale zombie uprising, the best for the job would be Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower had extensive military experience and was responsible for the organization of D-Day and other military campaigns of World War II, which would put him in good stead to defend Americans against a zombie invasion.
What personality traits, personal strengths or abilities did Abraham Lincoln possess that would have made him a skilled vampire hunter?
I don’t really think of Lincoln as a vampire hunter, to be honest. He grew up on the frontier, so he was used to operating in the wilderness and he possessed a sharp, cunning mind. But Lincoln was not a very militaristic kind of individual. He sought to avoid conflicts and personal fights. There were a number of cases when he got into wrestling matches to demonstrate his toughness and to impress people, but he didn’t go looking for that kind of conflict. In those respects, he’s not the vampire slayer I imagine.
Someone who would go out and seek that kind of adventure and defense, and the character that colleagues have suggested to me – that’s Teddy Roosevelt. When he was a cowboy out in Dakota he hunted outlaws; he carried a big stick so to speak. Roosevelt was adventure seeking, looking for conflict, a real rough and ready type of character. He would make a more predictable vampire hunter.
What about Roosevelt vs. Sasquatch? Would he put up the best presidential fight in a scuffle with bigfoot?
Roosevelt was a sportsman and a hunter, he went to Africa looking for game and he was a well-known hunter in this country. He was a member of the Harvard boxing club. I think in some ways, however, if it was just a conflict between a president and the abominable snowman, this might be where Lincoln would shine. Lincoln was known as such a tough wrestler, known for hand-to-hand combat, frontier style.
We’ve talked about presidents who could take on monsters, but have there been any presidents who were monsters themselves? Werewolves in the White House?
I’ve consulted some of my colleagues and they suggest that there seems to be a trend that’s developed since World War II – none of the presidents have had facial hair. I’m not making a claim that this might be a conspiracy, but it does raise a question of why they have all chosen to strike a hairless appearance. Going on facial hair alone, you have to look at Hayes, Carter, Harrison and Garfield. And Van Buren with those mutton chops – could something have been going on? But these are just observations, we have no evidence.
And what about the creation of monsters? Were any of the presidents smart enough to have built a Frankenstein-esque creature?
Thomas Jefferson was our inventor president, dabbling in the sciences. While he was busy making different kinds of simple chairs and desks, if he was challenged to create a new man – he was active in imagining a new nation – I think he would have been up for the task. And the other, although a little bit harder to imagine, is Jimmy Carter. He was somewhat of a scientist, although he was more of a reformer than interested in making things anew. The real Frankenstein builder in some ways may very well have been Jefferson.
So what about unearthly creatures? All these conspiracy theories fly around about the government concealing information about UFOs and extraterrestrials. Which president is most likely to have made contact with an alien from another world?
I have no discernible evidence that a president has ever made contact with aliens, but in terms of which president would seek it out or embrace it – there’s a number of them. Thomas Jefferson, a man of enlightenment, would embrace the idea of intelligence around the universe. He definitely sought out minds with different opinions and ideas, so I believe he would embrace wanting to have that contact. Many internationalists would feel the same way, but out of the early American presidents, Jefferson sticks out.
In more modern presidencies, I’d have to say that Bill Clinton has always tended to engage people from different backgrounds. He might find the whole idea of extraterrestrial contact very intriguing, while others might be fearful.
What about threats from those hidden among us? Have any U.S. presidents been members of secret, conspiratorial organizations?
I think there is a lot more evidence that, yes – could you say they are involved in large organizations with secret aspects to them, with agents around the country, conspiring together to obtain power and put themselves in a leadership position of the nation? I think you could say all of the presidents have done that.
That’s what political parties are all about. It’s people organizing for political power, or for their point of view. The idea that there is something more powerful than agents, who are actively spending time working on their political base, is both silly and just competitive. Wherever people are gathering together, they are organizing and building support for what they believe in – but there is a quality to all political parties that is secretive and national; you could treat it as a conspiracy. They are conspiring.
February 7, 2012
Our inquisitive readers are rising to the challenge we gave them last month. The questions are pouring in and we’re ready for more. Do you have any questions for our curators? Submit your questions here.
How much is the Hope Diamond worth? — Marjorie Mathews, Silver Spring, Maryland
That’s the most popular question we get, but we don’t really satisfy people by giving them a number. There are a number of answers, but the best one is that we honestly don’t know. It’s a little bit like Liz Taylor’s jewels being sold in December—all kinds of people guessed at what they would sell for, but everybody I know was way off. Only when those pieces were opened up to bidding at a public auction could you find out what their values were. When they were sold, then at least for that day and that night you could say, well, they were worth that much. The Hope Diamond is kind of the same way, but more so. There’s simply nothing else like it. So how do you put a value on the history, on the fact it’s been here on display for over 50 years and a few hundred million people have seen it, and on that fact it’s a rare blue diamond on top of everything else? You don’t. – Jeffrey E. Post, mineralogist, National Museum of Natural History
What’s the worst impact of ocean acidification so far?- Nancy Schaefer, Virginia Beach, Virginia
The impacts of ocean acidification are really just starting to be felt, but two big reports that came out in 2011 show that it could have very serious effects on coral reefs. These studies did not measure the warming effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but rather its effect of making the ocean more acidic when it dissolves in the ocean. Places where large amounts of carbon dioxide seep into the water from the sea floor provide a natural experiment and show us how ocean waters might look, say, 50 or 100 years from now. Both studies showed branching, lacy, delicate coral forms are likely to disappear, and with them that kind of three-dimensional complexity so many species depend on. Also, other species that build a stony skeleton or shell, such as oysters or mussels, are likely to be affected. This happens because acidification makes carbonate ions, which these species need for their skeletons, less abundant.
Nancy Knowlton, marine biologist
National Museum of Natural History
Art and artifacts from ancient South Pacific and Pacific Northwest tribes have similarities in form and function. Is it possible that early Hawaiians caught part of the Kuroshio Current of the North Pacific Gyre to end up along the northwest coast of America from northern California to Alaska? — April Amy Croan, Maple Valley, Washington
Those similarities have given rise to various theories, including trans-Pacific navigation, independent drifts of floating artifacts, inadvertent crossings by ships that have lost their rudders or rigging, or whales harpooned in one area that died or were captured in a distant place. Some connections are well-known, like feather garment fragments found in an archaeological site in Southeast Alaska that appear to have been brought there by whaling ships that had stopped in the Hawaiian Islands, a regular route for 19th-century whalers. Before the period of European contact, the greatest similarities are with the southwest Pacific, not Hawaii. The Kushiro current would have facilitated Asian coastal contacts with northwestern North America, but would not have helped Hawaiians. The problem of identification is one of context, form and dating. Most of the reported similarities are either out of their original context (which can’t be reconstructed), or their form is not specific enough to relate to another area’s style, or the date of creation cannot be established. To date there is no acceptable proof for South Pacific-Northwest Coast historical connections that predates the European whaling era, except for links that follow the coastal region of the North Pacific into Alaska.
William Fitzhugh, archeologist
Natural History Museum
May 2, 2011
As we continue our four-year-long coverage of the Civil War, highlighting the exhibitions and events around the Smithsonian Institution that commemorate the seminal moments of the war during this, its sesquicentennial, the ATM blog team focuses our attention today on the death of Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth, the first union officer to die in that conflict. A new exhibition opened over the weekend at the National Portrait Gallery, “The Death of Ellsworth.”
Colonel Ellsworth (1837-1861), described as a “promising young Union officer,” was born in Malta, New York, and, early on, had aspirations of becoming a professional solider. Unable to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, Ellsworth took a circuitous route to military service, during which he studied law and military science, commanded the United States Zouave Cadets and made the acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln when Ellsworth worked on his presidential campaign.
A friendship blossomed between the two men and when Ellsworth heard President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 state militia on April 15, 1861, he went to New York City to recruit volunteers. Ellsworth soon became colonel of an untrained and undisciplined new regiment, the Eleventh New York Volunteer Infantry, which was eventually sent to Virginia as part of the Union advance there. Upon arriving in Virginia, Ellsworth saw a Confederate flag flying over the Marshall House and went with some men to remove it. As he climbed down the stairs with the flag, the innkeeper, James W. Jackson, came forward and shot Ellsworth, killing him.
Ellsworth’s death marked the first Union casualty of the Civil War. The incident, which the writer Owen Edwards says has largely been forgotten, is remembered and explored this month at the National Portrait Gallery.
“The death of Ellsworth was a tragic harbinger for the nation at large, which would lose more than 620,000 soldiers in the four year long conflict,” says James Barber, a National Portrait Gallery historian and curator of the exhibit. “Now at the start of war’s sesquicentennial, Ellsworth’s story is remembered nationally, locally, and here at the Smithsonian, which preserves several historic artifacts now on display.”
See the exhibition “The Death of Ellsworth” at the National Portrait Gallery through March 18, 2012.