Sunday, January 27, 2013

Connecting to Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre National Historic Site

Few American presidents capture our imagination or have risen to such mythic proportions as President Abraham Lincoln. From his humble beginnings in a log cabin on the frontier of Kentucky, to his leadership during the darkest hours of the Civil War, his determination to hold the Union together during such a bloody conflict was, and is still, inspiring to so many of us. His legacy is counted through countless events including the Emancipation Proclamation and the eventual passage of the 13th amendment to abolish slavery. And sadly, one of President Lincoln’s most enduring legacies was his tragic assassination, becoming the first American President to be killed while in office.

Ford's Theatre
Although countless monuments, memorials, and museums celebrate his place in our nation’s history, none connect visitors to President Lincoln’s legacy quite like Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site serves as a place where the violent events of April 14-15, 1865 can be experienced almost first hand. 

The Presidential Box
Three key pieces make up this experience at the National Historic Site. First, there is Ford’s Theatre.  The historic shell of the building is all that truly remains of the actual theatre that President Lincoln attended on that fateful night in April. But, the interior was painstakingly rebuilt in the 1960’s to the exact detail during President Lincoln’s lifetime. The presidential box, where President Lincoln sat, is eerily identical to the grainy black and white images taken of the box following the assassination. From crown molding to historic paint colors, walking into Ford's Theatre is like being transported back in time.

Another piece to this immersive experience is the National Historic Site’s museum collection on display in the Theatre’s basement. This exhibit space houses one-of-a-kind artifacts associated with President Lincoln, his assassination, and the conspirators.  A lot of these artifacts were collected as evidence by the War Department following the assassination, and include the infamous Dillinger gun used by John Wilkes Booth. 

Sign at the Petersen Boarding House

Petersen House
The third and final piece is across 10th Street, at the Peterson Boarding House, the house where Lincoln Died.  This is the actual house where Lincoln was carried, and later died, after the fatal shot. The house quickly became a national shrine and place of pilgrimage - and little has changed since April 15, 1865. Like the different pieces of evidence in a murder mystery novel, all three pieces of this National Historic Site connect the visitor not only to the tragic story of President Lincoln’s death, but to the places where these historic events unfolded.

It is estimated that over 15,000 books have been written about Lincoln. Countless movies from the recent Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter to the more critically acclaimed Lincoln continue to keep Hollywood occupied. Despite all these efforts to bring the story of President Lincoln to life, nothing comes close to the personal connections and experiences one can make during a trip to Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. 

Remembering the War of 1812, River Raisin National Battlefield Park

River Raisin Battlefield

Ever hear of The Star Spangled Banner, Old Iron Sides, 
Old Hickory, and “Don’t Give Up the Ship?”  

For a war that gave us so many famous and influential  moments of our National identity, it is surprising that the War of 1812 has been referred to by many historians as the Forgotten War. With the bicentennial celebration in full swing, it is a great time to rediscover this Forgotten War and visit a War of 1812 historic site. 

And what better place to start than the River Raisin National Battlefield Park in the Old Northwest. 

Banks of the River Raisin
Located just south of Detroit, River Raisin National Battlefield Park is one of the newest additions to the national park system. It is hard to believe that Michigan was once the site of an international battle for global supremacy, but it was! This war pitted American, British, French, Canadian, and Native American forces against each other in a struggle for control of the destiny of North America. 

In the small community of Frenchtown on the banks of the River Raisin, these forces met in what would become the bloodiest battle of the War of 1812.

Battle Flags
On January 18, 1813, militia troops for the U.S. clashed with British forces from Canada at Frenchtown. This battle ended on the same day with a surprising American victory. Four days after their defeat, the British launched a counter attack with their Native American allies and recaptured Frenchtown.

Following the battles of the River Raisin, American wounded were violently slaughtered by these native American forces in the style of the bloody no-quarters warfare that often took place on the American frontier. The battles and their aftermath resulted in the largest number of American fatalities during the War of 1812. These events lead to the American rallying cry, “Remember the Raisin” which could be heard on future battlefields around the Great Lakes.

Skirmish Line 
As Michigan transformed from a frontier outpost into a highly industrialized state, the significance of Frenchtown faded from  public consciousness. 200 years of industrialization took its toll on this historic site which saw the birth of Monroe, Michigan further down river and the construction of a paper mill on this hallowed ground. It was not until recently that historians, community leaders and archeologist rallied to “remember the raisin” once more.

Park Visitor Center
Led by a grass roots effort, this battlefield was reclaimed, the paper mill torn down, and a campaign began to have the site declared a National Park. 
Slowly its burred history was brought back to life. 

The site became a national park in 2009 and entered the system as River Raisin National Battlefield Park. This new park unit will ensure the events of the battle their rightful place in American history while honoring the sacrifices made by those who fought and died on the banks of the River Raisin.   

Sled Cannon

Peeling the Orange, Learning more about Florida Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

Saint John's River Estuary 

When thinking about the history of Florida, my mind often wanders to images of Spanish conquistadors roaming through swamps in search of the fountain of youth and other treasures. Saint Augustine comes to mind as well with Spanish Galleons full of sunken treasure sitting just off the coast. 

Few people think of La Florida and the early attempts of French colonists to lay claim to this area of the New World. Luckily, Fort Caroline National Monument, within the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, provides an opportunity to discover and explore this uniquely different history of the sunshine state. 

Recreated Timucuan Village

Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve was established as a national park unit in 1988 and was named in honor of the Timucuan Indians. The Timucuan called the estuaries of the Saint John’s River home long before European powers arrived in the New World. Archeological evidence and the remains of massive shell middens are all that is left of these people and their culture, as they were wiped out by the violence and diseases brought by Old World explorers and settlers.

Inside Fort Caroline
One such settlement was La Caroline, where in 1564 French explorer Rene’ de Laudonniere established a fort and small colony of French Huguenots. This did not sit well with Catholic Spanish interests in Florida and Old World tensions soon spilled over into bloodshed.  The Spanish destroyed the Fort, killed the colonists, and ended French hopes for gaining a foothold in Florida. 

Centuries later in 1950, the history of La Caroline was reclaimed with the reconstruction of the Fort and the dedication of this National Monument to honor the French colonists and their attempts to settle in the New World. 

La Caroline Monument 
Guarding the Fort 


Containing over 200 archeological sites and preserving over 6,000 years of human history, the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve tells many more stories. The Kinsley Plantation and its tabby slave quarters provide a touchstone with West African traditions and the legacy of slavery in America. Revolutionary and Civil War fortifications connect us to the strategic importance of the Saint John’s River. American Beach, one of the first African-American owned segregated beaches in the 1930’s, gives us a glimpse into life in the racially segregated south. All this history can be found within thirty minutes of downtown Jacksonville.  

Tabby Slave Quarters at Kingsley Plantation