Sunday, March 31, 2013

So What's the Big Deal About the War 1812 Anyway? Celebrating the bicentennial of a Forgotten War

Not to be over shadowed by the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the War of 1812 is commemorating its bicentennial, 2012-2015. The War of 1812 is referred to as the forgotten war, despite its role in shaping the political boundaries of North America and providing some of the most iconic moments for the young American Nation trying to make its way in the world.

Here are a few of those iconic moments to explore during the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

USS Constitution
Old Iron Sides - The road to the War of 1812 was laid by the impressment of American sailors into service for the British navy. The most powerful naval force in the world, the British navy, would stop American vessels and force any sailor with a British accent into service. Unacceptable to America, this violation of civil freedom was a threat to national sovereignty. As a result war was declared.  Some of the most memorable battles from this war took place on the high seas, where the U.S. Navy took its place on the world stage with startling victories. The USS Constitution earned the nickname Old Iron Sides for its heroic actions during the war and remains one of the oldest active duty navy vessels in the world. Because of this, the War of 1812 is credited as the birth of the U.S. Navy.

Canadian Heroes of the War of 1812
Sir Isaac Brock, Tecumseh,
Laura Secord, & Charles-Michel de Salaberry 
The Border with Canada – While war raged on the high seas, many of the land battles during the War of 1812 took place in and around the Great Lakes with our neighbor to the North, Canada.  At the time of the conflict Canada was still under British rule. Many Americans had grand visions of territorial expansion fueled by a desire to kicking the British off the North American continent. Bloody frontier battles raged along the Great Lakes as American forces invaded Canada in a quest for international supremacy of the region.

Given these historic events, Canada views and interpretations of the history of the War of 1812 vary differently from the United States.  North of the border, the War of 1812 is viewed as a war for Canadian sovereignty and is an important part of their national identity. Parks Canada protects many of the historic sites and battlefields associated with the war. They also provide unique insights into what the war means to Canadian people.

The Battle of New Orleans

Old Hickory - Andrew Jackson – Long before he was famous for being on the twenty-dollar bill, Andrew Jackson established his reputation as a military and political leader during the War of 1812.  Renowned for his hard fighting and hard riding, he earned the nickname old hickory. Oddly enough, Andrew Jackson’s most memorable moment during the war occurred after the signing of the peace treaty on December 25, 1814. Fought on January 8, 1815, the last battle of the War of 1812 was the famed battle of New Orleans. This proved to be a major American victory and would propel Andrew Jackson to the White House. The Battle of New Orleans was later immortalized in song by folk singer Johnny Horton, and even won a song of the year Grammy in 1959.

The Star Spangled Banner from on Display at the Smithsonian Museum 

The Star Spangled Banner - Perhaps the most memorable moment of the War of 1812 was the writing of the Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key. Guarding the entrance to Baltimore Harbor, Fort McHenry was of strategic importance and the key to capturing Baltimore, one of the larger cities in America at the time. The British Navy unloaded on the fort with rockets red glare. Despite their best efforts, the British were not able to take it and eventually withdrew. But, not before providing the inspiration to France Scott Key who penned the immortal words in a poem entitled, “The Defense of Fort McHenry”.  “ Oh say can you see…” and the rest as they say is history.

Fort McHenry
Despite its less than spectacular end, and little fan fare, the War of 1812 provided many iconic moments in American history that are worth exploring during the bicentennial of this forgotten war.

What are your thoughts on this often forgotten war? 

Overview of the War of 1812

Sunday, March 24, 2013

6 Ways to Connect with the Civil War: Commemorating 150 Years of the Civil War Legacy

Here are six ways to commemorate the 15oth anniversary of the American Civil War.

Beglan O'Brian 
1. Make a New Friend on Facebook -  Although the cannons stopped booming nearly 150 years ago, the lives of many iconic heroes of the Civil War have found new life in social media. Now you too can count Ulysses S. Grant or Robert E. Lee among your friends on Facebook. Or send a friend request to: Beglan O’Brian, Civil War Reporter for up to date reporting from the war front. This avatar, created by the National Park Service, provides daily updates and correspondence on the progress of the Civil War.

Comic Genius of Buster Keaton
2.Watch a Movie -  Hollywood is notorious for taking a few liberties with historic facts. Still, the Civil War has often been the subject of many a Hollywood director. Since the earliest days of silent film, the Civil War has inspired such movies as The General staring silent film start Buster Keaton, and the notorious Birth of the Nation, with highly-charged racist undertones that were prevalent at the time of its making. For a more contemporary look at the complexities of the Civil War watch Glory, which focuses on the story of the African American 54th Volunteer Massachusetts Regiment. Another fantastic and more recent film of note, Lincoln, explores the politics and tension that occurred during the passing of the 13th Amendment. All of these movies provide a unique window into how different generations have understood the War between the States. 

For All You Arm Chair Generals -Civil War History at the Touch of a Button

3. Download an App  - When it comes to the Civil War, there is an app for that! The Civil War Trust has developed smart phone apps for nearly all the major battlefields of the war. These apps provide historic images, battlefield maps, and informative videos in the palm of your hands. The history channel has also developed a great civil war app called The Civil War Today that will connect users to historic newspaper articles about historic events.

4. Save a Battlefield -  From the 25th to the 50th anniversary of the Civil War, veterans worked hard to memorialize the key battlefields of the war. This golden age of battlefield protection saw the creation of five parks:  Chickamauga & Chattanooga, Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg. A resurgence in battlefield protection and preservation has emerged as a result of these early efforts. The results of preservation efforts have been the purchase of land and the development of scenic easements by grass roots organizations and national organizations like the Civil War Trust for places associated with Civil War battles. A lasting way to celebrate the 150th is to pitch in and donate to the efforts that work for the protection of these hallowed grounds from encroaching development and urban sprawl. 

5. Read a Book – Perhaps one of the most written about subjects in American history, the Civil War has been cataloged, reviewed, retold and inspected in thousands of books. These books range in topics from personal memoirs to revisionist histories. The causes and consequences of the Civil War have provided ample fodder for generations of historians and authors alike, and it will undoubtedly continue on in the future. Two of my recommendations include: Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson and Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. Battle Cry of Freedom is the most comprehensive and balanced view of the War in under one cover. While Confederates in the Attic challenges traditional views about the War between the States.

6. Visit a National Park – There is no better way of connecting to the historic events of the war than to stand in the places where those events unfolded. The hallowed ground of Civil War battlefields, and their national cemeteries, provide a powerful experience that is hard to forget. And with over 70 National Parks dedicated to the Civil War, you will find that there is more to this complex history than just violent battles. The layered history of the war is found in a patchwork of sites like the Fredrick Douglas National Historic Site, the Clara Barton National Historic Site, and Ford’s Theatre that make up the fabric of the entire story.  

Manassas National Battlefield 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Old Times There Are Not Forgotten, Natchez National Historical Park

Melrose Estate

Paddlewheels, cotton, and large antebellum estates put Natchez, Mississippi on the map and brought affluence to some but despair for others. While visiting this southern gem I found much more to Natchez’s history other than the pageantry of the tableaux and historic house tours. For example, the opulent houses created by the cotton kingdom were made possible by the lash and enslavement of African slaves.  Natchez National Historical Park is a window into this legacy.

Slave Cabins at Melrose

Owned by the National Park Service, Melrose Estate is one of many great houses found in Natchez. The original furnishings and decorative arts within the house provide insights into the lives and opulence of the planter class during the antebellum South. But, unlike other great houses in Natchez many of the outbuildings at Melrose are still standing and open to visitors. The slave quarters behind the house give a voice to the enslaved, ensuring that their history and lives are not forgotten.

William Johnson House
Another notable site at Natchez National Historical Park is the William Johnson House. At this site one can learn about the life and time of William Johnson, the barber of Natchez. William Johnson was a freeman of color and successful businessman, who kept a detailed diary of his life and business in Mississippi. This historic site gives us a unique perspective into life in Natchez and the South during a time when slavery was an accepted way of life.

Forks of the Road

Although not part of the National Park, the Forks of theRoad site should be part of any visit to Natchez. This site was once the second largest slave market in the United States. Not much on this site remains other than interpretive signs, but the Forks of the Road was recognized by the ICOMOS committee on cultural routes as part of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Route.

Natchez National Historical Park is more than another series of house museums. The Park is a glimpse into the legacy of the antebellum cotton economy and the many lives it impacted.  

Shackles at the Memorial for the Forks of the Road

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Learning from the Past, The 3-D Scanning of Topaz Japanese American Internment Camp

December 7, 1941 – A day that will live in infamy.  For a generation of Americans this date still has as much resonance today as September 11, 2001 does for most of the country. 

Considered to be one of nation’s darkest moments and triggering America’s entry into World War II, the bombing of Pearl Harbor also set in motion perhaps one of the lowest points in our nation’s history for another reason, the imprisonment of thousands of Japanese American citizens for no better reason than their ancestory.  No matter how it is labeled - relocation or internment – it still remains one of the worst civil liberties violations in our nation’s history.  As the country fought to defend liberty and freedom abroad on the home front fear and racial prejudices won with the passing of executive order 9066 and the forced imprisonment of Japanese Americans in the name of national security.

Being able to confront this ugly truth and recognizing this injustice is a valuable part of the healing process while honoring those who suffered. Each year the National Park Service awards grants for scholarly work to record the story of Japanese American internment and the documentation of the camps where these events took place. Through this grant program I was able to participate as part of an interdisciplinary team in the digital document and recording of the Topaz Relocation Center outside of Delta, Utah.  Cyark, a digital scanning and 3-D digital modeling non-profit organization, in partnership with the University of Colorado Denver utilized the latest technology to collect data and build a 3-D digital model of Topaz that will be used on-line to educate the public about the history of the site.

Lidar Scanners at Work

Collecting data for such a large landscape in a remote location proved to be a challenge.  Located on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management, the Topaz Internment Camp is roughly a square mile in size.  None of the buildings or structures remain on the site, but the camp’s grid system of roads as well as many of the concert foundations remain.  Eighty total GPS points were surveyed and acquired throughout the site and served as a base map for the project. Utilizing these fixed satellite points provided the needed reference data for building the 3-D model and placing it into an accurate geographic location. At each of these points high-tech lidar digital scanning equipment was set up to do a 360 degree laser scan at these fixed locations. These scans recorded the site to within millimeters of accuracy and were used to stitch together the 3-D model of Topaz back at the computer lab. 
Main Entrance to Topaz

Despite the desolate landscape, one could still find evidence of what was once there. The internment camps grid road system framed the site as well as the barrack blocks of the camp. The cement foundations from the mess halls and latrines mark the middle of each block and would have been flanked with six wooden barrack buildings on each side for a total of twelve barracks per block.  The repetition of the grid and consistent size of the foundations bares witness to the fact that the site was a military installation and prison. The harsh environment and the harsh reality of the history of this site is hard to escape. 

Baseball Backstop
While working at Topaz, the thing that struck me the most were the human touches left on the landscape that reminded me of the individuals that called this place home for three years.  Despite the hardships of the landscape, the loss of personal freedom, and awful reality of the situation there were signs that the internees tried to make the best of a bad situation.  Evidence of decorative rock gardens and koi ponds could be found in front of the foundations where many of the barrack buildings once sat. Two backstops for the baseball fields illustrate a love for the great American past time despite the fact that the country had turned its backs on these Americans.

Remnants of a Koi Pond
Given the remote location of the Topaz Internment Camp it is doubtful that many people without a direct connection to the site will make the trip. By working to document the camp and creating a 3-D model of Topaz that is accessible online, we hope to bring the site to a larger audience who can take a virtual tour on their computers. We are often reminded to learn from the past. Hopefully the lessons of Japanese American Internment will not be lost as we face new fears of national security.