Now that I’m living in the greater Philadelphia region, and fueled almost entirely by the first 70-ish episodes of The American Military History Podcast, I’m much more aware of the Revolutionary Era sites within easy driving distance of me. Which is how last weekend happened: on my way back from a Notre Dame Alumni event, I decided to swing by the Paoli battlefield site, as I had heard there were events happening there, and I didn’t want to miss out.
For those of you who don’t know, the Battle of Paoli happened in 1777 in Paoli, PA, which today is about 45 minutes from Philadelphia Proper. Also known as the Paoli Massacre, this event immediately followed the Battle of Brandywine, the largest land battle of the Revolution and a British victory.
So maybe it will be useful to back up a little bit further:
(This is a little late because Real Life has been happening…)
WHEW. Did any one catch the series finale of TURN? ALL THE FEELS.
My life, of late, has been aperfect storm of all things Revolutionary, especially all things Culper: The tv series, relocating to Philadelphia, the first 71 episodes of the American Military History Podcast, the Museum of the American Revolution. Add the two recent books on this subject, George Washington’s Secret Six and Washington’s Spies, and I’ve been wallowing in the Culper Ring like a pig in mud. It’s been fantastic.
You see humanity, savagery, unexpected feels, unexpected plot twists (unless you know how the actual history plays out – funny how history has spoilers like that..). You even get to see Virginia star as Virginia as the excitement moves south! You follow everything obsessively on social media, put people in touch with people so you can say, “I know one of the extras!”, and can talk about the show with other fans at colonial balls so you both know what you mean when all you say is, “all the feels!”
But even more important to me: let me take even more time to gush about the production quality and the cinematography. Because it is beautiful and dramatic and adds elegance and authority and drama and so gorgeously underscores everything the characters do. I can’t coherently articulate my thoughts on the cinematography so I will sum it up with, “all the feels.”
Last year I had written about an opportunity to go behind the scenes to see some of the Smithsonian’s 9/11 collection. Link here. Our tour guide, who was a curator but did not collect for this particular event, briefly touched on the mental and emotional impact experienced by those brave souls who did curate the sites, working among the rescue workers in an attempt to make sense of the event and find a way for future historians to tell the story, while no one yet understood what exactly that story was.
We always remember the first responders, and rightly so, from the firefighters to the National Guard to the chaplain who died giving last rites to victims. As an historian and someone whose livelihood exists behind the scenes, I don’t want to forget the people who operated in realms not often considered, from the museum curator who couldn’t do her job to a trucker whose interview I heard on the radio last week. The trucker’s cargo was empty body bags, and he had to drive to New York to deliver them. Yikes.
“9/11 Living Memorial,” Jerusalem, Israel. Made from recovered steel
It’s hard to express this year’s feelings on today. Searching for pictures to use made me realize what an international event it was, even before the War on Terror began. It has become both more global and more individualized as I look at the pictures and see both large groups involved, whose individual members all have a story. The trick is not forgetting either the group or the person as this event has been seminal on both an individual and a global level.
Image Source: 9/11 Memorials around the world
“In its simplest meaning, Public History refers to the employment of historians and the historical method outside of academia: in government, private corporations, the media, historical societies and museums, even in private practice.”
About once every quarter or so, I have an existential crisis of some severity in which I wonder if I made the right decision by not pursuing academia. The answer is usually yes; watching the education bubble inflate, with the number of history students exceeding history job openings, as well as the “publish or perish” mantra all reassure me that that’s something I’m ok without.
To assuage the academia FOMO*, I pursue history in other ways that, I think, prove history can be just as enjoyable outside of the ivory tower, if not more so. Whether that’s historical reenacting (lite, not hardcore), reading books, or staying up to date with historical scuttlebutt online, I keep my brain engaged, if not very organized.
*Fear Of Missing Out
I don’t claim to be a public historian, even by amateur standards, but in my travels across the internet, I have come across public history done many different ways by those of whom the ivory tower would probably disapprove. What follows are some of my favorites:
“The Allison Brothers of PA” by Jared Frederick of History Matters
I finally cleared out my reading queue and refilled with Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. What most likely prompted this was the opportunity to meet the author, Alexander Rose, except I hadn’t read his book at the time of the opportunity, so I avoided him in shame.
To belatedly remedy this egregious faux pas, I went to the library specifically for this book. Perhaps the next time I encounter Mr. Rose, I will be able to engage in witty and engaging discussion on his work, but for now I get to share my review of the book with you, Dear Reader(s).
I saw Dunkirk over the weekend and thought it was worth all the hype surrounding it. It was nearly nonstop action and when it was done, I was so tense I felt like I had just driven four hours through a white-out rainstorm on the highway. Afterwards, I read the reviews on IMDB, where there are a lot of cinematic complaints/comments, but also an equally number of useful historical complaints/comments which I find to be informative.
The cinematography was beautiful and stark. There was surprising emotion: I didn’t know I was that invested, I’m not crying you’re crying. You see men in the throes of hope and futility at the same time. It’s all so British. And poignant. And depressing. And triumphant. And beautiful. And tragic.
(Quick note: I was relatively impervious to the hype, as my WW2 film repertoire consists solely of Monuments Men, Fury, Inglorious Basterds -which made no sense- and White Christmas, which is more of a holiday thing than war film. My repertoire lacks the usual suspects of Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Schindler’s List, etc, etc.)
There are spoilers under the cut so take fair warning.
Without a doubt, one of my all-time favorite historical figures is General Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Why? I’m not sure. It probably has something to do with his confidence and stunning competence. His dashing good looks are only a bonus.
A Sunday afternoon well spent.
In fact, long ago he edged out Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain because he (Hancock) doesn’t seem to have this weird, idealistic, Victorian misogyny. It was either by the end of high school or the end of freshman year of college where I knew Hancock was my guy. During my freshman year of college, I took a brave stab at being an engineering major, but it turns out I was incredibly not good at physics, calculus, chemistry, programming, and engineering. To comfort myself, I spent a lot of time on the 10th floor of the Hesburgh Library, reading through the Civil War section (which should have told me immediately that engineering was not my calling…) and my favorite find of this time was Hancock the Superb.
Just about every time I went back to campus, I would visit the book – up to the 10th floor, around to the right, third shelf up from the bottom on the 4th stack back. It would usually be a drive-by: I would locate the book, take it out, pet it a couple of times, and put it back.
Anyway, I came across this book in my local public library and decided to read it again to see if all the nostalgia was warranted. Verdict: It was.