Love In The Civil War At The New York State Museum

Civil WarThe Civil War is the subject of numerous exhibitions and special events these days as the country commemorates the war’s sesquicentennial. Most study the battles and politics, but one at the New York State Museum in Albany is focusing on how the war affected the relationship between two lovers.

“I Shall Think of You Often: The Civil War Story of Doctor and Mary Tarbell” opens today as part of “An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War,” a 7,000-square-foot exhibition that examines New York’s role in the war.

Doctor and Mary Tarbell were childhood sweethearts who got separated when Doctor Tarbell went off to war with the Union army. They kept up a regular correspondence until the doctor was captured and sent to a Confederate prison.

Mary heard nothing from him and didn’t even know he was alive until he was released in February 1865. The doctor wasted no time getting leave to go home and marry his true love.

The exhibition tells of their enduring relationship with letters, diaries, photographs and Mary’s wedding dress, giving a personal and emotional side to a period of history so often concerned with death and violence.

Both exhibitions run through September 22.

[Photo courtesy Tompkins County History Center]

Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, A French Colonial Town In America’s Heartland

When we think of Colonial America, we generally think of the old parts of Boston, lovely New England port towns such as Marblehead, or Spanish colonial towns such as St. Augustine. America’s heartland has some colonial traces too. The best preserved and most distinct is the French colonial town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.

Located about 60 miles south of St. Louis, Ste. Genevieve was one of the first permanent European settlements in what is now Missouri. French settlers came here in the early 1730s. The first years were tough ones. The town was poorly situated on the Mississippi flood plain and often got soaked, leading the poor Frenchmen to nickname their town Misère, meaning “misery.”

The French were mostly from Canada and copied the architecture they were familiar with. Single-story houses had walls of vertical logs set into the earth and plastered in a style called poteaux-en-terre. A roof of wooden shingles extended past the walls to bring rain away from the house and a covered porch often ran all the way around the house.

Each lot was surrounded by a palisade of vertical logs to keep out the animals that strayed unattended around town. The tops of the logs were sharpened to keep out unwanted two-legged visitors as well. Inside each of these little forts was a yard, garden, barn and an outside kitchen, placed there to reduce the chance of a fire inside the house.

Ste. Genevieve did well as the center for the fur trade and many local farmers made extra income mining for lead and salt. When the region was sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase it kept its French character. Even as recently as a hundred years ago some residents spoke French in the home.

As well as keeping their culture they preserved many of their distinctive colonial houses. While you won’t see buckskin-clad trappers hauling their loads of furs onto shore from canoes, or French farmers heading out into the uninhabited woods with a flintlock over their shoulder in search of meat for the pot, Ste. Genevieve retains a strong historic feel. Many of the original 18th-century homes are open as museums and are stocked with period furniture.

Ste. Genevieve makes a good day trip from St. Louis, and an even better overnight. Several 19th century homes have been turned into bed-and-breakfasts and the shopping district is well stocked with antiques and gift items.

Being a regional attraction means the town keeps a full events calendar, including occasional reenactments, so you might just get to see those French trappers and hunters after all.

Civil War New York Subject Of New Exhibition

Civil War
During the Civil War, New York was the wealthiest and most populous state on either side of the conflict. A new exhibition at the New York State Museum in Albany examines the important role New York played in preserving the Union.

“An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War” features more than two hundred artifacts, documents and images centering around the themes of Antebellum New York, the Civil War, and Reconstruction and Legacy. Artifacts on display include a Lincoln life mask from 1860, the earliest photograph of Frederick Douglass, and the only known portrait of Dred Scott. There’s also a slave collar from c.1806 to point out the often-overlooked fact that slavery was once common in this northern state.

The exhibition examines various aspects of the war and home front and has a section dedicated to the Elmira Prison Camp, dubbed “Hellmira” by the Confederate soldiers interned there. Nearly 25 percent of them died from malnutrition, exposure and disease.

In a press release, the museum stated that the exhibition’s title was inspired by an 1858 quote from then U.S. Senator William H. Seward, who disagreed with those who believed that the prospect of war between the North and South was the work of “fanatical agitators.” He understood that the roots of conflict went far deeper, writing, “It is an irrepressible conflict, between opposing and enduring forces.”

“An Irrepressible Conflict: The Empire State in the Civil War” starts today and runs until September 22, 2013.

[Photo of noncommissioned officers’ mess of Co. D, 93d New York Infantry courtesy Library of Congress]

Discovering Lincoln Family History At Hildene: Robert Todd Lincoln’s Vermont Estate

hildene robert todd lincolnThe things you find tucked away in someone’s safe after they’ve died don’t always reflect well on them. But in the case of Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s eldest child and the only one to survive to adulthood, secret documents found in his safe helped restore his image as a righteous man and a good son. In the years after his father’s assassination, his mother, Mary Todd, suffered from severe depression, paranoia and mental illness to the point where her behavior became a concern to the family.

Mary Todd, who also had to bear the burden of losing three sons that died young, was said to have an irrational fear of poverty and sometimes walked around with thousands of dollars in government bonds sewn into her outfits. After she almost jumped out of a window to escape a fire that was a figment of her imagination, Robert had her committed to an asylum in Batavia, Illinois, in 1875.

mary todd lincolnMary Todd got a lawyer and after a trial that made her son Robert look like a dirtbag who needlessly pushed his mother into an asylum without legitimate grounds, she was released. She drifted around Europe for four years before returning to Springfield, Illinois, where she died in 1882 at age 63. The cause of death was listed as paralysis and many believe that she may have had a stroke.

In 1978, nearly 50 years after Robert Todd Lincoln died at 82, caretakers of Hildene, his country home in Manchester, Vermont, found some papers labeled “MTL Insanity Papers” in a safe tucked away in his bedroom closet. The files, which contained Robert’s correspondence with family members and medical professionals regarding his mother’s condition, revealed that he wasn’t the uncaring son he’d been portrayed as. The file proved that his concern had always been his mother’s health and well-being.

Learning more about Robert Todd’s complex relationship with his mother is just one of many reasons to visit Hildene, the Lincoln family home in Vermont where Robert Todd Lincoln lived and died. Visitors can tour the stately home, built in 1905, visit a beautifully restored century old Pullman car, check out the estate’s farm and take a long stroll on the estate’s extensive grounds.

robert todd lincolnRobert was said to have had a distant relationship with his father as a boy, thanks to the demands of his father’s career and the fact that he was often away from home. He was 21 when his father was assassinated but managed to carve out a remarkable career of his own, even as his mother was descending into increasingly worse mental health. He was a successful lawyer who later served as the U.S. Secretary of War and U.S. Ambassador to The United Kingdom before becoming the President and Chairman of the Pullman Company.

When Robert was 20, he and his mother stayed at the Equinox Hotel and he was taken by the natural beauty of the Manchester area. He vowed to return one day and did just that 40 years later, purchasing a 500-acre plot that was to become a country home that would serve as a residence for Lincoln family descendants until 1975. While his father kept his summer home just miles from the White House, Robert Todd preferred Vermont’s natural splendor. Today, the residence is maintained by the non-profit Friends of Hildene, and if you don’t mind plunking down $400-500 per night, you can stay at the Equinox if you want the full Lincoln experience.

My children enjoyed petting the farm animals but the highlight of the visit for me was touring Sunbeam, a restored 1903 Pullman car that was moved to Hildene a few years ago to honor Robert time at the company and the fact that his father signed the Transcontinental Railways Act, which paved the way for the construction of the transcontinental railroad. In the heyday of trail travel, more than 100,000 Americans slept on Pullman cars while traveling around the country each day. It might have taken forever to get from Chicago to New York, but if you take a walk through Sunbeam, you’ll wish it were still possible to travel the country in Pullman style.

[Photos and videos by Dave Seminara]

The Steamboat Arabia Museum In Kansas City, Missouri


Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Missouri’s rivers were full of steamboats. The state’s eastern boundary is delineated by the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River cuts right through the center of the state. Steamboats brought people, crops, and consumer goods across long distances much quicker than they could have made it on the crude early roads.

Steamboat pilots, including a young Mark Twain, had to have precise knowledge of the rivers because there were eddies, sandbars, and sawyers (sunken logs) ready to wreck their ship. If he managed to avoid all those dangers, the boiler could still blow up.

In 1856, the side-wheel steamboat Arabia was heading west up the Missouri River. The Arabia was a beauty. It was 171 feet long, could carry 222 tons, and had a reputation for speed, comfort and safety. That didn’t save her, though, and she hit the trunk of a submerged walnut tree. The log tore through the Arabia’s hull and she sank within minutes. Despite the speed of the sinking and the fact that there was only one lifeboat, the crew managed to get all the passengers safely to shore. Within a few days the boat was entirely covered in silt and disappeared, another of the hundreds of casualties on the river.

In 1987, the Hawley family led a salvage crew in search of the Arabia and found her. The river had shifted since then and the boat now lay half a mile from the water’s edge and 45 feet under a farmer’s field. A massive operation began to lower the water level, remove countless tons of earth, and carefully clean off and examine the ship and its contents.

%Gallery-162722%The wet silt had preserved the ship remarkably. The storage rooms were nearly intact, with boxes full of merchandise intended for frontier shops. There were cleaned, cataloged, and preserved and the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, opened to show off the amazing find.

This museum is an amazing snapshot of history. Every possible item imaginable is there: from guns and boots to toys and a complete printing press. There are even jars of preserves. Most of the passengers’ personal belongings sank with the ship and so we have complete outfits and luggage for the hardy travelers seeking a new life in the Old West. Large sections of the boat are also on display, including the paddle wheel and anchor.

Check out the gallery for a small sample of what this incredible museum has to offer.

Another steamboat has surfaced recently. Station WLFI reports that a long drought has lowered the level of the Missouri River enough that the steamboat Montana, sunk in 1884, is now visible at Bridgeton, MO. National Geographic has an interesting article on this steamboat, the largest ever to ply the Missouri, and its ironic end. It sank after running into a railroad bridge. Railroads were what eventually killed the steamboat trade.