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]

The Southern Road: History And The Future Collide

If you mention Montgomery, Alabama, to anyone outside the South, you’ll probably get a response that includes Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King. People know Chattanooga, Tennessee, best for the Glenn Miller song about a choo-choo, and others because they are Civil War buffs.

These two Southern cities, rich in history, now have something crucial in common: they’ve become car towns. Along with their places in America’s past, Montgomery, and Chattanooga can now share industrial futures, one thanks to Korea‘s Hyundai, the other to Germany‘s Volkswagen.

And boy, are the movers and shakers happy to have their auto factories, probably no one more than Chattanooga’s mayor, Ron Littlefield. “It’s the Holy Grail,” says the mayor.

His office on the third floor of Chattanooga’s stately city hall is full of memorabilia related to the city’s efforts to land the VW plant that dominates the site of a former TNT plant, just south of town.On one wall, Littlefield shows off a framed copy of the lyrics to Chattanooga Choo-Choo, loosely translated into German. Another wall boasts the front page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on the day the city landed the plant. Chattanooga has enthusiastically embraced Volkswagen’s German home base, Wolfsburg, and Littlefield hands out medallions to visitors bearing both cities’ seals.

For Chattanooga, the VW plant is icing on the cupcake for a city that’s been fighting to remake itself since the 1970s, when it was said to have the dirtiest air in the United States. Here, VW isn’t the lynchpin to revival; the revival was what clinched the factory.

I’d only driven through Chattanooga on the way to points farther south, and by doing so, I missed a lot. Even if you don’t arrange a tour of the VW plant, there is plenty here to see, starting with the Aquarium downtown, which is modeled after the one in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Chattanooga has a stunning art museum, beautifully restored downtown buildings, one of the country’s first parking garages built specifically as a parking garage, new schools, and a thriving food scene. In two days, I dined at St. Johns, which could easily compete in New Orleans, visited one of the city’s daily farmers markets, and paid four (!) visits to Niedlow’s Bakery, where I sampled probably the best chocolate croissant I’ve ever eaten.

But those things wouldn’t necessarily lift Chattanooga above other similar sized Southern cities. VW, however, does. “Volkswagen is close to iconic for people my age,” says the mayor, who was born in 1953. The Beetle is “my generation’s vehicle.”

He admits his city “stole ideas and learned from mistakes” made by other places, as it moved along its reinvention path. Downtown came first, along with white-collar jobs at places like Krystal, the fast food chain whose headquarters is there, and Blue Cross Blue Shield, which has a huge office building. “What was lacking was industrial jobs,” Littlefield says.

Chattanooga watched as cities all over the South landed their car plants. It tried particularly hard to get the Toyota plant that went to Tupelo, Mississippi, but lost it because too much leaked out about the negotiations. Littlefield was at the Detroit Auto Show when he heard VW might be searching for a plant site.

The city quickly put together a proposal only to hear back that VW wasn’t impressed with the way the proposed location looked. “We like Chattanooga, but we can’t tell much about this site,” he recalled. The city, county and state jumped into action, clearing away trees and debris (there was even a webcam showing the progress) and a month later, the location was ready.

Littlefield knows he’s hit the “biggest industrial home run in the history of Chattanooga.” But he doesn’t just want to be on a list of the South’s car cities. “Wouldn’t it be great to be on the short list of progressive cities?” he says.

Progressive and Montgomery have probably never been used in any historian’s sentence.
Montgomery is a city with kind of a spooky history, to those of us from up North. Our view of it is formed in old newsreels and classes on African-American history, and the perception we get isn’t good.

I was reminded of that when I visited the Rosa Parks Museum, where her decision to keep her bus seat is depicted through a dramatic hologram reenactment. I took a drive by King’s Dexter Avenue church, which is directly across from the state capital, where George Wallace served when he vowed to fight school integration.

Nobody in Montgomery ducks this history – in fact, civil rights sites are well labeled for visitors. But for Randy George, the head of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, Hyundai gives him something else to talk about and most important, something to sell to prospective businesses.

“It redefines largely who we are,” George says of the Hyundai plant that sits just south of the city. “The dichotomy is really a remarkable thing. It proves that we have come a long way.”

Beyond the civil rights movement, George thinks the presence of Hyundai, and the other car companies and auto suppliers who’ve set up in the South are changing the perception of the South for the nation. “Our time’s come,” he says, simply.

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

Antietam National Battlefield Park Gears Up To Commemorate Civil War’s Bloodiest Day

Antietam, Civil War
It was the bloodiest day of the Civil War. After 12 hours of ferocious fighting on September 17, 1862, an estimated 23,000 soldiers had been killed, wounded or declared missing. Robert E. Lee’s first invasion of the North was at an end.

The Battle of Antietam, in Maryland, proved to be a turning point in the war. Lincoln had been keeping his Emancipation Proclamation secret, waiting for a Union victory in order to make the controversial freeing of the slaves in rebellious states politically easier. This battle gave him that victory.

It also boosted confidence in the North. Union forces had suffered a series of embarrassing blunders and defeats. While the Union army’s success at Antietam wasn’t all it could have been (their forces outnumbered the rebels but were poorly handled by General McClellan) it showed that the war could be won.

On the weekend of September 15-17 Antietam National Battlefield Park is hosting a commemorative weekend of events for the 150th anniversary. Programs include battlefield hikes, lectures, special exhibits, kids activities, Civil War music and living history artillery and infantry firing demonstrations. For more information on General Lee’s ill-fated Maryland Campaign and commemoration events related to it, check out the National Park Service’s Maryland Campaign Commemoration page.

There’s also a large Battle of Antietam Reenactment on farmland a few miles away from the national park on September 14-16. This is a privately run event and preregistration is a must. Deadline is August 31.

[Photo of Confederate dead at Bloody Lane courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Meramec Caverns: The Coolest Attraction On Route 66


If you want to beat the heat this summer, there’s no better way to do that than to explore a cool and beautiful cave.

Missouri is one of the best states to see them. A combination of lots of limestone and plenty of water has honeycombed the state with some 6,000 caves, from tiny little crawl spaces to grand and glorious show caves. One of the most popular is Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, on Route 66.

Like many caves, it was first used by Native Americans. In the 18th century, French explorers mined the cave for saltpeter, an ingredient used in making gunpowder. Saltpeter Cave, as it was then known, became tactically important in the Civil War. Union troops were stationed there mining the saltpeter until 1864, when Confederate guerrillas attacked them, drove them off, and destroyed the works.

The cave didn’t become a public attraction until the 1890s, when dances were held in the main gallery, appropriately called “The Ballroom.” Showman Lester Dill bought it in 1933, renamed it Meramec Caverns after the nearby river, and opened it to the public. He systematically explored the cave and discovered several impressive chambers. Soon people were flocking to see the stalactites and stalagmites, and beautiful stone drapery that looks like giant curtains. The action of the water depositing minerals on the walls had created amazing shapes and contours on every spot.

%Gallery-158676%Dill decided to create some clever advertising by linking the cave to Jesse James. He claimed it was one of his gang’s hideouts, although James scholars dispute this. The Jesse James/Meramec Caverns legend got a shot in the arm when the public became aware of a man claiming to be the real Jesse James, still alive and spinning a tale about how he faked his own death. Actually this old coot was named J. Frank Dalton and had one time passed himself off as Billy the Kid.

Local booster Rudy Turilli brought “Jesse” to Meramec Caverns to celebrate his 103rd birthday on September 5, 1950. This brought in a huge amount of publicity and Turilli offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he didn’t have the real Jesse James. The James family took him to court and won. Turilli never paid the $10,000.

The tour and the nearby Jesse James Wax Museum explain this conspiracy theory in detail. The whole experience is fun and a bit cheesy, having the roadside appeal of The Thing? and South of the Border. There’s no denying the natural beauty of the cave itself, and beyond the showbusiness aspect of the place that’s its real appeal.

While you’re in Stanton also check out the Riverside Reptile Ranch to meet all sorts of creepy creatures, and take a ride on the Caveman Zipline.

Alcatraz Marks 50th Anniversary Of Famous Escape

Alcatraz
They said Alcatraz was escape-proof, but 50 years ago yesterday, three prisoners made an ingenious break out, paddled out into the cold waters of San Francisco Bay and disappeared.

On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin were ready to bust out of prison. Over the past year they had patiently chipped away at the air vents in their respective cells with spoons. At night they’d replace the vents and cover the expanding tunnels with pieces of colored cardboard.

On the night of the breakout they squirmed through the tunnels into an unused service corridor and made their way to the roof. To keep the guards from noticing they were gone, they left behind dummy heads in their beds made of paper maché and real hair gathered from the prison barbershop.

From the roof they climbed the barbed wire fence and floated away on a raft made of rubber raincoats. They were never seen again. Fragments of their raft and plywood paddles were found on Angel Island, two miles away from Alcatraz. Footprints led away from the raft and a car was stolen that night.

A fourth man, Allen West, didn’t make it to the rendezvous in time and was left behind.

Did the three men escape? Despite many rumors, none of them were ever found. A ship’s captain said he spotted a body floating in the bay wearing a prison uniform. The body wasn’t recovered. Their files remain open.

%Gallery-158021%According to legend, they would return to Alcatraz for a visit on the 50th anniversary. As unlikely as that sounds, US Marshal Michael Dyke spent yesterday on Alcatraz hoping to catch the aged fugitives. He left at the end of the day disappointed.

Alcatraz, also known as “The Rock,” started life as a fort. During the Civil War, local Confederate sympathizers and privateers were imprisoned there. It continued as a military prison through World War I, when it housed conscientious objectors. Alcatraz became a Federal prison in 1933 and was used to keep the most troublesome prisoners. Its guests included such model citizens as Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly. It was closed in 1963.

Now Alcatraz is a National Park and open to the public. Visitors can see the prisoners’ cells and other areas, as well as the escape route of Morris and the Anglin brothers. All access to the island is via the private ferry company Alcatraz Cruises from Pier 33. Check out the gallery for some views of the prison, as well an intriguing shots of the escape route.

[Photo courtesy Bruce C. Cooper]