Tag Archives: american history

East Coast Adventures – Boston in February

There were good reasons for why we chose to visit Boston in February. R had a meeting scheduled for the Monday so would have to travel up on his birthday weekend anyway, so I scheduled a research trip at Wellesley, and we booked a flight for the Saturday morning. Then the snow started. While it was pretty obvious both our work events would be cancelled, we felt we had to go anyway, just in case by some miracle they weren’t. And, though it was cold and snowy, and I got stranded there an extra day on my own, we did have some fun.

As I mentioned in one of my introductions to this series, most of our holidays revolve around our main interests of history and food. Boston certainly satisfied both these appetites! When we arrived after an early flight, cold and hungry, we only had to stagger across the road from our hotel to get to the historic Faneuil Hall, which combined Boston’s market-hall with a meeting room above, in which they say America’s first town meeting was held. While originally the people of Boston were suspicious that the market-hall would lead to raised prices and only allowed it to be built because of the promised meeting room, the market is probably now the main draw. As well as housing one of the town’s two bars based on the TV series Cheers, the market is home to stalls selling a wide variety of world cuisines, as well as a number of local delicacies. We stuck to the New England clam chowder because it promised the most warmth. We also tried a Boston cream pie for dessert, but weren’t that struck with them.

Boston makes learning about its revolutionary past very easy. The old part of the town is relatively compact, as is Charlestown across the river, and you can follow the ‘Freedom Trail’ around the historic sites in this area (2.5 miles). There is a bus, but you can also walk it, following a red line on the ground. We decided to walk, as it wasn’t the kind of weather that you want to be standing waiting for a bus in – or sitting still once you’d caught it. We walked it pretty briskly, and the second day we couldn’t look up very much as it was snowing pretty heavily. But actually, walking it in the snow turned out to be maybe more fun than it would be normally – because the red line is on the ground, the snow turned the walk into a bit of a treasure hunt, as we lost the line under snow drifts here and there, and triumphantly found it again where the snow had been cleared for traffic.

Faneuil Hall is one of the sites of the Freedom Trail. Before the British banned assemblies, the hall was used by citizens for meetings protesting the treatment of the colony – Samuel Adams often spoke there. Just behind Faneuil Hall is the Old State House, which, before Independence, housed the royal Governor, the courts, and the Massachusetts Assembly. Just outside was also the site of the Boston Massacre. The guides who work at the Old State House museum do a very good job of explaining this incident. Basically, tensions were running high in Boston after petitions against the importation of foreign goods and the taxes on these. The British governor requested a military presence and regiments of the British army were garrisoned in the city. On the day of the massacre, a large crowd gathered near the Old State House, shouting and throwing things at a small group of British soldiers and taunting them to ‘fire’. At least one of the soldiers was hit. In the confusion, a number of the soldiers fired their weapons into the crowd and at least five citizens were killed. Though the soldiers were all cleared of murder at the trials a year later (John Adams famously defended them), by then Paul Revere and other revolutionaries had turned the event to their advantage. The image that Revere created of the ‘massacre’ for anti-British propaganda was sensationalized in that it shows the British soldiers drawn up in formation against the peaceful citizens of Boston, the senior officer ordering the volley of shots being fired into the crowd.

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“Boston Massacre high-res” by Engrav’d Printed & Sold by Paul Revere Boston. The print was copied by Revere from a design by Henry Pelham for an engraving eventually published under the title “The Fruits of Arbitrary Power, or the Bloody Massacre,” of which only two impressions could be located by Brigham. Revere’s print appeared on or about March 28, 1770.

Next on the trail was the Old South Meeting House. This was an amazing example of a Puritan meeting hall within what, from the outside, appeared to be a traditional church. Instead of a long central aisle leading to an altar, the room was set out so that a short aisle led to a pulpit, with long lines of closed pews facing it. When public assemblies were banned, citizens continued their meetings in this religious space, so that it was in fact from this meeting hall that the Boston tea party started. It is said that it was here that Samuel Adams spoke the words: ‘This meeting can do nothing more to save the country’, which it is believed was a secret signal to his Sons of Liberty to march to the wharf and throw the newly-arrived tea into the harbor. We got most of this history from the National Parks ranger talk at Faneuil Hall which, like all ranger talks, was excellent and made a fantastic starting point for the walking tour. When we were at the Old South Meeting House it had a small exhibition of the historical and political events in which the meeting house had played a part, and a really helpful timeline. One thing I found interesting, was that it was here that Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for his role in the Salem witch trials.

At this point we decided not to follow the trail up to Boston Common and today’s State House, but to leave that for the next day. Instead we followed the trail through the really old North End district of Boston, visiting Paul Revere’s House, the Paul Revere Mall and the burying ground on our way to Charlestown. [This area is also home to Boston’s Little Italy and where we had an incredible birthday celebration meal of oysters and other seafood, sitting on bar stools, at Neptune Oyster – I’ll write about this another time.] While we might have taken more time about it had it been warmer, the walk was still nice. Paul Revere’s House, however, we didn’t find that interesting. It’s obviously pretty impressive in that it dates from 1680, but it’s a fairly ordinary house of that period. There was plenty of information about his silversmith business, and we learnt that he also printed money for the Massachusetts government. It might be that I’ve been biased against Revere (see my previous post about American history), but I wasn’t that inspired.

Bunker Hill, and the museum, however, I found fascinating. I’m not normally a fan of military history, but the use of a large diorama plus soundtrack and supplemented by a blow by blow account of the British assaults on the hill, made it all pretty exciting. They say that this was the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, and it seems to be a story of mismanagement, hesitation, and ill-preparedness on the British side. Although ‘we’ (the British) ‘won’ the battle, over 1000 British soldiers were killed or wounded compared with only 450 casualties on the American side – all a bit embarrassing. The museum was also keen to make it known that Charlestown had had their own tea-party before Boston; even within the same metropolitan area history is fiercely disputed over here.

Bunker Hill Monument in the snow
Bunker Hill Monument in the snow

After two days of museums and historic sites I really felt like I’d learnt something – so we went to the pub. Because of the snow we didn’t feel like exploring a very large area, but luckily, the Cheers pubs are both on the Freedom Trail and we visited them both. The one in Faneuil Hall is fun, but not that authentic. The one over by Boston Common is marketed as an exact replica. Underground and full of tourists, it was a cosy enough place to spend an hour or so drinking Sam Adams beer, until the blizzard warnings prompted us to make our way back to the hotel.

Overall I was so impressed that Boston kept going through their extreme weather that weekend. The snow was piled so high either side of the roads and pavements that it was hard to get around, and yet people were still going to work, and tourists were still walking the trail. All the museums and bars were open – even the open air fish market was still trading. When the snow storm really hit on Sunday evening we could get across the road to a well-stocked restaurant and there were plenty of taxis still on the roads when we headed back to the hotel that night. It was only the next day that things got difficult. My flight was cancelled and I had to spend the entire day watching the swirling snow storms from my hotel room window. And the next day the metro controversially had to close – though I was still able to get to the airport and fly out pretty easily.

Southern Road Trip – Atlan’a

It was a long, hot drive from Nashville to Atlanta. This was actually our shortest drive (4hrs) but we were maybe a little hung over and, because we were starting a bit later than planned (so we could get pancakes for breakfast), we had to take the interstate. It wasn’t much fun, but we did enjoy the signage along the way. For quite a few miles before we reached the Tennessee/Alabama/Georgia border there were big signs advertising ‘Fireworks!’ We figured it must be illegal to buy fireworks in Tennessee, but not in Alabama. Anyway, they were excited about it.

The countryside between Nashville and Atlanta is probably quite impressive to see if you get off the interstate. We were driving through the southern part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and every now and then we would see concertina-like hills in the distance. There were also billboards alongside the road advertising waterfalls and gorges, and it looked like there were some pretty spots that you can stay to go hiking and rafting near Chattanooga. We were pretty excited to be going through Chattanooga, and spent most of the trip with the Chattanooga choo-choo song going through our heads. We did see the historic railway as we sped past the town, but then we were on our way again.

Once we arrived in Atlanta we realized that we’d made a rookie mistake in booking a hotel in the downtown area. It was not the best area to stay. But we were only there one night, and we could walk to the Olympic park to see the main Atlanta sights. Remember they had the Olympics? Well the park is very nice. We got a snack and enjoyed not being on the road any more. Then we wandered through the park to the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I want to be clear – this is the attraction we planned to visit while in Atlanta. Sadly though, it closed at 5pm, and so we had to go to the Coca Cola experience instead.

The Coca Cola experience is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. They get you to pay them to go in and watch their commercials (we’re such suckers!). We were greeted by an enthusiastic guide, originally from Belgium, who gushed about the international appeal of coke – no matter what language we speak, we all drink coke, right? Feeling like I was joining a cult, I followed the crowd as we were funneled into a theater to watch a six minute introductory film. By the end I felt pretty sick. It was the usual montage of families and friends experiencing special moments – a couple telling their parents they were going to be grandparents, someone sky-diving, a German kid telling a girl that he liked her – and all in the end celebrating with coca cola. Ugh. After this though we were set free to explore the rest of the exhibits as we wished. There was a small exhibit on the history of coca-cola, and another on the bottling process. Somehow the description of this simple industrial process managed to portray coca-cola as responsible for bringing clean water (and safe beverages) to the world and celebrated their influence in local communities as a major employer. Sick from our overdose of ideology, we decided to get sick on sugar instead, making a bee-line for the tasting room. Now this was fun. Like kids in a sweet shop we dashed from dispenser to dispenser, each bank of them holding coca-cola products from a different part of the world. It was exactly like I’d imagined Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory when I was a child.

Our second cultural experience in Atlanta was courtesy of a friend. In a true display of southern hospitality, she picked us up and treated us to an evening picnic and laser-show at Stone Mountain. A huge chunk of granite that rises abruptly out of the countryside, Stone Mountain is known as the South’s Mount Rushmore because the images of three Confederate figures – Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davies – are carved on its face. It’s become the site of an immensely popular laser show, for which people congregate on the sloping lawn that faces the rock, and over the last few years a smallish theme park has developed around it. We just went to picnic on the lawn and watch the laser show, which was quite an experience.

First, finding space on the lawn was like finding space on a crowded British beach on a sunny bank holiday – everyone from Atlanta seemed to be there and it was a really diverse crowd. Then there was the content of the laser show itself. There were quite a few little animations set to popular country music – a particularly good one with pyrotechnics was an interpretations of ‘the Devil went down to Georgia’ – and lots of animations celebrating the local sports teams, schools and colleges. But the main thing we were looking forward to was the bit where they animate the three Confederate figures and show General Lee breaking his sword following the surrender at Appomattox – all set to ‘Dixie’. Our friend remembered it from when she was young, and she remembered people around her putting their hands to their hearts at that point, but these days I think it would be hard to understand unless you knew the history pretty well already. There’s also an interesting message of redemption at the end of the animation, when the two halves of the States are made whole again – the surrender making this possible. The show ended with lots of patriotic salutes to the flag and the troops – everyone stood for the anthem and then recited the pledge of allegiance – and, of course, lots of fireworks. As we made our way back to find the car quite a number of people commented on the amount of money going up in smoke – in what is I think one of the poorest state in America. It was a great show though, and prompted interesting discussions about the difficulty of celebrating local identity and history when it’s based on something as abhorrent as slavery.

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It was late when we got back, and we had to be on the road early the next day, so that was all we had time for in Atlanta.

This was a shame, as I know there are some seriously interesting things to do here and some great food – Atlanta has a number of pizza places that have been voted the best in America. I believe it’s also a really nice place to live and if I get the chance to get back I really want to check out Midtown, the aquarium and the new walkway that they’re developing from an old railway line. One day really wasn’t enough!

Read on: Southern Road Trip – On the back roads from Atlanta to the Coast

Read about the rest of our Southern Road Trip and our adventures with Southern food:

East Coast Adventures – US History

Our travels on the East Coast of America have focused mainly on two of my interests in life – food and history. There’s also been some room for reading too, but more on that in another post. I’ll be writing about the delights of American seafood, barbecue and pizza as I blog about the places where we enjoyed them, but I thought it might be worth writing a bit about US history generally, before getting on to the histories as told by different states.

Before coming to the States I had some knowledge of bits of their history – mainly gleaned as a child from playing Sid Meiers’s Colonization (similar to Civilization, but set between the discovery of the Americas and the achieving of independence) and more recently from half watching the first couple of episodes of HBO’s mini-series John Adams (I would recommend this for the fantastic theme tune and credit sequence alone). I also of course knew the story of the Civil War as told by Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind. But my understanding of the early history of settlement and interaction with the native Americans was sketchy; I wasn’t quite sure who had won the war of 1812 or what it was about; and while I knew not to forget it, I had no idea what The Alamo was. I had learnt quite a bit from the Smithsonian Museum of American History (I blogged about this education here last year) but nothing beats walking the streets where citizens protested the quartering of British soldiers or standing on the battle-field where the British surrendered.

What I have learnt from our travels, though, is that the narrative I thought I knew is largely the narrative of Massachusetts. The story of Puritans seeking a place to practise their religion in peace; of a populace rising up in righteous rebellion against a tyrant king; of the heroism of a New England silversmith, Paul Revere, riding to warn the rebels of the British attack; and the story of a North that sought to abolish slavery and bring about ever more union between the states… All these stories ring truest in Massachusetts – specifically in Boston.

When you travel in Virginia or Maine, however, you find plenty of people ready to dispute the details of this dominant narrative. Archaeologists in Virginia were keen to remind us that of course Jamestown was the first successful British colony – started in 1607 for commercial rather than religious reasons – predating the Mayflower Pilgrims’ Plymouth colony by over ten years. And the museum of Fort William Henry, near another very early fishing colony at Pemaquid Point in Maine, is scathing about the role played by Paul Revere in the Penobscot Expedition of 1779 (during the War of Independence, the British had seized Castine in Maine and the Massachusetts legislature ordered an expedition to dislodge them). In Maine, the story goes that Revere was incompetent as an artillery commander, disobeyed orders, and fled before receiving orders to retreat (the expedition was a disaster). They prefer to commemorate the poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who immortalised Massachusetts’ hero in the poem, Paul Revere’s Ride – making it clear that there were of course many riders, and Revere’s name was just useful because it rhymed:

Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere

(it’s not a particularly good poem).

Meanwhile, in Boston, they insist that Revere’s name was cleared in the court martial he demanded for himself in 1782. They claim that the accusations only came about because the Massachusetts militia needed a scapegoat.

While I loved Boston, and thought their museums were very persuasive on most things, I’m more inclined to believe Maine’s version of the story of Paul Revere. This is partly because I was influenced by Bernard Cornwell’s historical novel of the Penobscot Expedition The Fort, which was excellent holiday reading in Maine.

I’m by no means an expert yet, but I’m certainly enjoying continuing my education in American history through reading, watching TV series, and, of course, more traveling.

Recommendations for anyone looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of American history – or just a different perspective (based only on where I’ve been and what I’ve read so far):

On the early colonies:

  • Jamestown archaeological site, Virginia
  • Mark A. Noll and Luke E. Harlow, Religion and American Politics: from the colonial period to the present

On the War of Independence:

  • Fort William Henry, Maine
  • TURN: Washington’s Spies, AMC series
  • Bernard Cornwell, The Fort

On the Civil War and its aftermath:

  • Arlington House: The Robert E. Lee Memorial (in Arlington Cemetery)
  • E. L. Doctorow, The March
  • Ford’s Theatre (especially the Ranger talk)
  • D. W. Griffith, Birth of a Nation (warning: explicitly racist)

US Holidays

So in my last post I mentioned that the Americans have 10 or 11 national holidays, and mentioned Martin Luther King Day, Columbus Day, Labor Day and Veterans Day. I’m sure some people have been trying to work out what the others might be, so here’s a list of holidays and my understanding of what they mean. I’ve also included a couple of other days that are significant, but not important enough to merit a day off work.

New Year’s Day. Celebrated on January 1. As in the UK it’s mainly a chance to recover after the celebrations of New Year’s Eve.

Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Commonly known as Martin Luther King (MLK) Day. Observed on the third Monday of January as this is around MLK’s birthday (January 15). I didn’t experience much cultural activity around this in my area, but there was a wreath laying event at the Martin Luther King memorial, a peace walk and parade in Southeast DC and musical tributes at the National Cathedral and the Kennedy Center.

George Washington’s Birthday. Sometimes known as Presidents’ Day as the holiday is usually observed on a day which falls between the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, but DC obviously prefers the official title. Observed on the third Monday of February, which is around Washington’s birthday (February 22). I’ve not experienced this holiday yet, but I’m informed that his hometown in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, marks the occasion with parades and other cultural events. Washington is one of America’s heroes – the general that won the Revolution and then went home to his farm, returning power to the civil government until they asked him back to become President.

[This might be a good place to point out that quite a few of these holidays are observed on a Monday, resulting in some nice long-weekends. This was not always the case – up until the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect these holidays were just observed on whichever day of the week they happened to fall, as is still the case for Veterans Day and the next holiday on our list, which is:]

Emancipation Day. This day is actually not a federal holiday I have now found, but is celebrated at different times of the year in different states, depending on when the slaves of those states learnt that they were free. In DC it is celebrated on April 16, which was the date that Lincoln signed the DC Compensated Emancipation Act (so named because in DC, exceptionally, the federal government compensated the former owners of slaves). This is a fun holiday with parades, music and probably fireworks.

Memorial Day. Not to be confused with Veterans Day. Observed on the last Monday in May and traditionally marks the beginning of the summer season. Parades celebrate those who died in all America’s wars and people dress up in period costume. Last year in DC the parade also featured Buzz Aldrin, which was quite exciting.

Independence Day. Observed, famously, on July 4, but which Americans unusually refer to as ‘4th of July’ – they never use this date formation, and we’re quite confused about it. This year ‘the 4th’ falls on a Saturday, so the federal holiday is being observed on the Friday. This is a good time of year in DC, so there’s rooftop partying, grilling (barbecuing), and a firework display on the mall.

Labor Day. Traditionally marks the end of the summer season (which is why there’s no wearing white after Labor Day). Observed first Monday of September, so to those of us from the UK it sometimes feels like the British August bank holiday. Officially this day celebrates workers, like the international workers’ day of May 1. There are parades, but mainly this holiday is about shopping at the sales.

Columbus Day. Observed on the second Monday in October. Most people are a bit confused by this day. In my experience this anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in America leads to awkward conversations about who gave syphilis to whom (apparently the Native Americans to the sailors) and whether the day should in fact be a day of national mourning for America’s crimes against the indigenous population.

Veterans Day. Observed on November 11. While in the UK this is a sober Day of Remembrance, dedicated to those who have fallen in war (like the US’s Memorial Day), this is a more exuberant celebration of America’s troops – all who have served whether they lived or died. In DC this year there was a big concert and party on the mall. America’s respect for its Veterans can sometimes tip over into jingoism though, and this is one holiday where I feel very much like a foreigner.

Thanksgiving Day. Observed November 26. See my previous post about the Christmas season – it’s the holiday dedicated to turkey, family and giving thanks.

Christmas Day. Observed December 25. Again, see previous post. This is the only federal holiday associated with a religious festival.

Not Holidays:

Groundhog Day. Observed February 2. This is not, as I thought, when the day replays again and again, as in the film. It is the day when people gather to watch a groundhog come out of its burrow and predict whether there will be six more weeks of winter based on whether it sees its shadow or not. The ‘official’ predicting groundhog is called Punxsutawny Phil (from Punxsutawny Pennsylvania) and this year he saw his shadow, so we’re in for more cold weather.

Super Bowl Day. Not just a sporting event, but a cultural tradition with specific associated foods. There is a debate raging between the wings and nachos party and the pizza party. But everyone agrees that there has to be buckets of guacamole. Apparently Mexico and California have to time their harvest of avocados so as to fulfil the insane demand created by this day – the guys at Harris Teeter told me they had sold out of 1000 crates of avocados that week. People host parties, bars deliver snacks to your home, the streets outside are deserted – much like workplaces the next day.

Overall, I still don’t think that federal holidays make up for an insufficient amount of discretionary leave, but at least some of them are enjoyable.

A Stroll Through American History: Washington Mall and the Smithsonian Museum of American History (Part III)

A rainy Saturday was perfect for exploring the Smithsonian Museum of American History (after brunch of course). Like most things in America, it’s pretty huge. We focused on the exhibits on the top floor (The Price of Freedom) which took us on a tour through the war of independence, the 1812 war, the civil war, the wars of expansion, and the Spanish-American war. The exhibit then continues through the world wars, the cold war, Korea and Vietnam right into the present – but we got tired, so will go back to do these another time. What we saw in the first part of the exhibit had certainly put what we’d seen on the mall into context for us.

One thing that struck me as we went around, was just how known American history is: it’s so well documented, in terms of writings and artefacts. I suppose this is due in part to the fact that if you’re conscious of the fact that you’re creating what you want to be an historic nation and system, you’ll be careful to preserve the records of how it was forged. Also, at the time their history was unfolding, the concept of a museum already existed, and thanks to James Smithson’s donation to a country that he had never visited, America soon had the Smithsonian institution to which presidents, those who knew presidents, and even common citizens, could begin sending relics. The Smithsonian visitor centre has an exhibition of such objects at the moment (you can see some online at their site: Souvenir Nation), including shavings of the final railroad tie (or sleeper) to complete the transcontinental railway, locks of the presidents’ hair, and a suffragette pin in the shape of a jailhouse door. In the Museum of American History itself the importance of relics to the early Americans was made clear to us as we stood in front of the original star spangled banner – the one that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore following a successful battle over the British in the 1812 war and inspired the poem which became the national anthem. Bits of this flag are missing as they were cut off in the nineteenth century as patriotic keepsakes – and I don’t mean just the edges, someone even gave away one of the stars.     

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There were a few things I hadn’t realised about American history that I learned from the Smithsonian:

1. The 1812 war. I mean, I think I had a vague inkling that there had been a second war between Britain and America but, embarrassingly, this was mostly news to me. The war was entirely separate from the war of independence, lasted 32 months, and was pretty much a draw, with neither Britain nor America losing territory. It was pretty bad for the Indians though – it was in this war that Andrew Jackson destroyed the military power of the Creek nation at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. It was also in this war that the British burnt down the White House. I’d already heard the story of how the first lady, Dolly Madison, had set the table ready for dinner and how the British soldiers sat down and ate before torching the place, but I hadn’t heard that Dolly also saved many of the White House treasures from the fire.

2. Lincoln was assassinated just a month after his second inauguration.

3. I had thought that America’s involvement with the Philippines stemmed from WWII, but in fact it was one of the theatres of the American-Spanish war of 1898. It also represented America’s desire to build its own overseas empire.

4. After winning the war of independence, George Washington returned to private life on his farm, until America decided it needed a president and called him back. This was pretty impressive to the world back then, and still is in some places; it made us think of the Ibrahim prize that encourages and supports African leaders to step down and move onto other things when their allotted term comes to an end…

Overall I came away feeling a bit more educated, and slightly more able to reflect on the difficult questions posed by America’s history. There’s the question of the nature of the union – how different states are philosophically, especially in their support of states’ rights or their belief in the importance of the nation. There’s the question of slavery – how different was it in fact from the wage slavery of capitalism, and was the war really just about this issue? And then of course, there’s the Native Americans. Pulled into every one of the conflicts, losing land and power as they went, having treaty after treaty revoked. And of course, we’ve barely scratched the surface. Part of one exhibition down, two and a half floors, sixteen Smithsonians to go!