Lois Leveen


April 10, 2012

Fort Pillows and Blankets

Fort Pillow, perhaps most horrific massacre of the Civil War.

Community's Pillows and Blankets episode, definitely the most hilarious parody of KenBurn's Civil War.

When Confederate troops led by Nathan Bedford Forrest overran Fort Pillow in Tennessee, they slaughtered the black Union troops rather than taking them prisoner. This remains one of the most controversial episodes of the war.

On the other hand, the Community episode parodying Ken Burns' documentary was absolutely hilarious (and free of racist vitriol). I'm pretty sure the writers had no idea there was a Fort Pillow in the actual war ... probably for the best.
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April 9, 2012

Let My People Go

Another Passover-inspired Civil War fact: The African American spiritual "Go Down Moses," aka "Let My People Go," was sung during the War by enslaved blacks who took their freedom by fleeing to Fort Monroe, a Union army stronghold in Virginia.

The song was published by a chaplain who heard it there, and became popular in the North. It is sometimes credited as the first black spiritual, although I'm a little dubious about counting publication by a white chaplain as the marker of what was the first black spiritual; whoever was singing this song when they arrived at Fort Monroe probably knew other spirituals as well, and no one can carbon-date which was sung first.

"Go Down Moses" remains one of the best known and most sung of the early African American spirituals. For many people, the song seemed to capture a moral righteousness they believed the Union could and should claim (although publication of the song pre-dated the Emancipation Proclamation, and even the fate of the "contraband" fugitive slaves who'd stolen their own freedom by fleeing to Fort Monroe was not permanently settled at that point).

While visiting the Union encampments in Virginia, Lincoln reportedly joined in prayer meetings at which "Go Down Moses" aka "Let My People Go" was sung. It was subsequently performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the 1870s, by Paul Robeson in the early twentieth century, and by many Jews at Passover seders over this past weekend.

Please note that it would be incorrect to assume that Lincoln also chanted the Four Questions while visiting Union encampments, nor was he known to have broken into a rousing rendition of "Dayenu."
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April 6, 2012

Definitive Proof the Union Fought Against Slavery

Hmm, I seem to have intermingled my Passover-themed Playmobil and my Civil War Playmobil sets.

Harriet Tubman was called "the Moses of her people," underscoring how important the Exodus story was for many enslaved blacks, and for the free blacks and whites who were inspired to fight against slavery. However, Charlton Heston was never called "the Harriet Tubman of his people."

During her years in slavery, Tubman suffered what today we might call a traumatic brain injury. Some scholars believe that injury led her to have visions--perhaps delusions--of invincibility, which influenced her decisions to return to the South to lead other slaves to freedom. I don't think it detracts any from the bravery of what she did, either during those liberation runs or during the Civil War, when she gathered intelligence and accompanied Union troops on raids into rebelling states.

Happy Passover and Good Friday!
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March 30, 2012

I HEART Bookmark

You know you are a book geek when . . . although half your luggage is books, you *still* stop into a local bookstore during the trip, just to see what they stock.
Bookmark Inc
This wonderful bookstore on Spring Garden Road in Halifax, Nova Scotia has an amazing selection. I was head over heels when the staff told me they've already order The Secrets of Mary Bowser. I'll be sending friends and family in Halifax there (note: complete strangers should also feel free to patronize Bookmark).
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March 11, 2012

DiVERSE Civil War Fact

Di-VERSE Civil War fact: Sweet ol' Emily Dickinson wrote most of her poems during the bloodiest years of the Civil War. An average of over one poem PER DAY.
Emily Dickinson in a Kepi
Creepy little meditations about what it means to live in a time when an unprecedented number of people are dying, and how to assimilate that death and destruction into your daily life (which, when there are wounded veterans returning to your town, is not so separate from the War).

I spent today listening to wonderful high school students compete in Poetry Out Loud, a national program encouraging poem recitation. Of the 12 competitors we heard at Powells, 3 will advance to the state competition at the end of the month. So in honor of them, and Emily Dickinson, here's a reflection for today's Civil War fact:

My Portion is Defeat—today—
A paler luck than Victory—
Less Paeans—fewer Bells—
The Drums don’t follow Me—with tunes—
Defeat—a somewhat slower—means—
More Arduous than Balls—

’Tis populous with Bone and stain—
And Men too straight to stoop again—,
And Piles of solid Moan—
And Chips of Blank—in Boyish Eyes—
And scraps of Prayer—
And Death’s surprise,
Stamped visible—in Stone—

There’s somewhat prouder, over there—
The Trumpets tell it to the Air—
How different Victory
To Him who has it—and the One
Who to have had it, would have been
Contender—to die—
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