Friday, May 30, 2008

Memorial Day - Civil War

Lest we forget that May 30th was the original Memorial Day before the Monday holidays trend, and that it began as both tribute to the men of the American Civil War and a reconciliation between two former enemies, Americans all, we include this scene taken at the Quabbin Park Cemetery one Memorial Day Service.

This cemetery was created for the dead of four towns, Dana, Greenwich, Enfield, and Prescott, Massachusetts when the Quabbin Reservoir was created and these towns were demolished. Corpses were exhumed from every town cemetery and churchyard, which had been their resting places for three centuries.

Re-interred in a modern cemetery beyond their valley towns, the soldiers continue to receive their tributes each Memorial Day by their descendents. The timeline for these town commemorations ends at World War I.

Here at the Civil War cenotaph, they play Taps once more.

The Blue And The Gray
Francis Miles Finch (1827-1907)

By the flow of the inland river,
Whence the fleets of iron have fled,
Where the blades of the grave-grass quiver,
Asleep are the ranks of the dead:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day;
Under the one, the Blue,
Under the other, the Gray.

These in the robings of glory,
Those in the gloom of defeat,
All with the battle-blood gory,
In the dusk of eternity meet:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgement-day
Under the laurel, the Blue,
Under the willow, the Gray.

From the silence of sorrowful hours
The desolate mourners go,
Lovingly laden with flowers
Alike for the friend and the foe;
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgement-day;
Under the roses, the Blue,
Under the lilies, the Gray.

So with an equal splendor,
The morning sun-rays fall,
With a touch impartially tender,
On the blossoms blooming for all:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day;
Broidered with gold, the Blue,
Mellowed with gold, the Gray.

So, when the summer calleth,
On forest and field of grain,
With an equal murmur falleth
The cooling drip of the rain:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment -day,
Wet with the rain, the Blue
Wet with the rain, the Gray.

Sadly, but not with upbraiding,
The generous deed was done,
In the storm of the years that are fading
No braver battle was won:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day;
Under the blossoms, the Blue,
Under the garlands, the Gray.

No more shall the war cry sever,
Or the winding rivers be red;
They banish our anger forever
When they laurel the graves of our dead!
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment-day,
Love and tears for the Blue,
Tears and love for the Gray.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Small Town War Memorials

To mark Memorial Day, here are a few photos from around New England of military monuments in quieter moments, when nobody is placing wreaths before them and nobody gets a day off.

Some towns have very large monuments to the Civil War, often the archetypical figure of a solider on picket duty. Some towns have a cannon or even a tank on the park. Some have a separate monument of varying sizes for the fallen of each war, and list the individual names of the servicemen from their towns. Some towns, with smaller populations, honor their fallen with a single marker on which all the names from all the wars are carved.

These are the humble monuments, not always in the center of the common but squeezed into a convenient place by the sidewalk, flanked by “no parking” signs or a bus stop. We don’t pay enough attention to them, usually.

But here they are. Take a look, at the moment of this photo when no one else is looking.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Wiscasset's Schooners

In 1932, two four-masted schooners came to Wiscasset, Maine and became tourist attractions in the muck, and future emblems of a lovely coastal town.

They were the Hesper and the Luther Little, and as they sat moored and aground through the decades, they seemed to symbolize all that was daring and noble about the days of the sailing ships, and what is sometimes romantic about obsolescence. This photo was taken in the mid-1990s when there wasn’t much left of the ships. A few years later, in 1998, they were finally demolished. They might have been preserved had action been taken sooner, but it seemed that these ships were destined to play another role, just as they were, right where they were.

They were built in 1918 and 1917, respectively. For a detailed history of the exploits of these ships, please see this website.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The New England Confederation

Yesterday, May 19th, marks the 365th anniversary of the New England Confederation. The photo above shows one representation of the various flags designed to stand for New England, which is the pine tree and the red field. This flag was believed to have been carried during the Battle of Bunker Hill, when New Englanders resurrected their past identity to give strength to their cause and their hopes for self government at that terrible time of war. It was also used as the ensign of the Massachusetts Navy.

The small pin shows a design which is not historic and never stood for the original New England Confederation, but was established in the 1990s as a trade and tourism promotion. Both history and modern commerce play a big role in our regional identity.

The New England Confederation was formed in 1643 just after King Philip’s War by then four New England colonies (Maine was still part of Massachusetts at the time, and Vermont was still largely unknown territory).

This political union lasted over forty years, until 1684. Its roots gave birth to a nation based on the same principles of cooperative self government, and would lead to our national Constitution in a future century.

The united colonies of New England sought protection from the Indians, from the French, from the Dutch. After the Revolutionary War when these perceived threats were no longer a source of fear or resentment, what remained were our ties to each other. Our cultural ties among the six New England states are strong and our heritage is shared. The political entity has given way to a regional identity.

For a detailed history of the flags of New England of the particular importance of the pine tree as a symbol, please see this fine essay by David B. Martucci.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Twin Lighthouses of Thatcher Island

Forgive the unannounced hiatus between this and my last post of two weeks ago.

We’re back, and it’s time for another lighthouse, or in this case, two of them. The Twin Lighthouses of Thatcher Island mark a dangerous spot for navigation off Rockport, Mass., as Captain Anthony Thatcher discovered when he lost his ship in 1635. Afterward the island, named Thatcher Island, sometimes called Thatcher’s Woe, became the home of a pair of lighthouses with a compelling story.

Built first in 1771, they were the last lighthouses built in the American Colonies by the British government. After several decades of use, it was decided to construct newer, taller towers, which were completed in 1861. Today, part of the Town of Rockport, the Twin Lights are designated National Historic Landmarks.

For a detailed narrative on the fascinating history of these lighthouses, and the heroic adventures of the families which ran them, have a look at this website.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Anne Sullivan Memorial

Recently, a previously unknown photo of Anne Sullivan and Hellen Keller was discovered in Massachusetts.

It is the earliest known photo discovered, and how wonderful that we can keep discovering historical subjects anew. Anne Sullivan might well wonder just when she and her student, Helen Keller, became historical subjects. Sometime, perhaps, after they became icons.

Here are views of the Anne Sullivan Memorial in Agawam, Massachusetts. The remarkable young teacher of Helen Keller did not live in Agawam or its village of Feeding Hills very long, nor was her time there particularly happy. The peaceful scene depicted of Annie speaking to Helen with her hands took place far away in Alabama. Annie Sullivan may have been pleased, and perhaps amazed, to be so remembered by the town.

My essay below was published first by Dana Literary Society Online, with the title American Accent. It discusses another aspect of the Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller partnership:

After the Civil War, a strange experiment occurred between two unlikely people which in retrospect, seems to say a lot about regionalism as an inevitable and almost necessary part of the American character. These two were Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. One aspect to their story is the fascinating irony that it was perhaps the first and most successful union between the North and the South.

In a nation full of Southerners, Iowans, New Englanders and Texans, regionalism is one of our most cherished aspects of self-identity in this country, a trait that non-Americans may not understand or even recognize. Regional prejudices among ourselves have become for the most part benign. It was not always so.

The American Civil War was the last time a serious division occurred, and once joined again after the war, there was much to overcome. For the young New England woman and the Alabama girl, there was also much to overcome. Disability was only part of it.

The deaf and blind Helen Keller, taught to communicate by her teacher, Anne Sullivan, later graduated from Radcliffe, wrote several books and stood as a glorious example of what untapped potential lay in persons with disabilities. All that came later.

Annie Sullivan was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, a small farming village in the western part of the state, in 1866, a year after the war ended. Her parents were Irish immigrants, and indigent. After her mother died, her father, alcoholic, unable and disinclined to care for his children, sent Annie and her brother to the state almshouse in Tewksbury, where her brother died. Adding to her misery, Annie suffered from trachoma as well and had several eye operations before she became Helen’s teacher.

If you had asked young Annie what she was, she would have said, “Irish,” though she was born an American. Most of the inmates of the almshouse were Irish. She would have undoubtedly equated “American” with the well-bred Yankee daughters who snubbed her at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, where she was later fortunate enough to be given schooling as a charity case. She was sent there in 1880, the year Helen was born. Surpassing anyone’s expectations, Annie, who could barely read when she entered, graduated as Valedictorian. Unlike some of the other wealthier pupils, she now had to find a job. Helen Keller of Tuscumbia, Alabama became her job, then a career, and then a crusade.

Helen was the product of an aristocratic Southern family. Unlike Annie, she grew up in a clean and gracious home, yet like Annie her home and her heritage betrayed her nearly to the point of destroying her. Her father served as a Captain in the Confederate army, but the postwar years were a struggle to maintain a social status they had no funds to sustain. Helen’s affliction was a deeper disappointment to them, what must have seemed a final failure to years of hardship and tragedy. If you could have asked Helen what she was, she might have said a Southerner or an Alabamian. But she could not speak at all, and had no idea what she was, or what Annie Sullivan was.

In 19th century American terms, Annie was the scum of earth. She had three terrible strikes against her: she was a product of the poorhouse in a country that prided itself on the Puritan work ethic, where poverty was seen as the result of being shiftless. Secondly, she was Irish in a country where this first mass of foreigners were looked upon as undesirables.

The third strike against her was perhaps the most heinous. Annie Sullivan was nearly blind herself, and handicapped people were regarded as freaks and sources of shame.

Helen shared this last shame of Annie’s. The logic followed that a person physically or mentally disabled was somehow less than human and it was fitting to pack them off to asylums and even chain them to walls sometimes, because they would not miss a normal life, since they would never have one.

Annie Sullivan helped change that.
Ironically, their different regional backgrounds, with their implied powerful self identifications and prejudices which normally ensued, might have impeded their success except for the fact of Helen’s being deaf. With no point of reference to cling to, Helen did not think of herself as a Southerner and had no idea Annie was a Northerner, Irish, and her social inferior.

Annie, for her part, was not happy in the South. She had a Northerner’s point of view and prejudice, and found fault with the Keller’s patriarchal household and community. The Kellers were doubtful of, and somewhat repulsed by, the half-blind Yankee (!) teacher and her assertive ways, and though Mrs. Keller came to admire Annie, Captain Keller was deeply affronted by Annie’s lack of Southern sensibilities.

However, once Helen learned to express herself, she and Annie talked with their hands about everything, and for hours, without barriers.

We Americans invariably identify ourselves, and label each other, by the hundreds of accents which exist in this country. An accent different to our own we may find difficult to follow, or even irritating, or it may represent snobbishness to us or stupidity. We may brand the different speaker with a label of our own making.

Helen could not hear and did not know Annie spoke with a different accent, and that the accent set her drastically apart from the Kellers and anyone else in Tuscumbia, where there was nowhere for Annie to hide. Helen could not speak, so she presented to Annie not so much as the daughter of a fine Southern family, but instead, ignorant of her heritage and her place in it, was like a clean slate, unencumbered by any regional prejudice she might have had for Annie or she might have inspired in Annie. They were a team from the start, because that first hurdle that is so comically present for us, even today in the 21st century and was so acute in the 19th century, did not even exist. The very handicap they worked to overcome paved the way for their incredible partnership. In time, Helen learned about her family and her Southern heritage, and found pride in her roots, as well as learning to appreciate Annie’s.

They were two of the finest Americans ever born, and were born in separate halves of a nation that had so recently been so violently divided. Despite this, throughout their lives they were able to maintain regional self identifications, and ultimately became representatives of progressive American education on the world stage.

We no longer need to kill wholesale our countrymen over policies we do not like and intolerance with what we do not understand, injustice we perceive, or heritage which we do not share. There are still many countries in the world where that is not possible, where citizens of the same nation cannot interact unfettered by prejudice, like those two young American ladies engrossed in the topics of the day in an Alabama garden, without so much as an earful of twang or drawl.