Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Music for New Year's Eve 2014

Happy New Year.  Down by the Riverside is an African American spiritual whose exact pre-Civil War origin is obscure.  It may have originated among slaves held on and near the Georgia Sea islands, whose rich musical contributions include Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Wade in the Water, and Swing Low Sweet Chariot.  The riverside in question is simultaneously that of the Jordan and the Ohio, across which first the Hebrew slaves and then the American ones would find the promised land and live in peace.  The song was popularized after the war by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who also (decades later, with a different lineup) made its first recording.

This video is from Rainbow Quest, a show that Pete Seeger hosted and produced with money from his own pocket for one season in the mid-1960s, during his fifteen-year ban from network television for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It was shot on a no-budget set without rehearsals or a studio audience and broadcast on a single, mostly Spanish-language, UHF (ultra-high frequency) station in Linden, New Jersey in the days when UHF reception was notoriously poor.  Clips from it are all over YouTube these days, not because of the production values, but because of the quality of the performances by Seeger and his great guests, at least some of whom declined payment for being there.  There are 39 episodes and only the one with an obviously stoned Johnny Cash is a disappointment.

Here, Sonny Terry on harmonica and Brownie McGhee on guitar are less than halfway through their almost forty-year partnership.  They paired up in New York City in 1941 or '42, and toured (sometimes eleven months per year) and recorded together until 1980.  They were also occasionally actors, and here's a small irony--they appeared in the original Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Burl Ives, who had a few years earlier named Seeger's name to HUAC.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans' long wait at the Texas DMV may be over soon.

Almost legal.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans seem a giant step closer to winning their fight with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles over whether the state of Texas should issue specialty license plates displaying the Confederate battle flag.  The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear Texas's appeal of the Fifth Circuit's Court of Appeal's decision overturning, on First Amendment grounds, a U.S. District Court's decision that the DMV was within its rights to decide not to issue the plates for the specific reason it gave at the time.

The issue on appeal relates to the Texas state law that says the DMV can reject any application for a specialty license plate if that plate's design "might be offensive to any member of the public."  Plenty of Texans testified to the DMV board that they were in fact offended by the proposed SCV plate's design, because they recognize the Confederate battle flag to be both a historical symbol of hate and a contemporary tool of racial intimidation, and the board voted the SCV's application down for that reason.

But there is nothing in the Constitution granting the right to go through life unoffended.  To the contrary, the First Amendment requires us to pretty much suck it up and get over it if someone chooses to use his or her individual right of free speech to offend us.  The question the Court has agreed to decide is whether a specialty license plate is part of an individual's private speech, in which case the Texas law against offensiveness is clearly unconstitutional, or if it is part of the state's speech, in which case the First Amendment does not apply and the Texas DMV is free to choose not to offend people.

There seems to be no firm legal category to contain the possibility that a specialty license plate is in fact a hybrid of private and state speech:  the individual requests the specialty plate because he or she supports the specialty content, and the state endorses the specialty content by manufacturing and distributing the plates.  Both the individual and the state seem to have spoken.

The one dissenting Fifth Circuit judge argued for just such a category:
A fundamental error in the majority opinion is describing the government-speech doctrine as presenting a binary choice:  government or private speech. . . . Texas does not prevent SCV from engaging in speech on its or its members' cars in the same way that speech has traditionally been made:  by license plate frames, bumper stickers, window stickers, window flags, or even painting cars with the Confederate flag.  If SCV and its members can do all of those things, why is it seeking an order from a court compelling Texas to sell Confederate plates? The answer is the same answer in Summum [a precedent case involving a monument a religious group had attempted to donate to a municipal park]:  SCV seeks the kind of "adoption" and "embrace" that comes with being on Texas license plates, with appearing next to the state's flag, name, and likeness, and being given the kind of validation that follows from appearing on a state-issued license plate.  It is precisely the reason that SCV wants to force Texas to produce these plates that it should be denied a court order doing so.  Texas, like Pleasant Grove [the municipality in Summum], cannot be forced to associate with messages it does not prefer.
The analogy applies in another important respect.  Unlike pamphleteering, speeches, marches, picketing, and bumper stickers--all of which unquestionably involve private speech, even if they occur on government-owned property--erecting monuments and manufacturing specialty license plates both require the government's assistance and complicity.  That distinction, yet again, makes specialty plates more like park monuments and less like leafleting and bumper stickers.
Because of Texas's dumb law, it may be too late for the DMV to reject the plates for the right reason:  because they would honor men who took up arms against the United States.  Part of the SCV's argument for the plates is that Texas already issues specialty plates honoring Korean War veterans, Vietnam veterans, buffalo soldiers, women veterans, and other such groups; therefore that its refusal to issue plates for Confederate veterans amounts to viewpoint discrimination.   Texas failed to make
Over 3500 Union soldiers are buried at Gettysburg National Cemetery.
It should be needless to point out they were killed by Confederate soldiers.
the obvious response:  the veterans it recognizes on specialty plates are all veterans of the U. S. armed forces, which Confederate soldiers were not.  Surely the government, even of a former Confederate state, should be able to honor those who fought to defend the United States without becoming obliged to embrace honoring those who attacked it.

Confederate soldiers insisted they weren't Americans and considered themselves the army of a foreign nation, and denying them tribute on specialty license plates is viewpoint discrimination only if Texas issues such plates honoring veterans of the Viet Cong or the Luftwaffe.  If the fact that the Confederates were nonetheless of domestic vintage is considered relevant, then Confederate soldiers deserve specialty plate recognition the same day other failed violent domestic groups such as the Weather Underground, FALN, and the Symbionese Liberation Army do so.  As long as Texas would be within its rights to deny applications for specialty plates to any of those veterans, it should be able to deny the SCV application.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Music for Christmas 2014

When I first started working at City Lit ten years ago, we put together a Christmas show that included "The One-Horse Open Sleigh," the original version of the song the public renamed "Jingle Bells."  As you'll hear, the chorus melody is a bit more complicated than the one we know today, and the song has perfectly lovely verses we don't know at all.

James Pierpont was born in 1822, in the heart of anti-slavery Boston, the son of the Reverend John Pierpont, an abolitionist Unitarian minister and famous in his day for several anti-slavery poems.  James's brother, also named John and also an abolitionist Unitarian minister, moved to Georgia to take on the daunting task of heading an anti-slavery congregation there.  In 1853, he invited James to move there as well, to become his church's music director and organist.

James was 31 and had not really settled down.  Married with two children, he had left his family behind with his parents in Massachusetts in 1849 to join the rush for California gold.  Finding none, he had returned home, but now left his wife and children again--this time for good--to go to Georgia.  In addition to fulfilling his duties at his brother's church, he spent the 1850s writing songs and instrumental pieces for the minstrel circuit.  One of the latter, 1854's "The Know Nothing Polka," was a tribute to the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, Know-Nothing Party.  A song, co-written in 1857 with lyricist Marshall S. Pike, "Gentle Nettie Moore," was recorded in the 1930s by The Sons of the Pioneers when Roy Rogers was still in their line-up, and is the uncredited basis for Bob Dylan's song "Nettie Moore" on his 2006 Modern Times CD.

Also in 1857, Pierpont wrote "The One-Horse Open Sleigh" for a Thanksgiving celebration at the church.  It was successful enough that the performance was repeated the following month at Christmas, and the song has been associated with Christmas (when there is more likely to be snow through which to dash) ever since.  Published that same year, it was re-published two years later under the title it had become popularly known by, "Jingle Bells."

By 1859, whatever demand there had been for an abolitionist church in Georgia had evaporated and the Reverend John Jr had returned to the North.  James stayed in Georgia with his second wife and family.  When the war broke out and his 76-year-old father enlisted as a chaplain in the Union Army, he enlisted in the Confederate cavalry as a clerk and continued to write songs, now exclusively pro-Confederate war numbers with such titles as "Strike for the South" and "We Conquer or Die."

Once the war ended, Pierpont never wrote another song.  He lived until 1893, teaching music and working as a church organist.  Inadequate 19th-Century copyright laws being what they were, he never made much money from his great Christmas hit. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Alonzo Cushing has a date with President Obama.

 Alonzo Cushing as a West Point cadet, Class of  June 1861
On Tuesday the White House announced that President Obama will award the Medal of Honor to Alonzo Cushing on September 15 of this year, which will be 151 years, two  months, and twelve days after Cushing was shot through the mouth standing at what would become known as the Bloody Angle as the Confederates of Pickett's Charge charged right at him.

From the White House press release:
First Lieutenant Cushing was killed in action on July 3, 1863, at the age of 22. On that day, the third day of the battle, in the face of Longstreet's Assault, also known as Pickett's Charge, First Lieutenant Cushing's battery took a severe pounding by Confederate artillery.  As the rebel infantry advanced, he manned the only remaining, and serviceable, field piece in his battery.  During the advance, he was wounded in the stomach as well as in the right shoulder.  Refusing to evacuate to the rear despite his severe wounds, he directed the operation of his lone field piece continuing to fire in the face of the enemy.  With the rebels within 100 yards of his position, Cushing was shot and killed during this heroic stand.  His actions made it possible for the Union Army to successfully repulse the Confederate assault.
Cushing's headstone at West Point.

Friday, July 11, 2014

1864's Civil War commemorative stamps come out this month!

Other than our own Civil War Project, my favorite part of the sesquicentennial so far is the gorgeous series of commemorative stamps being issued, two each year, by the U.S. Postal Service, all designed by Phil Jordan.

The stamps for 2014 commemorate key military events from 1864, specifically the early days of the Petersburg Campaign and the Battle of Mobile Bay.

Petersburg, Virginia is about 30 miles from Richmond, the Confederate capital, and was in 1864 a transportation center instrumental to supplying food to both Richmond and Lee's army.  Grant spent nine and a half months trying to take the city through a series of battles and the most extensive trench warfare prior to World War One.  The Union scored no victories at Petersburg until late August, and suffered losses that horrified the nation:  at least 42,000 casualties over the length of the campaign; more than 11,000 in its first four days.  But when Petersburg finally fell, the Confederates were forced to abandon Richmond the same day, and Lee's army had no option but a desperate retreat that led to its being surrounded and forced to surrender at Appomattox six days later.

The Petersburg Campaign saw the war's largest concentration of African American soldiers; the specific scene depicted on the stamp is the Twenty-Second U. S. Colored Troops charging Petersburg's outer works on the second day of the campaign.  It's taken from an 1892 oil painting entitled "Charge of the 22nd Negro Regiment during Civil War, 16 July 1864" by J. Andre Castaigne.  The original hangs in the West Point Museum, and no full-color electronic image of it seems to be available anywhere online.  Below is the New York Public Library's print of the painting:

Castaigne's Phantom, 1910
Castaigne was a French illustrator who worked in the United States for five years in the 1890s, and occasionally thereafter.  When he's remembered, it's mainly as the original illustrator of the novel The Phantom of the Opera

The Mobile Bay stamp illustration is taken from an 1886 painting by Julian Oliver Davidson, Battle of Mobile Bay.  It shows the sinking of the ironclad USS Tecumseh, following its running into a Confederate torpedo (an 1860s torpedo was not a projectile, but a stationary underwater mine).  Tecumseh took only 25 seconds to sink, and moments later Union Admiral David Farragut, on the flagship Hartford (second wooden ship from the right in the painting), ordered it to move through the minefield.  It is when the torpedoes in Hartford's way were pointed out to him that he is supposed to have said "Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead."  Whether or not he said precisely that, Hartford did lead the way successfully through the minefield.  This brought the Union fleet out of the range of Confederate land guns and led to the surrender of the Confederate fleet and the capturing of the last important Confederate Gulf port east of the Mississippi.  Here's the full picture:

Davidson was the country's leading marine artist, and was commissioned by Louis Prang (originator of the American Christmas card) to paint six naval battles as part of his series of well-researched depictions of Civil War battles, which he ran off as inexpensively priced chromolithographs.  It's the same series for which Prang hired Thure de Thurlstrup to paint twelve infantry scenes

This is the second stamp in this series to feature Farragut's fleet; in 2012 one of the 1862 stamps showed him in the process of capturing New Orleans.  His foster brother, Admiral David Porter, commanded the fleet depicted on last year's 1863 stamp running the Confederate blockade at Vicksburg, so their family has been represented on three of the eight Civil War stamps so far.

The stamps are being issued July 30 at Mobile and Petersburg.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Another toxic remnant of slavery

So-called Constitutional originalists like to say that our understanding of any given clause in the Constitution must be rooted in its original intent, what an average reasonable person at the time of its writing would say it meant and was intended to accomplish.  So what does this mean when it turns out the original intent is disgraceful, and in fact would be illegal today?  Should that affect our sense of the clause in question?

Via Brad Delong's economics blog, we're directed to a website called The Smirking Chimp, and from that to a body of historical research that indicates that the original intent of the Second Amendment was to help preserve slavery by guaranteeing southern states the ability to terrorize their slaves.

Much of the research quoted was done by Carl T. Bogus of Roger Williams University, whose full paper on what he calls "the hidden history of the Second Amendment" can be downloaded here.  He documents that, in order to get Virginia to ratify the Constitution, the Amendment was written to guarantee that abolitionist forces in Congress would never be able to disarm the southern militias whose near-exclusive function was to act as slave patrols to prevent "servile insurrection."

From the introduction of slavery into the colonies in the 17th century right up to the Civil War, the slaveowner's biggest fear was of being murdered in his bed during a slave revolt.  Sensibly enough:  Bogus cites research indicating there were around 250
slave insurrections throughout the South during colonial times.  At the time of the ratification debates, the biggest and best-known was in 1739 South Carolina, when and where a group of 20 blacks broke into a store and stole weapons and gunpowder.  Bogus: "They decapitated the two storekeepers, displaying their heads on the front steps, and then headed south, sacking and burning homes and killing whites on the way.  They marched while flying banners, beating drums, and calling out "Liberty!" to attract more slaves to the rebellion."  Eventually they numbered near 100, and were only subdued after fighting two full-fledged battles with mounted militiamen.  After the first, black captives were beheaded and their heads hung from mileposts along the road as a warning to other slaves.  Most of those who had escaped were tracked down a week later by another militia company and wiped out.

Newspaper woodcut following Nat Turner's revolt, 1831
In many areas of the South, black slaves outnumbered whites.  Even where that wasn't the case, the ratio of slaves to total population was huge:  while the Constitution was being debated, 44% of Virginia's population was enslaved.  How do you control an oppressed people in your midst when their numbers approach or exceed yours?  Basically, you run a police state.  From early colonial days, a feature of Southern life was organized slave patrols of armed white men who searched slave quarters without notice, whipped slaves found off the plantation without permission, and prevented blacks from gathering in groups of three or more.  The formation after the Civil War of terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan was simply an extension of the pre-war slave patrols.

By the mid-1700s, the slave patrols had been put under the auspices of the state militia.  The Smirking Chimp cites Sally Haden's book Slave Patrols:  Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas to the effect that virtually all men between 18 and 45--not even physicians or ministers were exempted--were required to serve in the militia, which is to say on slave patrols.  One reason the 1739 uprising was quelled promptly was that the white men attending Sunday services at a nearby church were, as required by law, armed.

The myth of the citizen militia during the Revolution is that it was an important element in defeating the British--patriot Minutemen rushing from their homes to battle redcoats, and all that.  Bogus points out that in fact a number of Southern states refused even to contribute any militia to the war effort, for the perfectly sound reason that doing so would leave their homes unprotected against slave uprisings.  And on at least one occasion George Washington refused to accept the offer of militiamen, as his experience had taught him that they were too undisciplined to be useful in battle: they tended to desert.  At the battle of Camden, militia from Virginia and North Carolina, though outnumbering the entire British force, fled from the field without firing a single shot.  No, what the citizen militia was good at was terrorizing slaves, and little else.

How does the Second Amendment figure into this?  Well, the Declaration of Independence and the Revolution had inspired a wave of abolitionism in the North, where slavery was not all that economically important.  Between the adoption of the Declaration and the drafting of the Constitution, half the slave states north of the Mason-Dixon line had passed emancipation laws; the rest followed suit by 1804.  Things were different in the South.  During ratification debates, Southerners wanted protection from the possibility that Northerners would use the Constitution to undermine slavery by disarming the slave patrols.  Virginia delegate George Mason, called the Father of the Bill of Rights, and owner of 300 slaves,
No apparent sense of irony or self-awareness
had refused to sign the Constitution when it was drafted in Philadelphia.  Among his reservations was his fear that Article One, Section Eight of the proposed Constitution would empower Northerners to strike against slavery by effectively eliminating the slave patrol militias.  He told the ratification convention:
The militia may be here destroyed by that method which has been practiced in other parts of the world before; that is, by rendering them useless--by disarming them.  Under various pretenses, Congress may neglect to provide for arming and disciplining the militia; and the state governments cannot do it, for Congress has an exclusive right to arm them . . .
Patrick Henry, greatest orator of the Revolutionary era and another Virginia delegate to the ratifying convention, agreed:
If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, [the states] cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress. . . . Congress, and Congress only, can call forth the militia. . . . I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquility gone.
He feared certain others might take his same course.
The Federalists needed Virginia's vote for ratification in order for the Constitution to come into effect.  Nine of thirteen states had to vote yes.  Eight had done so.  Of the five holdouts, Rhode Island was a definite no, New Hampshire and North Carolina were considered doubtful, New York was unpredictable, and Virginia was on the fence.  (In the event, New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify, four days before Virginia, but that could not have been predicted at the time.)  If ratification failed, the Constitution died, and the United States itself would perhaps dissolve. As part of the Bill of Rights required to secure Virginia's vote (and those of other states as well), James Madison agreed to an amendment answering the concerns of Mason and Henry.  His first draft spoke in general terms of the "security of a free
Ratification votes and dates
nation;" by the time it was adopted, this had been changed to the more-to-the-point "security of a free State."  The security concern was of course not foreign invasion; the nation as a whole would undoubtedly act as one in any such case.  Nor was it, as today's gun advocates pretend to believe, that citizens should be empowered to resist the government's tyranny--has there ever been a government that gave formal written permission for itself to be attacked?  The security concern at the heart of the Second Amendment's original intent is that the captive Americans among us might rise up to claim their freedom.

The legacy of all this is that we today have been convinced we have no practical means of stopping crazy people from gunning down children.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

John Alexander Logan

The burning of Columbia, South Carolina; February 17, 1865
Toward the end of Life on the Mississippi, Twain sums up the transformational nature of the Civil War as succinctly as anyone could.  "In the South," he writes, "the war is what A. D. is elsewhere:  they date from it."  The war affected those in the South much more deeply and personally than it did those in the North--suddenly the Old South was a civilization gone with the wind, as a lesser writer than Twain put it.   But though the physical and economic devastation of war happened where the war was fought, which is to say in the South, a four-year bloodbath fought over the great moral and practical issues of treason and slavery could hardly fail to strike at the core of the whole country, and to transform that core.

Which brings us to John Alexander Logan, remembered today only in passing each May as the former Union general and U.S. senator from Illinois who originated Memorial Day (commemorated for generations on the day Logan picked, May 30, until Congress decided to cheapen most national holidays by moving them to the nearest Monday so they would merely extend our weekend rather than do what holidays are supposed to do--interrupt our routine.  But I digress).

Logan served as a Democrat representing the southern tip of Illinois, known as Egypt, in the Illinois House of Representatives, where in his first term he led the successful campaign to pass the racist Black Code of 1853.  It carried over certain Illinois laws already in effect, barring blacks in the state from voting, serving on juries or in the militia, suing whites, testifying in court on any matter, and assembling in public in groups of three or more.  Logan's innovation was to bar blacks residing outside Illinois from moving to the state:  the new law prohibited any free black entering Illinois from remaining for longer than ten days.  After that point, the person was subject to arrest, fine, and imprisonment, followed by physical removal from Illinois.  If it were possible to single out a worst feature of the law, it might be the provision that the labor of a person convicted under the law who was unable to pay the fine would be auctioned off by the sheriff to the bidder willing to pay the fine and court costs, and the winning bidder would be entitled to work the African American as a slave for a limited period of time until he had recouped his investment plus a little extra for his trouble.

In 1858 Logan made the jump to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he earned the nickname "Dirty Work Logan" for his defense of the Fugitive Slave Act:  "You call it the dirty work of the Democratic Party to catch slaves for the Southern people.  We are willing to perform that dirty work.  I do not consider it disgraceful to perform work, dirty or not dirty, which is in accordance with the laws of the land . . ."

A few years later, with Lincoln elected and secession proclamations being passed by Southern state legislatures, Logan was one of the voices arguing against going to war to stop them.  His epiphany came not on the road to Damascus but to Bull Run.  Tagging along with a Michigan regiment so he could get a look at the upcoming battle most Northerners expected the Yankees to win easily--picnickers, including other government officials, drove out from Washington to watch--Logan was shocked when the rebels routed the Federal troops.  As the picnickers and other spectators scrambled back to safety, Logan instead picked up a fallen musket and started shooting at Confederates.  Shortly afterward, he resigned his seat in Congress and entered the U.S. Army as a colonel, recruiting and organizing his own Illinois regiment.

He made clear at this point that he was a Unionist, not an abolitionist.  Many, perhaps most, of his regiment were from the Egypt section of Illinois, where Logan's positions on the Black Codes and the Fugitive Slave Act had been very popular.  He promised his men that if the war became a war to free slaves, he would resign his commission and "lead you home."

He did not keep that promise.  As with most Northerners, what he thought he knew about slavery was rooted in a lack of contact with it.  The war changed that, as it did so much else.  Letters home from Union soldiers attest to this particular change.  When I signed up, a number of letters say in essence, I was clear that I was not doing so in order to fight for the freedom of slaves; but now that I have seen slaves and slavery up close, I have become more of an abolitionist.

After Logan's conversion, his former allies used his previous positions against him.  In this 1884 cartoon, "John A. Logan in 1859," Logan prevents William Seward, Abraham Lincoln (shouldn't he be taller?), and  Charles Sumner from saving a family of fugitive slaves.
Given Logan's national stature, and his personal history, his transformation on this point was bound to be more visible than the average soldier's.  In February 1863, a month after Lincoln proclaimed emancipation as a war goal, with discontent over the new policy so pervasive that another Illinois regiment was under arrest for mutiny, and desertions increasing in his own regiment, Logan--bedridden with wounds from Fort Donelson--sent a letter to his men through division commanders encouraging their loyalty and referring to the full set of war aims as "our cause."  This was enough to get him denounced by Democratic papers back in Egypt.  That spring he demanded the resignation of one of his officers who said in front of him that he had not joined the war "to fight to free the niggers."  In April he gave a public speech to his regiment, saying that the war had changed his way of thinking, and endorsing not only emancipation but black enlistment:  "So we'll unite on this policy, putting the one who is the innocent cause of this war in the front rank and press on to victory."

Back in 1861 he had called Lincoln's election "deplorable," but in 1864 Logan took a leave from Army duty and campaigned for the president's re-election.  Once the war ended and Logan re-entered private life, he proclaimed himself a Republican, saying he had left the Democrats when they became "the party of treason."  He campaigned in Kentucky for ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery, and in 1866 was elected again to the House of Representatives.  He aligned himself with the radical branch of the Republicans, who pressed for expanded rights for freedmen, and he helped draft impeachment articles against President Johnson for--well, actually, for trumped-up charges, but really for not pursuing Reconstruction with a strong emphasis on protecting the rights of blacks--then served as one of seven impeachment managers who prosecuted the case during Johnson's trial in the Senate.

Logan's fame during his lifetime, and for decades thereafter, was universal.  When he died in 1886, he became only the seventh person to lie in state under the Capitol dome; his funeral was held in the Senate chamber.  Counties are named after him in four states.  In the 1920s, Illinois adopted a state song that mentions him by name, along with only Lincoln and Grant.  Since then, however, he has slid into relative obscurity.  Other than the obligatory passing reference to him each Memorial Day, his only claim on public attention in the last fifty years was as a result of his Grant Park statue's cameo appearance in the  antiwar demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention here in Chicago.  The video, despite the trendy modern-day editing, is still kind of shocking:

Saturday, May 17, 2014


Kevin Gladish as Tony Horwitz in Confederates

Excerpts from reviews for the show, with links to the full pieces:

RATING: “Heckuva Good Show”
Since seeing Confederates in the Attic on Sunday evening, I’ve written and rewritten this column more times than I care to count, let alone admit to.  In truth, I’m struggling with the material of the show, and more importantly with the questions that the play itself poses.  Which means, I suppose, that this play works remarkably well and does exactly what it sets out to do. . . .

Terry McCabe has adapted Tony Horowitz’s memoir/non-fiction opus Confederates in the Attic into a play that follows a relatively common travelogue model (i.e. protagonist goes on journey and the audience sees a number of vignettes that assemble into some sort of whole). . . . The man making this journey, Tony (played with mild-mannered inquisitiveness by Kevin Gladish) . . .collects the pieces while talking to hardcore reenactors, old men who have lived through the country’s greatest changes, young men who still think the South should have won, a young black man who killed a white redneck for flying the Confederate Flag, a classroom at an African-American school that teaches alienation (if not hate), and many others.   The play is a whirlwind tour of the American South . . .

The play changes locations so frequently that it seems it is a constant parade of newly-changed costumes.  And kudos goes to kClare Kemock for pulling together what must have been a veritable mountain of clothing.  Those outfits were the primary way through which the setting of any given scene was established, and I didn’t become lost on this journey thanks to their guidance.

The acting company was filled with good performances, but a couple of folks stood out.  Peter Goldsmith played Tony’s sometimes-sidekick-sometimes-tour-guide Rob.  Rob is a character whose repeated arrival on the stage is always welcomed.  Goldsmith’s infectious energy makes one almost believe that it would be fun to spend every free weekend out roughing it in a ditch somewhere pretending to be a soldier from the 1860s.

LaRen Vernea also firmly claimed the stage whenever she was on.  She played a number of characters, much like most of the cast (other than Gladish and Goldsmith), and each of hers were clearly drawn and well developed, even when they were only on for a few lines.

McCabe’s staging of the action flowed seamlessly from scene to scene.  The scenery itself was very simple, and because of that the content of the show was more in focus.  Which brings us around to the topic of the questions that are raised by Confederates in the Attic. . .

I can’t really distill the show down to a simple list of questions.  But they are asked of every person who comes in to the audience.  They aren’t always directly posited (though sometimes they are), but through the action of the play one is called upon to look at how we view the events of the Civil War . . . The journey came to a sudden end without a clear conclusion, but I think that makes it better than if it had tried to provide some discovered truth. . . .

A kind of volatile but compassionate mix of Deliverance, Killer Angels, and Gone with the Wind:
It looks humorously and non-judgmentally at a war that, at least in the South, never really ended. 

Richly adapted and faithfully staged by City Lit artistic director Terry McCabe, these 130 minutes teem with scary revelations about the unreconstructed territory below the Mason-Dixon Line where "it's still half time" in the War Between the States. . . 

The impressive and well-cast 14-member cast describe the tragedy of Michael Westerman (Christian Isely), a punk white teenager shot by black kids for flying the Confederate flag from his pickup truck.  Horwitz testifies to K.K.K. rallies in Kentucky and hateful white-supremacist incitements to race war to preserve an "Aryan nation." Horwitz talks to African-Americans, like Freddie Morrow (Johnathan Wallace), who shot Westerman for reasons he can't ken. . . .

. . . To his credit, Horwitz does not minimize the unhealed wounds that fester a century and a half later.

The show closes May 25.  Here is the all-important link to buy tickets.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Our Civil War Sesquicentennial Project collects its fourth Jeff nomination.

Comrades Mine: Emma Edmonds of the Union Army by Maureen Gallagher, our 2013 Civil War Project world premiere play, has been nominated for a Jeff Award in the Best New Work category.  The play is based on the true story of Emma Edmonds, who served with the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry for the first two years of the Civil War disguised as a man.

Congratulations, Maureen.

The awards ceremony is June 2.  Details for those who wish to attend are here

Update:   As coincidence would have it, the New York Times Disunion blog entry for today is about Emma Edmonds.  It repeats as true some stuff she made up for her memoir, like the yarn about her tending to a dying soldier who is also a woman in disguise.  It also says the war broke out in 1860!  But it's worth reading anyway.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

City Lit's press release for CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC


          Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, in a world premiere adaptation by City Lit artistic director Terry McCabe, will begin previews at City Lit on Friday, April 25, 2014 and open for the press on Tuesday, April 29. It is the fourth and final production of City Lit Theater’s 34th season, four productions playing in serial repertory, each show’s scheduled run overlapping that of the one opening before and/or after it in daisy-chain fashion through the season.  Confederates in the Atticdirected by McCabe, runs through Saturday, June 7, 2014.
          Confederates in the Attic, called “the best book that has been written on the Civil War in modern culture” by the Richmond Times-Dispatch and “the freshest book about divisiveness in America that I have read in some time” by the New York Times, is a memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tony Horwitz.  When he leaves the battlefields of Bosnia and the Middle East for a peaceful corner of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he thinks he's put war zones behind him. But awakened one morning by the crackle of musket fire, Horwitz starts filing front-line dispatches again, this time from the unfinished Civil War.
          Horwitz embarks on a search for places and people still held in thrall by America's greatest conflict. The result is an adventure into the soul of the unvanquished South, where the ghosts of the Lost Cause are resurrected through ritual and remembrance.  In Virginia, Horwitz joins a band of 'hardcore' re-enactors who crash-diet to achieve the hollow-eyed look of starved Confederates; in Kentucky, he witnesses Klan rallies and hears calls for race war sparked by the killing of a white man who brandished a rebel flag; and he takes a marathon trek through the War’s eastern theatre in the company of Robert Lee Hodge, an eccentric pilgrim who dubs their odyssey the 'Civil Wargasm.'
Confederates in the Attic is the fourth show in City Lit’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Projecta series of productions—most of them world premieres—that explore the war’s legacy.  The Project’s shows so far have been 2011’s The Copperhead, 2012’s Opus 1861, and 2013’s Comrades Mine, all Jeff-recommended.  The Project concludes in 2015 with the world premiere of Kristine Thatcher’s The Bloodhound Law.
In City Lit’s world premiere adaptation of Confederates in the Attic, a cast of fourteen plays 106 characters.  When the show begins previews on April 25, it will run in rotating repertory with The Haunting of Hill House, the already-opened third show of City Lit’s season; the two shows will run in rep through Hill House’s closing on May 11.  (A full season schedule is available at
          Tony Horwitz won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his stories about working conditions in low-wage America published in the Wall Street Journal. He also wrote for the Journal as a foreign correspondent covering wars in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.  His most recent book, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, won the William Henry Seward Award for Excellence in Civil War Biography.
          Terry McCabe has been City Lit’s artistic director since 2005.  He has directed plays professionally in Chicago since 1981.  His City Lit adaptations of Holmes and Watson, Gidget,  (co-adapted with Marissa McKown),The Hound of the BaskervillesScoundrel Time, and Opus 1861(co-adapted with Elizabeth Margolius) were Jeff-nominated.  He won two Jeff Citations for directing at the old Stormfield Theatre and has been thrice nominated for the Jeff Award for Best Director, for shows at Court Theatre, Wisdom Bridge, and Victory Gardens.  His book Mis-Directing the Play has
been denounced at length in American Theatre magazine and from the podium at the national convention of The Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, but is nonetheless used in directing courses on three continents and is now in paperback. 
          The cast for Confederates in the Attic is Nick Ferrin, Kevin Gladish, Peter Goldsmith, Varris Holmes, Christian Isely, Elizabeth Krane, Adrienne Matzen, Christopher McMorris, Charles Schoenherr, Megan Skord, La’ren Vernea, Evan Voboril, Johnathan Wallace, and Freddy Lynn Wilson.    
The design team is Devin Carroll (lighting), kClare Kemock (costumes), and Dustin Pettegrew (set).  The dialect coach is Catherine Gillespie.

          Confederates in the Attic will play twenty-one performances from

April 25 through June 7.  The full schedule follows:

Friday, April 25              7:30            First preview
Saturday, April 26         3:00            Second preview
Sunday, April 27            6:30            Final preview

Tuesday, April 29         7:00            Press opening

Friday, May 2                 7:30
Saturday, May 3            3:00
Sunday, May 4               6:30

Friday, May 9                 7:30
Saturday, May 10           3:00
Sunday, May 11             6:30

Friday, May 16               7:30           
Saturday, May 17           7:30           
Sunday, May 18             2:00           

Friday, May 23               7:30
Saturday, May 24           7:30
Sunday, May 25             2:00

Friday, May 30               7:30           
Saturday, May 31          7:30           
Sunday, June 1             2:00

Friday, June 6               7:30           
Saturday, June 7           7:30            Closing performance

          Ticket prices are $22.00 for previews and $29.00 after opening. A limited number of $25.00 general admission tickets ($18.00 for previews) are available for each performance through the City Lit website.
          Discounts are available for telephone orders by seniors, students, members of the military, and groups of ten or more. Tickets can be reserved by going to or by calling (773) 293-3682.
          City Lit receives funding from the Alphawood Foundation, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, the Illinois Arts Council (a state agency), and The Saints. Its outreach program is sponsored in part by A.R.T. League.
          City Lit specializes in literate theatre, including stage adaptations of literary material. It is located in the historic Edgewater Presbyterian Church building at 1020 West Bryn Mawr Avenue, one block west of Sheridan Road and a block and a half east of the Bryn Mawr Red Line L stop. The 84 Peterson bus, the 147 Lake Shore Express bus, and the 151 Sheridan bus all stop near City Lit. Valet parking is available for theatre customers at Francesca’s Bryn Mawr restaurant across the street from City Lit. Discounted parking is available for theatre customers, with validation from the Edgewater Beach Café, in the Edgewater Beach Apartments’ underground parking lot one block east of the theatre.  A limited amount of free parking is available for theatre customers who dine at That Little Mexican Café one block west of the theatre.


Note:  Some of'this press release's biographical information on Tony Horwitz and description of the book was taken from  The photograph at top is copyright 2012 by John Murden Jr. and used by permission.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

205-year-old man in the news

Lincoln in Bensonhurst
Lincoln in the news on his birthday:

This afternoon at the Old State Capitol Building in Springfield, where Lincoln gave his House Divided speech, the US Postal Service is unveiling a new Lincoln postage stamp.  This one will show an image of the Lincoln Memorial.  The Lincoln Land Community College chorus will perform.  The State Journal-Register has details.

The Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park has birthday events planned for today as well.  One is the official donation to the Park by Hodgenville attorney and Lincoln historian Carl Howell of the marker from the grave of Thomas Lincoln Jr.--the only brother of Abe, who died in infancy in either 1811 or '12.  WKMS, the local NPR station there, reports that Howell purchased the marker from the owner of the small family cemetery when the owner was selling the cemetery, and quotes Howell as saying, "“I think it needs to be displayed in Larue County at the National Park where people can see it on a daily basis because of its extreme importance and significance to the Lincoln heritage."  Um, shouldn't it be put back on the kid's grave?

The Bensonhurst Bean informs us that Bensonhurst police have apprehended 24-year-old Vladimir Bubnov and charged him with being the graffiti artist who has spray-painted Lincoln's image, in the Bean's words "on public and private property along a broad swath of Brooklyn. The images can be seen at almost every Belt Parkway overpass and subway easement, as well as on the sides of many businesses, from Mill Basin to Bay Ridge."  Bubnov was stopped by police because he failed to signal a turn, which seems a tad careless when it's been publicized that the police are looking for you and you are transporting graffiti stencils and spray paint in your back seat.  According to the Bean, Bubnov goes by the street name of AINAC ("Art Is Not A Crime"), and it is speculated that he "may also be the person responsible for the “All you need is love” tag that is nearly as ubiquitous as the Lincoln image."

Kalamazoo, Michigan, civic leaders are organizing efforts to place a statue of Lincoln in a park there, says the Kalamazoo Gazette, to commemorate Lincoln's only public appearance in Michigan.  He spoke at a Republican rally there in 1856 in support of the party's first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont (Campaign slogan:  "Free Soil!  Free Labor!  Fremont!").  The city government and the local press are all in favor of it.  

Speaking of Republican rallies, the GOP in Multnomah County, Oregon, is apparently going ahead with its Lincoln Day raffle this Saturday.  From their website:  ". . .we celebrate the legacy of two great Republicans who demonstrated leadership and courage that all of us still lean on today: Martin Luther King, Jr and Abraham Lincoln. In celebrating these two men, and the denial of the rights they fought so hard against, the Multnomah County Republican Party announces that we have started our third raffle for an AR-15 rifle (or handgun of the winner’s choice)."  It apparently really didn't occur to them that there might be something gauche about raffling off a gun to "celebrate" two assassination victims.  When there was the predictable outcry, they issued a non-apology apology for having "issued a press release that was unfortunately easily misunderstood."  Not for calling King a Republican, though, or for the incoherence of "the denial of the rights they fought so hard against."  As for the raffle, The Oregonian reports that the group expects the publicity to sell out all 500 raffle tickets. reports Terrence Malick has produced a Lincoln biopic, directed by A.J. Edwards, that is playing festivals and looking for a distributor.  Called The Better Angels, it seems to be about Abe growing up in Indiana.  Here's a link to watch the trailer on Indiewire.

A fun game that everyone can play is to imagine that Abraham Lincoln would completely agree with you about whatever contemporary issue you want to name.  Derek Hunter at seems convinced that Lincoln would side with him in opposing Obamacare;  Mike Lux blogs at HuffPost that Lincoln would want the federal government to start arresting Wall Street CEOs who deserve it; Alissa Wetzel in the Indianapolis Star just knows that he would agree with her about gay marriage; and Eric Zorn writes in the Chicago Tribune that Lincoln would agree with him that Lincoln's Birthday should not be a school holiday in Illinois anymore.  Nobody seems to care what George Washington would think about any of these issues.