Friday, April 22, 2011

History in the buff

I've always been a history buff. I've always been that way, preferring to spend time reading and studying the past over dealing with more contemporary subjects. In college, I took nearly as many history classes as I did classes in my declared minor. Frankly, history fascinated me more than marketing. But even I knew that high-paying jobs in history are mighty scarce. (Little did I realize that I naturally have an aversion to jobs that pay highly anyway!) So I took a different route, but still kept an eye on the past and what I could learn.

My eyes have especially been drawn to history over the past two weeks, as the nation remembered the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. The bombing of Fort Sumter in South Carolina was really kind of pathetic as far as battles go. The fort, located on a man-made island in the middle of the entrance to Charleston Harbor, was commanded by U.S. Major Robert Anderson, who tried his best to hold the island from Confederate forces demanding the evacuation of the garrison. The Union men were outgunned and outmanned and were severely low on supplies.

The firing by the rebels began at 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861. After 34 hours, Anderson agreed to surrender. The number of casualties? Zero. Nine were wounded, four of those on the Confederate side. The bloodiest part of the battle was the surrender ceremonies when a gun exploded killing two Union soldiers. The first casualties of the American Civil War came not as the result of a battle, but a ceremony.

The characters always seem larger-than-life in history. That's probably because the same-size-as-life characters didn't make the history books while the volumes are full of George Washingtons and Teddy Roosevelts and Platos and Napoleons. And since history is written by the winners, we can probably assume that for every favorable story there is likely another tale told from the opposite camp. But that's what makes history fun.

I know a man in town who will have nothing to do with the Internet or computers, claiming proudly that he lives in the past. I've told him on more than one occasion that there is more history on the Internet than he will ever dig up in person. For instance, I found a site called simply, where copies of historic newspapers are viewable for free. The idea is that you can see how newspapers reported the famous events of history. I pulled up a copy of the New York Herald from April 13, 1861 to read the account of the bombing of Fort Sumter. Included are a map of the Charleston area, descriptions of the fort (”a modern truncated pentagonal fort, built upon an artificial island at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, three and three-eights miles from the city of Charleston”), and copies of letters sent between Maj. Anderson of the Union and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard of the Confederates. Fascinating stuff.

There are advantages to being a history lover nowadays. Research is fast and easy with the Internet. Books on various subjects from the past are published seemingly every day. (There may be more books written on Lincoln's assassination than Stephen King has sold in his lifetime.) And there is a group of television channels supposedly dedicated to history. I say 'supposedly' because it seems the programmers define 'history' rather broadly. The Thursday night lineup on the History Channel consisted of a show where men hunt for alligators in a swamp, a program about a taxidermy shop in Alaska, and a reality show where contestants compete to determine the best shot using various firearms and weapons. I'm sure they're all wonderful shows, but that's not history.

The writer George Santayana is credited with penning the words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If he's right and my memory holds up, I should be set for the rest of my life.

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