Thinking About the (American) Civil War

Even though it's "not my field", I've been thinking about the American Civil War a lot recently. (Actually, I've been thinking about England's Civil War, too, but that's a different story.)

Those of you who don't hang out in Popular History Land may not have gotten the word, but 2011 is the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Re-enactment groups, historical societies, and national parks are gearing up.  For the next four years, you're going to have a wide choice of articles, television programs, exhibits, lectures, recreations and other events commemorating the war.   (Here's a great list of 150th anniversary events and resources to keep your eye on.)  In fact, you've already missed some.

I'm not a full-scale Civil War buff, but I'll doubtless visit an exhibit or two.  Maybe re-visit Wilson's Creek Battlefield when I go home this summer.  As a writer, I've already produced three pieces related to the war this year.  (That's compared to one Civil War article in the past five years.  Did I mention that I'm not a Civil War buff?)  I expect I'll write a few more.

There are lots of ways to think about the Civil War. (You don't believe me?  Look on the shelves of your local library.) The one that I've been chewing on lately is the idea that it's the first modern war.

When you read about the Civil War, the details feel familiar in a way that the American Revolution does not. The technology of telegraph and railroad transport . (Not modern, but was still in use in World War II).   Reports from the field on the front pages of Harper's Weekly. The grimness of Mathew Brady's photographs. Hometown efforts to collect comforts for the troops.

In fact, all of those elements made their first appearance in two earlier, smaller wars.  The Crimean War (1854-56) saw the first use of the telegraph, the first war photography (sorry Mr. Brady but Roger Fenton got there first), the first true war correspondents, and the birth of modern nursing (Clara Barton would be the first to acknowledge her debt to the redoubtable Miss Nightingale.) Railroads played a critical role in Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Ultimately, the Civil War earned its claim to modernity in terms of its devastation and the role played by the relative industrial capacity of the two sides.

Welcome to the modern war.

Muslim Spain: The Soundtrack

These days, I'm spending a lot of time in Muslim Spain--a golden age of cross-cultural pollination by any standard.  At a time when most of Europe was wallowing in the Dark Ages, Muslim Spain was a center of wealth, learning--and tolerance. If you wanted libraries, hot baths, or good health care, Spain was the place to be.

I recently discovered the perfect soundtrack for thinking about Muslim Spain: the ladino music of Yasmin Levy.

Ladino is the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish. (Sephardic comes from the Hebrew word for Spain.)  Spoken by the Jews of Muslim Spain, ladino began as a combination of Hebrew and Spanish.  When their most Catholic majesties Isabella and Ferdinand expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492, most of them sought protection in the Muslim states of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.  Over time, their language took on elements of Arabic, Greek, Turkish, French, and the Slavic languages of the Balkans.

Ladino music, like the language itself, carries the history of the Sephardic community in its sound.  It has elements in common with Portuguese fado, Spanish flamenco, Jewish klezmer music, and Turkish folk songs.

Today the ladino speaking community is small. Perhaps 20,000 speakers. Like other embattled language groups--the Gaelic speakers of Ireland, the French-speaking Cajuns of southwest Louisiana--Sephardic activists are working to keep their language alive.

Take a moment to listen

Remember.  You heard it here first.

Road Trip Through History: The Utopian Communities of New Harmony

My Own True Love and I dearly love a road trip, especially if it includes a historical site or three, a quirky museum, a regional delicacy to try, walking paths, and plenty of roadside historical markers.  (Anyone who thinks she might want to travel with us, be warned.  We are the kind of people who turn off the road to find the historical marker rumored to be three miles to the west. )

Last weekend we packed cooler, notebook and walking shoes, said "hasta la bye-bye" to The Cat, and headed to southern Indiana.

New Harmony, Indiana, has been on our gotta-see list since last October, when I wrote about Robert Owen's utopian community as part of a book on socialism.  (Pausing for a blatant piece of self promotion.  Close your eyes if it makes you queasy.)

New Harmony was home to two successive utopian communities.

The first was the Harmony Society, informally known as the Rappites: a German Pietist sect who split off from the Lutheran church at the end of the eighteenth century.  They believed that the end of the world was near, but that didn't stop them from hard work while they waited. Over the course of ten years, they successfully built a communal Christian republic in the Indiana wilderness.

In 1824, the Harmony Society sold their land and settlement to British reformer Robert Owen.  Owen was a self-made factory owner with dreams of reforming society on communal lines.  Self-sufficient Villages of Cooperation would replace private property. Owen's New Harmony was less successful than that of the Harmony Society:  too many artists and intellectuals and not enough farmer and tradesmen made self-sufficiency any more than a dream.  In 1828, Owen sold the land to individuals at a loss.

Today the historic sites of New Harmony are well preserved and well presented, run by the University of Southern Indiana, the Indiana Historical Museums, and enthusiastic local volunteers.

We weren't surprised that locals emphasize the achievements of the Harmony Society rather than Robert Owen's failed experiment.  We were surprised at the emphasis on weaving the past into the future. Museum architect Richard Meier, who later created the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, designed the visitor's center, called the Atheneum in memory of Owen's cultural experiment. Philip Johnson's Roofless Church houses a statue by Jacques Lipschitz.

All told, we had a great visit:  well designed historical exhibits, good food (eat at the Red Geranium if you go), a labyrinth to walk, old houses to look at, lots of historical markers along the way, and a few surprises. Just what a history road trip should be.


From the web site to the entrance of the Athenaeum, New Harmony asks its visitors, "What's your vision of Utopia?" I don't have an answer.  What about you?