Categories
Historic America

Civil War Ballads: Cumberland Gap

The Cumberland Gap is a narrow pass through the Cumberland mountain range, which is part of the Appalachian Mountains, near the junction of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Appalachia gave birth to bluegrass music, so it’s not surprising songwriters would chronicle the cultural and historic significance of the Cumberland Gap.

There are many versions of this popular bluegrass tune. Some only briefly mention events from the Civil War. This version, performed by the Cumberlands on the album Appalachian Mountain Bluegrass – 30 Vintage Classics (2007), devotes the first five stanzas to the Union occupation of the Cumberland Gap in 1862.

Union Brigadier General George W. Morgan
Union Brigadier General George W. Morgan

Lay down boys, take a little nap
Lay down boys, take a little nap
Lay down boys, take a little nap
14 miles to the Cumberland Gap

September mornin’ ’62
September mornin’ ’62
September mornin’ ’62
Morgan’s Yankees all withdrew

Burned the hay, meal*, and the meat
Burned the hay, meal, and the meat
Burned the hay, meal, and the meat
All the rebels had nothin’ to eat

Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Braxton Bragg and his rebel band
Run George Morgan in the Bluegrass land

Categories
Historic America

San Pedro Ghost Towns

The San Pedro River flows north from the Mexican border near Sierra Vista, Arizona, to the Gila River north of Tucson. As a source of water, it was invaluable to both native peoples and white settlers alike. Many settlements sprang up in the San Pedro Valley, especially after silver was discovered in the nearby foothills. Prospectors flocked to the area. Today, much of the area is protected in the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, and ruins of once-prosperous settlements can be found in the surrounding desert.

In 1858-59, T.F. White and Fredrick Brunckow sought their fortunes in the hills near the San Pedro River. They struck a claim roughly eight miles southwest of Tombstone. Brunckow brought several men with him, including John Moss (Morse), David Brontrager, and James and William Williams. He built a small adobe cabin and supply shelter and hired Mexican laborers to dig the mine.

In July 1860, William Williams went to Fort Buchanan to purchase supplies. When he returned, he discovered most of his companions, including Brunckow, were brutally murdered. The Mexican laborers fled with whatever supplies and equipment they could get their hands on. According to Joshua Hawley, author of Tombstone’s Most Haunted, as many as 22 deaths have been reported in or near the cabin.

Located off State Route 82 along the San Pedro River in Cochise County, Arizona, Fairbank grew up around the nearest rail stop to Tombstone and was first settled in 1881. It was originally known as Junction City and then Kendall, before residents finally decided on Fairbank in 1883.

Categories
Historic America

Civil War Ballads: Shiloh’s Hill

Shiloh’s Hill is a moving tribute to the men who fought and died at the Battle of Shiloh, April 6–7, 1862. Just before sunrise, Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston’s 40,000-strong Army of Mississippi attacked Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s 55,000-strong Army of the Tennessee at Pittsburg Landing, Tennessee. The battle shocked the combatants with its brutality. 23,700 total soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. It took its name from Shiloh Church, where the Union army first put up a defense.

The version of this song I’m familiar with, sung by the 97th Regimental String Band, was featured in Classic Images’ Civil War 125th Anniversary Series VHS (1987) on the Battle of Shiloh. It was, by far, my favorite episode in the series. A veteran of the battle wrote the original lyrics, but they have been adapted and changed over the years.

In 1961, folk singer-songwriter Jimmie Driftwood released the following version, “On Top of Shiloh’s Hill,” on his album Songs of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb.

Come all you gallant soldiers, a story I will tell,
about the bloody battle on top of Shiloh’s Hill.
It was an awful struggle that caused your heart to chill,
all from the bloody battle on top of Shiloh’s Hill.

‘Twas on the sixth of April, about the break of day,
The drums and fifes were playing, for us to march away.
My feelings at that moment, I do remember still,
When first my feet were tromping on top of Shiloh’s Hill.

About the hour of sunrise, the battle first began,
Before the fight was over, we fought them hand-to-hand.
The horror of that battle, my heart with anguish fill,
the wounded and the dying on top of Shiloh’s Hill.

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Historic America Reviews

Gold Glitters

Greed and obsession collide in Gold (2016), a gritty morality tale set in 1980s Nevada, Wall Street, and Indonesia. Matthew McConaughey plays Kenny Wells, a prospector desperate for a lucky break. He teams up with geologist Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramírez), and together they descend into the uncharted jungles of Indonesia hoping to find one big score. This poorly-advertised film almost escaped my notice, until I saw it playing at my local theater. I’m glad I took a chance on it. Gold is a solid film and surprisingly entertaining. Matthew McConaughey disappears into the role, achieving absolute rock bottom in body and spirit.

Gold is loosely based on a true story. In 1995, a small Canadian mining company called Bre-X, owned by David Walsh, claimed to find a massive gold deposit deep in the Indonesian jungle on the Island of Borneo, near the Busang River. Filipino geologist Michael de Guzman and John Felderhof convinced Walsh to invest $80,000 to purchase and develop the gold mine.

In 1997, Bre-X collapsed and its shares became worthless in one of the biggest stock scandals in Canadian history. On March 19, 1997, de Guzman committed suicide by jumping from a helicopter in Busang, Indonesia. An independent investigation of core samples from the mine determined de Guzman had been “salting” the samples with gold flakes, some from his own wedding ring. Walsh died of a brain aneurysm in the Bahamas in 1998, and in 2007, Felderhof was acquitted of securities charges. The scandal cost investors an estimated $3 billion.

Gold follows Nevada prospector Kenny Wells, who inherited his father’s company, Washoe Mining, in the early 1980s. Stress-induced alcoholism caused by the economic downturn leads him to sell the last of his jewelry and fly to Indonesia to meet geologist Michael Acosta. There he endures hardship and survives malaria. When he emerges from the illness, Acosta tells him he made what might be the largest gold discovery in history.

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Historic America Reviews

Patriots Day: A Gut-Wrenching Portrayal of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing

Patriots Day follows fictional Boston police sergeant Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) as he helps track down brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who detonated two bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. The tragedy occurred at 2:49 p.m. local time on April 15, 2013. Massachusetts celebrates Patriots’ Day on April 15 to commemorate the anniversary of Lexington and Concord, the first battles of the Revolutionary War. It’s estimated around 500,000 spectators attend the marathon. The bombs, made from pressure cookers, detonated 12 seconds apart, killing three and wounding approximately 264.

The film opens the night before the marathon, establishing a backstory for Sergeant Tommy Saunders. He is a well-meaning cop who got into a fight and has to pull guard duty at the marathon finish line before he can assume his regular duties. From there, we are shown snapshots of characters as they get up and start their day, but it is unclear how most of them will tie into the plot. We see future bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, his wife and daughter, at their apartment. Their morning is not typical, as one watches a video of masked terrorists demonstrating how to construct a pressure cooker bomb.

The terror, gut-wrenching shock, and confusion of the bombing is dramatically portrayed, as is the following manhunt. We see both law enforcement and the Tsarnaev brothers as they head for a fiery confrontation in the Boston suburb of Watertown. Moments of humor break up the dramatic, heart-racing scenes. During the final shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers, a man tosses a sledgehammer from his porch at police officers crouched behind the fence. “Give ’em hell!” he shouts, as if the crude melee weapon will do anything against the terrorists’ guns and homemade bombs.

It is meant to show defiance and resiliency in the face of terror, and Patriots Day is full of such crowd-pleasing moments, but how accurately does the film depict these events?

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Historic America Reviews

Live by Night: A Lively Gangster Tale

Strong performances by supporting actors and actresses, wonderful choreography, and exciting action make Live by Night (2016) a thrilling gangster flick despite Ben Affleck’s uninspired acting. Affleck adapted the screenplay from a novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane. The film’s genuine look and feel is no doubt attributable to the source material. Although the characters are not based on real people, they might as well have been. For his part, Lehane wrote the novel about rum running to show the “sexy side of Prohibition.” Exotic, tropical locales, flashy clothes, fast cars, and excessive violence characterize both the novel and the film.

This sprawling movie spans several decades and locations, from Boston to south Florida. As the film opens, Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck) is a WW1 veteran and bank robber in Boston. He falls in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), mistress of Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister). Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to blackmail Coughlin into killing Albert White. Unfortunately, Emma betrays him and White tries to have both her and Coughlin killed.

After spending several years in prison for a bank robbery gone wrong, Coughlin approaches Pescatore and asks him to help get revenge on Albert White. Pescatore sends him to Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, where White had set up his own operation, to run his speakeasies and muscle out White.

While there, Coughlin meets and marries a Cuban woman named Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana). He battles the KKK, other gangsters, hostile businessmen, and Evangelical Christians in his pursuit to corner the rum market and ultimately get Florida to legalize gambling so the mob can run its casinos. Coughlin and Pescatore come to blows in a bloody climax and Coughlin retires from his life of crime.

Live by Night is ultimately about “what goes around, comes around.” In several instances, characters’ past decisions come back to haunt them, and their bad behavior is repaid with pain, suffering, and loss. No one escapes this movie unscathed, except perhaps for Coughlin’s son, who I assume goes on to lead a normal life.

Categories
Historic America Reviews

Affairs of Honor: Political Culture of the Founding Generation

affairs-of-honorJoanne B. Freeman’s book, Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (2002), is straightforward and compelling. In it, she argues that the political culture of the United States’ first generation of congressmen under the constitution of 1788 was based on a strong sense of personal honor, governed by “a grammar of political combat.” Because there were no formal political parties, representatives had to try to best represent their constituents in an unfamiliar environment, while working with people from diverse regions whose loyalties or support could never be fully known or assured.

Joanne B. Freeman is a professor of History specializing in the politics and political culture of the revolutionary and early national periods of American History at Yale University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Affairs of Honor won the Best Book award from the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic.

Freeman uses many primary sources to flesh out her argument, including the diary of William Maclay, a member of Pennsylvania’s first two-member delegation to the U.S. Senate. Maclay’s diary was a convincing way to illustrate his contemporary political culture because he seemed to be an observer more than a participant, and was therefore in a good position to critique it. Maclay was not without his biases, however. He was an outsider who was critical of the non-republican nature of congress, and that certainly led him to highlight certain aspects of the political culture that played into his own viewpoint.