It Was 50 Years — Today

One of McElfresh Map Company’s Influences

With McElfresh Maps on exhibit, I was asked what were my influences. There are many, but a significant one was a family trip…a remarkable one….

Tammy Norie at Whisstock’s Boatyard, Woodbridge, Suffolk, England. June 12, 1969

The First Tammy Norie

As a kid I traveled extensively with my family.   As a member of the Niagara Frontier Ski Team my winter trips were invariably to ski races in distant parts of New York or New England.   One summer, my dad, a WWII naval veteran, bought a 40 foot sail boat and berthed it in Essex, Ct.  That became our home away from home and vacation outing each summer.  Throughout high school, our vessel, the Tammie Norie, a 40 foot Ketch, sailed along the New England Coast and in Long Island Sound. 

The Boatyard Fire

A winter boat yard fire in 1968 in Essex consumed a number of boats including the Tammy Norie.  My Dad was devastated and his search for a replacement vessel was very disappointing.   He ultimately concluded he really just wanted another Tammy Norie.  That meant contacting the original builder in Woodbridge, Suffolk, England and commissioning an almost identical vessel. 

The New Tammy Norie

A new problem…when the yacht was constructed and ready—our sailboat was 3,000 miles away.  Obviously an ocean crossing for somebody was in prospect.  So 50 years ago, at the end of my freshman year at St. Lawrence University, I got to go to England with my family.  My sister and I had been drafted into service as crew.

A Trip to London

We had to spend a day in London to pick up necessary travel documents and as a Beatle fan I took advantage of my proximity to Apple Records in central London.  As chance would have it, as I stood gazing at The Beatle’s town house headquarters in awe, I had the opportunity to sneak in when the door swung open for a messenger to leave.  Although awestruck and bewildered, I managed to grab a few postcards at the reception desk before being summarily ushered out.

The Voyage

I was now ready to sail the high seas with my family and our one recruited crew member, who later became my brother-in-law.  We sailed down the Deben River to the English Channel and through the Bay of Biscay to Madeira off the coast of Africa.  We crossed the Atlantic Ocean propelled along by the same strong, steady trade winds that brought Columbus to America.  We stopped in Bermuda for a brief refit and rest.  We completed the voyage with a six day sail to Block Island and another final short day sail brought us to our ultimate destination, up the Connecticut River to Essex, Ct. 

The Influence on McElfresh Map Company

My Dad was our navigator on this voyage. He relied on essentially the same technology that Columbus used on his voyage in 1492:  a sexton, the sun and the night stars. That became the model for preparing my maps—keep it simple, stick with the old tried and true techniques..

The Miraculous Maps of D-Day

As we approach the 75th anniversary of D-Day, McElfresh Map Company honors the Engineer Model Making Detachment.  All of these mapmakers knew where the D-Day landings would come, more than a year before June 6, 1944. They were working class and middle class, British and American, men and women.  They came from unlikely civilian backgrounds to be providing indispensable military services.  They were painters, sculptors, scene designers, ornamental plasterers, architects, draftsmen, cabinet makers, carpenters, geographers, teachers, metal workers – there were even toy designers.

The American members were officially in the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers.  The women were the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (W.A.A.F) and the other men were part of what was known as V-Section, the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.).

We also honor the pilots that took part in the intensive aerial photographic missions.  Their high altitude photographs were pieced together as mosaics, creating de-facto maps.  Innumerable flights were flown over occupied Europe by aircraft equipped with twelve inch Fairchild cameras, K17 six inch cameras for multiplex mapping and K18 twenty-four inch cameras for large scale coverage.  Spitfires, P-38 Lightnings and Mosquitos flew the missions.  At times, they swooped down low to capture oblique photographs, and the planes returned to England with foliage caught in the fuselage. 

These were ordinary people in extraordinary times doing amazing things in a war the world absolutely needed to be won.

A New Year and New Maps

I just put the finishing touches on two new battlefield maps. One I had started quite some time ago, put it aside for another map and forgot about it. It’s always nice to find a project in progress. The other map was a bit of a challenge. A family friend asked if I could do a map. Doing a map is easy for me–it’s the research that tends to trick me, but in this case it was more than just the research, it was the weather. I’ll explain.

Stones River Map

Stones River, a battle that took place during the Civil War, was the map I found. I had originally started a version of it for Stephen Sear’s Lincoln’s Lieutenants, an excellent history and a must read if you are interested in the American Civil War.

Stone River, TN Map
Stones River on display at McElfresh Map Company.

I am very pleased with the results of my Stones River map. It is a relatively obscure western battlefield.  The significance of the battle: the relative victory came at a low point in the Union’s fortunes and Lincoln in gratitude thanked General Rosecrans, the Union Commander, saying that had it been a Union defeat instead of a Union victory the nation could scarcely have lived over it.  Later in the war Lincoln mentioned the victory at Stones River and General Grant scoffed that it was no victory.

For Grant, victory meant flags being surrendered, armies being disarmed and marching off the field.  But when an Army has endured a long string of stinging defeats, an outcome only slightly better than a stand-off can seem like a moral victory, a turning of the pages, a new lease on life.  For Lincoln, whose political senses were fine-tuned, the equivocal outcome of Stones River, was to a despondent Union public, a comparative victory at a point in time when an actual, outright defeat, could have been a disaster.

There are cotton fields in the map which are always a treat to do. Many pine trees – always a nice effect. And corn fields, my absolute favorite embellishment—delightful corn stalks with little yellow kernals—dot the map. 

It is always nice to bring attention to the western battlefields which tend to be overlooked.

Bastogne Belgium Map

The other map I finished was Bastogne.  Bastogne was a town that figured heavily in World War II. Family friends asked me to do a map of a battle where their father had fought.  He was a man I knew and greatly admired.  I was thrilled.  But I didn’t want to commit until I knew I could do it.  He documented his service during the battle. Mapping the area in which he saw battle will take a little more research on my part.

Bastogne Map
Bastogne Map on display at McElfresh Map Company. The green is deceptive, it was a very snowy battlefield–a mapping conundrum

But in the mean time I decided to do a study.  Reason being—the weather, how does one do a map and depict the weather.  The winter weather was notorious during the Battle of the Bulge and had an impact on the battle. But how does one, or should one, depict that in a map.  In the end, on my study at least, I opted to go for a green terrain.  Weather, at least in my home base western NY and I’m betting Belgium as well, changes every hour, but the terrain—fields take seasons, trees take years, river courses takes centuries (and can sometimes dramatically change) and those beautiful mountain take eons to take hold.

Currently on the map table: The finishing touches on a small map of Stones River, TN,  the research for the second Bastogne Map, and a very interesting one for me—a local map of my parish and two other local parishs.

And on a Completely Different Note

And on another table, at least for a couple of days – parts of my small collection of Rock memorabilia.  My son’s co-worker is a fan of that era, the music and the rock and rollers.  It was treat for me to bring it all out—especially my short arm Rickenbacker.

Headstock of a Rickenbacker Guitar
Rickenbacker guitar with extra strings just waiting for a new gig.

Happy 25th Anniversary to McElfresh Map Company

On March 19, 1993 we started McElfresh Map Company on the 5th floor of the First National Bank Building in Olean, NY.  Our first map was the Battlefield of Pea Ridge and the Shiloh Battlefield was on the table.  We didn’t know what we were doing or getting ourselves in to–but it has been an incredibly rewarding and exciting experience–every minute of it.

Torn in Two Exhibit–Ford’s Theater Washington, DC 2012.

Some of the highlights:

    • We have printed and sold over a quarter of a million maps in different formats.
    • In the early days, as we were sweating out the future of the company, and in the same week that the bank nixed our loan application, History Book Club purchased 2,000 of our boxed sets of Gettysburg maps.  We were HBC members and we ordered one–to see how it was packaged.  Imagine our surprise when we received a post card that informed us that they had already sold out.
    • Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War was published by Harry N. Abrams and is out of print,selling over 35,000 copies. The book resulted in a  presentation at a Long Island bookstore that was taped by C-Span Book TV.  A family friend was visiting during the holidays and woke us up to watch the first telecast–there was no need to wake us up,  the broadcast was repeated many times and is still available on the C-Span website.
    • Our maps have been used by Library of America in their Civil War Series.
    • We have given presentations all over from London to Harvard, Milwaukee to Miami and beyond; our research travels have taken us across the country from Gettysburg to Montana, from Omaha to DC with many stops in between.  With a young family, the kids were usually in tow–these were our family vacations and they were a blast.
    • We have had great customers over the years, some of them are quite famous.
    • We have been kindly helped by many knowledgeable people.
    • We have been given breaks and introductions by so many in the publishing and mapping fields.
    • Letter from Shelby Foote

      Famous historians such as Shelby Foote, Stephen Sears, James McPherson and Sir John Keegan have written appreciative letters.

    • Our maps were on display at the Quick Center at St. Bonaventure University.
    • Our Underground Railroad Map travelled with the Torn in Two exhibit during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
    • Throughout his Civil War years of study, Stephen Sears was Earl’s idol. And Earl got to work with Mr. Sears when he prepared the maps for Sears’ latest history, Lincoln’s Lieutenants.  It was a personal highlight–a real honor and a treat.

There were times when we struggled and dealt with an unsavory element–all small businesses do.  But would we trade those 25 years for anything else?  Never. Ever. It has been a great run.

Here’s to the next 25 years!

Quick Center Exhibit

A Daybook in the Life — Days 166 and 167

One of Many–A Journey to Civil War Battlefields

Seat of the War in America, Bacon & Co. — via Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Fri. June 15, 1984—New York and headed south—In the car at 7a.m. Down Fifth Avenue to 34th Street without a stoplight.  One of those new morning—old routine days in Manhattan.  Zach and I underway for the south at 8:30 or so.  A nice, cool, sunny day.  Gettysburg at 12 noon.  Hiked the battlefield, bought some books, watched the electric map (in exactly the reverse order that I’ve described) and generally enjoyed the afternoon.  After going northwest of town to see Reynold’s statue, we headed down Rte. 15, having a bit to eat in Leesburg then stopping for the night in a genuine fleabag near Warrenton.

Sat. June 16, 1984—Virginia—A reasonable start in the rain for Richmond.  We found a nice diner in Culpeper.  I ordered “blueberry cakes” and got some pancakes, covered with a gruesome blue smelling paste.  I ate around it and did fine.  Couldn’t find Kelley’s Ford nor the road leading to Clark Mtn. but we made it to Richmond all right.  Some cute little blonde girl screamed “stupid” at me when I was looking at the map and trying to figure out where to go but otherwise, Richmond was a bit run down and quite placid.  The downtown looked like an extended Olean with a three and four-story building kind of fading in the sun, the signs turning the weary off-color of long exposure.

The Confederate Museum was great, full of artifacts and little bits of business that everybody had been using the moment they were shot.  The presentation was in a chronological sequence and finishing the exhibit you’d pretty well worked your way through the war,  There was a distinctly southern bias to the tone, most notable in the plaque describing the battle between the Monitor and the Virginia .

We drove around a bit.  The Confederate White House was lost, very much like Thomas Wolfe’s “Old Kentucky Home”, amid the glacial looking new buildings, including the Confederate Museum itself.

We went through some real “poor” white neighborhoods in our efforts to get to Hollywood Cemetery.  There was a beautiful, clear blue-eyed girl, tough as a savage, standing looking at us as we hunted up and down the run-down streets for the entrance to the cemetery.  The cemetery itself was impressive in a lush, Southern Victorian way.  It reminded me of a swimming pool emptied out with heavy rock walls and huge Eucalyptus trees towering over the mass of grave stones and mausoleums.  We saw JEB Stuart’s, John Pegram’s, John Tyler’s , James Monroe’s, Jeff Davis’s, Geo. Pickett’s, Fitzhugh Lee’s, and a few other graves—Southall Freeman’s.

Unable to contact Tommy K..  We left Richmond and headed for Charlottesville along Rte 250.  Long straight and rolling ride to the White House Motel.

Stay tuned–the trip continues……

Yes! There is a Method to our Mapness

As a historical cartographer–one who doesn’t use a computer to draw or to do research, I could be considered a dinosaur, maybe a buggy whip. But details in mapping are important, especially when recreating a historic place–a place that existed when the population of the United States was 55 million, before the industrial revolution, before oil was discovered and  long before automobiles were the prefered mode of transportation.

So how are our maps completed?

I use contemporaneous photographs, taken within days of some of the major battles for Gettysburg and Antietam.  I asked an agronomist, a crop expert, from Cornell  to study the panoramic photos of these fields to determine the crops in the fields. It was easy to figure out what type of fencing there was, where the orchards were, the extent of the woodlands etc. Essential to the use of these photographs was the 1970’s work of William Frassanito, who painstakingly determined the point-of-view and location of each extant wartime photograph of Gettysburg and Antietam.

Then I used regimental histories–each regiment would occupy a small sector of the battlefield and their accounts and maps  would show their particular sector in great detail. The soldiers’ diaries and letters (this was probably the most literate war in history) also contain many references to their immediate surroundings. Many of them were themselves farmers and they would frequently comment on the crops and fields, fences, barns and orchards. The most poignant research items were “burial” maps. Dead men were often buried right where they had fallen by their fellow soldiers, who were usually their townsmen, friends, even relatives. They would then send the family a very detailed map so they could journey to the battlefield, locate the body and bring it home for burial.

On the major battlefields such as Gettysburg, Antietam, Stones River in Tennessee, the National Park Service has tons of data that they gladly make available to a researcher.

Aerial photographs are very revealing if you know what you’re looking for. If I have a reasonably good Civil War era map and it shows a road or a lane that’s vanished, or a barn or a house, if you look very carefully, you can find a footprint or a trace of it. Also, the skeleton features in the landscape – the rivers, streams, hills, principal roads etc. – are obviously extant features on todays extremely accurate USGS maps. So those features are immediately drawn on my map,  providing an immediate reliable framework.

The maps drawn and used by the actual Civil War armies, while not terribly accurate in terms of exact distances and such, are full of the sort of information the armies needed. They wanted the name of residents along the roads because there were no route markers and there were not normally formal names for a given road or lane. The surest way to get reliable directions was to get pointed toward the Smith’s house or the Jones farm. Documenting the residents also gave the armies an idea of the local population. The more residents there were, the more resources there were for the armies to live off. (Union General William Tecumseh Sherman set off across Georgia on November 16,1864 saying, “Where a million Georgians can live, my army will not starve.)

The armies also had to know where they could find corn fields, wheat fields, orchards, hay fields, wells, springs etc. because an army on the march needed to feed 30, 40, 50 thousand men  and thousands of horses and mules. A typical mule would drink 10 gallons of water a day. Multiply that by 10,000! A Civil War army (and it didn’t matter whether they were friends or enemies, Union or Confederate) would devastate any countryside they marched through. They would take all the food for themselves and all the forage for their animals, drink the wells dry, destroy the fields they camped on, empty the barns, clear out the larders, tear down all the fences (to make their camp fires to brew their coffee) and raise havoc generally. But the armies need to live off the land is great for mapmakers because their military “route” maps detailed this sort of food and forage information so the armies knew where they could march and fend for themselves.

A great aid in mapping Gettysburg was the work of John Bachelder, who arrived in Gettysburg immediately after the battle. Bachelder marched up and down the field, mapping it, and he had as a resource the thousands of wounded soldiers, Union and Confederate, remaining behind, who he interviewed. His map, a birds-eye view of the field, was very reliable and valuable.

There were also quite accurate published county maps available of some areas, including Gettysburg, published prior to the Civil War that I used. (They were also used of by the armies and the generals.) Also, soon after the war, the U.S. War Department prepared surveys of many of the major battlefields. These maps were much more detailed and accurate than the maps made under wartime conditions. (The U.S. hired former Confederate mapmakers to work on these surveys. One Rebel named Blackford, who’d sworn he would die rather than live again under the stars and stripes, found himself, within a month of Appomattox happy to be working for the U.S. Army mapping the battlefield

Finally, almost every Civil War battlefield has people who have devoted their lives to studying “their” battle. They know every nook and cranny of the field and like nothing more than to guide someone around the field, point out sites, recommend books and resources, provide access to private lands and to other knowledgeable locals, and in some cases they fix parking tickets incurred locally.

There are other resources but the above provides a pretty good idea of what’s out there. I decide on the reliability of the information based on the resource I used. Photographs, for example, are irrefutable–at least back then they were, before Photoshop.  Other data would often be corroborated by some other data. And then you have to wonder why anybody would mislead about the existence of a stone wall or the presence in their front of a rye as opposed to a wheat field.

After I have everything in place.  I get to add trees and terrain.  I get to print.  I guess I was given the talent of being able to print–very legibly and very small. And finally I get to watercolor.

All my maps are done on a desk that  I found in a barn–it was probably the carriage house for the only New York State governor that hailed from my city.  Unfortunately it wasn’t his desk. I needed some thing flat and this table was tucked away, dusty, covered with some weird tack paper–nobody had used it in years.  I cleaned it up and gave it a second life.  It looked so nice that my landlady wanted it back when we moved.  I offered her $25 for it–I had already completed Pea Ridge and Shiloh and was in the middle of Antietam,  I was rolling.    I can’t remember if she took the money or just let me have it. I am thinking she took it.

  • Top Image: The Wheatfield at Gettysburg Battlefield — Courtesy: Library of Congress

  • Middle Image:  Jedadiah Hotchkiss Gettysburg Map Detail.  Photograph of the original in the Handley Regional Library, Winchester, VA  by Rodney Lee Gibbons, CPP. The map appears in Maps and Mapmakers of the Civil War (Abrams 1999) by Earl B. McELfresh

  • Bottom Images:  McElfresh Map Company’s Gettysburg products.

 

Presentation at the Eldred World War II Museum

 

PT Boat 490 Photo Courtesy: McElfresh Map Company LLC

PT Boat 490
Photo Courtesy: McElfresh Map Company LLC

The naval battle of Leyte Gulf was fought on October 25, 1944 in the waters off the coast of the Philippines.  It was not only the greatest naval battle of the Second World War, it was also the largest naval engagement ever fought on the high seas.

In a presentation this coming Saturday at 2:00 PM, October 25, the Seventieth Anniversary of the battle, at the Eldred, Pennsylvania World War II Museum, Earl McElfresh will describe the events leading up to this battle and the part his father, Lt. John M. McElfresh, as skipper of P.T. 490, played in this enormous sea fight that effectively knocked the Japanese navy out of the war.

Lt. McElfresh is mentioned prominently in every account of this battle, which involved 200,000 men and 244 ships, including the two largest and most powerful battleships every launched, Japan’s Yamoto and Musashi.

Crew of PT 490  Photograph Courtesy; McElfresh Map Co. LLC

Crew of PT 490
Photograph Courtesy; McElfresh Map Co. LLC

In a talk entitled, “My Dad vs. the Empire of Japan,” McElfresh will detail the actions of his father as he earned the first of two silver stars awarded to him by the President of the United States: “For conspicuous gallantry as officer in tactical command of P.T.’s 490, 491 and 493 in action against enemy Japanese forces during the battle for Leyte Gulf on October 25, 1944.”

Earl McElfresh of Olean is a Cattaraugus County Legislator and owner of McElfresh Map Company.  The World War II Museum is located at 201 Main Street in Eldred.

 

A Small Tribute to a Short Speech

1000 Voices at Olean High School Photo Credit:  Mrs. Skrobacz

1000 Voices at Olean High School
Photo Credit: Mrs. Skrobacz

Our local high school put on a special program to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Gettyburg address.  A retired teacher put together the presentation which included videos, re-enactors from local regiments, the Bucktails and 154th NY, and period music.  I was invited to give a five to ten minute presentation.  The highlight of my presentation was my daughter’s introduction.  She is a senior and so very poised in front of a microphone.  Anyway with no further a-do here is my presentation:

Given the mythic proportion that Lincoln has achieved, there is a persistent notion that the Gettysburg Address was written on the back of an envelope by Abraham Lincoln as he made his way by train to Gettysburg.

There are several reasons to doubt this.

First off, Lincoln’s presence at Gettysburg was an afterthought. He actually had to petition the organizers of the cemetery dedication to include him in the dedication ceremony. The very fact that Lincoln called his effort an “address” indicates that he’d prepared it, not for a general delivery but for a specific occasion and a select audience.

Lincoln recognized that this gathering was an opportunity to bring the country “up to speed” –as we would put it–on the meaning and worth of the sacrifice these Union soldiers had made and all the others were making. He wanted to remind the nation that while this war was being fought at an enormous cost in lives and treasure, it was being fought for an immeasurably valuable prize. Lincoln would not take an opportunity like this lightly and he would traditionally prepare very carefully for such an event.

Secondly, Lincoln liked to think on his feet. Literally. All his life, he walked while he thought and he thought while he walked. He walked back and forth in his White House office when he was puzzling out or preparing something. That’s a little difficult on a moving train.

He also had a habit of reading things out loud –whether he was reading someone else’s writing –a funny story or a newspaper article–or was composing a letter, or a speech or a proclamation.  The cadence, the content, the impact of what he was working on seemed much clearer when he heard it spoken aloud.

Lincoln was always extremely unwilling to speak off-the-cuff. The night he arrived at Gettysburg a crowd gathered outside the house he was visiting. The crowd called for a speech and Lincoln resolutely refused to say anything but an extended version of “Good evening.” He didn’t want, he said, to say anything foolish.

This last concern was particularly important because Lincoln’s only direct access to his fellow countrymen was through the written word. So each word he spoke or wrote for the record had to be very carefully crafted. There was no radio. No television. Lincoln hardly ever left the White House. This trip to Gettysburg was one of the longest trips out of Washington that he took during his whole Presidency. Lincoln spent probably 95% of his presidency in his White House office. The country came to him. Anybody willing to wait long enough would have the chance to briefly meet and speak with Abraham Lincoln.

When Lincoln spoke for the record, reporters took his words down more or less accurately in short hand. His words appeared in the newspapers in black and white for his friends and enemies to read. It was the president’s standard forum when he wanted to “speak” to the country. Lincoln was by profession a lawyer. So he designed his speeches as a lawyer would, using precise language to develop a compelling argument.

But Lincoln also possessed the soul of a poet. He had, in fact, written some actual poetry –all of it terrible, dreary and gloomy –really bad – but when his poetic inclination was tempered by his need for lawyerly precision, the results were some of the most remarkable and carefully prepared political speeches ever delivered. The only ad-lib, the only improvised words in the Gettysburg Address, were the words “under God” in the phrase “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”  Lincoln was an “agnostic” meaning he was someone who did not deny the existence of God but didn’t acknowledge the existence of God either.  Apparently, somewhere between Fort Sumter and November 19, 1863 – as the war took a turn for the better with major Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, God was beginning to look pretty good.   

Lincoln had read widely and his writings had obvious influences: the Bible for sure –he could quote relevant passages from the Bible to suit almost any occasion. He was an aficionado of Shakespeare…he read the plays and attended performances of them regularly in Washington… he admired and studied classic political orators Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. One less noted but very obvious influence on Lincoln was the telegraph. The President spent an inordinate amount of time at the telegraph office, which was situated a brisk walk from the White House. It was his sanctuary from the cares and activities of the White House and it was also the nerve center of the war effort. Lincoln telegraphed constantly to his commanders in the field. These telegrams had to be short, exact and put in terms that could not be misunderstood. Lincoln developed an affinity for the blunt “shorthand” communication of the telegraph. The influence of this “compressed” language helps account for the brevity of the Gettysburg address.

The actual physical presentation of this address is interesting to visualize. Lincoln sat with dozens of local and national dignitaries on a raised platform on a breezy hillside in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. November 19th can be cold and blustery. A large crowd, thousands of people, filled acres of space to listen to noted lecturer Edward Everett, the featured speaker, give a two hour speech –which he had memorized. His talk encompassed the Gettysburg battle in some detail and he expounded on the significance of the battle and the meaning of the war.

Then Lincoln stood up and gave his two-minute address, which he read. There were no microphones. There was no amplification. Lincoln had a rather high-pitched voice but it was a voice that carried wonderfully. So the original delivery of the Gettysburg Address was not some solemn, sonorous presentation but a belted out rendition by an expert stump-speaking political pro, one of whose principal qualifications for office in pre-electronics 19th century America was a voice that carried to the farthest person back in an enormous crowd in a large open field while the wind was blowing. What distinguished Lincoln in this specialized field of orators and politicians was that the short hand reporters dispatched to document his speeches would stand listening, completely enthralled, and forget to write down what he said.

Lincoln sat down-there was prolonged applause–yet he sensed that the speech had not gone down well. “That speech didn’t scour,” was the phrase he used, meaning the speech hadn’t carried through smoothly, as a plow would. He didn’t know it at the time but he was probably feeling the effects of the mild case a small pox that he developed soon after returning to Washington. Some newspapers ridiculed his effort but Edward Everett, an old political adversary of the President, wrote to him that Lincoln’s two minute effort had come closer to the “central idea of the occasion” than Everett had in his two hours.  

In evaluating Lincoln’s stature on the stage of history – and he stands way, way up there – the Gettysburg Address is certainly important on his resume. If there can be any question of his genius, it’s merely necessary to ask who else on earth could come up with a phrase that became one of the most famous passages in the English language and that will be remembered so long as the language is spoken. What did he come up with when all he was trying to say was “87 years ago?”  Four score and seven years ago.

This is not “train ride, back of an envelope material.”

Some New Civil War Classics

When the Civil War Sesquicentennial came around, it reminded me of the sets that were published to coincide with the Centennial of the Civil War. I decided to dust off Bruce Catton’s three volume Centennial History. I had the impression that modern scholarship had made this set obsolete but I was quickly jolted out of this notion within pages of picking up this book. If the scholarship was not up to today’s standards (mostly because Catton’s researcher E. B. Long probably had to manually copy any notes or quotes he wanted to use–he couldn’t simply Xerox pages and pages from the O.R. or from archives or library materials) the writing more than makes up for that. If any war or period was ever dramatic it’s the Civil War era. And Bruce Catton’s portrayal of the actors and the drama being played out surpasses anything that contemporary historians are publishing. Modern historians may provide more facts but they lose out in terms of providing a vivid feel for the people and the era.
 
One thing however that’s obvious is that Bruce Catton misjudged his ability to cover the war in three volumes. Vol. 2 ends at Antietam. That leaves Catton with a single volume to cover the rise of Grant and his campaigns and battles, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Sherman’s rise and his campaigns…the third volume is like a “flashcards” history of the war. But the writing is, in a word, magnificent. Also, and because I wasn’t ready to put Catton down, I read the Lloyd Lewis/ Bruce Catton biography of Grant. It ends with the Civil War–perhaps Catton didn’t want to face the bleak interlude between Appomattox and Mount McGregor–but I was ready to start the book again as soon as I’d finished it. Catton (and Shelby Foote) had a magical, stirring feel for the War and it’s dramatis personae.