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Living links

We saw Twelve Years a Slave last night. It’s not a perfect film,[1] but it offers an honest, heart-wrenching account of the most shameful “secret” in American history.

Because lawful slavery ended long before we were born, we might be tempted to dismiss it as a half-remembered relic of a less-civilized age.

That’s too easy, for several reasons. First, human trafficking continues to occur here in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, 150 years is not so long a time, after all. Using historic photos, we can leapfrog our way back to the Civil War in just a few moves:

  • The (still-living) George H.W. Bush once met Babe Ruth.
  • Babe Ruth posed for a photo with Pittsburgh Pirates legend Honus Wagner, with whom Ruth’s career briefly overlapped.
  • President William Howard Taft cheered on Honus Wagner at a 1909 baseball game.
  • Taft delivered an address at the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run. Many aging Civil War veterans attended the ceremony.

Another thought: the last surviving Civil War veteran didn’t pass away until 1956.[2] Although he was a contemporary to Lincoln and Lee, he lived to witness the first automobile, the fall of the Third Reich, and the dawn of the atomic era.

We tend to compartmentalize history into distinct eras. But individual lives transcend these neat mental barriers—and bring history’s injustices uncomfortably close.


  1. Steve McQueen, the film’s director, seems to love uncomfortably long shots of nothing in particular.  ↩
  2. There are several dozen children of Civil War veterans who are still alive, as of October 2013.  ↩