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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.  ↩
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history TV Uncategorized

Spoiling The Civil War for my wife

Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary boasts a beautiful, nineteenth-century-inspired soundtrack. One particular piece, “Ashokan Farewell,” serves as the miniseries’ de facto theme song. It’s gorgeous: a plaintive string band ballad with a a heartbreaking melody.

I’ve spoiled this song for my wife.

Every time we hear “Ashokan”, I provide an impromptu voiceover, modeled on many we hear in The Civil War. Typically, I pretend to be a lonely soldier, writing home to his sweetheart on the eve of battle. You know; a letter so sickly sweet it makes you gag? Something like this:

My dearest Clementine,

It has been now three score weeks since I have seen your lovely face. And now, on the brink of this terrible battle, I cannot help but wonder whether I have looked upon it for the last time in this life.

Now, do not mistake me, my dearest friend. I do not fear battle, nor do I fear death. Indeed, what is there to fear, but this one thing: that you will mourn me all your days and go to the grave a childless widow? Nothing fills me with more dread. Should I fall tomorrow, then, Clementine, you must spare me this awful sorrow. You must promise to love another, bear him many children, and live a full and happy life.

Know that I have loved you, do love you dearly, and will love you, for all time, Jebediah Jackson, Fifth Maine Infantry division

(Imagine me reading this with some awful, unidentifiable nineteenth-century accent.) My wife rolls her eyes. But I think, secretly, deep down, she eats it up.