museums and archives, teaching

Field trip!

I took my Civil War in American Lit class to Frederick, MD, over the weekend, to visit the National Civil War Medicine Museum and to take a walking tour of local Civil War sites. Frederick, it turns out, was not only the town closest to Antietam, the battle that claimed the largest number of casualties in a single day– 20,000 killed, wounded, or missing–but also sits on what used to be two major crossroads: the old National Road running from Baltimore to points west, and what is now Court St., which ran from the Shenandoah Valley to Pennsylvania. Our wonderful tour guide, Betsy Estilow, Professor Emerita of Biology from Hood College (located in Frederick), joked that you knew it was summer in Frederick in the years 1860-1865 because there were either Union or Confederate troops– or both– in town.

Professor Estilow talks about the intersection of Market St. and Patrick St. in downtown Frederick, once a national crossroads between major north-south and east-west routes.
Professor Estilow talks about the intersection of Market St. and Patrick St. in downtown Frederick, once a national crossroads between major north-south and east-west routes.

As a major town (then having a population of about 8000) near the action, Frederick was picked to be a hospital site as early as 1861. After the Battle of Antietam in September 1862, nearly every single church, school, and government building in town was turned into makeshift surgeries, recovery wards, and morgues. One witness wrote that Frederick had been turned into “one vast hospital.” So it makes sense that the city is the site of the National Civil War Medicine Museum. The museum, incidentally, happens to be housed in one of the first embalming “studios.” (Modern embalming techniques were one by-product of the immense number of Civil War deaths and the need to transport bodies by horse and train all over the country.) Here’s a shot from the museum, showing Betsy in action:

Tour guide Betsy Estilon describes life-- and death-- in camp, while class members peruse the exhibits. The tent in the background belonged to a Civil-War doctor and is one of the Museum's most important possessions.
Tour guide Betsy Estilow describes life– and death– in camp, while class members peruse the exhibits. The tent in the background belonged to a Civil-War doctor and is one of the most important items in the museum’s collection.

It turns out that more than half of the deaths in the Civil War resulted from disease, not battlefield injuries. Many believe that the diseases that killed the most soldiers was gangrene that set in from badly done amputations and the inability to control infections (the use of antibiotics to fight infection did not begin until after the war).

However, Betsy insisted that the majority came from diseases contracted in camp. Of the 1500 days of the war, she said, only 60 actually involved battle. So being in camp, and later, in prison, with poor sanitary conditions, poor nutrition, and what she called “immunologically naive” soldiers (i.e., those who hadn’t been exposed to many diseases, having come from the wholesome, unpopulated regions west of the Eastern seaboard) resulted in the vast majority of sickness, and eventually, death. The war’s major killers? More than the minié ball or the cannon, it was dysentery, typhoid, malaria; even measles.

The museum was full of great artifacts. Here are a few (though I must admit I neglected to photograph some of the more gruesome artifacts, including the mummified human arm, the torture-devices-cum-dental tools, and various tourniquets, saws, and such):

Clara Barton's folding trunk bed. The poles were used to support mosquito netting, needed to prevent malaria.
Clara Barton’s folding trunk bed. The poles were used to support mosquito netting, needed to prevent malaria.
Medics in the field had to carry all their supplies and equipment with them. Surprising how small this satchel is.
Medics in the field had to carry all their supplies and equipment with them. Surprising how small this satchel is.
We've seen these! Harper's Weekly was one of the main sources of reading material in camp.
Harper’s Weekly was one of the main sources of reading material in camp. Coincidentally, I had just brought my own personal copies of 1850s-era Harper’s Weekly to class to show them what Civil-War-era magazines looked like.
A diorama showing an amputation in progress. The table holding the figure is also from the war, and another prized possession in the museum's collection.
A diorama showing an amputation in progress. The table holding the figure was also used in the war (those are actual blood stains in the bottom right corner of the image), and another important piece in the museum’s collection.

Other fun facts of Civil War medicine:

  • The American Red Cross had its beginnings in the war.
  • So did the concept of ambulances to quickly transport people to hospitals.
  • 15% of those whose legs were amputated at the hip (thus severing several major veins and arteries) survived!
  • Nurses were so desperately needed that some prostitutes were given the choice between jail time/fines and hospital service.
  • Civil War hospitals had a mortality rate of only 8%, comparable to modern-day hospitals.

After lunch, Betsy and another docent, Mike Hoffman (who is a professor at the Army War College, served in the JAG, and also worked for the Red Cross for years) took us for a tour of downtown Frederick. Before we left, I graced the class with a very, ahem, dramatic reading of Frederick’s own claim to Civil War literature, a patriotic ballad by John Greenleaf Whittier titled “Barbara Freitchie.”

Professor Cole reading "Barbara Freitchie" and enthralling the class.
Professor Cole enthralling students with her performance of “Barbara Freitchie.” Photo by Jessica Ciampa (Thanks, Jessica!)

In the poem, the 90-something Barbara Freitchie, a staunch Unionist, refuses to be daunted by Confederates who keep taking down her flag. A real woman named Barbara Freitchie lived about 3 blocks from where we were standing, but apparently was probably not the woman who actually kept putting up the Union flag when the Confederates tried to take it down. Whittier, it seems, decided to conflate the real defender of the flag and a well-known local character. So it is Barbara who lives on.

Here are some other shots from the walking tour:

City Hall was burned to the ground in 1861 and replaced by this building during the Civil War.
City Hall was burned to the ground in 1861 and replaced by this building during the Civil War.
Controversial monument to Roger Taney, Head Justice of the Supreme Court and author of the Dred Scott decision (1857).
Controversial monument to Roger Taney, Head Justice of the Supreme Court and author of the Dred Scott decision (1857). (Also brother-in-law to Frederick’s better-known hometown boy, Francis Scott Key. Who owned slaves. Do they tell you that when you learn about “The Star-Spangled Banner” in school?)
A plaque commemmorating Dred and Harriet Scott that now stands next to the Taney statue, erected in 2009.
A plaque commemorating Dred and Harriet Scott that now stands next to the Taney statue, erected in 2009.

It was a very full day. But full in a good way. I got to know the students better, and they got to walk the streets traversed by Grant, Lee, and Jackson, as well as the thousands of soldiers and civilians caught up in the war who are the main subject of our course. That alone made it worth the trip– but what really made it special was that we all got to see how the town has lived with the war ever since.

While the town is full of monuments, museums, and markers, what was really striking to me was how invisible much of the history was. Without Betsy to show us sites and explain what happened, we would have just walked by. Thank goodness for Betsy, and all the public historians out there!

museums and archives

Winterthur– how did I miss you?

Last weekend I visited Winterthur for the first time. This place is up all my alleys: history, gardens, an insanely wealthy, and possibly just insane, 19th-century American family (has anyone seen Foxcatcher? I might have to check it out soon). Plus, it is one of the United States’ foremost research libraries that focuses on material objects– especially, furniture and textiles–as a source of historical knowledge. Could it be any more perfect?

For starters, check out these soup tureens. They have a whole gallery devoted to soup tureens, sponsored by– who else? Campbell’s.

tureen3
A traditional tureen, with a lemon and twig for the lid handle and shell pieces for the side handles. Beautiful and charming.
tureen2
A more whimsical example, a pewter tureen shaped like a ship. Check out the cannon ports along the sides and the fish supporting the base. Chowder, anyone?
And for something really over-the-top, here's a silver tureen with an elaborate base and a Barye-esque tableau atop the lid. I guess this was intended for some kind of crazy game-based stew? Certainly something more substantial than chicken noodle.
And for something really over-the-top, here’s a silver tureen with an elaborate base and a Barye-esque tableau atop the lid. I guess this was intended for some kind of crazy game-based stew? Certainly something more substantial than chicken noodle.

Right now, they have a great exhibit on needlework, The Diligent Needle: Instrument of Profit, Pleasure, and Ornament. Needlework, as the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers have shown so poignantly, were a way for women, especially those who lacked access to literate forms of expression, to display their creativity as well as actually communicate their ideas. In a way, quilts, embroidery, and even clothing can thus be read as texts–but unfortunately, most of us now lack the ability to read them. Here was a cool early 19c coverlet through which the maker (author?) showed not only her skill in embroidery, but the value she placed on traditional literacy:

This enormous coverlet would have easily fit a queen-size bed, I'd say. Embroidered with an almost yarnlike navy-blue wool.
This enormous coverlet would have easily fit a queen-size bed, I’d say. Embroidered with an almost yarnlike navy-blue wool. Make note of the figures running along the bottom of the coverlet, which I assume would have appeared running along the foot of the bed.

The man and the woman, in fact, are holding tiny books; the woman also appears to be holding her sewing basket toward her daughter.

Curious that there are birds included near both of these figures. Perhaps indicating song or music?
Curious that there are birds included near both of these figures. Perhaps indicating song or music?
Note the bird, released from its cage. Is that meant to figure the liberating nature of reading?
Note the bird, released from its cage. Is that meant to figure the liberating nature of reading?

But most amazing had to be this quilt, which had this embroidered medallion at its center:

The medallion is a full 14 inches across. The motif, apparently, was known as
The medallion is a full 14 inches across. The motif, apparently, was known as “the pelican in her piety.”

How weird to have a bloody pelican in the center of your bed to greet you at bedtime. But perhaps, given how frequently women gave their lives in the service of procreation, apropos.

My friend Laura, who was visiting me that weekend, had the presence of mind to get us tickets for the house tour. We spent an hour exploring a single floor of the house– the fifth floor, which I think was the third major addition to be put on the house, in the early twentieth century. The house has 172 rooms or something like that and at its grandest, was a sort of cruise-ship-on-land, with indoor squash court, bowling alley, and billiards room, several parlors and other entertainment spaces, both grand and intimate, a beautiful dining room, swimming pool, outdoor terraces, bathhouses– you get the idea.

One can imagine Jay Gatsby getting ideas from a visit here. Or maybe, Henry Francis DuPont got ideas from someone like Jay Gatsby. The tour guide didn’t say, one way or another. Here’s one of the rooms, where the family and guests would “retire” after dinner, for drinks and conversation:

The Chinese Parlor at Winterthur. The orientalist images on the wall were actually wallpaper, not painting-- though apparently Mr. DuPont hired a painter to fill in the gaps caused by doorways and suchlike.
The Chinese Parlor at Winterthur. The orientalist images on the wall were actually wallpaper, not painting– though apparently Mr. DuPont hired a painter to fill in the gaps caused by doorways and suchlike.

And the gardens are spectacular, too. To get to the house and museum, we had to stroll through acres of meticulously cared for– yet still a little wild-looking– woodlands, with some of the most gorgeous, huge oak and beech trees I’ve ever seen in my life. I never thought I’d say a tree was gorgeous, but this is the word that kept coming to my lips as we strolled down the carefully groomed paths.

Near the house, the gardens take on a more formal character. Here’s the old swimming pool, now converted into a reflecting pool with lily pads, papyrus, and other water plants:

One end of the former swimming pool, with cool horse sculpture leaping in with wild abandon.
One end of the former swimming pool, with cool horse sculpture leaping in with wild abandon.
View across the reflecting pool. See--there's a reflection!
View across the reflecting pool. See–there’s a reflection!

And the koi pond. I guess it’s still a “pond,” but quite a grand habitat for bottom feeders!

pond2

So why is it called Winterthur? It originated as one of the DuPont family mansions– they’re scattered all around the countryside surrounding Wilmington, Delaware. This house apparently is named after the Swiss family home of someone who married into the family. You pronounce it “Winter-ter”– the name looks more distinguished than it sounds– though perhaps I just lack the patrician accent that would mark me as “belonging.” Anyway, it’s ok. I’m willing to pay admission to enter.

Winterthur is apparently supposed to be much more impressive in spring and fall, when the azaleas and rhododendrons are blooming (spring) and when the leaves turn (fall). I don’t know if I could stand it! But I’ll figure out a way. Certainly research will need to be done on some of that needlework!