Archive for the “Historic Dates” Category

lincolnYesterday was the 150th anniversary of the murder of Abraham Lincoln. He was shot in the head in Ford’s Theater, where he was watching the play Our American Cousin. A century and a half and three presidential assassinations later, it’s impossible for us to comprehend what a national trauma it was.  It was the first time an American president had been murdered.

Ford’s Theater has put together an online exhibit on national reactions to the assassination. It’s a fantastic example of how the Internet can be used to teach history. I’ve been a history geek my entire life. I wish the Web (and sites like this) had been around when I was a kid. Among the most instructive aspects of the exhibit are the indications that many people welcomed Lincoln’s death–and not just in the former Confederacy.  The site has an interactive map where you can see reactions to the assassination in different parts of the country. In San Francisco some people were apparently quite happy about it: Major General MacDowell ordered that anyone celebrating Lincoln’s death be arrested. To characterize the war as “North against South” is clearly an oversimplification.

The site has an additional collection of written reactions to Lincoln’s assassination, including Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain, My Captain!” and diary entries by Emilie Davis a free African-American  Philadelphian who wrote in her diary, “everything assumes a solemn aspect the streets look mournful the people more so.”

freedomThe anniversary is related to two popular subject areas at SPL: the Civil War and true crime. The Battle Cry of Freedom is a compulsively readable one-volume history of the Civil War.   I’ve also enjoyed another book by the same author: For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War.

For those fascinated by presidential assassinations, I cannot recommend highly enough the book Destiny of the Republic, an account of the shooting of President Garfield and the attempts to save him. It’s a gripping read: not only does the author vividly recount the life of an almost completely forgotten president, she also tells a fascinating story of nineteenth-century medicine. Alexander Graham Bell was summoned to Washington and asked to invent a device that could find the location of the bullet in Garfield’s body (no pressure). But the effort to create an X-ray machine was the only part of the president’s treatment that resembled modern medicine. In fact Garfield probably would have survived if he had been kept away from his doctors, who poked and prodded in his wound with unwashed hands and unsterilized instruments.

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…for April 9, 2015

Grant150 years ago today Robert E Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, bringing an end to four years of war that caused 600,000 deaths.  The generosity and forbearance of the victors in the American Civil War has no historical precedent: there were no executions; Confederate soldiers were allowed to keep their property; Confederate prisoners were released as soon as they swore an oath to never again fight against the U. S. government. When Union soldiers began to fire and cheer in celebration, Grant ordered them to stop: “The Rebels are now our countrymen again, and the best sight of rejoicing after victory will be to refrain from all celebrations.”

The war inspired a vast body of written work, including novels, cold Mountain Book Coverhistory, memoirs and poetry. My favorite novel set during the Civil War is Cold Mountain by James Frazier, the story of Inman, a Confederate soldier making his way back home to North Carolina and to Ada, the woman he loves. While Inman does his best to stay alive in a war-ravaged land where all order has broken down, the once-wealthy Ada has to re-learn how to live, how to grow her own vegetables, raise livestock and make her own clothes. This winner of the 1997 National Book Award is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read in that I could actually believe the characters were from the nineteenth century, that I was experiencing a world I knew about, but that was at the same time profoundly alien.

One of my favorite works of Civil War history is Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America. Winik’s focus on so short a time period enables him to give his readers a sense of what it was like to live, work and fight in 1865. We follow Lincoln’s secretary John Hay as he walks to the telegraph office in the evening to wait for the latest reports from the front. We sit in on the deliberations of the Confederate government as they realize time is running out. And agonizingly, we walk with John Wilkes Booth into Ford’s Theater up to the President’s box where he commits one of the greatest crimes of all time. But this book is more than an epic retelling of events in the lives of famous men. Winik never lets you forget what the war was really about, and the greatest good that came out of it. He recounts the ex-slave Houston Holloway’s memory of becoming free in 1865: “I felt like a bird out of a cage. Amen. Amen. Amen.”

goreFor an overview of the cultural and political world of America in the 1850s and 60s, you probably can’t do better than Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore: Literature of the American Civil War. Wilson discusses, analyzes and dissects the writing of the period: travel accounts by Northerners in the South, diaries of Confederate ladies, memoirs by Union generals. He also reflects on the work of post-war writers who were shaped by the conflict, such as Kate Chopin and Ambrose Bierce.

If you’re interested in learning about the Civil War but none of these titles sound appealing, come to the library and ask me or one of my co-workers for help finding something. That’s why we’re here.

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For today, February 7.

dickensHappy Birthday, Charles Dickens. He remains one of the most beloved and influential novelists in English and was born this day in 1812 in Portsmouth, England. Recommended related reading from SPL: The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin or his novel Bleak House.

 

Feb. 7, 1601: Shakespeare’s Richard II is performed at richardiithe Globe by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Since the play is about the overthrow of a monarch and the Earl of Essex launched his revolt against Queen Elizabeth on Feb. 8, the timing was unfortunate. Recommended related reading from SPL: Becoming Shakespeare: The Unlikely Afterlife that Transformed a Provincial Playwright into the Bard or his play Macbeth.

Happy Birthday, Sinclair Lewis. This author of devastating critiques of American life was born in Sauk Center, Minnesota in 1885.  Recommended related readings from SPL: Babbitt, one of my favorite novels of 1920s America and Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s.

ingallsHappy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867). Recommended related reading from SPL: any of the perennially popular Little House books, Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie, or John Miller’s Becoming Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Woman Behind the Legend.

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u15This year a number of books on the First World War have been published in recognition of its upcoming 100th anniversary: on July 28, 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, sparking a chain reaction of hostilities. Serbia’s ally, Russia, declared war on Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary’s ally, Germany, then declared war on Russia and Russia’s ally France. Then German troops swept through neutral Belgium to invade France.  In response to the violation of Belgium’s neutrality and sovereignty, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. The United States remained steadfastly neutral until 1917, when it declared war in response to German attacks on US ships.

Perhaps this all seems remote to people in Massachusetts in 2014. But the war didn’t seem at all remote to the people of Orleans, Mass. on July 21, 1918, when a U-boat surfaced off the Cape and began firing on the tugboat Perth Amboy and the four barges it was towing.   Chatham Coast Guard sailors rowed lifeboats directly into the lines of fire and rescued all 32 people on board the tugboat and barges. The U-boat fired several shells directly at the town. One landed in a pond, the others sank into the sand.  Eventually the U-boat left.  It was the first attack on American soil since the War of 1812.

No one has ever learned why the Germans attacked the Perth Amboy and Orleans. One theory is that the U-boat was chasing a larger American ship, lost track of it, and happened to stumble upon the Perth Amboy. Another suggestion is that the U-boat was on a general mission to damage American morale by attacking the mainland.

However, given that it took an armed U-boat an hour and a half to disable five completely unarmed civilian vessels, the Germans were probably not as threatening as they had hoped. “Germans Prove Poor Shots,” read one Globe headline.

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JFK, Jr and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy on their wedding day

JFK, Jr and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy on their wedding day

Today was a tragic day in US History when John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and her older sister Lauren died when the airplane JFK, Jr. was piloting when down in the Atlantic near Martha’s Vineyard. A massive search/rescue/recovery mission was undertaken to find the plane and bring home their bodies. This sad story captivated the world over for many days.

But, it was not the only thing that happened on this day in history. Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of assassinated president Abraham Lincoln died of a stroke on July 16, 1882. Czar Nicholas and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in Russia (1918) – leading to many stories of the possible survival of their daughter Anastasia. Adolf Hitler ordered preparations for the invasion of England (1940) leading to World War 2. The United States detonated the first atomic bomb in a test in New Mexico (1945). Apollo 11 (1969) headed for the moon. Also Barbara Stanwyck (1907), Ginger Rogers (1911) and Will Ferrell (1967) were all born on July 16th.

You can look up any day in history at either History.com or Historynet.com.

 

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FireworksJuly 4 is coming up, a day for fireworks, cookouts and spending time with friends.   Here’s a brief guide to local fun on Independence Day.

Somerville’s July 4th festivities will be Thursday evening at Trum Field. Live music  starts at 6:15, fireworks at 9:15. Everything you need to know, including rain date information, is here.

If you want to go to the banks of Charles, hear the Boston Pops and see fireworks you need to read this guide by cbslocal.

You could also listen to the Pops and see the fireworks on a big screen at Robbins Farm Park in Arlington. The details are here.

And tomorrow is the start of Boston Harborfest, an annual festival of activities and tours in and around Boston bostonharborfestthat begins July 2 and ends July 6. You can take architectural tours, play eighteenth century games, attend a chocolate-making demonstration, listen to Cape Verdean jazz, and more. Check out their calendar of events.

Have fun and stay safe.

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In honor of Bunker Hill Day, which commemorates the defeat of American forces on a different hill.

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Since the beginning of the Muslim Journeys programming here at Somerville Public Library, I’ve been thinking about how little attention historians have paid to the Islamic elements of “Western” history–such as the Jefferson Administration’s diplomatic relations  and military confrontations with North African states.

 

indians

Today, on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, University of Michigan historian Juan Cole rightly points out the vital role Muslim soldiers played in the Allies’ victory over the Axis.  During the Second World War the British Indian Army was the largest volunteer army in the world, and more than 30 percent of its soldiers and officers were Muslim.  Allied victories such as Operation Compass and El Alamein would not have been possible without  Indian troops.  Indian troops also fought the Axis in the invasion of Italy.

Muslim soldiers from France’s African colonies also fought on the allied side in the North African and Italian campaigns.  African troops accounted for up to half of all French troops in the liberation of Provence.

Yet today’s commemorations of D-Day present a picture that is Eurocentric, parochial and inaccurate.

 

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Postcard from 1930

Postcard from 1930

Somerville Public Library’s central branch is marking its centennial this year. Way back in January of 1914, the Italian Renaissance-style building at 79 Highland Avenue opened for patrons after its dedication on Dec. 17, 1913.

Famed library architect Edward Lippincott Tilton designed the new building. According to the Somerville Journal in an article dated Dec. 12, 1913, the library was constructed at a cost of $125,000 (which is $2,993,333 in today’s dollars). Great library supporter and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie donated $80,000. The furniture and bookcases were made of oak. The book capacity was 200,000 volumes.

Other events in our library’s life:

– In 1928, the second floor of the central branch – Wellington Hall – was dedicated to library trustee J. Frank Wellington, who at that time had served for 35 years in that capacity.

– The 1975-’76 renovation: $1.7 million was spent on the facelift, which is $7.5 million in today’s dollars. Of that total, $1.5 million came from a bond issue. Staff members recall many books being kept in trailers near City Hall, while staff and some resources were relocated to City Hall’s basement while renovations were taking place.

– In 1976, after renovations were complete, the Children’s Room was dedicated to late Somerville citizen Marguerite “Missy” Alice LeHand, President Franklin Roosevelt’s longtime secretary and confidante. James Roosevelt, grandson of the late president, also attended the dedication.

– In 1981, the library was picked by the Massachusetts Library Association as the Library of the Year.

Can you recognize the difference from today's entrance?

Can you recognize the difference from today’s entrance?

– In 1989, the branch was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

– In 2007, the library was awarded a $40,000 Planning and Design Grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

– In 2012, Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners added Somerville to its waiting list for an $18 million construction grant to build a new library in Union Square. In order to receive the grant, Somerville must come up with a solid plan for funding the whole project, which is projected to cost $45 million. Plans are still developing.

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At the dedication in 1913, Drew Bert Hall, Somerville’s librarian, had this to say: “Yet this service, great as it is, is but a beginning of what shall be. For there is not a child or a young man, a housewife or a merchant, a laborer or a banker, a mechanic or a lady in this land to-night who does not need something to be found in good books; whether it be comfort for their sorrows of the day, or of knowledge for the struggles of the morrow, or of inspiration for their visions of the future.”

Can this 100-year-old sentiment still be relevant to us today? You betcha.

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For more information on the history of all three branches of the Somerville Public Library, visit the Local History Room on the second floor of the central branch. Our website has some tips to check out before you stop by. There is also a display on the first floor of the central branch with with lovely pictures of the branch pre-renovation, during the renovation in 1975-’76 and a few from the library right after the renovation.

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For most of us today is just another Monday, or at most an excuse to go out for Mexican food tonight or make a margarita at home. For Mexican-Americans and Mexicans residing in the US, today is a celebration of Mexican heritage. But what is Cinco de Mayo?

pueblaThe holiday commemorates the highly unlikely victory of a Mexican army over invading French forces on May 5, 1862, near the city of Puebla, Mexico. Here’s the background: after the U.S. invasion of 1846-48 and two civil wars, the Mexican government was destitute. President Benito Juarez declared a two-year moratorium on foreign debt payments.  France responded by invading: Napoleon III thought he could take advantage of the situation to establish a puppet state in Latin America that would further French interests.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, most Mexicans weren’t down with this plan. As the French marched inland, they encountered heavy, but unsuccessful resistance. However, outside the city of Puebla a poorly-equipped Mexican army roughly half the size of the French forces defeated the invaders, forcing them to retreat back toward the coast. The Mexican commander, Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, sent a one-line note to President Juarez: “Las armas nacionales se han cubierta de gloria” (“The national arms are covered in glory.”)

The victory was an incredible gift to Mexican morale: the French army was considered the best in the world, and they had been beaten by a Mexican force half their size.

The French did successfully regroup, march inland, take Mexico City and establish a puppet government. However, their success was brief. The French-sponsored collapsed in 1867. and President Juarez’s government re-convened in Mexico City.

If you have any interest at all in Mexican history, come over to the library and browse the shelves where the books have call numbers beginning with 972. Among some of the most interesting reads in that section are Enrique Krauze’s Mexico: Biography of Power, a fascinating history of Mexico from 1810 to the present. I also love The Mexico City Reader, which is a kaleidoscopic overview of the cultural, social and historic life of one of the world’s greatest megacities. And I think it’s obligatory for Americans to read A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and its War with the United States.

Happy reading. And perhaps have a margarita while you’re at it.

 

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