An American gun story


The core of the Coltsville site, today under development for adaptive reuse.

I’d never seen a national park in development so I seized the opportunity at a recent conference I attended in Hartford, Connecticut. If all goes as planned, Coltsville National Historical Park will one day preserve a major manufacturing story of America. Built by Samuel Colt in 1855, it was the largest armory in the world and at one point produced 1000 guns per day. The historic complex is now in a quiet industrial/residential area at the edge of Hartford. It consists of private and public buildings abandoned when the factory moved west of town in the 1990s. The blue Onion Dome topped with a rearing colt sculpture rises above the site, a symbol for the company and a signature of the city’s skyline. In December 2014 Congress designated this a “partnership park.” The National Park Service (NPS) is working to establish a future park, decide its scope, secure NPS ownership of buildings, and work with a private real estate developer who is rehabilitating the main factory complex in an ambitious effort of adaptive reuse.


Samuel Colt with an 1851 Colt Navy Revolver (circa 1847-1851)

Many historians credit Colt with starting a second industrial revolution in the United States, combining interchangeable parts, precision machining and the assembly line to create “The American System of Manufacturing.” This system was used for many other products including bicycles, sewing machines and typewriters.

Hartford resident Mark Twain described the factory on a visit in 1868:

“… The Colt revolver manufactory is a Hartford institution… It comprises a great range of tall brick buildings, and on every floor is a dense wilderness of strange iron machines that stretches away into remote distances and confusing perspectives – a tangled forest of rods, bars, pulleys, wheels, and all the imaginable and unimaginable forms of mechanism… It must have required more brains to invent all these things than would serve to stock fifty Senates like ours.”


Colt’s armory from an 1857 engraving, Library of Congress

On a rainy day a group of about twenty public historians dutifully followed three park rangers into the site located within walking distance of the convention center. Conceived of as a city within a city, the sprawling site includes the factory complex, the privately-owned Colt mansion named Armsmear (Colt’s dream house built for his bride), Colt Park, a recreational area inspired by Hartford native Frederick Law Olmstead (designer of New York’s Central Park), the Modern Gothic style Church of the Good Shepherd (built by Elizabeth Colt as a memorial to her husband), a historic community center (built as a memorial to Colt’s son), four supervisor houses (privately-owned) and ten remaining worker houses (multi-family houses, now privately-owned).


Our group in front of the worker houses.

The company’s story is one of innovation and manufacturing. A Hartford native, Colt traveled the world marketing his Colt revolver, a six-bullet shooter that changed the military.   After Colt’s death in 1862, the company would continue to develop and produce new inventions such as the Colt 45 revolver, “the gun that won the West,” and the Gatling Gun, a rapid-fire repeating weapon. During the Civil War, the Colt factory supplied the Union Army with half a million firearms.

Another person at the center of the story is Colt’s wife, Elizabeth.  Upon Colt’s death at age 47 in 1862, Elizabeth inherited a controlling interest int he company and stayed involved with its activity for the next 39 years. Her influence at the company and around Hartford did much to bolster the Colt name in the city and to ensure her husband’s legacy. She worked with famous architects, artists and cultural institutions for the benefit of Hartford.

As the NPS works with the community to plan for the park, it must find answers to many important questions.  One is what stories the future site should tell. Another is what should the site’s relationship be with the city of Hartford, a community racked with a culture of gun violence. Also, how might the park service partner with organizations in the community to build a resource that will benefit all?

These are difficult questions, and during an evening program in one of the city’s many historic churches, a panel of community leaders discussed them. There are no easy answers and it was obvious that residents are hurting. History is complex, as is modern politics. Topics like the history of gun manufacturing and the consequences of gun culture are extremely sensitive for any national park site to tackle. Ultimately it seems the goal is to preserve a piece of America’s history, tell relevant stories, and produce products that promote healing and education. Underlying it all might be the question of how far can a government entity go with telling America’s tortured history with firearms? Can this be the place to educate? Could it navigate the topic well enough to present multiple perspectives and leave all sides of a complex issue satisfied?

That is the unenviable task for the park staff and one that is a fascinating challenge for those of us in the public history field who seek to find lessons in the past and use them to inform the present and change the future for the better.


Related posts about America’s manufacturing past:

Sadness in Chocolate town

Boeing’s red barn

Fright night in Sloss Furnace

Gunpowder along the Brandywine

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Tracking a Killer


St. Catherine’s plantation, the Samuel A. Mudd House

A day shy of the 154th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, I stood looking at the bucolic southern Maryland countryside, trees tinged with the bright green of early Spring. Staring at the simple white frame house surrounded by rolling fields, I tried to imagine the sinister events that played out on this spot. A knock on the door at 4 a.m. alarmed the residents. Who could it be? The Civil War had just ended but random soldiers were roaming the countryside. When you’re a doctor, I suppose injured people can arrive at any hour. This was the home of the infamous Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, and I was following the John Wilkes Booth escape route.

I’d been to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, site of the assassination, many times, and had always wanted to delve into the escape a little more. When a friend from Texas arrived for a weekend visit, I suggested the trip and he eagerly agreed. I’m a Yankee, he’s a Southerner, could be interesting.


John Wilkes Booth

The famous actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln around 10:15 p.m. as Lincoln watched a performance of the play Our American Cousin. Booth had no idea if he’d actually inflicted a mortal wound. He jumped from the presidential box onto the stage, breaking his leg, and escaped, riding hard for the Navy Yard Bridge. The bridge had closed to traffic at 9 and the guard wondered his name and why he wanted to cross. He gave his real name, “Booth.” Why would he do that? For some reason the guard waved him on.

About 8 miles from Washington, Booth met up with a fellow conspirator Davey Herold who knew the area of Maryland to which they were headed. Their first stop was Mary Surratt’s tavern, 13 miles from Washington. As long as they stayed ahead of the big news, they were relatively safe. Probably no one in Maryland knew of the assassination at this point.

My friend and I pulled up at the Surratt House Museum, the two-story red house that in 1865 served as a tavern, local meeting place and post office. Owned by Mary Surratt, a widow in whose D.C. boarding house the conspirators had met several times, the place was being leased by John Lloyd.

Mary Surratt and Samuel Mudd: the owners of the two homes we’d visit on the escape route may be familiar to many Americans, but it’s not their stories that people come to hear about. The star of the show at both places is John Wilkes Booth, and the questions to answer are: what relationship did they have with him? what did they know? and how did they contribute to the events of April 14? But in its grand complexity, history does not always reveal all of the answers. While official courts decided Surratt’s and Mudd’s guilt or innocence, there remains those who maintain that both were unjustly condemned.

Booth and Herold’s stop at the Surratt tavern lasted no longer than about 5 minutes. They stopped to pick up some supplies that Mary Surratt had delivered earlier that day. She had instructed Lloyd that people would be stopping by that night for the package and for two guns that her son had hidden in the house weeks earlier. Booth never entered the house that night, but Lloyd became a witness who could offer enough information that would eventually condemn Mary Surratt to the gallows for her part in the plan.

The Surratt House Museum in Clinton, Maryland, is restored to its mid-nineteenth century appearance and visitors can tour the rooms and learn not only about the events of the night but about the family, life in a tavern at a sleepy crossroads, and about this safe house for the Confederate underground.

Fortified by some whiskey, with supplies in hand, Booth and Herold continued on their way. But as they left, Booth could not resist bragging about his accomplishment to the surprised Lloyd.

Now Booth desperately needed to find a doctor to examine his leg. Fortunately, he knew one. Hence, he and Herold appeared at Mudd’s doorstep at 4 a.m.


The view to the front yard.

Visitors can look out the front door, imagine the dark night, a young man requesting help for a stranger on horseback lurking away from the house.  Mudd’s guilt or innocence is murky just like Surratt’s. The Mudd house is privately-owned and operated and tends to stress the doctor’s innocence. But was he? Mudd had met Booth several times and had even hosted him overnight at his house several months earlier. Booth may have shaved his trademark mustache and added a fake beard, but while Mudd later denied it, surely he recognized Booth. The assassin decided not to tell Mudd of his deed. Since the news had not reached the area yet, Booth and Herold accepted the Mudds’ offer of hospitality after Mudd treated Booth’s broken leg. They plopped down exhausted in the upper front bedroom to try to get some sleep.


The road Booth and Herold traveled away from Mudd’s home.

Visitors to the Mudd house today can see the original sofa on which Mudd examined Booth’s leg. Again, Booth, arguably in much pain, made it easier for his hunters. The doctor had to cut off the hip boot to get to the broken bone, and Booth left the boot in the house, forgetting perhaps that it had his name written inside it. During the next day, Mudd went to town and heard the tragic news. He knew then who his visitors were and what they had done, but he did not turn Booth in to the authorities. He did realize his family could be in grave danger if Booth was caught on his property. He returned home and confronted Booth,  giving Booth confirmation that his shot had been successful. Mudd pushed him out the door, with directions to another safe place, and knowledge of how to avoid the Zekiah swamp behind his house. He also waited 24 hours after Booth left to inform authorities who were now swarming throughout the region.


An exhibit case at the Mudd House, holding items made by Mudd during his imprisonment in Florida.

Some of Mudd’s defenders say that Mudd, a Confederate sympathizer, had met with Booth months earlier to support a scheme to kidnap Lincoln, but knew nothing of the assassination plan. In any case, Mudd eventually was arrested, charged with conspiracy, and came within one vote of the gallows. He was sentenced to life in prison at Fort Jefferson, off the coast of Florida. He lucked out when an epidemic of yellow fever hit the fort and used his medical skills to treat many patients. For this act, he received freedom four years into his sentence and returned to his wife, children and farm.

Guilty or innocent? I wish both sites had used primary sources materials more effectively to encourage their visitors to think critically about the two people’s roles in the conspiracy. If you go to the Mudd house, try to go on a day when the extra tour of the grounds is offered by an enthuasiastic young history teacher who  gives a great tour down to the Zekiah swamp.

The escape route continues following Booth and Herold’s twelve-day run over country roads, across the Potomac River, and into Virginia where ultimately Booth was shot dead by the US military and Herold was captured. He eventually hanged alongside Mary Surratt.

During his escape, Booth kept a diary in which he wrote: “To night I try to escape these blood hounds once more. Who can read his fate.  God’s will be done.” He was defiant until the end, adding: “I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before God but not to man.”

Related blog posts:

The President is shot!

Lincoln history and Chinese food

President Lincoln’s Cottage

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The Authors Next Door


I grew up playing the card game Authors. In my childhood I hadn’t read most of the books featured in the game, but the more I played, the more familiar I became with each author’s works. Mark Twain, of course, was included, as was Charles Dickens. Over the years, as I’ve written more and more and published books (fifth one coming 2020!). I’ve learned about the publishing world and am fascinated with the individual writing process of authors and how the challenges of getting published have changed over time. I really enjoy visiting the homes of historic authors to see the space in which they wrote. In recent years I visited Dickens’ home in London and the tiny apartment in Atlanta where Margaret Mitchell penned Gone With the Wind. Several weeks ago, while in Hartford, Connecticut for a history conference, I made sure to hit two biggies: the homes of Samuel Clemens and Harriet Beecher Stowe. They might be considered the JK Rowlings of their day, with major worldwide sales, but to each other they were the neighbors. They lived next-door to each other in a neighborhood called Nook Farm.


Stowe built her Victorian Gothic retirement home in 1873 with revenue from her books. She was already internationally famous, with Queen Victoria among her readers. Her most enduring book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852 was so influential that even President Lincoln acknowledged its impact when he met her at the White House in 1862 and supposedly said “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Poet Langston Hughes called it “the most cussed and discussed book of its time.” It sold 10,000 copies its first week and 300,000 its first year in the US and a whopping 1.5 million copies in one year in Great Britain! She published more than 30 books during her life. While she didn’t write her most famous book in this house, the tour of the house includes a dining table at which she sat while writing it. Her bedroom includes a small round table surrounded by pages of paper strewn over the floor. I asked if that was her writing process. Yes, apparently she liked to spread out while writing.


The Stowe house tour is about ideas, not about the furniture. It is about gaining insight into Stowe’s family and the culture that produced this powerful statement against the horrors of slavery.  In the front entrance hallway sits several shelves holding thick volumes filled with pages of signatures given to her by the women of Great Britain during a tour there in 1853, a petition from Great Britain to America condemning slavery. This gesture no doubt touched her deeply as she built the house about twenty years later and chose this spot to display them .

Across the lawn stands the house where Twain (known is just Sam around the neighborhood for his given name, Samuel Clemens) wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (called the Great American Novel). Twain moved his family to Hartford in 1873 to be near his publisher and used money from his wife’s family to build the comfortable home. Here on Farmington Ave. he sat in a room on the second floor, often tempted by the nearby billiard table, and wrote some of his most famous works. They would earn him a worldwide audience and give us some of American literature’s most colorful characters. Over his life he would write at least twenty-three books, most likely more.


It’s fun to imagine the Clemens as guests in the Stowe dining room and the Stowes sitting by a crackling fire in the Clemens’ library room. According to my guide, it was Stowe who suggested that Clemens add a conservatory on the end of the library.

For the Clemens, bad investments would force them from the house to earn money on lucrative foreign speaking tours. They loved the house and planned to return. However their daughter ended up dying in the house during their absence and emotionally they decided they could never return. Mrs. Stowe gradually descended into dementia (most scholars today think she had Alzheimers) and began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin all over again, from memory, as if for the first time.


The homes of these two titans of American literature stand preserved today as testaments to the power of books to change the world.

The World of Charles Dickens blog post


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Artist’s Inspiration – the Thomas Cole House


I was driving north headed for Maine. Seeking to avoid the congestion around New York City, I drove up Interstate 87. I wanted a break point in my trip and noticed the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. It’s a few miles off of the highway and I thought I’d make a quick stop, learn a little about Cole, and be on my way. I was curious if the beauty that inspired Cole in that place was still evident.

thomas cole portrait

Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), Portrait of Thomas Cole, 1838.

Many artists are inspired by place. Few become intertwined with a place as much as Thomas Cole, founder of America’s first major art movement, the Hudson River School and one of America’s major nineteenth-century painters. If you recognize the name, you probably visualize his romantic depictions of the American wilderness. At age 24 he visited the Catskill Mountain region of New York up the Hudson River from New York City. From that point on, he would forever be entranced by its beauty. He spent summers on a farm called Cedar Grove in the town of Catskill, New York on the west bank of the Hudson River. By 1836 he was a year-round resident. He married, started a family, and painted the beauty around him. He wrote, “…[the Catskills] heave from the valley of the Hudson like the subsiding billows of the ocean after a storm.”

I didn’t know much about Cole, though I knew of his influence with the Hudson River School of artists and could name several painting of his that I liked, especially the Voyage of Life, four large canvases depicting a person traveling through four stages in life. Born in England, Cole emigrated with his family to the US in 1818 when he was nineteen. They settled first in Ohio, but Cole soon moved east to Philadelphia. He started in portrait painting, but soon turned to landscapes.  Primarily self-taught, he spend time in Philadelphia where he learned from the artists of the Philadelphia Academy.

The best way to describe the Thomas Cole National Historic Site is comprehensive. It is not a typical historic site, if there is such a thing, but, fittingly, a fascinating combination of the elements that defined Cole himself: art, history, nature, the environment. You can learn about life in the nineteenth century, but the story revolves around Cole.

Though close to the Hudson, the river is not visible from the property, which slopes down from the house. Even the mountain views are not apparent when standing in front of the house. But as you climb the stairs to the porch, the sweeping view west suddenly appears and you instantly understand why Cole wanted to paint here and to stay here. The power of place hits, you want to pick up a paintbrush and attempt to capture the view. 

IMG_0065 smallInside the main house, a federal style residence built in 1815, you can roam the rooms. Sit in the parlor where the walls come alive with the rich colors of Cole’s paintings in a stunning multimedia installation. In another room, a motion detector triggers more multimedia that appears in various spots throughout the room. Upstairs is an exhibition about mixing colors and other insights into the artist’s process. The house also includes a temporary art exhibit and spots scattered throughout that encouraged visitor engagement with the mountain views and thinking about the artist’s perspective. Fortunately, the site encourages budding artists at every turn.

thomas cole 4 stages

Voyage of Life:Manhood

The property also includes other gems including Cole’s 1839 studio where he painted the Voyage of Life, completed in 1840.  It features original easels and artist tools and you can see how the availability of light affected his work. A modern gallery called the New Studio houses ongoing temporary exhibitions.

In 1835 Cole wrote “The most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive characteristic of American scenery is its wildness.” As developing industry crept up the river and railroads threatened the grand views, he began to advocate for protecting and preserving the natural wildness. He recognized that industrial development unchecked could have a negative impact on the beauty that he captured in his art.

The property is not large and the house not grand; but rarely have I seen a historic site offer so many elements that help the visitor understand the person it represents. And the discovery is not limited to the site itself.  The Hudson River School Art Trail allows you to walk in the artists’ footsteps and visit 8 stops within a fifteen mile radius of the Cole house. You can see the views that inspired America’s early landscape painters. The staff at the site also commissioned an excellent children’s book that is available online and in hard copy.

Thomas Cole died suddenly in 1848, only 47 years old, and is buried in a local cemetery. He is recognized as the founder of the first major art movement in America and to learn his story, there is no better place than his home Cedar Grove, in Catskill, New York. In 1834 he wrote:

O Cedar Grove! Whene’er I think to part
From thine all peaceful shades my aching heart
Is like to his who leaves some blessed shore
A weeping exile ne’er to see it more…

IMG_0070 small

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James Madison’s Montpelier

More and more historic sites are beginning to tell the whole story. What I mean is after many decades of avoiding difficult topics, such as slavery, they are pushing past self-imposed boundaries, seeking the complex truth, and striving to find ways to tell these stories. Three of Virginia’s most well-known sites, Mount Vernon, Monticello and Montpelier, all presidential homes, have been boldly leading the way. Mount Vernon has a new exhibition Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Monticello recently made national news by opening a new exhibition about Sally Hemings, and Montpelier recently opened The Mere Distinction of Colour, an expansive exhibition and recreation of some slave quarters based on years of archaeological and historical research.

Montpelier, President James Madison’ home, sits in Orange, Virginia, only a 40-minute drive from Charlottesville. Set in rolling horse pastures, the Blue Ridge mountains on the western horizon, the property is serene and bucolic. The Madison story is obviously different from Jefferson’s and Washington’s and in many ways more cerebral – it’s about a man with ideas that changed the nation and a woman whose presence on the national scene lasted for decades. Yet, America’s fourth president, like it’s first and third, and many others in the early period, was a product of a culture of slavery. The hypocritical position of speaking and writing rhetoric of freedom while holding humans in bondage is hard to reconcile and the need to try to understand and learn is crucial. James and Dolley Madison were flawed humans, like everyone. They were entangled in a culture they did not create, but one in which they had power to make change. They owned over a hundred slaves and never directly freed any of them.

In 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention, James Madison wrote the lines from which the exhibit’s title derives: “We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.” His thoughts on slavery varied throughout his life and show a deep inner struggle. 


The Montpelier staff has been winning awards and receiving accolades for its new slavery exhibition which opened in June 2017. I finally managed to visit and was impressed with the efforts to interpret a challenging story.  A key facet of the multi-year project was the careful cultivation of relationships with the slave descendant community. The Montpelier staff wanted not only buy-in from this important audience, but participation. They understood that the final product would be much richer with their involvement. The result is a powerful mix of history and the present, with connections between the two. The multi-media exhibits raise fascinating questions that some visitors may be uncomfortable with, but it’s truth based on solid research. They tell stories of real people who rose above their circumstances to create a world they could call their own.


Computer interactive showing the connections and travels of Montpelier’s enslaved population around the region.

The two parts of the exhibition are located in the main house cellars, realm of the domestic workers. One side focuses on slavery in general and the other side focuses on slavery at Montpelier.


In the South Yard, not far from the house, several outbuilding have been recreated to explore the life of the domestic and field slaves. The exhibits feature powerful objects from the excavation – from a brick with finger indentations to many kinds of buttons. The exhibitions humanize the enslaved workers who made the plantation what it was. But instead of keeping the topic in the past, the exhibits strive to include the voices of descendants and make connections to today. The past does shape the present and the legacy of slavery is a vital topic for history sites to tell. For those who may think that the past is not relevant to today, this exhibition proves otherwise.

Related posts: History Relevance at Mount Vernon; On the Run in Indiana; The power in a view

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Comparing American Revolution Museums – Part 2 – Yorktown

Two new museums devoted to telling the story of the American Revolution opened within a month of each other in Spring 2017. What are the odds? Philadelphia and Yorktown, Virginia both seemed like obvious places for such a museum. The museums are about a five-and-a-half-hour drive from each other. It took me a while, but I finally  managed to visit both of them. This isn’t a review, but some observations about them. Bottom line: they are both worth visiting.

IMG_0042Both museums have embraced social and cultural history and seek to tell the stories of previously unheard voices – women, African Americans, and Native Americans. Both include local flavor to a national story. In Philadelphia it’ s the Battle of Brandywine, in Virginia, it’s the siege of Yorktown. And both include a hall of photographs of the revolutionary generation in their older years – a powerful way to personalize a story that pre-dates the invention of photography.

Where the Philly museum sits blocks from Independence Hall, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown sits at the edge of the Yorktown battlefield where in October, 1781, British forces were trapped and surrendered, essentially bringing an end to the War. The museum opened April 1, 2017.

Similar to the Philadelphia museum, settings with life-sized figures add to a dramatic effect and media sprinkled throughout offer video in creative ways. The film “Liberty Fever,” an orientation film of sorts at the entrance utilizes a creative approach, set in 1830 or 1840, with a bit of whimsy, to tell a story with big themes. The Siege Theater features experiential theater to take you to the Yorktown battlefield. With dazzling lights, deafening cannon, shaking seats, blowing wind and the smoke of battle, this 4-D effect theater tries to engage the senses. It works pretty well.



Along the way are impressive objects, a stunning huge portrait of King George III, a reproduction cannon, and a rare broadside of the Declaration of Independence. Like the Philadelphia museum, almost 500 objects fill the space. 

The exhibition pays special homage to Virginia’s native sons such as Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. But other voices certainly enter the story, from women to enslaved people who must make tough decisions about whether or not to run to the British.

The exhibit labels offer many stories and include multiple voices, however they are long and it often seemed like the curator was writing a book instead of exhibition text. I wish the designers had presented the text in smaller chunks and incorporated questions to provoke thought.


enlisted soldier tents

Yorktown includes something the Philadelphia museum can only accomplish with its reproduction Privateer hands-on area: a large outside hands-on area that includes a Revolution-era farmsite, a Continental Army encampment, and best of all, an artillery amphitheater where people of all ages can fire a cannon or rifle while an audience watches. Ever wonder how many men it took to fire a cannon, how far the recoil moved the cannon, or how they managed not to go deaf? I really enjoyed exploring the different tents from the officer’s tent to the medical tent. The kitchen area was not at all what I expected.


officer’s tent

Like Philadelphia, Yorktown includes a special exhibition gallery. During my visit it featured a display about artillery, Blast from the Past.   It goes in-depth about the physics of the large guns, but uses creative approaches, such as a whimsical film, to provide explanations.

Of course the museum is no substitution for a visit to the actual preserved battlefield a few miles away. But in order to get a solid context, the museum is well worth a visit. Even better, add a visit to Jamestown and Williamsburg the other sides of Virgnia’s Historic Triangle.

Comparing American Revolution Museums – Part 1 (Philadelphia)

Jamestown’s foothold in the new-world 

A place of history inspiration: Williamsburg 

Posted in 18th century, American Revolution, military, President | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Comparing American Revolution Museums – Part 1 – Philadelphia

Two new museums devoted to telling the story of the American Revolution opened within a month of each other in Spring 2017. What are the odds? Philadelphia and Yorktown, Virginia both seemed like obvious places for such a museum. The museums are about a five-and-a-half-hour drive from each other. It took me a while, but I finally  managed to visit both of them. This isn’t a review, but some observations about them. Bottom line: they are both worth visiting.

Both museums have embraced social and cultural history and seek to tell the stories of previously unheard voices – women, African Americans, and Native Americans. Both include local flavor to a national story. In Philadelphia it’ s the Battle of Brandywine, in Virginia, it’s the siege of Yorktown. And both include a hall of photographs of the revolutionary generation in their older years – a powerful way to personalize a story that pre-dates the invention of photography.

photo wall of the revolutionary generation

photo wall of the revolutionary generation courtesy Museum of the American Revolution website

Having spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, I eagerly anticipated the new Museum of the American Revolution which opened April 19, 2017. I think it’s a good addition to the city’s cultural attractions. It sits a few blocks east of Independence Hall, the city’s star attraction, and complements that building and other history sites in the city. And let’s face it, international visitors and even most Americans are fuzzy on the story. A ranger-led tour of Independence Hall cannot possibly provide enough context to give most visitors an understanding of the events that changed the course of history.

The galleries pose four questions throughout:

  • How did people become Revolutionaries?
  • How did the Revolution survive its darkest hour?
  • How Revolutionary was the war?
  • What kind of nation did the Revolution create?

While I’ve read some criticisms that the collection isn’t terribly broad, I was impressed with the variety of objects on display — about 500 of them (similar to Yorktown). One particularly memorable object is the tiny pair of red infant shoes supposedly made from the fabric of a British redcoat. The seven tableaus featuring life-like figures are an attempt to personalize and dramatize the exhibition. One depicts a crowd toppling a statue of King George III in New York, another a Hessian soldier, and another highlights a debate within the Oneida nation about which side to take.

revolution museum liberty tree

Liberty tree setting, courtesy Museum of the American Revolution website

Some of my favorite sections: a comparison wall of war propaganda, a liberty tree setting that includes wood from an actual liberty tree that you can touch, and a recreated privateer ship hands-on area filled with tactile reproduction objects. The Battle of the Brandywine theater is an attempt to give museum visitors a “battlefield” experience. It could have been better executed and comes across as corny.

revolution museum privateer ship

reproduction privateer ship area courtesy Museum of the American Revolution website

The films scattered throughout the core exhibition got the serious documentary-style treatment featuring a soaring music soundtrack that was a bit annoying (I wanted a little variety in tone… whimsy perhaps?). A major emphasis is placed on the museum’s key relic: General George Washington’s field tent. Set apart in a separate room, the 12-minute tent “experience” is over-hyped.  I understand that the museum put a lot of work into its restoration and that anything touched by Washington is holy, but a movie ends, the screen rises and there is the glowing tent accompanied by angelic choirs (OK, not quite, but same idea.)

Through it all, the multiple perspectives and variety of kinds of history (political, military, social, cultural, Native American, etc.) support a narrative that provokes thought and gives visitors stories that transcend more traditional presentations of the topic.

The museum also includes a special exhibition gallery and should anticipate an uptick in attendance with its upcoming exhibition Hamilton Was Here: Rising Up in Revolutionary Philadelphia, on display from October 27, 2018-March 17-2019.

Comparing American Revolution Museums – part 2 (Yorktown)

A “new” historic site in Philadelphia

America’s first theater

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Unexpected history in a South Carolina town


In November 1861, only seven months into the Civil War, Union gunboats captured the sea islands around Port Royal Sound in South Carolina, including the city of Beaufort. The area remained in Union control through the war and the city became a naval station, army headquarters and hospital center. Despite the economic devastation that followed, many historic structures were spared from war’s destruction and today make the city a charming place to see the restored town homes of nineteenth century planters. But the city also boasts rich African American history, especially from the Reconstruction period post-Civil War. A visitor to Beaufort should walk the quiet streets edging tidal marshes and gawk at the beautiful architecture but be sure to soak in the bigger story of life in this sleepy yet complicated city.

I recently visited after work hours, so couldn’t access the city’s museums. Several sites caught my attention.

WP_001577Beaufort National Cemetery was established in 1863. The Civil War propelled the need for a national cemetery system. President Lincoln approved fourteen national cemeteries by 1862. Cemetery sites were chosen based on where troops were concentrated. By 1872 there were 74 national cemeteries. At first only soldiers and sailors who died during the Civil War were allowed to be buried in these cemeteries.

Growing up near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, site of the Civil War battle, I’d often stood in the national cemetery there where Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address at the dedication ceremony. On my trip to Beaufort, I stood in a very different setting, thinking of Civil War soldiers but surrounded by trees weighed down with Spanish moss.

In a prominent spot in this cemetery in a southern town stands the Union Soldiers Monument, a 20-foot tall granite obelisk erected in 1870.

Among the soldiers buried in the cemetery are 1700 soldiers from United States Colored Troops regiments, begun in 1863. The remains of 19 soldiers from the all-black 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, were discovered in the 1980s on Folly Island near Charleston to the north. They were interred here with full military honors in 1989.

The First African Baptist Church, founded in 1865 was built by freed slaves on land they purchased within a few years after the Civil War.  The church housed a school for former enslaved people for many years.


Robert Smalls house

The Robert Smalls house is not currently open to the public but tells a fascinating story.  Smalls was born enslaved in 1839. He grew up and lived in this house until he was hired out to work in the Charleston area and ended up working on the CSS Planter where he learned the skills necessary to pilot a ship. On May 13, 1862 he commandeered the ship, sailing it to the Union forces where he gained freedom for himself and the crew. Northern news coverage of his heroism brought him attention and a bill enacted by Congress and signed by President Lincoln gave him and his crew the prize money for capturing a Confederate ship. He moved back to Beaufort and purchased his boyhood home from his former master. He even allowed his master’s wife to live there in her declining years. He became a public servant, serving in the SC House and Senate and the US House and even as a major general in the state militia. He founded the Republican Party in SC, authored a bill giving SC the first free and compulsory public school system in the US, and was the second-longest serving African American in the US Congress. He is the first African American to have a US Army ship named for him and his funeral was the largest ever held in Beaufort.

In 2017 President Obama signed a proclamation establishing the Reconstruction Era National Monument in the Beaufort area. There is a surprising lack of sites in the National Park Service system that interpret the Reconstruction period story. This is an important step in telling an important chapter in US history. In history, if you scratch past the surface, you often find more complexity and learn that the past holds secrets and tells stories that are almost always better than any fiction.





Posted in 19th century, cemetery/grave, city/town, civil rights, Civil War, house | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A historic inn on the Eastern Shore


Wade’s Point Inn, back view, captain’s walk at the top

I was standing on the roof in bright sun gazing at water on three sides. The view of the Chesapeake Bay was stunning and I could begin to imagine British warships approaching the property. Just over two hundred years ago, that was the scene. The British were headed to attack the nearby town of St. Michaels, Maryland, and damage its shipbuilding industry. It was one of their many raids of towns around the Chesapeake and the Great Bandit himself, as the newspapers dubbed Rear Admiral George Cockburn, was directing.

But my great interest in this property, today called the Wade’s Point Inn, was in its builder, Thomas Kemp. Most Americans have never heard of Kemp, but Kemp had a national reputation in the early 1800’s because his shipyard in Fells Point in Baltimore built some of the most famous ships of the day. And, he is one of the main characters in my upcoming book, Star Spangled. Unfortunately no images of him are known to exist.

Kemp had grown up near St. Michaels, served as an apprentice in a local shipyard, and then moved to Baltimore’s Fells Point to practice the trade. He soon built his own shipyard and was producing ships like the Rossie, the Rolla, the Comet, and the Chasseur (the pride of Baltimore). These privateers were causing great damage to British shipping, one reason why the British found Baltimore such an irresistible target during the War of 1812. Of course the British did attack and the American military repelled the invasion. Kemp’s shipyard was safe. But after the War ended in early 1815, the shipbuilding boom slowed and Kemp moved back to his Wade’s Point property. He began building a house for his growing family and that house eventually became the gracious inn there today.

IMG_1881Kemp, the ship designer, spend much time designing his house and overseeing its construction. Diaries he kept during construction were found under the porch and are held in local archives today.

It seems that Kemp the house builder maintained his strong ties to the shipbuilding industry. The owner took me into a bedroom on the top floor, opened a closet, took out some clothes, and revealed a secret door at the back. Through the open door, ancient steps led up to the lookout, a small room with windows where Kemp could go to watch traffic on the Chesapeake, specifically his ships.


IMG_1883Sadly Kemp only enjoyed the house for a few years before he passed away in 1824 at age 45. Only a short walk from the main house, a small family graveyard includes his simple marker.

Sometime after 1876, the Kemp family decided that the traffic coming across the bay from the west shore might merit creating a summer resort.  They built additions onto it and today the property features 26 rooms. At the other end of the house, we climbed another set of steps and opened a large metal door to go onto the captain’s walk, the flat roof area where a group of people could go for the breeze and the view (and get baked in the process!) It has got to be one of the highest views around. In this area of vast water views and wetlands, there are no mountains in sight.


The property has been an inn since the 1870s, purchased from the Kemp family by the current owners in the 1980s. It is a bucolic retreat for sure, and I think Thomas Kemp would be happy that the place he enjoyed so much has been welcoming guests for over one hundred years. I wonder how many British guests have stayed there!

[When I began writing Star Spangled, I had no idea that Kemp’s home was an inn.]




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Bob Beatty: My favorite history site(s)

Cannon Idaho SpringsBob Beatty is founder and President of The Lyndhurst Group, a history, museum, and nonprofit consulting firm providing community-focused engagement strategies for institutional planning, organizational assessments, and interpretive direction. Previously he was Chief of Engagement at the American Association for State and Local History and Director of Education at the Orange County (FL) Regional History Center. He is author of Florida’s Highwaymen: Legendary Landscapesco-editor of Zen and the Art of Local Historyand author of An AASLH Guide to Making Public History.

If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interests you?

thumbnail_fort clinch

Other than the House of Refuge in my hometown of Stuart, Florida, the first sites that really captured my imagination were Civil War era forts. Florida has several of them that I visited as a youngster: Fort Clinch in Fernandina Beach and Fort Pickens in Pensacola. I was just enthralled by their size and scope (and, of course, the cannons*!). I dragged my family to Forts Pulaski and Jackson near Savannah, Georgia, and Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. We also visited the non-Civil War site of the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. Then there is Gettysburg. General John Buford is an ancestor of mine so the site has always had a special place in my mind’s eye and in my memory.

Two more come to mind, both from my first trip across the pond. The first is Green Castle, a 14th-century castle in Greencastle, County Donegal, in Ireland.


Talk about stirring the imagination of a history geek! The ruins predated Columbian contact in the U.S. by nearly 200 years! Later on that same trip, we visited the Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland. Its earliest buildings were from the 12th century. Cashel is the reputed site of an Irish king’s conversion by St. Patrick in the 5th century.What I loved was that there was a very tangible aspect to them. History came alive for me in the spaces.

*BTW, the cannons are somewhat of a running joke with me and Erin Carlson Mast of President Lincoln’s Cottage. When we were talking about our own experiences at sites as kids, we noticed how many photos we had standing with cannons. Now whenever I’m visiting somewhere and see a cannon (or any type of artillery), I snap a photo and send it to her by text. I post them on Facebook now too.

Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? 


If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a site that most people be surprised to learn?

There are two things that I’ve always been intrigued by both as a visitor and as a student and practitioner of history/public history.

The first is that not all historic sites are truly “as they were, when.” They are often fascinating examples of change over time, which is the bedrock of the discipline of history. Watching how sites grapple with the original vs. the updated, changing floor plans (or in the case of the Civil War forts, coastal defense systems), etc. is very interesting to me. Unfortunately I’ve observed it’s somewhat devolved into tours full of pointing out “this is original, that is original” rather than what the site means or stands for which takes so much of the power out of visiting sites.

Second is how not all sites mean the same thing to everyone who visits. Way back in 2007, David Blight addressed the AASLH conference (here’s the audio) and talked about the differences between “memory” and “history.” It’s a concept I’d long grappled with, but had never articulated as clearly as Blight had. This was/is especially true for sites that have conflicting or complex histories: plantation homes, battlefields, and the 1927 Orange County courthouse.

Thinking about this is part of my own journey to a better understanding of diversity and inclusion in our profession that I referenced in my book An AASLH Guide to Making Public History. I’m comfortable at nearly every historic site, because my narrative is typically featured very prominently within it but that’s just not the case for everyone. And it’s important for history organizations and historic sites to not only acknowledge this, but to act with intentionality to be more accessible to more than just me.

What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?

I’m looking forward to seeing what Mercer University does with the old Capricorn Studio in Macon, Georgia, mainly because the site is such a key part of the story of my recently completed dissertation: “You Wanna Play in My Band, You’d Better Come to Pick” Duane Allman and American Music.

One place I’ve never been, but will get to eventually is Max Yasgur’s farm, the site of the Woodstock festival. My friend Wade Lawrence runs the museum there, called Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

I’d also like to go back to Belfast, Northern Ireland, and do some more digging around about my family history. My great-grandfather Bob Beatty, was captain of the HMS Lyndhurst, which was based out of Belfast. My middle name is Lyndhurst, after my grandfather who was born on the ship and it inspired the name of my business, the Lyndhurst Group.

Why do you think people should visit historic sites?

thumbnail_hawaii 2006 030

This is my wife and me on the deck of the USS Missouri in Hawaii, posing with a “cannon.”

Hard to even put this into words, honestly. There’s something very real about historic sites. They can convey so much history and really stir imagination. Having watched my internal focus group of museum attendees (my wife and two daughters), I’ve noticed that sites are particularly engaging for people less inclined than I to enjoy history and history museums.

How can people get in touch with you?

Twitter is where nearly all of my history-related business happens: @Lyndhurst_Group. I’m also on LinkedIn.

Thanks, Bob!

Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to write about their favorite sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to the public. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me. 


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