History Can Hurt

You know those annoying photos that various entities – cruises, theme parks – have visitors pose for? They have you and friends and/or family stand in front of the ship (or a fake scene), take a group photo, then try to sell it to you later in the gift shop. Well, that unfortunate money-making scheme seems to have hit historic sites — or at least, one historic site.

We were heading for the line for the ferry to Fort Sumter when an employee with a camera said “You can’t go in there, you have to come this way. There are other people ahead of you.” We hadn’t seen “the other people” because they were backed up halfway through the long, roped line. And they were back up because they had to wait for her to take photos of each of them. My uncharitable thought was that she was less concerned that we cutting in front of other people and more concerned that we were bypassing her.

Et tu, National Park Service?


Six days after South Carolina succeeded from the Union in December 1860, Federal troops moved (without orders) from Ft. Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to Fort Sumter (empty because it was still only partly built), on an island in Charleston Harbor.   Confederates, determined to take the fort, opened fire on it on April 12, 1861, with what’s claimed to be the opening shots of the Civil War. The Union surrendered the fort the next day, then spent the rest of the war trying to get it back.  While about 500 slaves worked to and succeeded in shoring-up the fort for the Confederates during the war, all the bombing did take its toll.  By the end of the war, the fort was in ruins.   In the late 19th century, the army built it up again, into a working battery.

Today, Fort Sumter belongs to the National Park Service. It’s free to get into the Fort, but costs $18 for the round-trip ferry service that will take you there. The only way it would be completely free is if you took your own boat there, which is allowed.

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“Don’t walk away from the island on a sand bar,” the volunteer aboard the ferry announced before we disembarked.  “It’s low tide now, but it will rise.  And we won’t rescue you if you get stranded.  Also, don’t climb on the cannons.  Or put your head in a cannon, or put your baby in a cannon.  I know how cute he’d looked posed that way, but we don’t know what lives in there.”  Then she handed out a pamphlet titled, “History Can Hurt,” with warnings about the evils that can befall you on a visit to Ft. Sumpter: climbing is unsafe, watch your step, use insect repellent, drink plenty of water and take breaks out of the sun.


The fort itself is made up of crumbling walls, lots of cannons (the temptation to stick my head in one was, I admit, great), a small museum, and a stunning view of surrounding islands.  You have to be back at the ferry in an hour, which for most people is more than enough time to explore the tiny fort.  On the ferry, forget sitting.  I recommend you stand at the bow (there are three levels, so take your choice) for the short trip, to get the perfect view.


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The Provost Dungeon

“This reminds me of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney,” said Patricia, one of my traveling companions, as we entered the dungeon part of the Exchange and Provost Dungeon Museum. She was right. There was a damp feeling and a musty odor, and groupings of mannequins dressed as 18th century pirates. Sadly, there wasn’t any Johnny Depp, yo ho ho-ing, or cute scruffy dog holding keys out of the reach of jailed pirates.  The damp and must was from water seeping from the ground and collecting in subfloor pits (“We have to pump it out about twice a week,” said the guide).  And the pirates were far less sophisticated and animated than their Disney brethren — no singing or dancing from these guys (photo credit to Patricia).


The building originally on the site was called the “Court of Guard” (circa 1680), a combination of garrison and jail. It was there that Charleston’s favorite pirate, Stede Bonnet, was imprisoned in the weeks before his 1718 hanging. Bonnet was a particularly inept pirate who captured Charleston’s imagination because he was born to a reasonably wealthy, middling plantation family. He was such a bad pirate that it only took a year and a half from the time he started to the time he was hung, with almost a year of that spent not-pirating.

“What made him turn to pirating?” asked someone in our tour group.

“A midlife crisis, perhaps?” said the guide. Bonnet started piracy at the age of 28, which in the early 18th century was, I suppose, middle-aged.

I nudged the 28-year-old in our group. “About time you start thinking about your mid-life crisis.”

“Oh yes,” she said. “And pirating sounds like a good option.” I can so see Kellyn as a pirate. She is, after all, a museum registrar by day and on the DC roller derby team at night – both excellent training for piracy.

The Court of Guard was eventually torn down and the Exchange built in its place. The Exchange cellar, built as storage for shipped goods, was used as a prison by the British during their occupation of Charleston between 1780 and 1782.   Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton and Thomas Heyward, Jr., signers of the Declaration of Independence all, were held there before being sent to St. Augustine, Florida, to be imprisoned for the rest of the war.

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The cellar is comprised of about 1.5 million bricks, handmade by enslaved Africans.  There are no individual cells, just one large room, so everyone — wealthy political prisoners and career criminals — were all thrown together. It was not, said the tour guide, a happy situation for the rare woman (usually accused of being a spy) who found herself there.

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The Exchange and Provost Dungeon building is now owned by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and on the two main floors above the dungeon, the museum showcases its elegant Georgian rooms with displays of various early American and DAR artifacts.  A bit of a snooze after the kitschy dungeon display.

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Help Wanted

I was looking for this post this morning and couldn’t find it.  In fact, all of Illinois seems to be missing.  No worries — since I’ve had nothing new to offer for weeks, I’ll simply repost this experience from August of 2012.


At 2:00 one morning in February 1899, robbers climbed through a window at the home of Samuel Mayo Nickerson, founder and president of Chicago’s First National Bank, and robbed it of silver, jewelry, and other small but valuable knick-knacks.   Since the normally locked windows and cabinets were not forced opened, it seemed to be an inside job.  Suspicion fell on the butler (who held the keys) and others on the household staff, and all were dismissed.

The Nickerson house is now the Richard H. Driehaus Museum, named after the businessman who bought it in 2003, restored it to its turn-of-the-century splendor, and opened it to the public.  I had time to visit only one historic site in Chicago and that was the Driehaus Museum and its Summer Servant’s Tour.  The tour took place after regular museum hours, at 5:30 PM, conveniently filling unscheduled post-day-time/pre-evening activity space.

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We were met at front of the house by an interpreter dressed in a Victorian maid’s dress, taken around to the servants’ entrance, and led to the basement servants’ hall where we waited for the tour to begin.    As we waited, I asked the maid/interpreter if I could take photographs inside the house.  “You mean with one of those big boxes?” she exclaimed, in a not-entirely successful English accent, “You don’t have a big box.”

I sighed.  It was going to be like that.  “If I had a big box,” I said, “would I be allowed to use it?”

“Oh yes,” she said.  I wasn’t convinced by her answer, so later I asked another staffer, not in costume.  Photographs are allowed, the second staffer said, as long as flash wasn’t used.

There was a staircase bisecting one end of the room and at 5:30, the door at the top opened. A young woman swept in and announced, “I am Mrs. Williams, the housekeeper, yes?” Her speech was rapid, staccato and identifiably English.  “We have had an incident that requires us to hire a considerable number of staff, yes?  You are fortunate enough to be considered, yes?  Please put yourselves into two straight lines for me: women on my left, men on my right.”  I knew that the premise of the Servant’s Tour was that the Nickersons were looking to hire staff after the robbery, but hadn’t considered that we might be required to role-play applicants.

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She came down the stairs as we took our positions.  “Now, with a show of hands, how many of you are here to apply for the position of cook?”  We’d been given a sheet of paper, as we’d come in, describing each position.  Kitchen maid? Parlor maid? Lady’s maid? Laundry maid? Valet? Footman?  We were a group of 24, and each position elicited a couple of unenthusiastic hands.  I can ply a mean needle, so I went with Lady’s maid.  “I am going to tell you what your duties will be and show you where you will perform them, yes?  But first, I need you to put your hands out, palm side up, so that I can inspect them.”  My mind was in a happy wedding place, which is the only excuse I can come up with for my compliance.  “Now palms down, yes?”  She swept up and down the row.  “I see very, very dirty hands,” she said, “but we don’t have time to wash them, yes?  So please make sure that you do not…do not…touch anything, yes?”

She pointed out the doors to the butler’s rooms in the basement, but we didn’t go in.  I’d peeked through a slight opening in the door earlier and knew that they contained a modern kitchen and office.  Also in basement: the billiard room (now party rental space), which we were allowed to look at through a glass window in the door.

“Now, follow me, yes?  Quickly!”  She whooshed out.  Mary Poppins on speed.

We went up the servants’ stairs at the back of the house. First stop was the reception and ticketing area on the first floor, formerly the kitchen.  “The kitchen is being renovated, yes?” Mrs. Williams said before moving us up to the third floor.  We stood in the hall while Mrs. Williams explained that behind the closed doors were her room and the maids’ rooms.  Male staff lived on the fourth floor.  That’s the way it went in the back of the house – we were told what was there, but their doors remained firmly closed.

What we were allowed to see was the front of the house:  the Nickerson bedrooms on the second floor and public rooms on the first.  There wasn’t much furniture and what there was belonged to Richard Driehaus’ collection of late 18th century/early 20th century decorative arts.  The only Nickerson piece left in the house was a Chinese motif Japanese-made sculpture bought my Mr. Nickerson at the Chicago world’s fair in 1893.  Mrs. Nickerson hated it, which would explain why it was left behind when they sold the house and moved to New York in 1900.  When they moved, the Nickersons donated most of the art collection from their Chicago house to the Chicago Art Institute.

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With Mrs. Williams chiding, “Quickly, quickly,” at us in each room, we fairly ran through the house.  But we were allowed, once the tour was over, to wander through again at our leisure.

The house definitely is worth a visit and I hope to go back someday, for a regular, day-time tour.  The Servants’ Tour just wasn’t my cut of tea.  I know that “make visitors a part of the story” is a trend in historical interpretation but it’s one that doesn’t work for me.  It makes me feel like I’m trapped in a bad amateur theater production. The tour is very popular, however, and sells out days in advance.  So if you’re interested, you must book early, yes?  Spit spot!

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Museums in Glass Houses

I once had a dog, and the dog had a blog.  A dog history blog, as it happens.  Did you know that if not for his dog, Sweet Lips, George Washington may never have become commander of the Continental Army?  GW was walking Sweet Lips in Philadelphia (he was a member of the first Continental Congress at the time) when Elizabeth Powell, the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia, stopped to admire the dog.  GW mentioned to Mrs. Powell that he missed hunting, which led to Mr. Powell inviting GW to join his hunt club, which led to GW meeting the right people, which led to his appointment as commander of the Continental Army.

But I digress.

A staff member of the Menokin Foundation, a nonprofit that administered a Virginia historic site, commented on the blog and invited us to visit the site (which is dog-friendly).  Menokin includes 500 acres next to the Rappahannock River outside of Warsaw, Virginia, and the ruins of a two-story stone Georgian house. We never made it while Ralph the dog was alive but I was there last month and hereby declare it my new all-time favorite historic site tour.

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Menokin the house started life as the centerpiece of a 1000 acre plantation –  a wedding gift from John Tayloe II to his daughter Rebecca and her husband, Francis Lightfoot Lee, in 1769.  Lee was the unassuming intellectual in a family of flashier, more well-known public figures, including brother Richard Henry, second cousin Henry “Lighthorse Harry,”  and Henry’s son Robert E.   Still, Francis Lightfoot managed to serve in the Virginia House of Burgesses, the Virginia Senate and the Second Continental Congress, and sign the Declaration of Independence, before retiring to a quieter life at Menokin.

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By the late 1960s, the house at Menokin was in serious decline.  Sharing the fate of many other old houses, it had gone through a series of negligent owners and eventually was left empty and crumbling.  Happily for Menokin, though, the last of the private owners recognized the historical and architectural significance of an 18th century house with Lee provenance.  Before it could go to complete ruin – which it did in a storm not long after – they had the foresight to remove what original paneling and woodwork they could and store it for posterity.  In 1995, the same owner gave what was left of the house and 500 acres to the newly formed Menokin Foundation, which set about finding a way to preserve the house, the land and the Francis Lightfoot Lee legacy.

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My husband and I were the only ones on the tour on a cold, January day.  For $10 each (it’s free if you want to just wander through on your own) we were taken by a staff member through the museum (which houses the wood pieces removed from the house in the 1960s) and then up to the ruins, where we were given a tour of the interior via temporary steps and scaffolding.   I’m crazy about ruins, so being allowed to wander inside made me giddy with excitement.  I know – I’m such a nerd.

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The only reconstruction that will happen at Menokin will be restoring and returning to the house what original materials they have (which is 80% of the original pieces).  Where the walls and other pieces of the original building are missing, new construction will be done in glass, so that visitors will be able to see where the original materials end and reproduction begins.   I think it’s a brilliant idea and can’t wait to see the results.  It’ll be awhile before it’s complete though – they just hired a development officer so serious fundraising hasn’t even begun.  The photo below shows a sample of what they plan to do, though for the sample they used plexiglass instead of glass.

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The trails on the Menokin property are open and free all year around except the week between Christmas and New Years.   The guide said that their wild flowers are spectacular in spring, so I’ll be back.  You can also take a look at the house ruins from the outside.  But if you want to see the museum inside the visitor center, or tour the “inside” of the house (which you actually can see from the outside, since there aren’t many outer walls left standing), I’d call ahead to make sure that they’re open and available.

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The U.S.S. Wisconsin is an Iowa class battleship that was launched on December 7, 1942 and served in WWII, Korea and the first Gulf War before being permanently decommissioned in September 1991.  She’s now part of Nauticus, a museum complex in Norfolk, Virginia that also houses the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, aquaria, and other marine life exhibits.

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The topside tour of the Wisconsin is self-guided and I loved being allowed to climb up and down the ladders to explore the various decks at will.  There’s also a guided, far-below-deck tour, but the topside tour allows visitors below into the first couple of decks, and that was enough for me.

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What I learned aboard the Wisconsin: no matter how large it is on the outside, it’s still tight and rabbit-warreny on the inside.  Twenty-seven-hundred people aboard is probably about 2000 too many for me.

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The Long Arm of Ted Cruz

A rare history-related topic was in the national evening news recently when the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia announced that it was closing its Monitor Center Laboratory.  The laboratory housed the gun turret of the U.S.S. Monitor, as well as other Monitor artifacts.

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The Monitor was an ironclad ship, the first of its kind built by the US, and famous for engaging in an epic Civil War battle with a Confederate ironclad, the C.S.S. Virginia.  In March 1892, the Confederates tried to break a Union blockade off the coast of southern Virginia  and came close to succeeding, due mostly to the Virginia.  She had taken down two Union blockade ships and was working on a third when the Monitor, which had been commissioned just a week before, showed up and successfully defended the third ship and saved the blockade.

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Both ironclads limped off to fight another day, but by the end of the year, they both would be destroyed.  In May, with the Union close-by, the Confederates blew up the U.S.S. Virginia rather than allowing her to fall into Union hands.  In December, the Monitor was on its way to join the blockade of Charleston Harbor when it was caught in a storm and sunk near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

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The Monitor lay quietly at the bottom of the ocean for 111 years, until it was discovered in 1973 by a Duke University research ship.   Since then, bits and pieces of the ship have been salvaged and housed at the Mariners Museum.  The Monitor had another moment-in-the-national-news last March, when the remains of two sailors found in the Monitor’s gun turret when it was raised in 2002 were buried with great pomp and circumstance in Arlington National Cemetery.

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The closing of the Monitor lab at the Mariners Museum was deemed newsworthy not so much because of the Monitor’s historical significance but because the lack of funds was tied to the entire U.S. Government Budget Debacle of 2013.  The Monitor, you see, belongs to the U.S government, which until December had a contract with the museum to store and conserve the Monitor artifacts.  With the stalemate over the federal budget last year, the contract was allowed to lapse and even now that the budget has passed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (the government agency responsible for the Monitor) still lacks the funds to keep up the Monitor.  The museum says that it costs about a half million a year to house and conserve the Monitor parts.

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I was in the Hampton Roads area a couple of weeks ago and had planned to go to the Mariners Museum specifically to see the Monitor exhibit.  So I was disappointed when the announcement came out that the Monitor Lab was closed.  I decided to go to the museum anyway, which was a good call.  The “laboratory” that was closed houses the turret and other large parts of the ship.  Normally, visitors are allowed to peer in on it through a large glass window but the whole thing is covered with tarp.  The rest of the Monitor exhibit, as well as the rest of the museum (which has an endless array of ship figureheads, ship models, Titanic artifacts and other objects related to naval history) is open and worth seeing.

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Night Witches

Did you know that, during World War II, Russian women were given special injections that allowed them to have night vision?  That was the rumor spread by Germans to explain the abilities of the Soviet Air Force’s 588th Night Bomber Regiment, an all-female aviation group that conducted over 23,000 bombing missions against the Germans from 1942 to the end of the war.

The group flew Polikarpov PO-2s, developed as agricultural crop dusters and able to fly at very low altitudes.  The group would shut down their engines in the final stages of their missions and fly close to their targets.  The only sound that would be heard before detonation was a whoosh, like the sound of a flying broomstick, thus earning them the nickname Nachthexen, or Night Witches.

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The Polikarpov above was found in a forest outside Vladisvostok.

I learned their story at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, Virginia, a massive and stunning private collection of WWI and WWII planes.  I’ve never seen Mr. History Tourist so excited about anything, much less being dragged to a museum, as he was in this place.  The WWII planes are all original.  Most of the WWI planes are reproductions, with a few notable exceptions, like the (heavily reconstructed) Flying Jenny below.  Most are in flying condition and the museum conducts two air shows each summer, one with the WWI planes and one with the WWII.

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The collection is housed in hangers, so it’s a good museum to do in inclement weather.  The volunteer docents, many retired military aviators, were exceptionally well-informed and enthusiastic.  They said that their volunteer hours earn them riding time on the planes.  If you don’t live in the Virginia Beach area and can’t volunteer, you can pay to ride one of the WWII planes.  That is going on my to-do list.

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The museum also has lots of ground vehicles and other WWI and WWII related items.

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The owner of the collection has announced his interest in selling the collection.  He says that he can no longer afford to keep it up and subsidize the museum. So visit the museum soon (1) in case it closes and you miss an opportunity of a lifetime, and (2) to show that there is interest in the museum, and keeping the collection accessible to the public.

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