Blogus Interruptus

Friends:
Sorry, but I apparently caught a damn cold the second I arrived in this beautiful country.
I’ve spent a lot of time sleeping, and don’t have much energy to describe the Roman history, the gorgeous landscapes, the Papal intrigues (including the purchase, outright, of the city of Avignon in 1309), and the rest of Provence.
I return home June 8 as scheduled, and hope to resume normal communications then.
Marty

 

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A Week in Medieval France

My college roommate–let’s call him James for privacy’s sake–grew up to be wealthy, famous, and good-looking. I appear to have escaped all three of these fates.

When he recently invited me to spend a few days with him at his apartment in Cannes, I readily accepted. Thus I will be spending the first week in June in the south of France, also known as Provence (click on map above).

It’s called Provence because it was the first province of Rome beyond the Alps. Indeed, some people say the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world are there. I’ve seen my share of these gorgeous ruins in Israel, Turkey, Greece, Slovenia, as well as in Rome itself (take that, James!), so I’ll let you know.

Prior to the Roman conquest, Hannibal marched the armies of Carthage through Provence on their way to Italy. I don’t expect to see any elephants, but again, I’ll let you know.

Rome eventually collapsed, as did the marauding Germanic tribes that succeeded them. After being ruled by the Counts of Provence for over 600 years, the area became part of France in 1486. Like Sicily, Catalonia, and Brooklyn, Provence has a distinct cultural and linguistic identity.

I’ll land in Marseilles, drive to Cannes, and soak up some sun. First stop after that: the hill town of Grasse, the world’s perfume capital. The factories there are older than America. After that I’ll turn west to explore towns and cathedrals built in the Middle Ages.

Thanks for joining me.

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Day 9: Ending the Trip Where It All Began

Today was a lazy day: a walk on the wide windswept beach of Sullivan’s Island, and a cruise around Charleston Harbor. The star of that show, of course, is Fort Sumter.

Built by the federal government after the War of 1812, South Carolina claimed it January 31, 1861 as tensions rose after Lincoln’s election. Governor Francis Pickens demanded that President James Buchanan surrender the fort because “I regard [federal] possession is not consistent with the dignity or safety of the State of South Carolina.”

When Buchanan and then Lincoln refused to surrender the fort, South Carolina blockaded it. When the fort’s supplies dwindled, Washington sent a ship to resupply it; the state then fired on both the ship and the fort. War was on—and Lincoln had maneuvered the South into starting it.

Exactly where I’d walked yesterday, the grandees of Charleston lined Battery Street to watch the bombardment.  The porches of the magnificent town homes I’d strolled by were the best seats in town.

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So what have we learned here? It will take many weeks for me to integrate my time here.

Some say history repeats itself. It’s more accurate to say it rhymes, it echoes, it twists and turns and revisits itself.

Charleston was a city of Revolutionary War patriots—Fort Sumter was named after one of its heroes—and less than a century later, became a city of traitors. Or patriots, depending on your point of view.

Were the North and South two countries at war, or were the Confederates merely criminals?

Lincoln was remarkably flexible on this point, depending on his political needs. For example, the Emancipation Proclamation would have been an illegal government seizure of legal property unless slaves were property that contributed to a foreign power’s war effort. Ironic, that: to free the slaves, Lincoln had to declare them property.

Since Charleston lacks mountains or quarries, Fort Sumter was built with seventy tons of New England granite. That must have been some government contract. It isn’t hard to imagine that people in both the North and South made a fortune on it. They lived in the same country—the country of money.

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Day 8: Charleston, SC: Ellis Island of African-American Slavery

Charleston is as “ancient” as a U.S. city can possibly be, and today I took a wonderful walking tour of this gorgeous city.

My incredibly knowledgeable tour guide could not stop talking, one story inevitably cascading into another. Everywhere we walked, the colonial, Revolutionary War, antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction era were entangled right in front of me. The hill the British army marched down from is the same the Union army marched down 87 years later.

My hotel is on King Street—the oldest street in town, named after King Charles II, who awarded the land grant here almost 400 years ago. Of course, I’m also near evocatively named Queen Street, Cannon Street, and Market Street.

Evidence of staggering plantation wealth (first indigo, then rice, then cotton) is everywhere in the city—from the homes to the street layout to the monuments.

Charleston is called the Holy City because of the number and diversity of its religious institutions. Unlike other 17th century “American” communities, there were no religious restrictions here (except people had to believe in “One God”). 

You’ll recall, for example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was limited to Puritans. And utopian early Savannah explicitly excluded Catholics (and lawyers, but that’s another story).

Yet the plantation wealth and the religious freedom here had a darker side—the enslavement of African people. The more I learn about it, the worse it gets.

Charleston imported almost half of all slaves in the American colonies—the Ellis Island for Africans. When an occasional black was able to buy his freedom, his first step was to try to save money to purchase his wife—because he’d have rights over her as property, whereas as an enslaved woman, she’d have none. My guide described this as smart African couples gaming the slavery system; he was loudly disdainful about anyone claiming that this proved slavery wasn’t so bad.

The tiny shacks of free blacks were a huge contrast to the opulent homes of their former masters. I saw Boundary Street—south of which even free blacks couldn’t walk.

Ironically, it’s been renamed Calhoun Street, after States Rightist John C. Calhoun. Why is his statue so much taller than all the other local monuments? Apparently because people kept defacing it when it was at street level.

I saw the home in which Calhoun convened a committee in 1820 to articulate the Nullification policy, in which they said any state could ignore any federal laws they decided were unconstitutional—such as those limiting slavery. Later the house would be owned by Aaron Burr’s daughter.

I walked on opulent Legare Street. Named for the wealthy, mean-spirited cotton merchant living there, it’s pronounced “Luh-Gree”—which Harriet Beecher Stowe named her villainous slave-owner in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

On and on we walked—wealth and cruelty, history and more history, irony and more irony.

And off in the distance, sitting serenely in the harbor, if I squinted through the heavy sunlight, I could see Fort Sumter.

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Day 7: A Cultural Tourist Meets His Tribe

I had one more stop in Savannah: the Georgia Railroad Museum.

Train museums are repositories of great industrial beasts and fascinating human stories. The best ones not only collect stuff, they research, repair, and save our heritage from permanent destruction.

History, of course, is all connected. It isn’t sorted neatly into categories like transportation, health, the military, and recreation. For example, the bicycle radically changed women’s clothing. Air conditioning shifted the American population south and west, altering U.S. politics. Trains themselves led to the invention of time zones in 1883.

The Central of Georgia Railway began in the 1830s, led by William Washington Gordon,  whose statue I’d seen in Savannah. The company quickly grew and built a machine shop, foundry, upholstery shop, paint shop, and even a print shop. I saw that complex today—which is now focused on restoring and displaying old trains.

The Railway saw itself as a community institution, running a large hospital and using progressive labor policies. But legal maneuvering and hostile takeovers resulted in the railroad going bankrupt and reorganizing around the turn of the century, and again after WWII.

The whole enterprise was then bought for scrap, and the specially-made (by slaves) bricks called Savannah Grey started selling. When local people in the 1960s noticed the 150-year-old showpiece brick tower getting smaller and smaller they went to court, invoked a century-old clause in the corporate contract, and many years later got the railway buildings back, turning them into a museum—not just of trains, but of a way of life.

And that’s why historical preservation is important—they are a living textbook of various ways of life that are in the process of simply disappearing. Or already have.

I toured the machine shop, entered some of the cars being restored (including a Jim Crow car that separated Negroes from Whites), and was transported. I’ve heard that only heartless people don’t love dogs. Nah…but what kind of person doesn’t like trains?

My last stop in the train museum was the most poignant. As Sherman’s troops marched through Georgia in 1864 tearing up the railroads (so they couldn’t transport Confederate troops, food, or exports), they became quite efficient at it. They’d periodically pull up the wooden ties, build enormous fires with them, toss in a few rails, and when they were red-hot, twist the rails around trees so they could never be repaired. The result was called a Sherman Necktie.

I saw a real one today. It testified to war, and hate, and humans’ extraordinary power to both create and destroy.

Leaving the museum I headed northeast to Charleston. Crossing the Savannah River, a sign welcomed me to South Carolina’s Cultural Tourism Corridor.

That’s me, I thought—a Cultural Tourist. I had chosen this area for vacation (instead of, say, Palm Springs, Las Vegas or Orlando), had flown across the continent, and was spending my time and money right here examining the past.

And so were those strangers with whom I’d toured the railroad museum, and those other strangers whom I’d seen walking the paths of Kennesaw Mountain and those other strangers getting windblown at Fort Jackson.

I smiled, driving the hundred miles to the next rendezvous with my tribe. We’re meeting at Fort Sumter and a 200-year-old synagogue and Charleston’s City Hall. We’re keeping the past alive.

It’s a noble pursuit.

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Day 6: My Tour de Forts

Although Union General Sherman outnumbered Confederate General Hardee 7 to 1 (with troops that were better equipped, better led, and convinced of their destiny), it took Sherman 10 days of maneuvering to capture the city.

The reason is the ring of historic forts that encircle Savannah. I saw four of them today on a breathtaking tour with five military historians, researchers, and re-enactors. Although I was the ostensible reason for the gathering, I quickly became small fry tagging along. They avidly swapped details of weapons, uniforms, and events, and laughed at each others’ sophisticated jokes that I simply didn’t get.

I loved it.

We started at Fort Jackson, a Revolutionary War fort guarding the narrowest part of the Savannah River (now guarded by a Hyatt and Westin), some seven miles from the ocean. Anticipating a war with France or Britain, President Thomas Jefferson had ordered the earthen structure to be rebuilt with brick.

I stood on the high rampart feeling the two-century old cold, stiff wind coming off the river. It was hard to imagine the swampy air, thick with huge mosquitos and tiny gnats, that killed way more soldiers than enemy gunpowder. As important as this location was, it was considered an awful assignment.

Next we drove to Fort Boggs—or its remains. One of our party had arranged for the Savannah Country Club (established 1794) to let us onto their grounds. The place is normally closed on Mondays, so our little group (plus three excited Club VIPs) had the place to ourselves.

We found miles of earthworks that had been the star-shaped fort, protecting Savannah’s east. Boggs had a large number of huge cannons, and our historians eagerly compared old maps to determine the exact locations of the various weapons. The sharpest-eyed among us also found several pieces of period pottery as we walked from mound to mound. Better than a hole-in-one any day.Thanking our Club VIPs, we caravanned south to isolated Rose Dhu Island, now used as a 300-acre camp by the national Girl Scouts. Tramping almost an hour through brush, we saw miles of earthworks, rifle pits, connector trenches, and the heights on which cannons had guarded the Little Ogeechee River just a few miles from the Atlantic.

After a quick late lunch, we sped west to Fort McAllister, at which two of our historians had each worked. On the south bank of the meandering Ogeechee River, observed the very pragmatic architecture of the enormous earthen-walled fort, and walked underground to barracks, powder magazines, and other structures. We saw black cannons along with their wooden carriages, ramrods, and other equipment.

After arriving at the well-guarded city of Savannah, Sherman had decided that this would be the place he’d make contact with the U.S. Navy and its much-needed supplies. After getting his forces into place, Sherman watched from across the river as a depleted Confederate army surrendered. The exposed city would quickly fall in the coming week.

In earlier, far less heady days, these were the same Union troops Sherman had personally led—as a division commander at Shiloh, and as a corps commander at Vicksburg.

His triumph on this very spot, which I had anticipated through eight months of vacation planning and studying, had me feeling melancholy. In only two days I had developed a crush on Savannah, with its sad history just below its elegant surface.

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Day 5: “I Beg to Present to You the Gift of Savannah…”

It was painful to drag myself away from Dr. Bob and Milledgeville, but my longest drive beckoned. I had three hours of rural Georgia ahead of me—towns with names like Black Creek, Willie, and Social Circle, each with one or two hundred people. The rolling hills rolled by without gas stations, billboards, or anything else to mar (or enliven) the landscape.

I finally pulled into Savannah at dusk, and after checking into the Hyatt, I strolled the waterfront. A gigantic container ship from Hong Kong slid gracefully by. Then it was time to write, stretch, and sleep. 

The next day, I met Kelse, my guide for the day. He tried to stick to the civil war, but in a history-rich place like Savannah, it was impossible.

The story begins in 1732 when Georgia is founded by British philanthropist, member of Parliament, and social reformer James Oglethorpe. When he arrives with some 100 Europeans, he immediately becomes lifelong friends with local Creek Indian chieftain Tomochichi, who gives him land to build Savannah.

Oglethorpe divides the city’s land into open squares surrounded by houses, churches, and shops. This open-space-based-grid is unique in America, and gives Savannah a wonderful airy yet intimate feel.

I walked the town (population today less than 200,000), stopping in the various squares to admire the statues, greenery, and houses. Here was John Wesley, founder of Methodism. There was William Washington Gordon, who quit as Savannah’s mayor to start Georgia’s first railroad. And over there was the house in which Gordon’s granddaughter Juliette Gordon Lowe was born. Lowe later began the Girl Scouts.

The city’s location on the Savannah River destined it to be a merchant city. I saw the clever way warehouses were built below the river front street to ease loading and unloading cargo.  And I saw the gorgeous red brick Cotton Exchange Building, eventually the cotton trading center of the world, where world-wide prices and quality standards were set.
On December 10, 1864, Sherman arrived here with some 60,000 men. Ten thousand confederate soldiers had dug into fortified positions after flooding the area’s rice fields to limit his access into the city.

After a short battle at nearby Fort McAllister Sherman’s cavalry prevailed, and he was reinforced by the Union navy and artillery. Sherman offered surrender terms to Confederate General Hardee. Rather than fight or surrender, Hardee and his men escaped under cover of night.

The next morning Mayor Richard Arnold led a civic delegation offering the keys to the city if Sherman would protect Savannah’s people and property. Sherman accepted and occupied the city. I sat in front of the elegant house in which he lived and worked.

On December 21, Sherman telegraphed to President Lincoln, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns [cannons] and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

As he had promised Grant and Lincoln, Sherman had indeed marched to the sea.

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