A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to sit down with Peter Wood, professor of history, emeritus, at Duke University to talk with him about his recent book, Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War. The book tells the story of Winslow Homer’s remarkable Civil War-era painting, Near Andersonville.
In the following video, Peter describes how the painting came to be in the private collection of the family of a teacher, Sarah Kellogg, who lived on the Sea Islands in South Carolina and taught liberated slaves during the Civil War.
Peter relied on the records of the National Archives to tell the story of Near Andersonville. At the end of the interview above, he describes the Union Troops’ failed attempt to liberate the prisoners of Andersonville. The captured soldiers are pictured in the painting. In the slideshow below, you will find the July 26, 1864 letter from General Stoneman to General Sherman requesting permission to try to release the prisoners. He says, “Now is the time to do it before the Rebel Army falls back and covers that country – and I have every inducement to try it.”
A portion of the July 26, 1864 letter from General Stoneman to General Sherman
Also from the National Archives, is the pension application from Winslow Homer’s brother, Arthur Homer, indicating that he had served on … [ Read all ]
Two weeks ago, the San Jose Sharks came to visit the National Archives for a behind-the-scenes tour on their day off in Washington before playing the Capitals. As professional athletes go, they had plenty of interest in our records — especially the declassified 1930′s contingency plan to invade Canada!
As you may know from a previous blog post of mine, one of my favorite quotes is from Wayne Gretzky:
“I skate to where the puck is going to be,
not where it has been.”
Now, more than ever, adapting this mindset will help us transform the National Archives. This approach will help us innovate in order to address the changing needs of our customers — the Federal agencies, White House, and Congress we serve as well as the American public.
The way we do our work today was envisioned in the earlier part of the 20th century when the format of choice was paper. In order for us to fulfill our mission in the 21st century, we need to reexamine our theories and practices to take advantage of the tools enabled by this technological age. We need to develop the skill sets that will move us beyond our current capabilities, as we continue our basic job of collecting, protecting, and providing access to the records of the Government.
I want to thank you, Jack, for visiting the National Archives recently to discuss your book, On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of WWII.
Your book is a powerful example of the importance of the records of the National Archives. You tell the story of Private Guglielmo Olivotto, an Italian POW who was murdered at Seattle’s Fort Lawton. How did you first learn of Private Olivotto’s story?
In 1986, while a young news reporter, I attended a dreadful public hearing at Seattle’s Discovery Park, the former site of a large US Army installation called Fort Lawton. The hearing–about the proposed expansion of a sewage treatment plant adjacent to the park–was dull as dishwater. Sensing my boredom, a park employee mentioned a mysterious World War II headstone in a remote Fort Lawton cemetery. As I soon discovered, it was the grave of Italian prisoner of war Guglielmo Olivotto, still interred on American soil decades after his August 14, 1944 death at age 33. I was stunned to learn that 43 US soldiers–all of them African-American–eventually stood trial charged with rioting and with Olivotto’s death by lynching. After a year of research, we aired a television documentary about that astonishing trial.
After your September 1987 documentary, “Discovery Park Graves,” what made you doubt the story and prompt you to research it further?
The largest oil spill in U.S. history gripped the nation’s attention for over three months this past summer. On May 22, 2010, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The Commission’s goal: “to learn the essential lessons so expensively revealed in the tragic loss of life at the Deepwater Horizon and the severe damages that ensued.” The President charged the Commission to determine the causes of the disaster, to improve the country’s ability to respond to spills, and to recommend reforms to make offshore energy production safer.
The records contained within the National Archives are very often used as primary sources for learning the lessons of our national experience. In the case of the Deepwater disaster, the crisis demanded even more than National Archives records — it also needed the expertise and experience found in a NARA staff member.
Jay Hakes, the director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, was named the Director of Policy and Research for the Commission.
Director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
Jay was tapped for this six-month assignment because of his extensive background in energy matters. During the Clinton Administration, Jay was head of the Energy Information Administration where he oversaw the collection and dissemination of America’s official energy data … [ Read all ]
On Tuesday, January 17, 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his farewell address to the American people, where he warned of the growing power of the “military-industrial complex.”
On Friday, January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address to the American people, where he charged, “…ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
It was a big week for Presidential speeches.
Many Americans were inspired by these speeches. During their Presidencies, I wrote letters to President Eisenhower and President Kennedy. My letter to President Eisenhower was inspired by a class project where I had to write a report about his trip to India – my first experience with reading The New York Times! My letter to President Kennedy was inspired by his “proposed Peace Corps.” Even as Archivist of the United States, I never imagined that I would be able to see these letters again. I have learned that you should never underestimate what an archivist can find! On my visits to Presidential Libraries, I have seen both of my letters.
The records at Presidential Libraries help tell the story behind these two speeches. I hope you take a few minutes to watch the following videos that help explain the evolution of the speeches through the drafts and notes found within the records … [ Read all ]
With Nancy Reagan at his side, President Obama signed a law establishing the Ronald Reagan Centennial Commission in June 2009. As Archivist of the United States, I serve as an ex officio member to “provide advice and information to the Commission.”
Throughout 2011, there are many events planned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of President Reagan’s birth. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum will dedicate their redesigned permanent exhibition on February 6, 2011, President Reagan’s birthday. There will also be a birthday celebration on February 18 at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. Presidential records, including documents, pictures, film, and artifacts, will play a special role at these events.
Photograph of President Reagan and Vice President Bush meeting with General Secretary Gorbachev on Governor’s Island, New York, 12/7/1988
(National Archives, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)
Throughout this year, there will also be a special exhibit of records and artifacts at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. The items currently on display (featured below) center around the theme of foreign relations and will be part of a rotating exhibit in partnership with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.
Ronald Reagan was a president who had a profound effect on the nation and the world during his eight years in office. He also holds a special place in the history of the National Archives.… [ Read all ]
The holidays have always been a time for me to remember those who have gone on before me — a large extended family descended from Italian and Irish immigrants. Christmas day was usually split between the two families and never together in the same place. The two enthnicities were still very much at war in my Boston suburb!
The holidays also meant visiting cemeteries to decorate graves. Those memories were brought back on Decemember 11, when I participated in the Wreaths Across America program at Arlington National Cemetery. For the 19th consecutive year, the Worcester Wreath Company of Harrington, Maine donated balsam fir holiday wreaths. Thousands of volunteers gathered early to place 20,000 wreaths in four sections of the cemetery. Special wreath ceremonies were conducted at the Kennedy Family Memorial, the Battleship USS Maine Monument, and the Tomb of the Unkowns throughout the morning.
I chose to honor William Henry Christman, the 19 year old Union soldier who died before seeing battle and became the first burial at Arlington and Arthur Halligan, the father of a former colleague from the New York Public Library who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
I learned about Pvt. Christman after reading Robert’ Poole’s On Hallowed Ground, and from the records we have at the National Archives. He died on May 11, 1864 of peritonitis and … [ Read all ]
In my first year on the job, I have become a fan of the daily horoscopes in the Washington Post. My favorite so far:
Many feel limited by the work they do. You won’t be in this category today, though. Your work expands you. You’ll be excited by what you learn, and you feel privileged to do what you do.
I feel both excited and privileged to serve as the Archivist of the United States. On December 2, 2010, I had the opportunity to express this in my State of the Archives Address. Take a moment to watch the video of the event or read the text of my speech.
Earlier this fall, I was struck by the photograph below, located on the wall outside the Still Pictures Room in our College Park facility.
Capt. Edward J. Steichen, USNR, (retired), photographic expert on island platform, studies his surroundings for one of his outstanding photographs of life aboard an aircraft carrier. Capt. Steichen held the rank of Comdr. at this time., ca. 11/1943
After reading the caption, I discovered that the famous photographer, Edward Steichen, had worked for the military during World War II. Ed McCarter, our Supervisory Archivist of Still Pictures, told me that Steichen had worked for the Navy on the U.S.S. Carrier Lexington in World War II, as a 62 year-old. At the National Archives, we have about 30 photographs that identify Steichen as the photographer, but there are likely many more because he also served as head of a photography unit in the Air Service in World War I.
Steichen was 67 years old when he completed active duty after World War II, and during that time had to be reinstated when he had reached retirement age. In his book, A Life in Photography, he describes his experience: “Everything about an aircraft carrier is dramatic, but the most spectacular things are the take-offs and landings of the planes.”
F6F takes off from USS Lexington (CVA 16) for third day of strikes … [ Read all ]
President Lincoln issued a Proclamation of Thanksgiving in October 1863, which is well known for setting the precedent of our national holiday. Since 1863, we have celebrated Thanksgiving every year as a nation.
Another Proclamation of Thanksgiving was issued a year later by President Lincoln. October 1864 was a pivotal time during the Civil War. Atlanta had fallen to General Sherman a month before and Lincoln was not yet reelected.
Portion of page 1 of Lincoln’s 1864 Proclamation of Thanksgiving
The 1864 Proclamation begins, “It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year…”
Portion of page 1 of Lincoln’s 1864 Proclamation of Thanksgiving
On page 4 of the Proclamation, Lincoln states, “And I do farther recommend to my fellow-citizens aforesaid that on that occasion they do reverently humble themselves in the dust and from thence offer up penitent and fervent prayers and supplications to the Great Disposer of events for a return of the inestimable blessings of Peace, Union, and Harmony throughout the land, which it has pleased Him to assign as a dwelling place for ourselves and for our posterity throughout all generations.”
Portion of page 4 of Lincoln’s 1864 Proclamation of Thanksgiving
On this Thanksgiving, I encourage you to view the original pages of the Proclamation and read the complete text (both below).
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