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Archive for February, 2011

Confederate dirty laundry: spies and slaves

The Civil War was a spy’s dream come true. With a porous border between the Union and the Confederacy, and little way to distinguish between friend and foe, spies were everywhere. Both sides used ciphers. Both tapped telegraph wires. Stories of aristocratic schmoozing abound so much that James Bond would be jealous of all the cocktail cloak and dagger that occurred in the Civil War. But for all the espionage that happened in Richmond, the Union quickly learned that one of the best places to hide their spies wasn’t in a veil of aristocracy, but beneath the Confederate’s own prejudices. Thinking African Americans uneducated and illiterate, Confederate officers would speak of military maneuvers in front of their slaves and servants without a second thought.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of a man named Dabney and his wife. The two had crossed over into Union lines in 1863, and Dabney took up work as a cook and body servant at General Joseph Hooker’s Falmouth encampment along the Rappahonnock River. Dabney’s intimate knowledge of the terrain across the river made him an intelligence asset, and soon he was leading troops into battle as a scout—in one instance he allegedly led Union troops directly against his old master.

It wasn’t until his wife crossed back across the river and took up the job of … [ Read all ]

Thursday’s Caption Contest

We chortled our way through your captions last week! Finally, unable to decide between references to white shoes, Project Runway, or Baltimore, we turned to our guest, Susan Cooper, Director of Communications  at the National Archives.

Congratulations to Rebecca! Susan thought that her quote by Cecil Beaton best communicated the spirit of this picture. Indeed, Sir Cecil—English photographer, diarist, interior designer, and Academy Award–winning costume designer—would have surely found these ladies inspiring.

So what are they looking at? This image is from the DOCUMERICA series, and “Elderly ladies watch as grape/lettuce boycotters march, 08/1973.” Must have been a shocking march indeed.

And nothing is more shocking than . . . nuns!  Put your caption in the comments below!

Cloudy with a chance of records

Weather has been front-page news across the country for the last couple of weeks. Winter storms have left up to 50 inches of snow in places, and even in Dallas, TX, snow and ice made the Packers and Steelers feel right at home at the Super Bowl.

What’s the outlook for sunshine, snow, or rain in the future? The groundhog may have predicted an early spring, but for a more scientific forecast, we have the National Weather Service, whose birthday is today.

On February 9, 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a joint resolution of Congress authorizing “meteorological Observations at the military Stations and other Points in the Interior of the Continent, and for giving Notice on the northern Lakes and Seaboard of the Approach and Force of Storms.”

In the National Archives you can find weather-related records in Records of the Weather Bureau (Record Group 27) and Records of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (Record Group 370).

So, Happy Birthday, Weather Service! Here’s hoping you can give us all good news soon.… [ Read all ]

The OSS and the Dalai Lama

In the summer of 1942, the Allies’ war against Japan was in dire straits. China was constantly battling the occupying Japanese forces in its homeland, supplied by India via the Burma Road. Then Japan severed that supply artery. Planes were flown over the Himalayan mountains, but their payloads were too little, and too many pilots crashed in the desolate landscape to continue the flights.

The Allies were desperate to find a land route that would reconnect China and India. The task fell to two OSS men—Ilia Tolstoy, the grandson of Leo Tolstoy, and explorer Capt. Brooke Dolan. To complete the land route would require traversing Tibet, and to traverse the hidden country required the permission of a seven-year-old boy, the Dalai Lama.

When the two men arrived in Lhasa, the remote capital of Tibet, these spies were received as ambassadors. A military brass band played, and they were treated as guests of honor in a city that only a few decades earlier had forbidden Westerners to enter.

They came carrying a message from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On December 20, at 9:20 in the morning, they were granted an audience with His Holiness. As a further sign of his respect for these two emissaries, the men were allowed to ride horses up the Potala to the quarters of the Dalai Lama. After a brief wait, they … [ Read all ]

Little house in the big archives

If you have been reading Pieces of History, you know that the National Archives holds many unusual records. But when I started working here, I was excited to learn that we hold the papers of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, at the Hoover Presidential Library.

The childhood adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder, especially her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, were some of my favorite reads as a little girl. I was jealous of my friend Abby, whose mother let her spend a snow day pouring maple syrup on the snow in the backyard, just like Laura did one winter.

The collection is three linear feet of papers and correspondence between Rose and Laura, and provides a glimpse into the creation of the books and the relationship between the mother-daughter writing team. But how did papers from a beloved children’s series become part of a Presidential collection?

Laura’s daughter, Rose, helped write the series. Rose lived in San Francisco and worked as a reporter—she also worked and travelled in Europe. She wrote The Making of Herbert Hoover, the first biography of Herbert Hoover, and the friendship that she and Hoover developed through penning that book lasted more than 40 years.

You can read more about the collection and download lesson plans and activities for your own pioneer adventure at the Hoover Presidential Library or follow … [ Read all ]