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Tag: american history

Exploring the polar regions

As frigid temperatures cover much of the country, and many areas are still dealing with record amounts of snow, my thoughts turn to the polar explorers of the early 20th century. They didn’t have Goretex jackets with superwarm linings, satellite communications, or portable computers. Our “Pieces of History” blog takes its name from a regular feature on the last page of the print version of Prologue, and today I’m sharing a vintage print ”Piece” about an unusual artifact found in the polar archives collection at the National Archives.

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“The Pole at last!!!” With these words Robert E. Peary began his diary entry for April 6, 1909. His team, he believed, had become the first to reach the top of the world, a dream he had pursued for 20 years. In those years, Peary made eight expeditions to the Arctic region, three specifically to reach the Pole. As Peary’s papers make clear, supplying such expeditions was a tremendous task. Clothing, tents, food, cooking utensils—everything needed to survive Arctic temperatures for months—had to be packed in on foot and by dog sledge. The explorers also required scientific instruments so they could make observations, determine their locations, and gather data to record their progress.

Along with a sextant, telescope, and artificial horizon, the Peary Family Collection in the National Archives includes the explorer’s theodolite. A … [ Read all ]

A hot dog for the King

Following upon the spate of movies in recent years about British female royalty (the Elizabeths and Victoria), we now have one about British male royalty, The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth as George VI.

It focuses on George VI (the current monarch’s father) and his struggle to overcome stuttering and stammering, especially when he spoke in public.

He became King in late 1936, when his brother Edward VIII abdicated to marry the twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson. He also became the first reigning British monarch to visit the United States—in June 1939—just after a state visit to Canada.

After spending a few days in Washington, DC, the King and Queen traveled with President and Mrs. Roosevelt to Hyde Park, NY, the President’s home (and now the site of his Presidential library), where they had an American-style picnic at FDR’s retreat, Top Cottage.

On the menu were traditional American picnic fare, such as ham and turkey and strawberry shortcake—fit for a King. And FDR, the patrician with the common touch, also served their majesties the great American treat—hot dogs. And, yes, according to news accounts, the royals did indeed down their first-ever hot dogs.

The royals were delighted, and their visit helped cement U.S.-British relations just a few months before World War II began on September 1, 1939.

A complete account of the royal visit is on … [ Read all ]

Mole in place at the Archives

Researching in original records often provides the researcher with surprises. Usually the surprise takes the form of an unknown letter, a reference to your topic in an unexpected place, or a lead that directs you to a new set of records to mine. Once in a great while, the surprise is something no one could have imagined.

In late 2005, an Archives staff member was pulling a file from the Civil War Widows Certificate Approved Pension Case Files for a researcher. The file seemed unusually bulky, so he opened it. Inside the folder, tucked between sheets of a letter was one of the most unusual items found in the records of the National Archives: the preserved skin of a mole.

Now, moles make appearances in archival records all the time—but they’re usually undercover spies mentioned in intelligence or diplomatic reports. This 19th-century insectivore came from the literal underground, and one ill-fated day he found himself in the tent of a Union soldier.

The soldier, James J. Van Liew, didn’t care to share his tent with this uninvited guest and captured it. As (a joke? a love token?), Van Liew sent the skin to his wife, Charity. She kept it for years but lost his original letter.

In July 1900, Charity applied to the government for a widow’s pension. In these applications, the widow had to … [ Read all ]

Lincoln to slaves: go somewhere else

The issue of slavery divided the country under Abraham  Lincoln’s Presidency. The national argument was simple: either keep slavery or abolish it. But Abraham Lincoln, known as the Great Emancipator, may have also been known as the Great Colonizer when he supported a third direction to the slavery debate: move African Americans somewhere else.

Long before the Civil War, in 1854, Lincoln addressed his own solution to slavery at a speech delivered in Peoria, Illinois: “I should not know what to do as to the existing institution [of slavery]. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land.” While Lincoln acknowledged this was logistically impossible, by the time he assumed the Presidency and a Civil War was underfoot, the nation was in such duress that he tried it anyway.

By early 1861, Lincoln ordered a secret trip to modern-day Panama to investigate the land of a Philadelphian named Ambrose Thompson. Thompson had volunteered his Chiriqui land as a refuge for freed slaves. The slaves would work in the abundant coal mines on his property, the coal would be sold to the Navy, and the profits would go to the freed slaves to further build up their new land.

Lincoln sought to test the idea on the small slave population in Delaware, but the idea met fierce … [ Read all ]

The Medal of Honor

According to Army Regulation 670-1, a soldier can now receive 31 military decorations “as a distinctively designed mark of honor denoting heroism, or meritorious or outstanding service or achievement.” During the Civil War, there was only one: the Medal of Honor.

The U.S. Army does not have a longstanding history of handing out awards. During the Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington handed out exactly three awards to recognize “any singularly meritorious action.”

Certificates were handed out for soldiers who distinguished themselves during the Mexican-American War, but that was discontinued when the conflict ended. At the start of the Civil War, there was no way to recognize the merit of the nation’s soldiers.

Gen. Winfield Scott approved of this. He believed medals smacked of European affectation.

By the summer of 1861, however, Congress had approved a medal of valor for the Navy, and within a year the Army had followed suit with a medal of honor “to such noncommissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldierlike qualities, during the present insurrection.” By 1863, Congress had modified the law to include officers and expanded its tenure beyond the Civil War.

In 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton gave out about 300 of the medals to troops who extended their military tours to protect the nation’s capital. More than … [ Read all ]