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Join our Bill of Rights Twitter Contest

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Readers, we now live in a brave new world of abbreviation. What was once Kentucky Fried Chicken is now KFC. What was once the Science Fiction Channel is now SyFy. For many people, this sentence makes sense: “IMHO this is NSFW” (for the record, this post is). Even the National Archives hasn’t been spared: sometimes we call it the Natty Arches or the Chives.

In this great condensing of America, one item has been spared, however. The Bill of Rights–that great document that contains the first ten amendments to the Constitution–hasn’t been abridged by a single punctuation mark. Until now.

It’s time the Bill of Rights got a hip new upgrade and we need your help. From today through December 15–the 219th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights–we’re asking you to condense each of those amendments into separate bite-sized tweets.

The rules are simple: on the appropriate day shorten the assigned amendment down to as few words (or letters) as possible while retaining the amendment’s meaning, then Tweet us your response using the hashtag #BillofRights.

There’s no limit to how many times you post, and we promise that there will be no actual abridging of the Bill of Rights–this is just a way to think about one of our most important documents. So tweet your hearts out!

We’ve posted the schedule below, and every day on Facebook … [ 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 ]

The must-have Christmas gift of 1864

Each year in America it seems there is one holiday gift that is heavy on demand and short on supply. In 1996, there was the Tickle-Me-Elmo fiasco. In 1983, it was the Cabbage Patch Doll. In 1864, the gift of the season was Savannah, Georgia, and one Union general was willing to do anything to obtain it.

On November 16, 1864, William T. Sherman set out from Atlanta, Georgia, with his eye set on capturing the southern port of Savannah. In his 300-mile march to the sea, Sherman wreaked havoc, employing total war and destroying a swath of land 40 miles wide in places. His intent? To break the psychological backbone of the Confederacy.

Sherman arrived outside Savannah in mid-December and conveyed the following message to its the man who had set up a defense of the city, Confederate Gen. William Hardee:

I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city; also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied, and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah, and its dependent forts, and shall wait a reasonable time for your answer, before opening with heavy ordnance. Should you entertain the proposition, I am prepared to

[ Read all ]

Facial Hair Friday: Civil War Beards on Film

Yesterday was Veterans Day, and many of my friends on Facebook posted tributes to their family and friends, usually mentioning their grandfathers who fought in World War II.

Now, World War II was over 60 years ago, but I personally know WWII vets—my own grandfather and great-uncle. And my father knew family members who were WWI vets.

It is easy to think of historical events as happening in the long-ago past, in a vacuum where wars have a beginning and end rather than as lives that overlap from one event to another. But things run into each other—Theodore Roosevelt saw Lincoln’s funeral, and Roosevelt’s  son Ted served in World War I and later was on the beach in Normandy in WWII, directing the troops as they came ashore.

But still, I was jolted when I saw the film footage of Civil War veterans. After all—the Civil War ended in 1865, before the invention of cars or telephone or airplanes. But there they were in motion, men who had been on the field at Gettysburg, chatting and talking, their long white beards blowing in the wind.

They were filmed in 1938, 20 years after WWI and just a few years before WWII. They had grown up with horses and trains, and they arrived at the Blue and Gray Reunion by car.

Seventy-five years after the Battle of Gettysburg, a Federal commission took on … [ Read all ]

The peculiar story of Wilmer McLean

Today Part Two of “Discovering the Civil War” opens at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The exhibit is divided into a few sections, the last of which is entitled “Endings and Beginnings,” a reference to the end of the Civil War and the start of Reconstruction. As to the beginning and the end of the Civil War itself, there is only one man who book-ended it so literally. His name was Wilmer McLean.

On July 18, 1861, Confederate General Beauregard had sat down for supper in the home of a Manassas local when a cannonball pierced through the house and landed in the kitchen fireplace. It was something of a surprise, but not so overwhelming as to ruin Beauregard’s sense of humor “A comical effect of this artillery fight was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a Federal shell that fell into the fire-place of my headquarters at the McLean House,” he wrote in his diary. Perhaps the shell would have been more of a shock had it not been just one of many volleys in the first major campaign of the Civil War: the Battle of Bull Run.

The house belonged to a man named Wilmer McLean, who had purchased the property in 1854. Beauregard had commandeered the property—and McLean’s well-situated house and barn—as his headquarters and, later, … [ Read all ]