Saturday, January 18, 2014

Righting a Wrong: The Civil War, Stolen Documents, and a History Sleuth

Editor's note: A version of this story originally ran in The Berkshire Eagle

The court document ordered tobacco farmer Robert Ashby Jr. to pay the local mercantile 3 pounds he owed, plus a fine of 79 pounds of tobacco.
It was dated 1753. And it was issued in Stafford, Virginia.
So how that document and another one dated some 20 years later ended up in an attic in South Worthington in 2005 was puzzling.
Dr. George Bresnick was digging through ``the proverbial old trunk in the attic’’ at a neighbor’s South Worthington home when he stumbled across the documents.
``They had absolutely nothing to do with the other papers,’’ said Bresnick, an ophthalmologist who now resides in St. Paul, Minn. ``I was confused for a while.’’
After some research, Bresnick came up with the only reasonable explanation: They were stolen by Union forces from Western Massachusetts during the Civil War.
And now he plans to return them to where they belong.
It was November 1862 and Union forces, including the 37th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which had been mustered in Pittsfield earlier that year, were occupying the town of Stafford, Va., as part of the Fredericksburg campaign.
The area around Stafford was overrun by 130,000 Union troops and the once pristine woods were decimated by the force for housing, defensive fortifications and heating. Farmland was torn up, homes were looted, and fences ripped out.
The county courthouse in Stafford received similar maltreatment as the locals’ homes, two thirds of the county’s records, which likely dated back to the 1660s, were ``burned, stolen or scattered,’’ Bresnick said.
He believes the documents were taken as souvenirs by Pvt. John D. Smith, a West Chesterfield resident who had enlisted with the 37th and would later be killed during the Battle of The Wilderness in 1864. Bresnick surmises that Smith sent the papers home and they ended up in the trunk in the attic of an old Methodist Episcopal parsonage that had once belonged to a Smith descendant.
Back in 2005, Bresnick and his wife were living in the village of South Worthington, across the road from the old parsonage where an elderly woman resided. He helped go through the neighbor’s home after her death and that’s when he discovered the legal documents. They, along with everything else in the house, ended up with an antiques dealer. Bresnick later bought the documents, along with many others related to Chesterfield and Worthington, for $100.
One of the documents, dated 1776
Eventually, he came up with a plan to return the documents from whence they came, in order, he said, to ``right a wrong.’’
According to Bresnick, there are both ``practical effects’’ of the loss of Stafford’s courthouse records, the inability to verify a deed on a property before 1862, for instance , and the psychological effect that comes with the loss of written records that help tell the story of Stafford’s history.
Bresnick’s plan was two-fold. He traveled to Washington, D.C., in November to hand over the papers to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, who in a symbolic gesture gave the documents to Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va.
``For documents that were clearly removed from their place of origin to be returning after more than a hundred years, it’s certainly symbolic,’’ Neal said. ``History has an interest in seeing these artifacts, and I think it speaks well (of Bresnick), who wants to really respect these documents by returning them to the people of Stafford, Va.’’
Neal, besides being a congressman, is a professor who lectures in history and journalism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He told The Eagle he was interested in seeing these documents returned ``in the context of their importance to history.’’
The congressman said that people contact his office on a regular basis ``looking to reconnect with things from the past. Sometimes it’s about a memorial, an event or a place. This is something different.’’
A day after Bresnick’s meeting with the two congressman, he presented the documents to Barbara Decatur, the Stafford County clerk of court, at a ceremony at the courthouse in Stafford. The documents now permanently grace the courthouse walls.
``I’m happy (the documents) are going back to their home,’’ Bresnick said.
The two legal documents that were found in an old trunk in South Worthington were believed stolen from the courthouse in Stafford, Va., by Union troops during the Fredricksburg campaign of the Civil War.
The first document, dated 1753, is a court order informing the sheriff of Stafford County to bring a tobacco farmer named Robert Ashby Jr. (c.1720-c.1780) to the courthouse for a hearing that May. Ashby owed the mercantile firm of Patrick and William Bogle a little more than 3 pounds, likely from a past due store account. The court ordered Ashby to cough up the 3 pounds along with a hefty court fine of 79 pounds of tobacco. If he didn’t pay, the court could then order Ashby’s personal property sold to pay the debt.
The second document was a promissory note dated Feb. 24, 1776, obligating Joel Reddish (c. 1748-1826), to pay 11 pounds, four shillings, six pence, half-penny on a loan from James Ritchie & Co. of Glasgow, Scotland. According to Bresnick, Ritchie was one of the ``Tobacco Lords’’ of Glasgow who imported tobacco from the colonies and sold it in Europe. The company was also in the business of loaning money to farmers in order to get their tobacco crop into the ground. Reddish was a Virginia tobacco farmer who had taken a loan out with the company.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

History is a Funny Thing: A book review of "The Men Who United the States."

Editor's note: This review first appeared in the Dec. 8, 2013 edition of the Berkshire Eagle.

History is a funny thing. What may start as fact often becomes clouded by fancy and the personages whose names still trip off the tongue today may overshadow the true heroes whose names have been wiped clean, if they were ever there at all, from the popular imagination.

In Simon Winchester 's newest book, "The Men Who United the States," the author tells the story of America through its "connective tissue" and introduces, or reintroduces, the many obscure and half- forgotten men who helped unite the country via exploration, road, canal, and railroad building, electric generation, the radio, television and the Internet.

While the more famous folks, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Edison, for example, do get their due, the book's focus remains on the lesser known men whose work helped unite the country.

The narrative structure of this unique retelling of America's history by the British- born best selling author, and recently naturalized U. S. citizen, is held together via the five Chinese elements - wood, earth, water, fire and metal - corresponding to early exploration, geology, canal building, locomotives and other mechanized transportation and the telegraph, telephone and other electronic communication.

He did something similar in his last book, "Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories," in which he uses the "Seven Ages of Man" monologue from William Shakespeare's "As You Like It" as a framework.

In Winchester 's able hands, the stories of these pioneers - many considered cranks and misfits - and their contributions provide a lesser traveled journey through the country's past without losing sight of the bigger picture.

It should be noted the title does not lie and that the book almost exclusively looks at men's achievements. Sacagawea, who helped guide the Lewis and Clark expedition across the West in the early 1800s is the only woman who gets much of a mention in the book, something Winchester said he knew he would get some grief for, but that "It has to be accepted, like it or not, that most of those [connections] were created by men."

Winchester 's personal reminiscences that dot the book's pages provide nice counterpoints to the main stories, by connecting historical moments to the present, uniting themes, giving resonance to particular ideas.

One of the most touching of these is a story he relates about being in a remote area of Northern Australian in the mid-1990s and demonstrating the Internet to a 7-year-old boy whose mind was blown by its potential after seeing a video of a B1 bomber and a close up photograph of Mars, which the boy had previously only seen by looking at the night sky with his father's binoculars. Winchester left the computer for the boy and was soon receiving emails from him.

Another personal story comes in the book's epilogue, in which Winchester describes life in Sandisfield, where he has a small farm, and of the uniting of the village through a new community newspaper.

The author says in the book's final pages that the work of the nation's agencies and individuals "helped bind ever more tightly the peoples of the country together." The same could be said of Winchester 's book, which gives us a prismatic and unusual take on the nation's past and the strange, enigmatic and down right cantankerous men who helped make it what it is and will become, and provides - during this seemingly divided time in our history - insight into what has kept us whole.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Love Affair with America: An Interview with Simon Winchester

 Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the Nov. 25, 2013 edition of the Berkshire Eagle.

 Chopping wood in the late afternoon on his small farm, writer Simon Winchester vaguely resembles one of the rough and tumble characters he writes about in his latest non-fiction book, "The Men Who United The States." But later, as he sits in the small cottage in which he works, surrounded by hundreds of books, talking of history, his British-accented voice filling the space, another image of the man emerges.

Such is the dichotomy of this Oxford-educated writer of more than 20 books, this journalist, traveler and adventurer who once briefly left an Arctic sledding expedition for an interview with a New York Times columnist at an Upper West Side Italian restaurant, only to return to the freezing north to finish what he started.

His latest book seems imbued with the 69-year-old writer's multifaceted personality, encompassing both history and personal narrative. It tells the story of the nation through the lives of the men who explored its wilderness, surveyed its natural resources and brought it physically together by rail, road and wire. It is also a love letter to Winchester 's new homeland.

"Without wanting to sound too sappy about it, I've been enraptured by this country for a very long time," he says." The genesis was born out of my love affair with the country."

In 2011, Winchester became a U.S. citizen, standing on the deck of the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston Harbor on a blazing hot July 4. Winchester says it was a moving experience, but it was another event a short time later that brought home the realization of his new status as a citizen.

He explains: "I got my passport and went to England almost immediately. I returned from London to Kennedy Airport [in New York City] and I had this shiny new passport and the guy opened it and stamped it, stood up, and said: 'Welcome home.' That was a great feeling, I must say. It really was."

Winchester 's enthusiasm for America started early.

He came here as a hitchhiker in the early 1960s, spending eight months on the road and finding everyone he met to be "terribly kind." It didn't hurt that a friend worked for NBC and was a buddy of John Frankenheimer, the director of classic films like "The Manchurian Candidate," who introduced Winchester to Burt Lancaster, Johnny Carson and Kirk Douglas.

"It was astonishing. I had this amazingly good impression of America," he laughs.

He was later returned as a correspondent for a British newspaper and covered Washington, D.C., during Watergate scandal.

In 1997, he moved to New York and in 2001 bought his home in Sandisfield, Mass., a bucolic agrarian space with geese, chickens and gardens. He and his wife, former National Public Radio producer Setsuko Sato, split their time between the farm and New York City. They also found time to start a local monthly newspaper, the Sandisfield Times.

Winchester signed the contract for his latest book around the time he became a citizen, feeling like the moment was right to try his hand at American history. The question was how to approach his subject. Winchester says that after "a number of experiments," he "just started ruminating" on the idea of "uniting."

"How did the country remain united - despite the Civil War, of course - for so long and so successfully in a way that so many other great big countries, like Canada and Russia … have not succeeded [in doing]?"

America, a "mongrel" of disparate peoples, ideas and beliefs, says Winchester , has managed to remain whole thanks to the "connective tissue" of exploration and the physical structures of canals and railways and even radio. He decided he wanted to explore the men who helped build these "tissues" that "bound the country together."

While working on the book, he hit upon the idea of structuring it around the five Chinese elements: wood, earth, water, fire and metal.

"It had to be something that had narrative logic to it, but that was perhaps slightly unusual that offered a different perspective. I happened to be writing to a friend of mine in Shanghai - I lived in China for a long time - and we had been talking about the classical elements. And I thought, 'Well, why not?' Maybe these 120 odd people, who I had established I wanted to write about, could be put into these various categories. So all the American explorers went under wood because they went through forests. The early geologists fit into the category of earth. The canals, and so forth, would go under water. Fire-breathing things like trains, planes and automobiles would go under fire. And then metal - the telegraph, telephone. It all seemed to work."

In each category, he came up with the names of the people who had been instrumental to the various fields, from canal building to the electrical grid, and to his "delight and astonishment," he found that "many of them were unknown."

He ended up focusing on the less famous of these men, believing truly famous people like Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Morse and Guglielmo Marconi, needed less space.

"There wasn't a great deal of a point in retelling the story of Marconi, except in a perfunctory way. The man who gave us AM and FM radio, allowed us to broadcast the human voice or music - Marconi only allowed us to do Morse code - he was unknown. He was named Reginald Fessenden. And he was such a colorful character. He was a big, bluff, bearded chap. A classic maverick and tinkerer. So I very much went to town with him. … He's just as important. Yes, it was a question of highlighting the forgotten and giving no more than their due to the famous."

During Winchester 's research, he came upon a story of interest related to the Berkshires, specifically Great Barrington.

"It was the first place in the world to get alternating current electricity. The first place to get distributed electricity of any kind was Edison, N.J., because that's where Thomas Edison worked and then he did the same thing in lower Manhattan. Then there was this war of the currents between Westinghouse, who preferred AC, [and Edison and direct current]. Once it was decided that it was going to be AC, then the first place to get AC was Main Street in Great Barrington. There's a little plaque that memorializes that fact. I think attention should … be paid to the fact that this was the first place in the world. No one would ever know that."

Winchester 's love for the subjects in his book comes across as he talks about them. It also shown by his manuscript, which came in 45,000 words longer than intended.

"I really wrote with tremendous enthusiasm on this book and ended up with 195,000 words. My contract was for 150,000 words. My editor liked it, said it was wonderful, but it was 'too much wonderful.' " Winchester was asked to pare it down, which he managed to do.

He's currently working on a book about the Pacific Ocean, having already written one about the Atlantic.

According to Winchester , he prefers to write for the general public, eschewing the academic for the more personal approach.

With a wry smile, he says, "I see no reason why a serious subject can't be made readable and accessible and nonacademic."
The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible