I guess I didn’t really have a disdain for history (unless I was forced to partake in it). I am reminded of the classic film, Casablanca, when Ugarte (Peter Lorre) asks Rick (Humphery Bogart), “You despise me, don’t you, Rick?” He responds in his classic sardonic form, “If I gave you any thought at all.” Well, that’s what history has been like for me. I never really gave it any thought at all. When I did, I despised it. I mean, I know things happened in the past, what possible relevance can if have on me what it was? And if it was relevant, why does it need to be so bland? Nevertheless, I am occasionally slapped in the face with some historic factoid that blows my socks off.
I first came face to face with this while stationed at Fort Dietrick in Maryland, back in the early ‘70s. I was watching a PBS Special about the Antietam battlefield. I don’t know why I was watching it; probably because I didn’t have to read it and I don’t remember hearing of Antietam, before. One of things mentioned was that it was located in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Well, I would pass the Sharpsburg turn off on the way to the Fort everyday. So one weekend we went on the Antietam Battlefield tour to see what’s what. The first stop was the spot where the battle broke out – a place called Dunkard Church. Like all the stops, there was a display board there with a button you push for an audio commentary of the scene. Also on the board was a photograph – this one. When I saw this, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I remembered the photo from my history class as a Junior in High School! “Wow,” I thought, “This is THAT?” For that moment, history became real and relevant. This is when I found that Antietam (known as the Battle of Sharpsburg to the South) was the “bloodiest” battle of the war. More than 23,000 men lost their lives in just one day. Clara Barton, who would be the founder of the Red Cross, was there. Though a tactical draw, the battle is cited as the turning point in the war in favor of the North. But, I digress.
On another occasion, I felt like I was flung back in time and participated in the event. I had found an old anthology at a used book store. It was a collection of essays and journal entries from various figures in the past of a scientific nature. One of the entries was from Galileo’s own diary. This is the guy the Catholic church put under house arrest for his views on the nature of the solar system although it was just as much Galileo who antagonized the church (but that is a totally other story for some other time and place). The series of diary entries were from January 1610 when he first applied his telescope to the night sky. At the time, conventional wisdom was that the Earth was the center of the Universe. There were the fixed stars and there were the planets and they all revolved around the earth (although, the planets seemed wander around a bit in the process). Galileo and few others, such as Kepler and, before them, Copernicus, thought otherwise. The point is as Galileo applied his telescope to the skies, one of the first things he looked at was Jupiter. In addition to Jupiter, he saw four, distinct, comparatively bright stars in a straight line about Jupiter. He made a note of such in his diary. He had assumed they were part of the fixed stars in the background and thought it noteworthy that Jupiter happened to be right there. During successive nights, he again looked and found, as he suspected that they moved relative to Jupiter. However, they were still in a straight line, but some were on one side of Jupiter. Then, on another night, they would be back to the original format. It suddenly became very obvious to him that those were not stars, but the moons OF JUPITER! Once again, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck as I realized I was looking over the shoulder of Galileo AS he discovered the moons of Jupiter and formed in his mind what he felt was definitive proof that all celestial bodies in NOT revolve around the earth!
More recently, I was reading a book by Francis Bicknell Carpenter who was a portrait painter of US Presidents in the mid to late 1800s. He wrote a book called Six Months at the White House which was about his tenure with President Lincoln and creating his painting of “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln” He related a story that was another “wow” moment for me. It was a Sunday afternoon and, as was apparently commonplace, the White House lawn was opened up to the public to enter and picnic. It wasn’t like it was a scheduled event, the place was just open and people would come and spend the afternoon on the lawn with family and friends. On one of these Sundays, Carpenter and Lincoln had wandered out to the lawn, which was not uncommon, but it wasn’t an expected event, either. Unlike what you would expect today, when people saw the President, they kept their distance and respected his privacy. One gentleman, however, came up to him and apologized for the intrusion, and the President just waved it off. The man wanted to give condolences to the President on his loss. Lincoln’s son, William, had died from typhoid fever less than two years earlier at the age of 12. Lincoln was solemn and gracious. I was agog. Once again the passage took me straight to the early part of 1864 so powerfully; I thought I could almost see the tears on the President’s face. But most memorable, is that I felt I got a glimpse of what life was like back then. Not merely what happened to make the day notable, but to see what was ordinarily then how it morphed so quickly into the extraordinary. Getting a true feeling for the times is often more fascinating to me than the matters of fact.
When I got back to college after being in the service, my history instructor said something totally out of left field. He said, “I love to teach history because it’s always changing.” Whoa! I sat up, wondering how he was going to justify a statement like that. He said one of the reasons you study history is to understand the underlying causes of the situation you have today. As the focus of current events change, so, too, must the historical events need to be different as well. Well, that’s interesting, but I think it is more meaningful for the researcher than it is to the student…nevertheless, I have remembered it.
Every one of these kinds of awarenesses has presented themselves to me as I research various blog posts. Indeed, some have actually caused me to do additional research. For example, I’m sure you have seen or know about the Yosemite Chapel. It is the oldest building currently in Yosemite, having been constructed in 1879. It is located on the south side of Southside Drive, just across from the foot bridge that leads to Cook’s Meadow. It has only been there since 1901. Prior to that, it was down stream, a bit, near the trailhead to the 4-Mile Trail.
Really? It was moved? Why was it moved? Why was it down there in the first place? And why move to HERE, of all places? I mean, there is nothing any more extraordinary here than there was in its original location. These are the kinds of things I stumble across as I wander through yesteryear. The chapel was built near the 4-Mile Trail and, in fact, the 4-Mile Trail’s trailhead was started there because that is where “The Village” was at the time. One of the first buildings put up in Yosemite was a hotel, of sorts, called Lower House and was placed near the banks of the Merced about even with where the Swinging Bridge currently resides. Also in this area were stables, Black’s Hotel, George Fiske’s Photography Studio and a school. But, by 1901, “The Village” and its activity had moved up stream between where the Chapel currently resides and Sentinel Bridge. But, all this is in upcoming posts.
This kind of information revealed itself to me while I was looking for something else. The main drive for this whole line of inquiry got started, quite simply. There seemed to be conflicting stories about the park, especially now with the anniversaries coming up. It is said, “Yosemite was the first park, in history, to be set aside for public use.” Okay, why is it the THIRD national park, then? Finding that out introduced me to James Mason Hutchings and Galen Clark (who are these guys? I thought John Muir was the end-all, be-all of Yosemite) Cook’s Meadow? Why would a cook need a meadow?
But, once again, I’m getting ahead of myself. What I hope to do with these historical posts is share with you not just the events themselves (which can easily become the boring pabulum that nourishes the disdain of history I am trying to avoid), but the awe and wonder I felt as I was discovering them.