Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Hero's Tale

Earlier this month my daughter had to write a poem for her English class about a 20th century hero. Her assignment got me thinking about heroism and courage.

I suppose it is not surprising that I am fascinated by the concept of heroism in all of its complexities. Much has been written in scholarly circles about the nature and expression of valor from sociological and psychological perspectives, disciplines which comprise my own professional and academic background. But my fascination with heroism dates to a very young age--no surprise there, either, given that tales of courage dominate children's literature. I've gravitated to reading about accounts of bravery ever since, courage on scales both large and small. I bear witness to bravery by regularly reading accounts about the ordinary women who chose to became part of the Resistance during the German occupation of France in WWII. Some 230 were sent to Auschwitz et al as political prisoners and less than 50 survived that ordeal. I've also been reading about Elizabeth Keckley, who was infamous in her time because of her well-intentioned but ill-advised book describing her years working as modiste to Mary Todd Lincoln. She is worthy of admiration for having determinedly worked to purchase her own freedom from slavery, for establishing a successful business as an independent woman of color during a time when this was exceedingly difficult, and for founding the charitable Contraband Relief Association to aid newly emancipated people of color. And through the news aggregating powers of Facebook, I've recently marveled at the inspiring stories of women like Caroline Valenta, Ellie Beinhorn, Sarah “Madam C.J.” Walker, Elizabeth Eckford, and Alice Evans.  All kinds of bravery there.

But that there are so many stories that I don't know about, so many heroes whose good deeds go unnoticed. I think it is harder to define courage than its opposite, cowardice, for bravery is a complicated thing. Still, I find it ironic that for a trait so universally valued, courage and heroism are not universally displayed. Why aren't there more heroes if we so admire the trait? Leaving aside dramatic and unusual circumstances that aren't part of most everyday experiences, I would argue that heroism involves more than conscious choice. I think some people are simply made differently, are hard-wired to take more risks and to be braver than others. I'm not saying that nurture can't overcome nature, or that biology is destiny. But social science research has shown us that there are personality factors (a strong sense of autonomy, higher level of risk-taking, strong valuation of social responsibility, limited tolerance for authoritarianism, and strong empathic and altruistic moral reasoning levels) that are correlated with heroism. I think some people have those qualities in more abundance than others, and display them more readily. The read of us are left to be inspired, and to aspire.

We like to think big with our heroes, so chronicles abound with stories of the leaders and warriors who have made an indelible mark on history. During the hullabaloo that characterized the turn of the century, back when we were partying like it was 1999 (which wasn't hard to do since it WAS 1999), news outlets abounded with lists of 20th century heroes and icons. There were the predictable laudable politicians, military and civil rights leaders, sports figures and record-setters. But there were also shout-outs given to scientists, teachers, and ordinary laborers; to individuals who lived with physical and psychological obstacles; and to poets and writers and musicians and artists who pushed the edges of our collective expression and perception. Thank goodness for that, because I find that the older I get, the less I am drawn to the stories of those who have achieved the most and the more I am drawn to those whose quieter, smaller stories have the most to teach.

Most of us circle outside the invisible doors of a Hall of Fame peopled by anonymous, unheralded actors. We feel the weight of their heroism as aspiration, but don't know the details. For every hero who has risen above his or her instincts for self-preservation to distinguished actions in moments of crisis, there are countless individuals who are heroes simply for being there, for continuing, for their determination to "keep on keeping on" in the face of adversity. These are our quiet, every-day heroes, and their stories resonate loudly for me.

I suppose any school-girl essay on the nature of heroism is bound to reach this same point of lauding unknown, unsung heroes. But aside from being prompted by my daughter's essay topic, I have an especial reason for thinking about this concept.

The world lost a talented writer by the name of Gail Frazer earlier this month. Gail, who wrote under the pen name of Margaret Frazer, died on February 4 2013 after a twenty year struggle with breast cancer.

Yes, you read that right, 20 years. How does one survive with breast cancer for twenty years? Medical specifics aside, in Gail Frazer's case it seems that writing was the best medicine. She wrote, and she wrote, and she wrote. I suspect it is no exaggeration to state that story-telling helped to keep her alive. As a reader, I can attest that Gail's exercise of her craft was meticulous and fearless. Her magnificent characterizations, her relentless attention to detail and ability to make reading it fun, and her unstinting dedication to historical integrity elevated her to the status of Literary Hero for me.

Gail Frazer may be the best best-selling, award-winning writer of mysteries and historical fiction that you've never heard of. You should remedy that, although I will warn you that it can be difficult to find some of her older books since they are not currently in print. Still, make the effort. The character of Dame Frevisse, despite never having been physically described in the 17 books plus some short stories that made up her series, remains vividly and vibrantly imprinted in my mind's eye because of Gail Frazer's skill in breathing literary life into Frevisse's fictional soul. The itinerant actor Joliffe is the fictional guy I'd most like to meet from the Middle Ages. I want to be a student of Bishop Pecock's. Oh, and her portrayal of Henry VI simultaneously broke my heart and chilled me to the bone.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Gail Frazer in person, but we corresponded online occasionally after I was 'introduced' to her and her writing by Sharon Kay Penman (whose beautiful memorial to Gail can be found HERE). Gail and I connected over a mutual appreciation of her work, of theater, and of a love of the 15th century in which most of her stories were set. We commiserated from time to time over authors in the field who were less writers of historical fiction than of historical fantasy and for whom that distinction was lost, much to the detriment of an undiscerning readership.

I never got around to telling Gail Frazer how much I enjoyed her last book, Circle of Witches and I am sorry for that because I understand that it was the literary child of her heart, a book she returned to time and again in an effort to get it just right. I'd approached reading that book with some trepidation since it was outside the era that I usually like to immerse myself in when reading fiction. To say I am still haunted by the story she crafted would be an understatement; Circle of Witches epitomizes the rich, complex characterizations and descriptions that Gail was so skilled at creating. She created a tale in which her constants of an abiding love of People and of Place motivate and inspire.

Gail didn't run out of stories to tell but her body was exhausted. She wrote a series of essays in the final months of her life about her experiences, found on her webpage interspersed with other entries beginning HERE. I saw Gail as a Literary Hero but she also inspired me with her steadfastness and strength of spirit when navigating a health care delivery system that all too often places diagnosis first, patient second. Should I ever face a serious health crisis, I hope that I will have the grace and determination that Gail did, always persevering and continuing Onward.

I've lost more than my fair share of friends to various maladies and diseases that cheated us of growing old together. I'm not happy about losing another one. I am, however, glad that Gail Frazer is beyond pain's reach now. Her son wrote that she was at peace and comfortable at the end. I hope that their memories of a life well-lived and of stories well-told can provide comfort for her loved ones during this saddest of times.

So if I had to do my daughter's assignment today, I'd choose to write about Gail Frazer. I don't wish to overstate our relationship; I was a friendly fan, not a soul-friend or confidante. But I respected her enormously, and I will miss her. She was heroic in the way she lived her life and faced her death.

"Let the wagons roll!"

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Abraham Lincoln's Valentine to Pittsburgh

14 February, 1861

Some people get flowers for Valentine's Day, others get candy. On this day in 1861, Pittsburgh got a speech delivered in person by President-Elect Lincoln from the balcony of the Monongahela House, the poshest hotel in Pittsburgh.

Abe Lincoln's Pittsburgh Visit

Federal St Station, c 1905. Source: Library & Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center
As president-elect, Lincoln had set off on a whistle-stop tour of various cities and towns en route to Washington for his April inauguration. He'd received a huge majority of votes from Allegheny County and so chugged into the Federal Street Station of the City of Allegheny on February 14, intent upon paying his respects to the county that had so thoroughly supported him. The train was running behind schedule due to an accident on the rails, so the Lincoln family arrived significantly later than expected. The Pittsburgh Daily Press commented that "If all the people congregated there had been cognizant of the protracted agony of waiting before them, they would have gone home and taken comfortable suppers...." The Lincolns were eventually greeted some hours later by eager, sodden Pittsburghers who'd stuck it out in that freezing February rain (possible ancestors of modern Steeler fans who tailgate in North Side parking lots in all kinds of inclement weather).

That Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago railroad station near the corner of Stockton and Federal Streets was bulldozed in 1905 to make way for a new rail pass. Indeed, much of historic Allegheny City was razed to make way for the well-intentioned but unsuccessful urban redevelopment efforts of the 1960s, which resulted in the enclosed mall and ring road (surely the tenth circle of Hell that Dante meant to write about) of Allegheny Center.

But even without the actual station building to prompt memories, Pittsburgh remembers Lincoln's arrival and departure from the spot. An unassuming bronze plaque was placed in 1917 on the wall of the Post Office at the corner of South Commons and Federal Street to commemorate Lincoln's presence at the former station: "Abraham Lincoln who arrived at this point in February 14 1861 remaining in Pittsburgh a few hours enroute to Washington DC for his inauguration." The railroad crossing is now elevated, but back then it would have been situated at street level. Standing on that spot on a recent biting February day as a train passed by with whistle blaring and smoke furling, it wasn't hard for me to conjure a ghostly frisson of anticipation and imagine an antebellum crowd gathered there 150+ years earlier.

They were rewarded for their wait in the rain when Lincoln shook a few hands,bussed some little ones on the cheek, then ducked into carriages with his wife, three sons, and entourage to cross the Allegheny River. The carriages passed into Pittsburgh on the circa-1859 John Roebling suspension bridge at the site of today's Roberto Clemente bridge at Sixth Street.

The military was called in for crowd control outside the Mon House, as people were "eagerly pressing about the Smithfield entrance." Even though the weather was miserable and the hour late, the people of Pittsburgh demanded to hear Abe speak.  Standing on a chair outside an upstairs parlor in the Monongahela House lobby so he could be heard by the crowd below, the weary President-Elect limited himself to a few wry but optimistic remarks before retiring for the evening:
1889 image of Monongahela House exterior from eastern side of Smithfield Bridge
I have great regard for Allegheny County, it is “the banner county of the Union,” and rolled up an immense majority for what I, at least, consider a good cause. By mere accident, and not through any merit of mine, it happened that I was the representative of that cause, and I acknowledge with all sincerity the high honor you have conferred on me. I could not help thinking, my friends, as I traveled in the rain through your crowded streets, on my way here, that if all that [those] people were in favor of the Union, it can certainly be in no great danger---it will be preserved.
He slept that night in the hotel's Prince of Wales room, which would in later years be referred to as the Lincoln Bedroom.

Staging of period bedroom with Mon House furniture, courtesy Heinz History Center

After rediscovering Monongahela House artifacts in a maintenance building in South Park in 2006, the Heinz History Center recreated the famous Monongahela House bedroom for its Lincoln Slept Here 2009 exhibit. The exhibit used a number of items from a Monongahela House bedroom purported to be the bed Abe slept in, along with a wardrobe, bureau, dressing mirror, marble-top parlor table, chairs, wash stand, and yes, even a chamber pot. Docents there like to tell visitors how long lanky Abe had to sleep sideways to fit upon the half tester bed. Whether Lincoln ever slept on this furniture is debatable; it doesn't show up attributed to his Pittsburgh stay until the 1920s, and by that point the Mon House had undergone several re-decorations. Even if it wasn't THE bed, it's of a certain historical style and no harm is done imagining him retiring there after a long day's journey.

Stepping out to the balcony at 8:30 the next morning to face "an ocean of umbrellas" shielding what was reported to be the largest crowd assembled in Pittsburgh up until that point, Lincoln's speech touched on some of the most important issues facing the nation. He advised the people of Pittsburgh that self-interested politicians were making matters worse and advised everyone to "keep cool."
I repeat it, then - there is no crisis excepting such a one as may be gotten up at any time by designing politicians. My advice, then under such circumstances, is to keep cool. If the great American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled just as surely as all other difficulties of like character which have originated in this government have been adjusted. Let the people on both sides keep their self-possession, and just as other clouds have cleared away in due time, so will this, and this great nation will continue to prosper as heretofore.
Sage advice to be sure, since two months later the nation lost its cool.

Antebellum and Civil War Pittsburgh

The natural association when thinking of Pennsylvania in the context of the Civil War is to recall the Battle of Gettysburg. Certainly that field of battle is worthy of lasting memory, for Gettysburg turned the tide of the war and gave rise to Lincoln's most famous speech. But Pennsylvania's contributions to the Civil War neither began nor ended with Gettysburg. Allegheny County would live up to Lincoln's politically astute description as a “banner county” in the years to come. Pittsburgh’s strategic location at the confluence of major rivers and situated on key railroad lines made it a critical contributor to the Union war effort.

It's a challenge to imagine antebellum Pittsburgh. Our history from the Industrial Age into the modern era is well-documented, but we have comparatively few images or illustrations to show us what life was like in Civil War-era Pittsburgh. The lithographs below illustrate the Downtown area and Monongahela Wharf in some detail a few years before war broke out. In the first lithograph by Schuchman, you can see the aforementioned Roebling suspension bridge that Lincoln traveled across from Allegheny City to Pittsburgh. In the second lithograph, Roebling's very first suspension bridge across the Monongahela River is prominent. It led to Water Street and the Monongahela House hotel. Everything along the Wharf area in the second lithograph has been replaced by the Parkway East roads.

View of Pittsburgh PA by William Schuchman, 1859

21 February 1857 edition of Ballou's Pictorial

When news of the attack on Fort Sumter reached Pittsburgh in April 1861, just a few short months after Lincoln's visit, a Committee of Public Safety consisting of one hundred prominent Pittsburghers  immediately formed. Subcommittees began to recruit troops in response to President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to serve the Union. Existing military companies and new volunteers combined and began basic training at places such as Camp Wilkins in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, which was located between 29th and 32nd Streets from Penn Avenue to the railroad tracks. Nearly a dozen temporary military encampments of varying sizes sprang up around the city, as recruits gathered and crossed through this area en route to points south.

Over a four year period, nearly 26,000 men from Allegheny County responded to calls to arms. That’s 15% of the region’s total population of the time, second only to Philadelphia County in terms of the number of men who served from a particular region in the state. This county raised over 200 companies of infantry, cavalry and artillery units in which those men served.

Along with one dog.

Dog Jack, a white and grey bull terrier, was the mascot of the Niagara Fire Company of Pittsburgh located at Penn Avenue near 15th Street in Lawrenceville. When the men of that company volunteered for service with the 102nd, Jack went with them. Dog Jack charged front lines during battle, understood bugle calls and orders from the men in his regiment, and even sought out the wounded after battle. He was with his regiment from 1861 to 1863 and thus present at the siege of Yorktown and the battles of Williamsburg, Fair Oaks, and the Pines. Poor Dog Jack was even severely wounded at Malvern Hill. He was alongside his troop at the battle of Salem Church VA, but became a prisoner of war when captured by the Confederate Army there. After being held for six months, Jack was exchanged for a Confederate soldier and returned with his regiment (one wonders how that particular Confederate soldier felt about the exchange). Jack disappeared when the regiment returned to Frederick City VA in December 1864.

Dog Jack has been honored with a portrait at Soldier and Sailor’s Memorial Hall in Oakland, and a heavily fictionalized movie was released about his life in 2010.

In addition to contributing men (and dogs) to the cause, Pittsburgh was a significant commercial and industrial center for the Northern effort. That seems like a a no-brainer because after all, making stuff is what we do here in Pittsburgh, right? But the scope of the era's industrial endeavors is truly mind-boggling. This region's economy revolved around the war effort. Local individual craftsmen and nearly 100 small workshops and large factory complexes operated under US Government Ordnance Dept contracts to contribute equipment to the Union cause. One of those, the Fort Pitt Foundry, was located in the present-day Strip district between today’s 12th and 13th Streets along the river, near where the Heinz History Center is today.

Fort Pitt Foundry from Harper's Weekly, August 1862

Sixty percent of all of the Union’s heavy artillery made under Government contracts came from this foundry alone, for a total of 23,000 individual pieces of heavy artillery.

Negley Brigade on the Ohio River
Given the prominence of our rivers, it's no surprise that Pittsburgh was a ship-building hub at the beginning of the 19th century, and was revitalized with wartime the construction of both sea-going and river monitors and gunboats. Pittsburgh provided nine warships and over 750 steam, ferry, keel, and flat boats, and barges during this period. Iron cladding produced in Pittsburgh mills protected four other warships as well as most other Union ships built during this era.

If that’s not impressive enough, we know that Pittsburgh provided nearly 20000 blankets, 40000 articles of clothing, 674 tents, and 4000 sets of harnesses for the troops. To keep the fires of industry burning, some 5 million tons of coal were mined during the Civil War, which if laid end to end would require a total of 75 miles of barges to transport. The Pennsylvania Railroad was one of the busiest troop carriers, and all of the local railroads carried massive amounts of freight during the war years.

And of course, there was the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville, infamously known for the tragic explosion of September 17 1862 which killed 78 mostly young women munitions workers (see my blog HERE about that). The Arsenal produced much of the ammunition and military accoutrements used by Union infantry and cavalry troops during the war.

Library of Congress image
The Union government established a civilian organization called the Sanitary Commission in 1861 to raise funds to provide relief services to Union soldiers. This was sort of a precursor to today's Red Cross. The term 'sanitary' sounds hinky to our modern ears, but being 'sanitary' was en vogue then following realizations that diseases such as dysentery, diarrhea, typhoid and malaria were caused by overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. The nation's women worked to raise funds for these relief services by organizing "Sanitary Fairs" in major cities around the country. Pittsburgh proudly displayed leadership in women’s philanthropy through its 1864 Sanitary Fair, one of the country’s most successful fundraising efforts for the troops. The Pittsburgh Sanitary Fair even inspired The Relief Polka, by 19th century Pittsburgh musical luminary Henry Kleber. (I am dismayed that this piece of music is no longer in circulation because I think we could all benefit from a little relief polka now and then).

Library of Congress image
There was even a Camp Wilkins Polka, although what with military camp grub being what it is in the hierarchy of fine cuisine, I suspect that this dance more likely resembled the Green Apple Two-Step.

Polkas notwithstanding, Pittsburgh's profound industrial impact on the Union war effort was so significant that there was a very real fear of invasion by Confederate troops. A ring of 37 earthwork fortifications was built around the city in June 1862 to guard against raids. Most were never finished, only one was ever garrisoned, and the majority probably weren't even armed. They were never called into use but that didn’t mean they weren’t deemed necessary as rumors of a threatened Confederate invasion swirled.

Confederate troops did eventually come to Pittsburgh, some 118 of them, as prisoners-of-war housed in the old Western Penitentiary in Allegheny City (where the National Aviary is now situated). The earthworks survived for several decades but there is nary a trace of them today.

There were, however, certainly Confederate sympathizers in Pittsburgh aligned behind the moral and political cause of preserving state's rights and/or personal self-interests related to economic realities. With its textile mills importing untold amounts of Southern cotton over the years, much of Pittsburgh's antebellum wealth had its origins in the products of Southern slave labor. There were prominent Pittsburgh families who held slaves as late as 1857 under the classification of indentured servitude, and a vocal branch of the American Colonization Society had been established in Pittsburgh in antebellum times. But because the city was dominated with efforts to support the Union, keeping a lower profile was prudent for those sympathetic to the Rebel cause. There were plenty of people of conscience who were dedicated to the abolitionist cause, and Pittsburgh was a destination for slaves seeking freedom. The University of Pittsburgh has chronicled many of these stories HERE and the current From Slavery to Freedom exhibit at the Heinz History Center details the historical struggle for equality of Pittsburgh's African American population.

Lincoln's Legacy

So, see what I did here? I snuck in a whole bunch o' info about Pittsburgh during the Civil War after having lured you here under the false pretenses of Abraham Lincoln giving a Valentine to Pittsburgh. No, Abraham Lincoln didn't visit our fair city out of love; he came here to pay his respects because it was political expedient. With war looming, he knew that it would be wise to make an appearance in a city that had so enthusiastically voted for him. His resulting words of public affirmation for Allegheny County will have to suffice for bouquets of roses and cupid-covered cards.

Pittsburgh was fortunate to have him here in good humor. After all, Lincoln endured the miserable February weather that Pittsburghers know all too well, and was greeted by admiring crowds that were probably quite threatening in their size and zeal in those days of minimal security for politicians (Hindsight being 20/20, in Lincoln's case we know that scenario doesn't end well). The Gazette described the crowd outside Federal Street station the next morning as being "....unequalled (sic) for numbers and density. There was a solid mass of humanity about the depot, almost impenetrable, and the enthusiasm exceeded anything we ever before witnessed." The crowds were respectful and well-managed, and only pick-pockets in the Allegheny depot crowds marred the visit. The Gazette published a long list of victims, but absolved local thieves: "These larcenies are supposed to have been perpetrated by professional pickpockets, who arrived here before the special train got in. Four or five of our most experienced thieves left the city for Cleveland, yesterday, ahead of the special train, and they will no doubt make a nice "raise" in the Forest City." You go, traveling Yinzer pickpockets, in Cleveland!

Someone by the name of A.G. Frick did pen threatening hate mail while Lincoln was in Pittsburgh. The letter started out with a threat to put a "spider" in Abe's "dumpling," then descended from those poetic heights into an obscene racist screed, with a triumphant postscript declaring that "Tennessee, Missouri, Kentucky Virginia and Arkansas is going to secede Glory be to god on high" I know you want to read the whole thing so go on over to THIS LINK  -- but be forewarned that it is NSFW. Hate, then as now, was not pretty.

Consummate politician that he was, Lincoln made the most of his short Pittsburgh visit with characteristic eloquence. He wooed this already-besotted city with words of praise, appreciation and inspiration. He seems to have won over both the curious, and played to his base. The Daily Post opined: 

On the whole he made a favorable impression upon the people, but as Allegheny is the boasted banner county of the banner state, it is also quite natural that those who gave the 10,000 majority for Mr. Lincoln....should be pleased with their representative man. -- Neither is Mr. Lincoln as ungainly in personal appearance, nor as ugly in the face, as has been represented. He is by no means a handsome man, but yet he possesses an intelligent countenance and a gentlemanly mien, and his facial features would not break a looking glass.
One way or another, Lincoln impressed himself on the hearts and memories of Pittsburghers during his 15 hours here. The 1861 Pittsburgh Valentine's Day Rest Stop would be his only Pittsburgh visit, but Lincoln loyalty ran deep and Pittsburghers were irate to learn some years later that the late president's funeral cortege wouldn't stop here. 

Lincoln has been commemorated in Pittsburgh monuments many times over, in addition to that bronze plaque at the former North Side train station and the preservation of furniture he allegedly used while here. There's a stained glass Lincoln window at the historic Smithfield United Church of Christ.  There's even a mysterious sculpted relief of Lincoln's profile gracing the wall along Strawberry Way on the former Arbuckle Coffee Building. The sculptures aren't original to that building, having been incorporated in 1936 from the front of a Civil War era building that once stood on Liberty Avenue, but they honor the man nonetheless. A display case at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial houses a pre-presidential bust and an 1865 life mask of Lincoln, offering viewers a chance to see how he aged during the course of his eventful presidency. There's even a circa-1916 copper statue of the man standing along Lincoln Highway, at Penn Avenue and Ardmore Boulevard in Wilkinsburg. It's periodically fallen prey to thieves and been victimized by time, but was restored to bright shiny dignity in 2001.

Lincoln turns up in the most unexpected places. He's just cool like that.

Happy Valentine's Day, from Abe and me.

Further Reading:
Butko, Brian and Nicholas P Ciotola. Pittsburgh: Industry and Infantry: The Civil War in Western Pennsylvania.  Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. April 2003. 
Fox, Arthur B. Pittsburgh During The American Civil War, 1860 1865.  Chicora PA: Firefly Publications. 2009.