A Tribute to The First African-American Infantry Unit From the Civil War


The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC is currently exhibitiing a Nineteenth Century sculpture that pays tribute to the first African-American Infantry Unit from the Civil War.

Commissioned from the celebrated American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the early 1880s and dedicated as a monument in 1897, the Shaw Memorial has been acclaimed as the greatest American sculpture of the nineteenth century. The relief masterfully depicts Colonel Shaw and the first African American infantry unit from the North to fight for the Union during the Civil War. Rare and early plaster sketches of the memorial, the angel, and six portrait heads of African American soldiers are also exhibited. The sculpture combines the real and allegorical, and presents a balance of restraint and vitality. The memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment is on a ten-year renewable loan to the Gallery from the National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire.


Described as a ‘living history museum’, Colonial Williamsburg is a city consisting of restored buildings dating from 1699-1780 (during which time the city was capital of British-occupied Virginia).

Functioning primarily as a tourist attraction to allow visitors to step back and experience what life might have been like in the colonial era (prior to the Revolutionary War,) the town is comprised of character actors - from British Generals, revolutionary patriots and runaway slaves - that go about their daily lives in a mock-historic setting. Patriots plot and protest against British rule in the taverns, British Generals keep order in the streets and Union Jacks are draped outside many of the buildings (an uncommon sight in the United States!).

It’s safe to say, it  takes the idea of a history museum ‘taking you back in time’ to new levels. 

'Los San Patricios': The Irish - Mexican Alliance

St Patrick’s day 2014 caused the usual slew of debate and grumbles about hopping on cultural bandwagons and feebly pretending to be ‘Irish’, as guzzling punters across the globe donned green for the day. 

Yet for some in Mexico, the annual celebration of the Irish holds a deeper significance than the usual diasporic claims of connection.  For them, it’s about raising a glass to The St. Patrick’s Battalion - known in Spanish as el Batallón de los San Patricios.

The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) began at a time when thousands of Irish were emigrating to America due to harsh conditions, lack of hope and famine at home. With little prospects upon arrival in US hubs like Boston and New York, many of the impoverished Irish joined the US army in return for monetary rewards and the promise of citizenship. 

What the US army didn’t bank on when sending John Riley and his band of Irishmen to the border, was that they would have a change of heart when faced with the actuality of facing the Mexicans. 

Like Ireland, Mexico was a poor but fiercely proud Catholic nation that heralded it’s tricolour with pride.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the allure of defecting and forming an alliance with the Mexicans proved too strong for many of the Irish sent to fight them.  The Mexican army welcomed Irish defectors, offering them promotions and rights they had been refused in the US army. Bonds - cultural, religious and militaristic - were quickly formed. 

The Mexicans crowned the strong Irish unit as el Batallón de los San Patricios, and they made a banner that consisted  an Irish harp, under which was written “Erin go Bragh” and the Mexican coat of arms with the words “Libertad por la Republica Mexicana.  The alliance was cemented, and the unit went onto to inflict great damage on the US army in the battles of Buena Vista and Churubusco.  As the war drew to a close, many of the battalion were captured by the US army and imprisoned, branded or whipped. 

The Batallón de los San Patricios, however, were not to be forgotten by the Mexican army.  Streets were named after many of the soldiers, songs written of heroism and justice, plaques and statues constructed in their honour, and, no doubt, they would be toasted on St Patrick’s Day for years to come. 

The Oldest Fish Market In`America

The Maine Avenue Fish Market in South East DC is the oldest continuously operating fish market in the America, seventeen years older than America’s’s Fulton Fish Market, having been in operation since 1805.

Following the Civil War, local fishermen and farmers set up makeshift shops and booths and began selling fresh local seafood and that sailed in via the Potomac River. 

While popular images of the White House and US Capitol spring to mind when thinking of Washington  - this market offers another, more colourful and possibly, more real image of the city. 

The market is abundant in character; customers haggling with fish mongers, locals chowing down on steamed shrimp, and bearded fisherman who look like they’ve stepped right off 19th century steamboats. 

Isolated from the main attractions in DC due to its location under the freeway in the South East, it’s a historical rough diamond worth seeking out.

Take a listen to Doc Watson’s rendition of ‘A-Roving On A Winter’s Night’ . The Southern drawl, country twang and talk of ‘drinkin good ol’ wine’ smacks of the rural Appalachian landscape on a balmy summer evening.  The song is considered a classic American folk song, usually archived or listed under ‘Appalachian’ or sometimes ‘Virginian’ in catalogued folk collections. Like most  folk songs, there’s been countless renditions, adaptions and variants of the song over the years. Not one writer is credited with penning it, but rather, it’s been passed down generations through oral and musical means, no doubt on many a balmy evening ‘drinkin good ol wine’. 

But this particular song’s roots are quite clear.  The lyrics and rhyming pattern stem directly from Robert Burns’s ‘My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose’.  Take one of the verses from ‘A-Roving On A Winter’s Night’: 

I love you till the sea runs dry, 

And the rocks all melt in the sun. 

I love you till the day I die, 

Though you will never be my own. 

Now compare this to Burns’s 1784 song:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,

And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:

I will luve thee still, my dear,

While the sands o’ life shall run.

Even more interestingly, there’s a rare acapella field recording (housed at The Library of Congress’s American Folklife Centre) dating back to the 1930s containing the same lyrics, albeit sung in a more haunting, gospel tone.  The 30s field recording differs from the Doc Watson version, but still has strong resonances with Burns’s 1794 song.  It’s a poignant example of a folksong traveling through time, being re-imagined, re-worked, transformed by new people in new places as they move and evolve into divergent cultures. 

Of course, the popularity of Scots songs in America preceded Burns, and many of them arrived on American shores via the lips and fiddles of the early Scottish immigrants, rather than on the printed page.  Like old stories, songs were passed down from one generation to another - as was the case with the above song as it transformed throughout centuries.  Quite often, songs evolved into new variants, particularly in the Appalachians where the landscape and culture, perhaps, lent itself aptly to some of the haunting Scottish melodies. 

Yet while songs like Doc Watson’s ‘A-Roving On A Winter’s Night’ and countless others have their roots in a distinctly Scottish tradition, it’s not always obvious to the listener, and tracking down variants and the genealogy of a song can be difficult.  Especially when titles, lyrics and melodies transform throughout the ages.  For example, variants of ‘A-Roving On A Winter’s Night’ might be listed as ‘As I Rove Out’, ‘A Winter’s Night’ and of course, ‘A Red Red Rose’.  It can be quite a confusing process to track the evolution of one particular song. 

Which makes it all the more rewarding and serendipitous when you do see, hear, or even feel, that link between musical folk traditions.

Thanks to Stephen D. Winick at the American Folklife Centre for helping research this article

Lastly……. In another interesting link to this passing down of tradition, Bob Dylan - arguably America’s biggest 20th/21st Century folk singer -  cites Burns’s Red, Red Rose as his biggest inspiration of all time. 

Robert Burns toasts to George Washington?


In a vast collection of 19th Century American newspapers and periodicals at the Library of Congress , there is an interesting transcription of a speech by Henry Ward Beecher in 1859, Burns’s centenary year. Beecher delivered his ‘oration on Burns’ to a crowd at the Cooper Institute who had gathered to celebrate the poet’s birth.

A charismatic clergyman, social reformer and known supporter of the abolition of slavery, Beecher was also renowned for his powerful speeches. In his 1859 address, Beecher made it clear why Burns ought to be celebrated and remembered in America, the land of ‘freedom and democracy’:

”It’s is peculiarly fitting that the anniversaries of Burns should be celebrated in this land of freedom and democracy, for he sprung from the people, remained to the end one of the people, and his heart was ever with the democratic institutions of the United States.  Like the French democrat and patriot, Beranger, whose genius so strongly resembles his own{…}he painted with a pencil of light and of fire the manners of the people, their every day pursuits and the scenes of their labors.”

More interestingly, Beecher went onto describe an alleged incident about Burns proposing a toast to George Washington, the first president of the United States:

”Burns sympathized strongly with both the American and French revolutions[…] At a private dinner, in 1793, when the host proposed the health of William Pitt, the poet said, sharply, ‘’Let us drink the health of a greater and better man – George Washington “ The toast of Washington was not drunk, and Burns was sullen for the rest of the evening.”

While, with no other known references to the incident, Beecher may have taken ‘artistic’ liberty with this reference, its also not entirely unlikely.

After all, it must be remembered that Burns chose to write an ‘Ode’ to the first president of the United States in 1794. Quite remarkably, the poem did not actually appear in its entirety until 1873 when American bookseller Robert Clarke purchased a manuscript in London and subsequently transported it to Ohio. That it first appeared across the Atlantic might seem like a fitting twist of fate given the poem extols the first US president, however, the delayed publication in Britain was more likely due to the careful censorship of Burns himself and subsequent editors of his work - who feared the personally endangering impact of heralding Republicanism and the United States.

Clearly, however, Washington was a symbolic figure for Burns in that he represented liberty, strength and freedom of the individual. In his book Transatlantic Radicals and the early American Republic, Michael Durey suggests that this idealisation of the president was shared among men of radical, dissenting beliefs, particularly in Scotland and Ireland, where to some he was a ‘living legend, whose lengthy shadow blanketed national politics’. Similarly, it seems, Washington’s exertions, or at least his symbolic power, had been influential on Burns.

Whether or not Beecher’s assertion that Burns once raised a glass to Washington instead of Pitt, remains a point of contention. But it certainly provides much food for thought and the poetic imagination. 

A pretty 1940 map of American diversity, with faded annotations by Langston Hughes. Read a full article about this great find by the Slate’s Rebecca Onion here.

A pretty 1940 map of American diversity, with faded annotations by Langston Hughes. Read a full article about this great find by the Slate’s Rebecca Onion here.

Book review of Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic


Published in 2013 and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, a novel by the name TransAtlantic can hardly remain unmentioned on The Atlantic Cable.

Dublin writer Colum McCann, who won the National Book Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his previous endeavour Let The Great World Spin, has in this new book aimed to both frame different historical periods implicating Irish-American relations and recount the tale of four generations of Irish women of the same family.

It’s a novel with much ambition and a large scope, trying to incorporate into its narrative historical events from 1845 to the current day, on both sides of the pond. In 1845, Frederick Douglass, seven years after being released from slavery and on his way to becoming one of the prominent black figures of the abolitionist movement, visits Ireland during the Potato Famine. Silent witness to his visit is Lily Duggan, who works as a maid in one of Douglass’s places of residence and is on the cusp of migrating to the U.S.

Lily Duggan is the story’s matriarch, the first of four women central to the core narrative – her daughter Emily, granddaughter Lottie, and great-granddaughter Hannah being the other three.

TransAtlantic is divided into three books, the first two both made up of three chapters, and the last one a chapter on its own. The novel sets off in Ireland in 1919, just after the end of World War I, with pilots Arthur Brown and John Alcock preparing for their attempt to successfully complete the first transatlantic flight. Reporting their journey are journalist Emily Ehrlich and her photographing daughter Lottie. They hand the men a letter to take with them to the U.S., a letter that will remain unopened for nearly a century, as it eventually gets back in the hands of Lottie’s daughter Hannah.

Minor characters and witnesses to these historical events and time periods in the first book, the second book then deals with the history of these women, starting with Lily, who is a nurse during the American Civil War. McCann recounts her life story over a quarter century, and while her struggles are being described with a certain distance, there is much empathy in this part of the narrative, and it’s one of the most effective segments of TransAtlantic.

Contrary to the conventional migration narrative, McCann jumps effortlessly back and forth from Ireland to the U.S. throughout the different segments of his story. In 1998, Senator George Mitchell visits Belfast to work on the Good Friday Agreement in the Irish peace process. While this part of the book feels a bit out of place and less part of a whole, Mitchell briefly encounters an elderly Lottie Ehrlich and her granddaughter Hannah, whose murdered grandson/son Tomas represents one of the many victims of the region’s violence and unrest. The details of Tomas’s death are explained later when a chapter in the second book focuses on Lottie and Hannah’s lives.

TransAtlantic concludes with a chapter in the present day, written in the first person from Hannah’s perspective, significantly differing in style from the rest of the novel, which somewhat interrupts the reader’s involvement.

McCann has a distinguished writing style, which may rub some readers the wrong way, but he does succeed in delivering an interesting portrayal of certain aspects of significant historical periods in the U.S. and Ireland, as well as writing with much affection about women’s positions in these periods through the lives of these four remarkable characters.

                                                                                         Sanne Jehoul

Filming the Far Fur Country

Thank you to everyone who battled the driving rain, hail and gales and came out to the second instalment of the Atlantic Cable. Tucked away in the cozy back room at the Glad Café we were treated to a great night of musical performances, talks and film all brought together by the themes of trade and exchange. Bringing their very different musical styles to the Glad, Alistair Ogilvy, Brianna Robertson and Ross Clarke from Three Blind Wolves all gave amazing performances. Ranging from a folksome lament about moving across the sea, to a traditional Shaker song, to a rousing rendition of Springsteen’s ode to Atlantic City, we were treated to unique interpretations of the diverse musical traditions that have criss-crossed the Atlantic. We’d also really like to thank Kaitlin McCormick for coming through from Edinburgh, and sharing her fascinating research into Scottish explorer John Rae. Following a mapping expedition over the Rocky Mountains which he completed in the mid-1860s, Rae had a brief stay in Victoria, where be built up a rich collection of northwest coast First Nations materials, many of which have since found their way into the National Museum of Scotland. The third element of the evening was a series of film excerpts exploring the Canadian side of the trans-Atlantic fur trade and the history of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Due to technical difficulties though – there are always one or two glitches – we were unable to show most of the footage. As promised though, here are links to the three films:

* * *

Romance of the Far Fur Country 
Hudson’s Bay Company, 1920
Courtesy of Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, Winnipeg, MB, and Five Door Films, Winnipeg, MB 

Fur Country 
Douglas Sinclair and Eduard Buckman, d.
The National Film Board of Canada, 1942

The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company 
Martin Defalco and Willie Dunn, d.
The National Indian Brotherhood and the National Film Board of Canada, 1972

* * *

The first film, a silent feature shot in black in white, was made in the late-1910s by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was brought into being by British royal charter in 1670, making it the world’s oldest chartered trading company. The second film, which was made two decades later – in colour and held together by the running commentary of a narrator – was produced by the National Film Board of Canada, a film production and distribution unit that is an agency of the federal government, reporting to the Ministry of Canadian Heritage. The third film, similar in form to the preceding one, was also produced by the National Film Board of Canada and marks the 300th anniversary of the Hudson’s Bay Company, however, it offers rather different reflections on this occasion, those of Canada’s First Peoples. All three films were shot in Canada and are valuable visual sources relating to the long, complex and at points problematic history of this expansive trading network; one built around the flow of goods like blankets, tobacco and arms into North America in return for fur, pelts and other materials that, for the most part, were turned into commodities and sold to European consumers. All three films illustrate this process but do so from quite different historical junctures.

The first two links are clips taken from a much longer film, Romance of the Far Fur Country, which was first screened in 1920 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The raw footage, which dates from 1919, links up two legs of the main trading routes that criss-crossed the Canadian landscape. The film begins in Montreal in eastern Canada, the city that was then the country’s financial and commercial centre. Following the Hudson’s Bay Company ship, The Nascopie, on its annual voyage, the viewer is then taken along the St. Lawrence River and up into James Bay, where the crew took a brief break before entering, through this smaller inlet, into the vast expanse of the Hudson Bay in northern Canada. After arriving in the evocatively-named community of Moose Factory, one of the company’s first trading posts in what is now northern Ontario, the film crew left The Nascopie and continued on to Winnipeg along the Moose River, traveling by canoe and on foot with the help of two guides. These men were Cree, one of the largest First Nations groups in North America, and were likely also trappers and hunters, the principle suppliers of pelts and furs to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Boarding a train in Winnipeg, the film crew traveled across the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta en route to Vancouver. From here they traveled up the northwest coast to Alert Bay, where they shot quite a lot of footage – some of which will be shown here – before traveling on through the Athabasca region, eventually ending their nine-month trip in Edmonton.

The sections of footage from Alert Bay, a settlement largely populated by members of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations group, are particularly engrossing. There are shots of some of the large, distinctive carved totem polls and house posts the Kwakwaka’wakw were known for, which even at the time the footage was taken were becoming increasingly difficult to see in their original and intended setting due to natural decay, but also because of planned removal by dealers and agents working for curators enthusiastically assembling their museums’ budding anthropological and ethnographical collections in other parts of the country, but also in locations as far away as New York, London and Berlin. Indeed, as a kid I was completely entranced – and really still am – by the two large totem poles, multiple stories high, that are installed inside the central winding staircases at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto where I grew up, both of which came to the museum from this part of Canada in the 1920s. We also get a glimpse of some of the cultural practices of this community. Towards the end of this first section there is a quick snippet of film that features four figures in dress traditionally worn at the Potlatch, a ceremonial activity and gift-giving festival that had historically been practiced throughout North America. A long-standing system of exchange between First Nations groups, the Potlatch was seen as an economic model operating well outside of, even contrary to, the form of mercantile capitalism espoused by European settlers and trading companies like the Hudson’s Bay Company. Made illegal by provisions contained within the Indian Act, which was passed by the fledgling Canadian federal government in the 1870s, the Potlatch remained a contested and at least officially criminal activity until the 1950s when this act of parliament was finally repealed. Seeing these individuals putting on the masks and capes normally reserved for the Potlatch at a time when doing so was against federal law raises serious questions about the nature of the relationship between the white crew, employed by a company that was instrumental in the settlement of Canada and the expansion of the colonial government, and the communities they filmed.

With the second film we leave British Columbia and return to the historic focal point of the fur trade, the area in and around the Hudson Bay. Simply titled Fur Trade, this shorter documentary was made by the National Film Board of Canada in 1942.  Whereas the overall central character in Romance of the Far Fur Country is the trade itself, the trading posts and waterways that made up the route, the second film concerns a specific individual. The film begins in the aforementioned Moose Factory where the omniscient narrator introduces us to the Hudson’s Bay Company store manager, and other officials permanently stationed in this small community like the government-appointed doctor and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or Mounties. The film then catches up with its main character, George McLoed, a Cree trapper who, like many others, leave the settlement over the winter months to check on their trap lines, only periodically returning to trading posts like Moose Factory to sell their dried skins and pelts to the HBC traders.

Fur Trade, the film, effects a slight shift of focus away from the broader operations and functions of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and hones in on the experiences of a specific person. This allows the viewer to get a sense of the extent to which the fur trade relied on the skills of individuals, particularly First Nations peoples whose knowledge of the area was invaluable. This contrasts scenes from Romance of the Far Fur Country, in which indigenous peoples are positioned more as objects of study, rather than as active personalities. That said, although George McLoed is essential to the film’s narrative structure, he remains a silent contributor. The excerpts from the third film that will be shown this evening address this silence head-on. The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company opens with footage from the festivities organised by the Company to mark its 300th anniversary, which took place just three years after another moment of national celebration, the Centennial of Canadian Confederation, which created the Dominion back in 1867. What follows however, is an interpretation of the Company’s history that contrasts the version presented at the anniversary celebrations, as well as that forwarded in the two previous films. Narrated by George Manuel, president of the National Indian Brotherhood, the film calls into question many of the supposed benefits of the trade. It encourages the viewer to reflect on what might be some of the legacies of the system, and to consider its ongoing impact on Canada’s First Nations peoples. Although The Other Side of the Ledger is very focused on telling an alternate history of the Hudson’s Bay Company, in a wider context it is undoubtedly reflective of the revitalization of Native political activism that took place in the 1960s.

The excerpts that had been selected for screening at the Atlantic Cable come to around 20 minutes, just a fraction of the total footage. Hopefully the films will pique your interest in the ‘far fur country.’ The history of Canada’s involvement in the fur trade is a fascinating one, and the legacies of this exchange network remain ever-present. Indeed, just the other day I stumbled across a second-hand men’s Hudson’s Bay Company blanket coat. These coats, which are still in production, got their names from the fact they were traditionally made out of the company’s famous point blankets, one of the staple goods exported from Britain and exchanged for furs and pelts at trading stations dotted all over Canada. Likely to have begun its life as a blanket made in a British woollen mill, and then transformed into a garment capable of withstanding Canadian winters, this coat has now found its way into a vintage clothing shop on Great Western Road.  

- Rosie Spooner


The Gang
A murmuration of starlings fly close to power lines at sunset near Gretna on the Scottish borders. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

Reminds me of this Jo Mango tune`


The Gang

A murmuration of starlings fly close to power lines at sunset near Gretna on the Scottish borders. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA

Reminds me of this Jo Mango tune`

(via travelingcolors)