Entry 31: Ending the Patriotic Gore

“Maryland, My Maryland.” Written by James Ryder Randall.

Release Date: April 1861.

Update: I just found out Time Magazine picked up the article! I’m absolutely thrilled! You can read it here.


Those of you paying attention probably noticed this post was supposed to be about WGN’s new show, Underground (I also said I wouldn’t be writing as much for awhile, but historians’ gonna historian). I still plan to write about the series (I’m 1 episode in, and it’s great. “Black Skinhead” FTW!) but the Maryland Senate’s recent decision to alter the words of its state song, “Maryland, My Maryland,” prompted me to write an editorial giving my thoughts on this long-awaited move. History News Network was kind enough to run the article. So follow this link, have a look, and let me know what you think. Read More

Entry 30: Battle Cries

“The Battle Cry of Freedom.” Written by George Frederick Root.

Release Date: July 26, 1862.

“The Battle-Cry of Freedom.” Music by Hermann L. Schreiner. Lyrics by William H. Barnes.

Release Date: 1864.

I’m currently neck-deep in an article on the mid-19th Century Chicago music publishing firm, Root & Cady. It will likely appear in the fall edition of Chicago History and I’ll probably expand it into a longer piece down the road. In practical terms, this means I’m blogging a little less, at least for now. In intellectual terms, it means I’m starting to think about Civil war music more deeply—something I haven’t really done since I wrote my book a few years ago. Those of you who read Battle Hymns probably picked up on my fondness for Root & Cady, since the firm embodied my central idea of Civil War Americans using popular music to reflect and influence public opinion. Thus, although I’ve already blogged about three Root & Cady songs (here, here, and here), I thought it would be fun to write a little about the firm’s biggest hit, “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” But I think I’ll do it with a twist. A lot of people wrote their own versions of the song, but the most popular contrafactum (as musicologists call songs with the same melody but different lyrics) was probably a Confederate version by Hermann L. Schreiner and William H. Barnes. So, let’s compare the two and see what we find. Read More

Another Look at The Better Angels

Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association

As some of you know, I have the privilege of serving as editor for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association. I’ve only overseen 5 issues so far but, during that time, I’ve tried to expand the journal’s scope by incorporating various aspects of Lincoln’s life and legacy. One of the things I’m most proud of appeared in last summer’s issue. It’s is a roundtable featuring four scholars giving their opinions on The Better Angels. I reviewed the film on this blog back in September, but the roundtable gives a much fuller analysis and just became available on the journal’s website.

I tried to get four scholars with different academic backgrounds and points of view and that really paid off. William E. Bartelt, Jackie Hogan, Megan Kate Nelson, and John Stauffer not only approach The Better Angels from very different directions, they also disagree on the basic fact of whether or not the film is any good—with the boys generally liking it and the ladies largely unimpressed. Regardless, all four give interesting takes. Since I wasn’t editor when Spielberg’s Lincoln came out—or ever Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter—here’s hoping I’ll get additional opportunities to put together similar pieces in the future


Entry 28 (Part 4): Autopsying Mercy Street

Mercy Street. “The Diabolical Plot,” Season 1, Episode 6. Directed by Jeremy Webb. Written by Lisa Wolfinger, David Zabel, and Jason Richman.

Release Date: February 21, 2016.

I don’t think historians or critics ever reached a consensus on Mercy Street. This is probably a good sign. It means the show was at least interesting. I generally enjoyed it but, even when I didn’t, the history was solid enough that viewers at least learned something. Yesterday’s finale generally followed this pattern, despite its fictional inclusion of Booth and Lincoln. The eponymous “Diabolical Plot” didn’t really grip me, but the episode had enough solid dramatic and historical moments to keep away the sour taste in my mouth I’d been afraid of since the storyline originally leaked. That allowed me to be objective in my evaluation of Mercy Street as a whole, and my final take is generally positive. Read More

Entry 28 (Part 3): A Ball, a Lynching, and a Prostitute

Mercy Street, “The Belle Alliance” & “The Dead Room,” Season 1, Episodes 4 & 5. Directed by Jeremy Webb. Written by Lisa Wolfinger, David Zabel, Jason Richman, and Rob Hanning.

Release Dates: February 7 & 14, 2016.

We’re in the home stretch with Mercy Street and I think it’s safe to say the show won’t live up to the potential I envisioned before its premiere or the high bar set by “The Uniform.” I can say this because the last episode will finally deliver the fake Abraham Lincoln assassination plot (horribly foreshadowed at the end of “The Dead Room”) that historians have been dreading. The show still has its moments and there’s a very good Civil War drama lurking just under the surface, but something’s keeping this show from clicking with me and—if my Twitter and Facebook feeds are to be believed—lots of other historians. Read More

Jammin’ with Lincoln

Last night, while you guys were watching the worst/greatest debate intro in history, I was attending a piano concert at Edwards Place here in Springfield. It commemorated the recent restoration of the Edwards Family piano, which the patriarch, Ninian Edwards, acquired sometime in the 1830s. Mary Todd was a relative of the family and stayed with them when she moved to town. Lincoln also came into their orbit as a rising young lawyer. Mary and Abraham would have frequently heard the piano during their courtship and it likely provided the music for their wedding. The instrument had been unplayable until a recent kickstarter raised enough money to restore it. I did a small part to help by co-authoring this newspaper article with the home’s curator Erika Holst on 19th Century parlor piano culture. This is how I got invited to the premiere performance. For someone interested in Lincoln and historical music, it was a double whammy and sparked a couple of thoughts I want to share here.
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Entry 28 (Part 2): Settling Into Mercy Street

Mercy Street, “The Haversack” & “The Uniform,” Season 1, Episodes 2 & 3. Directed by Roxann Dawson. Written by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel.

Release Dates: January 24 & 31, 2016.

So, we’re halfway through Mercy Street and I’m still not sure how I feel about the show. This is partially because I think it’s trying to do too many things, and this inevitably makes it a little uneven. The history remains impressively solid and the lead performances are getting stronger (particularly Winstead and Radnor), but the production is still struggling to find the right tone. This is especially evident in the second episode, “The Haversack,” which veers wildly from almost whimsical comedy to harsh realism. “The Uniform” is much better on all counts and ranks as the best episode so far. Hopefully, this is a sign that Mercy Street has found its groove and realized the potential that peeked through in its first two offerings. Read More

Entry 28 (Part 1): Getting to Know Mercy Street

Mercy Street, “The New Nurse,” Season 1, Episode 1. Directed by Roxann Dawson. Written by Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel.

Release Date: January 17, 2016.

We’re finally getting fully introduced to Mercy Street this week and I’m not sure how to feel about it. Unlike some other reviewers, I haven’t seen all 6 episodes, so my thoughts here are only based on the premiere, “The New Nurse.” There are certainly some promising aspects but the episode didn’t grab me as much as I’d hoped. The good news is the history’s pretty solid, which isn’t surprising given the list of historical consultants. The bad news is it played a little flat.  Read More

Dreaming of Mercy Street


2016’s slate of original high-profile Civil War entertainment keeps coming fast and furious, with PBS’s Mercy Street starting Sunday. About this time last year, I shared my plan to review Point of Honor on an episode-by-episode basis if Amazon picked it up. Fortunately, that didn’t happen (although, in all honesty, writing more reviews would have been fun given how terrible it was), but Mercy Street is a different animal. PBS is running the series in 6 parts over 6 weeks. I think reviewing each episode separately is a little much for all of us (I might rip off the AV Club a lot here, but I don’t have to copy everything they do), so the plan is to review the first episode, then do the next four in pairs, with a wrap-up for the finale. I had high hopes for the series months ago, but the recent promo press and Twitter comments have made me even more optimistic, so I think it’s worth almost entirely turning the blog over to it until March. As always, I’m very curious to hear your opinions, so feel free to sound off in the comments.

PS – Speaking of 2016’s Civil War entertainment, we got our first trailer for The Free State of Jones last week. I’m sure most of you have already seen it but, as with Mercy Street, my expectations for this movie just keep getting higher.

A Whole Year Already!


It seems I started this little blog only yesterday, but lo and behold I’ve been at it for an entire year! Thanks to everyone who’s dropped by—whoever you are and however much you read—and a special thanks to those who helped spread the word, especially Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory and my old buddy Glenn Brasher at History Headlines. 2015 was a bit of an experiment, but I think things worked out pretty well and most of you have responded positively. My plan was to bounce around different subjects, genres, and art forms, and it’s been interesting to see how my audience had changed or grown depending on the subject. As a general rule, the posts that aren’t main “entries” tend to do better, in part because they’re more likely to get “shared” and retweeted. Some of my biggest surprises were the duds (you guys aren’t nearly as interested in John Wayne and D. W. Giffith as I expected) but that comes with the territory. So, I thought it might be fun to do a little year in review by listing my 10 most popular posts in ascending order. Enjoy, and please keep reading and commenting in 2016! Read More