Historians are supposed to be objective. We are supposed to let the sources speak for themselves and not manipulate them to our purposes. We are supposed to remain removed from our subjects of study.
All of this is good. And it makes for great history.

But there are times you meet someone long dead about whom it is hard to stay completely objective. Because, you see, historians can and do fall in love with the past. Not a romantic love, mind you. But a kinship. Perhaps more like family. I mean – you insinuate your way into their lives like a family member, and in many cases, you know more about them than any family member knows. Their words, their lives, their illnesses – all become available to the historian who pursues them.

And I pursue Eben Stoddard.

I once spoke with the great grandson of the man who first hired Stoddard into the occupation that would eventually consume him. I went there to find out about Barnabas and Joseph Baker. I left there knowing that Stoddard was my objective.

You see, Barnabas and Joseph Baker were the elusive two who are but a cipher in the books about the Civil War. They were always just B & J Baker – or the Baker Brothers; the “Celebrated Wreckers.” And they raised the Merrimack – which became the CSS Virginia. I wanted to know their names. I wanted them to be less than a cipher. I wanted to know who they were. And I knew that E.M. Stoddard was their associate. Also a mystery. But never mentioned. I had dug deep to find that name.

So when I asked Billy Baker what he knew about Barnabas and Joseph – he regaled me with stories. He verified facts. He gave me so much, and helped unlock the key to the cipher.

But when I asked him about Eben Stoddard, he stopped cold. And this man who had never known any of these people first hand said quietly:

“Stoddard. Now, he’s the real hero.”

And it was that day that my focus shifted. It was that day I chose to follow Eben Stoddard.

I know he was born in Ledyard, CT in 1834 or 35 – depending on which sources you believe. I know that he was the youngest child of 4 by 19 years – perhaps a surprise in his parents’ mid-40s. He shipped out to sea on a merchant vessel while still in his teens – the schooner Elizabeth Segar out of Mystic, CT. The schooner carried miscellaneous cargo between ports in the Gulf, Caribbean, and along the Atlantic seaboard. Stopping in New Orleans in November 1855, Eben received his affidavit of citizenship – a proto-passport if you will, designed to provide sailors with national identity. During his time on the Elizabeth Segar he visited the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. Though it is unclear when he came to live there permanently, by 1861 it appears that he had thrown in his lot with the wreckers Barnabas and Joseph Baker.

He was a Union man – as were the Bakers, though I had no way of knowing that at first. But when the war came, his path was clear – though that path from Virginia to the North was likely not one he would have willingly chosen. Captured by the Union navy while working a wreck belonging to northern interests, he was initially branded a Confederate – a claim he vehemently denied at trial. After being exonerated, he headed back north, where he joined the US Navy.

So it is that recently I found myself walking through Portsmouth, New Hampshire trying to find the essence of a young sailor who cast his lot with the Union and found a berth as volunteer Acting Master on the USS Kearsarge. He lived there for a time as the ship was readied for service. And he found love there – though it was a love fraught with difficulty and frequent separation. It was a love that did not survive his post-war occupation which found him away from his wife and family more than he was with them.

They married right after the war – after his service was done. And so he moved his young wife from Portsmouth to Portsmouth. New Hampshire to Virginia. He spent days, weeks, months away in his job as a wrecker – traveling as far as South America, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Africa to do his work. They had a child – a girl – in 1870, and a boy in 1880. But by then I guess his wife had had enough and went back to her Portsmouth with the children.

I visited her home that day in New Hampshire. I am as fascinated with her as I am with him. I cannot pretend to know what motivated either of them in their personal lives. I cannot know how difficult the marriage may have been. I do not know who was at fault, though I suspect it was a shared fault. They divorced – which was not common. But then they remarried. Each other. The pension files tell a terse story – it was for the insurance.

Her claim was denied.

His last years were difficult. His health failing, his business bought out by a larger concern he turned his hand to fishing. Yet this old wrecker who had saved so many had to be rescued himself when his fishing vessel was driven ashore in NC in 1895. There, along the very shore where his daring and skill had vaulted his name into national headlines, he suffered the same fate as so many – his ship lost, but his life spared. After that, he quit the sea – though the sea was never far from him. Moving in with his nephew Orrin and family in Middletown, CT, he continued to write, invent, and build, though he became more and more an invalid.

At some point he built a small pulling boat – a peapod modeled on the surf boats he had used so often in his countless jobs along the coast. While it is not certain for whom it was built, it was likely for his nieces and nephews with whom he lived. That vessel called to me as well – from a darkened corner of collections storage at Mystic Seaport. I had not gone seeking the boat – but it surely sought me. Its elegant lines bespoke an artistry that came from his decades upon the water. His great-grand niece Martha donated it to Mystic sometime in the 1970s, saving it from the fate of most old boats built by long-gone relatives.

By 1898 he could barely walk and barely hear. He certainly could no longer work. It appears any money he may have had went to Ellen for the upkeep of their son Stephen, who suffered from some sort of mental instability. Essentially destitute, Eben had himself committed to Sailor’s Snug Harbor on Staten Island. The notation on his intake form said that he was ‘deaf and worn out’; his occupation had destroyed so much.

On that intake page at Snug Harbor Ellen was an afterthought – added as next of kin after almost anyone else. I doubt that they saw each other much – if at all – after he arrived there in 1898. He lingered on until 1902 – active at first, being allowed ‘leave’ for days or even weeks at a time. Then the times grew less frequent. Shorter. Until he no longer left at all. HIs cause of death was listed as syncope. His heart had simply given out. His nephew brought him back to Connecticut and buried him in Ledyard.

And Ellen died alone – in a hotel in Philadelphia 11 years later. The death certificate reveals diabetes, and pancreatic cancer. She was sent home on that final journey – to her Portsmouth. She is elusive, though. That day in Portsmouth I could not find her mortal remains. But I know where she lies now, so I will return.

Their daughter married and had a family. As far as I can tell she had a good life. The son – not so much. Institutionalized for years – he died alone, just like his father and mother. But he was in a mental institution with no next of kin known. Father and mother both long dead. Sister moved on. I had hoped to find the son in Portsmouth as well – to stand there and say ‘I know who you are. I know from whence you came, and I am here to honor you’ – but perhaps that is for another time.

But for that one day in Portsmouth, I honored their young selves – Eben and Ellen. Full of hope, hopelessly optimistic and looking into a future that neither one of them could ken. I walked through the streets of Portsmouth as much a ghost as they were. Half-bemused, I allowed them to lead me to the places I needed to see. My GPS was turned off. Instinct was turned on. And I found them there. And I will find them elsewhere. Until they tell me that I have followed them enough.

He was a hero by any accounts. He commanded the aft pivot of the Kearsarge in the battle against the Alabama. But that was a few short hours in his life. The rest of his life was spent rescuing ships, cargo, and human life from the clutches of the sea and shore.

But he couldn’t rescue what had been with his wife and family. Because all heroes have their faults.

As do historians. But I’m going to try to tell his story as best I can.

It’s what I do.

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Well – here I am at AAM in Philadelphia and am in the midst of a technology tutorial about Google mapping. I can see that this could be awfully darn cool for my historical visualization project and I’m just wondering if my volunteers would be interested in learning this?


View trail of the monitorkitty in a larger map

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My oh my – how the time does fly…

Here we are staring spring in the face already. A month has flown by nearly unnoticed as things have sped up to the point that I am displaying both a red and a blue shift depending on your vantage point.

We have survived yet another Battle of Hampton Roads weekend – and, at year 4 – it seems that we almost know what we’re doing! It was a whirlwind of fun – seeing old friends, making new ones and having a truly fun time whilst actually learning something! I had a great time with our speakers and guests – I had a meeting with James McPherson, Craig Symonds and Harold Holzer to go over themes for the exhibition. They could have made it feel like my doctoral comps all over again – but instead it was a blast! I got to take them out onto the deck of the full-size Monitor replica and it was fun to watch their reactions.

I think everyone who has been out there gets goosebumps. It’s pretty phenomenal.

So that was fun! The weekend is always great for catching up with folks we haven’t seen in a year, too. Bill (who is triply related to folks from the Monitor‘s crew and builders) was so much fun to hang out with and Francis and his wife brought many fine goodies to loan to us for the exhibit. Steve & Sylvia came all the way from California and we had a great time discussing all things ironclad and looking at pictures of Steve’s RC replicas – which he’ll be bringing out east next year for the grand opening.

Bob from National Ge0graphic brought freebies for us as well as an incredible Jim Gurney painting that will hopefully come to stay with us someday, someway. Bob Holland brought us some paintings to display as well – and some prints for us to sell. Very nice indeed!

We were able to display a brand new model of the CSS Patrick Henry made by Ozzy Raines. She’s absolutely beautiful – his work is exquisite. The MOC wants her – and I offered to arm-wrestle Dr. Coski for it – but he declined…

We also had a new member of the staff show up just in time for the weekend. Gunner Wood – fresh from Tennessee (and the Guru compound) made his appearance – along with his gun and pipe – and delighted all of the guests who were fortunate enough to meet him. We are looking for an appropriate berth for him in the new exhibition as he is – of course – a model of naval fortitude.

Well – I’m telecommuting at the moment – so work calls. But rather than continue to let you all think I fell off the face of the earth – I thought I’d resurface, if only for a moment…..

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I’m sitting somewhere in Gainesville, Florida at the moment – watching Ricky Martin gyrate on the telly and wondering exactly why any restaurant would sell wine in a pitcher…but am very glad they did.

Tomorrow should be interesting. We’re going to a warehouse where the forward section of the casemate of the CSS Virginia is taking shape. I should be home before dinner.

I’m very excited – but nervous – about seeing it. This is going to be one of the signature parts of the exhibition and I figure if I’m completely blown away by it – our visitors will be as well.

Guru, Ms. Dallydo – I want this to be so freakin’ awesome so that when y’all make a road trip down my way – you’ll be bowled over by the wonder of it all. Raven72d – I want it to be absolutely accurate for you – so when you see it (and you have to, you know….the trains come this way and Stoneman hasn’t raided them in many a year…)you know that it’s…well…perfect.

Dublingirl will need to wear her Zouave sleeves when she visits so that it can be populated with those who have appropriate attire (and she simply must bring the family).

It has to be right for all of you.

So I’m nervous.

But these guys aren’t just good – they’re the best at what they do. If you want a gigantic piece of an ironclad recreated in your gallery – or living room for that matter – they can do it.

I’ll keep all y’all posted…..

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Well…if you haven’t already heard, there is no feline in the ordnance.

Having just recently attempted to squash Moby into a cat carrier, I concede that the theorem I had postulated awhile back is in fact true.

Cats will expand to exceed the available space when placed in the vicinity of a cat carrier.

Hence, Francis Butts is no longer in trouble with PETA.

sigh.

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Well, I survived the weekend.

Actually – it was wonderful! We had hundreds of people at the museum for four days – there were boat trips, bus trips, candlelight tours, receptions, reenactors, horses, big booming guns, lectures galore and really really good food.

We kicked off officially with a reception and then an absolutely brilliant lecture on Richmond in 1862 by Jack Davis from Virginia Tech. He is the epitome of what a history professor should be and I could listen to him for hours. Saturday began with Craig Symonds from the Naval Academy doing a marvelous lecture about Joseph Johnston. Craig is also one of those college professors you wish you’d had. His delivery is effortless, tinged with humor and altogether riveting. Then Harold Holzer from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of the premier Lincoln scholars in the country doing an illustrated history of the evolving imagery of McClellan and Lee. I’ve heard Harold lecture several times and he’s always fascinating (and full of such interesting information that it becomes fodder for many a dinnertime discussion) – but this had to be the best yet (which is saying a lot!). His hour was over far too soon and I’m even more anxious than ever to read his new book.

We then had a panel discussion with John Quarstein and Joe Gutierrez taking the side of the Confederacy (and Joe and John are always a treat) and Stephen Sears and Craig Symonds taking the side of the Union as they discussed joint operations of Armies and Navies during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. These panels are always lively and we were not disappointed! Joe and John are absolutely two of my favourite people to work with (I actually used to work for Joe long ago) and the two of them together are a force of nature. I had the pleasure of working with Stephen Sears a couple of years ago when he came to the museum to review the work we’d done so far with the upcoming exhibition. He doesn’t do a lot of public speaking so we were thrilled that he agreed to come to our event! He was absolutely brilliant and a wonderful speaker- and I do hope he’ll come visit again. His books are wonderful, by the way – they draw you in and they make the past come alive quite vibrantly.

Then John Broadwater from NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary gave a presentation on the 30th anniversay of the sanctuary and a history of how it had come into being. He showed some really cool underwater photos that I hadn’t seen before along with some killer 3D animations that I have now begged for him to let me borrow. John always gives a great presentation and this was no exception.

We ended Saturday with a lovely reception at our CEO’s house on the James River – looking out on the waters that were home to the Monitor in 1862 and talking to old and new friends.

Sunday morning started with Chief Justice Frank Williams discussing Lincoln’s evolving role of commander-in-chief. If you ever have a chance to hear him, do try. He has never failed to deliver a juicy and interesting talk and he is such a delightful person.

Then it was time for my lecture – Life on Board the Monitor. Based on the audience response (and there were about 150 or more of them) they seemed to like it and lots of folks talked to me afterwards and said they really liked it. I got to meet a lot of new folks afterwards and made some great contacts, whom I’ve already been emailing back and forth with today.

My good friend Jeff Johnston gave the final lecture of the day. It was on the Confederate and Union Navies on the James in 1862. No matter how many times I hear Jeff speak I always learn new stuff. He is without a doubt the world’s leading expert on the construction of the Monitor and knows tons of stuff on every other naval aspect of the Civil War. It was an awesome way to end the symposium!

Then we all trooped outside for the keel laying of the replica of the Monitor/… I think I’ll save that for another day as I’ve been working 12-14 hour days for the past week and I think I’m going to bed now.

Anyway – it was fun – and I am constantly amazed that I get paid for this.

Before I forget – Best of luck to dublingirl this coming weekend as she has a gigantic museum event as well – KidVention 2005. Perhaps she and I will both get some needed rest soon. But I’ve always maintained that in the museum world – March is the cruellest month. It’s obvious T.S. Eliot never worked in a museum….

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Is it possible to overprepare for something? I mean totally and completely and obsessively overprepare?

If so, then I have done it.

Tomorrow I’m being interviewed by the History Channel for the show Modern Marvels and in preparation I have stuffed my head so full of information about ironclads that I fear some important stuff may have fallen out.

You know – like my name and address and phone number and such?

Ah – but this is the kind of thing I love, though no doubt I will lose sleep over it tonight (will my alarm go off? will I say something stupid? will I have a wardrobe malfunction? will the car start? will my alarm go off? will there be food? what if I don’t remember something important, like who won the Civil War or something like that? maybe I should set 2 more alarms….)

So – my head is reeling with information and visions of monitors and casemates and rams and tin-clads and Davids and such are hovering around my periphery like so many ferrous little moths.

Somehow, I have to work in a poem written by one of the Virginia‘s crew in the months following the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862. The two ironclads glared at each other from across the Roads, but never fought one another again. You can imagine the frustration….

Supra mud-flattibus
Monitoribus juggatibus
Non est come-attibus
Virginiabus

Ahh….a little faux Latin humour for a Friday. Let’s hope I can remember it tomorrow!

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We have now officially made it through the second annual Battle of Hampton Roads Weekend.

I spent the two weeks before editing text, chasing down final images and talking to reporters, TV anchors and DJs. I have covered hundreds of miles doing this.

I am tired.

The weekend itself started at 6:45 am when I had to be on hand for a television interview. Most of the folks registered for the whole weekend went out on a boat tour of Hampton Roads with the groovy Mr. Q – me, I stayed at the museum. Friday night the exhibition officially opened – with a Civil War dance. The 97th Regimental String Band played and they were simply wonderful.

I did not dance. But I did dress up. Here’s me and Tracey as the “goober girls” – we haed cheeseboxes full of peanuts that we would offer to all and sundry.

By the way – the large thing behind Tracey’s head is the Monitor‘s propeller – which is also part of my exhibition. (I had a great time on Wednesday evening watching the conservators move this 2-ton itme into the Museum.)

The dance ended around 11 p.m. Then the whole thing started up again Saturday with a day full of lectures and an evening dinner with major donors and all the Civil War scholars. Another late night. Finally, on Sunday – we had another full day of speakers and programs, then a bit of decompression at the Crab Shack down on the James River.

All in all, I think I worked about 80 hours this week.

I’m still haven’t been able to comprehend that I just curated a major exhibition (with an incredible team of people, I might add). I mean – it’s kind of like publishing a book or something. I haven’t really had time to think about it. But now it’s out there for all to see.

Here’s the AP story on it.

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