Update on the Lock-keeper’s House

Cross-posted at elizabethhuhn.com.

I’ve written in the past about the Lock-keeper’s House, one of the oldest buildings on the National Mall in DC, and a remnant of DC’s less glamorous past.

I have two things to add. First, the work has gotten underway, thusly:

It kind of looks like it’s been patched up with cardboard and duct tape, though I’m sure that not what it is. Also, though the picture is bad, it says that the Lock-keeper’s House is moving “only 50 feet.” Which is good, I guess? It will at least get it away from the (very) busy street.

Second, there’s this article about the remnants of the Washington City Canal. The “lock” part of “Lock-keeper’s House” refers to locks on the Washington City Canal, which ran under what is now Constitution Avenue. I had no idea, but apparently you can actually kayak right into part of the old canal, in a tunnel under the street:


I seriously want to do that someday.

Mercy Street-Episode 6

So, I’m finally getting around to putting down some thoughts about the final episode of season 1 of Mercy Street, the PBS drama about a Civil War hospital in Alexandria (I already recapped episode 1, episodes 2-3, and episodes 4-5).

We left off with the hospital preparing itself for a visit from the president and First Lady. The Knights of the Golden Circle are preparing for the visit, too, but they don’t want to welcome the Lincolns. They want to blow them and the entire hospital to Kingdom Come.

We start with a bit of drama about Doctor Foster being promoted. Doctor Hale and Nurse Hastings have been conniving all along to get rid of that terrible, no good, very bad, clearly-more-talented-and-therefore-unbearable Doctor Foster. I found it all a bit unnecessary. Also unnecessary was the scene a bit later where Nurse Hastings gets so drunk that she’s literally falling all over herself. It seemed pretty far from the conniving, fake-it-’til-you-make-it-even-if-you-are-less-skilled attitude she’s shown previously. Continue reading

Mercy Street, Episode 1

I might not blog about every episode of the new PBS drama Mercy Street, but I’ll at least blog the first episode, which aired a week ago today. As background, Mercy Street is set (sometime) in 1862 in a hotel converted to a military hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. Our protagonist (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is Mary Phinney, a young widow who has come to volunteer as a nurse at the hospital. We in short order meet Dr. Jedediah Foster, who is slightly abrasive but willing to take risks and who comes from a slave-holding background in spite of being a Union doctor. We also meet Dr. Byron Hale, a more by-the-books doctor who clashes with Dr. Foster. The owners of the converted hotel are also hanging around town, though most every other Southern sympathizer has fled and/or joined the war effort. Most prominently, we meet Emma Green, a young woman who, in spite of being quite inexperienced with, well, everything, seems intelligent enough and has a desire to help where she can.

I’ll start with a few notes on historical stuff. I won’t be critiquing the costuming, which looks fine to me but which I’ve seen some real hard-core enthusiasts pick apart. I’ll just comment on things that a casual viewer might have missed.

First, we open with Mary Phinney waiting to be seen by Dorothea Dix. Miss Dix, a real person, is known largely for her advocacy for the mentally ill but was also Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War. And, as depicted, she had certain standards. She would only appoint women who were over 35 years old and rather plain-looking (which would preclude our heroine, Mary Phinney, on both counts). This was, as is implied in Mercy Street, to keep eligible young women from the potential hazards of being surrounded by so many young men (and perhaps the men from being tempted by pretty young women). By hiring and firing nurses for her own reasons, Miss Dix irritated Army doctors, who would have preferred to choose their own staff. She did great work, but because she was so inflexible in pushing her own people and point of view, her work was eventually eclipsed and superseded by other organizations.

Also, a note on the first scene: we are told we are in “Washington City, 1862”. (Mary meets Miss Dix in the city before being assigned to the Mansion House hospital across the Potomac River in Alexandria.) This is correct: in the early-to-mid 19th century, the usual term was Washington City. The District of Columbia was still fairly sparsely populated (the war would transform the city practically overnight), and Washington City itself only filled a small part of the federal District. Georgetown filled another sector of it, and the rest was mostly empty. (Alexandria had been part of the original 10-miles-square diamond that comprised the District, but the Virginia section of the District retroceded back to Virginia in 1847, leaving the half-complete square shape we know and love today.) At the time of the Civil War, the federal city was called “Washington City” almost exclusively.

Mary and Miss Dix then have an exchange about whether slavery is a moral or political issue (I believe Miss Dix is trying to draw Mary out, but it isn’t exactly clear). It’s an interesting discussion, because it illuminates the Victorian notion that women weren’t supposed to discuss politics, but if they couched their arguments in moral terms, then they might be able to make themselves heard. Slavery was one of those issues where it was, if not desirable, sometimes grudgingly admitted that women might comment, but only on a moral basis.

The one thing I didn’t like about this discussion (and the point comes up again later in the show) is Mary’s insistence that “emancipation is upon us”. Well. Not really. It’s quite a stretch to say that in mid-1862 the end of slavery seemed nigh. Sure, many people were hopeful and working for the end of slavery, and, yes, Abraham Lincoln would soon write the Emancipation Proclamation (and issue it in September). However. The implication of Mary’s words is that the public and political opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of the abolition of slavery, and it simply wasn’t. Even when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it met with some heavy resistance, and it didn’t really do much effective good. At this stage in the war, it wasn’t clear to many people that the war was entwined with slavery, no less that slavery was effectively done. For Mary to state that slavery was clearly on its way out at this point is either something of a misunderstanding of how attitudes changed during the war or an indication that Mary is woefully misinformed about things.

Alexandria, when Mary gets there, is depicted as almost a Wild West town. This is fairly accurate, actually; the Union Army had moved in, so thousands of ill-behaved young men descended on the city. It didn’t help that they knew the town was full of Southerners and Southern sympathizers. They didn’t have much patience to spare on the enemy. There are some pretty wild tales of the lawlessness of the place at this time.

Now, as we get further in the episode, we see some great examples of Civil War medicine, which is pretty fun. We see a plaster cast being placed on a broken leg, we see a hypodermic needle (with morphine!), and we see an artery being tied off (by a former slave–cool in itself). I liked that after the artery was tied off, the former slave who did the operation, Samuel Diggs, comments that the doctor should tug on the silk thread that would protrude from the healing wound. The thread would rot and come away when the wound was healed. This is called a ligature (as Samuel tells us), and it’s something I learned about at the Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD. We also see a case of “soldier’s heart”, which is portrayed as something like heart palpitations. I know that soldiers’ heart COULD manifest itself in the form of heart problems, but “soldier’s heart” was mainly used as an early term for what appears to have been PTSD–that is, for soldiers who were overwhelmed by the horrors they’d seen.

One of the best parts of the episode, I think, is the wounded soldier who claims he’s eighteen but eventually admits to being fifteen. He’s in a battered uniform, and his father was killed beside him in battle. The American flag he’s holding was glued to his hands by dried blood. (Why did no one try to soften the dried blood to take away the flag?) He’s badly wounded, and Mary starts to write a letter for him back to his family. I liked this sequence mostly for the letter, which was a bit intense. Luckily, the writers wisely had the characters comment on the intensity of the letter, breaking the tension a bit. The poor boy dies before the end of the episode, his letter unfinished. (A bit confusingly, Mary goes back to finish the letter, though it actually wasn’t clear earlier that she hadn’t finished it and it’s unclear how she could possibly recall the boy’s every word.)

As Mary’s first day at the hospital comes to an end, she has a conversation with Dr. Foster by the light of a lamp. The discussion opened up the world a bit by giving it some depth. Most Civil War-era stories are very dualistic: the good North, the evil South, or evil slave-holders, victimized slaves/valiant abolitionists. Sometimes, there’s a dash of the romance of the “lost” culture of the “gracious” Antebellum South (you know, the Gone with the Wind vision). But in most stories, the intricacies of the inter-sectional ties are ignored. Families and friends were divided in loyalties in ways that simply aren’t acknowledged. And, as the disagreement over treatment of Confederate soldiers demonstrates, there was more than one way for a person to demonstrate moral failure. In this exchange, Mary challenges Dr. Foster for having racist views, and he challenges her for not wanting to treat wounded soldiers just because they’re Confederates. They both have a blind spot, and that’s interesting.

This episode had some great moments, and the fact that they’re tackling this setting and subject is a major point in the show’s favor with me. I would have liked to see a bit more life to the episode. It felt a bit like they were hitting particular marks, and though the acting was decent, it also felt by-the-book. While we are introduced to a cadre of characters (maybe one or two too many) and are efficiently informed of their situations, the characters themselves didn’t necessarily emerge quite yet from the cocoon of their situations. Mary, for instance is “the spunky nurse who’s recently widowed”, but I didn’t get much sense of her beyond that.

My first thought is that a bit of humor would go a long way. It’s the surest way to let your audience connect with a character. I know that Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches was source material for the writers. I wish they had taken note of the gentle humor Alcott used to get her readers closer to herself and the men she tended. (On a side note, I also recently finished reading the memoirs of a WW1 nurse, Olive Dent, and she, too, made liberal use of humor to help introduce us to the sometimes-grizzly world of a wartime nurse.)

Overall, though, a wonderful start to a really exciting series. I’m looking forward to tonight’s episode, too.

Writerly Wednesday–Grammar and the Lincoln Memorial

Wow, does that sound interesting or what? Grammar and history all in one! Snooze. Well, I’ll keep this brief. But as I was looking at some photos I recently took around Washington D.C., I was struck again by the inscription above the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. On the north and south wall are inscribed the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, but above the statue is the following:

In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is forever enshrined.

Now, what’s so interesting about that? Well, at first glance not a lot. But take a look at it again,and you’ll notice two grammatical aspects that often trip people up.

One, “whom”. A lot of people throw “whom” around in an effort to sound smart. The problem is that they end up using it wrong, which has the opposite effect from what they were hoping for. “Whom” is used as a grammatical object, as are “him” or “them”, both of which also conveniently end with m (just like “whom”). That’s how I remember where to use whom: if “him” or “them” would (grammatically) fit in that spot in the sentence, then (generally) “whom” is the right word. “Who” is used as a subject, just like “he” or “they”, neither of which end with m (just like “who”). [And I’m totally not being sexist by excluding “her” and “she”; it’s just that neither the pronoun or object form ends with “m”, so the feminine forms aren’t very useful as far as my mnemonic device.]

So that, friends, is how you use whom: “for whom he saved the nation”. You can’t plug in “he” or “she” or they” here. You can’t say “for they he saved the nation”. You could, however, say, “for them he saved the nation”. “Whom” stands in for “the people”. It’s a grammatical object because “the people” are receiving Lincoln’s action (“saved”).

The second thing to notice here is a subtle use of passive voice. As I stated in the past on this blog, passive voice is not an error. Passive voice also does not mean weak language. It’s a grammatical term. This is an example. After we get through the poetical verbiage at the beginning of the sentence (“In this temple . . . “) we get to the meat of the sentence: “the memory of Abraham Lincoln is forever enshrined.” The grammatical subject here is “the memory” and the verb is “is”. We tack on “forever enshrined”, but those are modifiers, not verbs. But, of course, memory isn’t actually doing anything. The memory is the object of an action; it is being enshrined forever. By whom? (See what I did there with the whom?) Well, we aren’t told who’s enshrining Lincoln’s memory. The passive voice plays an important rhetorical role here: we aren’t told who exactly is enshrining Lincoln’s memory, but it’s implied that “the people” are doing so. By using the passive voice, the inscription is inviting us, the reader, to count ourselves among “the people” who enshrine Lincoln’s memory. His memory is being enshrined. By whom? By everyone who reads the inscription, to start. A more specific subject wouldn’t allow as much room for the reader to think of herself/himself as part of the effort to remember Lincoln.

Hm. That was longer than I thought it would be. I was going to diagram the sentence, too, but, well, maybe another time…

A Post-election Reflection

Tuesday night was election night here int he United States–not for president, but for various state offices and congressional seats (governors, Senators, and Representatives were elected, as well as representatives to the state legislatures). I voted, quite proudly. Since it was a mid-term election, the turn-out was poor, which is a shame. Just because the president isn’t being elected doesn’t mean that the election is unimportant. Both houses of Congress are now controlled by the Republican party, for instance, as a result of this mid-term election. There will be all kinds of consequences to that.

But, quite honestly, I’m not especially exercised by the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong: I voted, and it’s incredibly important for everyone to get involved, learn at least a little about the issues, and vote. It’s important for people not to get too jaded and think it doesn’t matter. Put into a broader perspective, though, while this election is interesting and noteworthy, it isn’t exactly world-shattering.

Politicians are quite fond of painting the current time as one of strife, discord, and great import. We as human beings tend have tunnel-vision and quite naturally think of our own times in superlative terms: this is the most divisive time in history, this election has been the nastiest on record, Americans are more deeply divided than ever. It’s a chicken-egg question whether politicians use this kind of rhetoric because it’s human nature to think that way or whether we think that way partly because the politicians are telling us that’s the way to think.

I am especially irritated by the claim that these are the most divisive times in American history. Have the people who say these things ever heard of the Civil War? This nation was so divided that it was literally divided in two. Six hundred fifty thousand men died as a result. Even before then, though, the nation was perpetually divided. It wasn’t just north-south. The early nation was divided between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, and the kind of vitriol spewed at that time makes the polite, sedate rhetoric of today look like a child’s tea party. A few decades later, North and South were beginning the slide to war. Henry Foote pulled a gun on fellow Senator Thomas Hart Benton. A few years later, Senator Charles Sumner was nearly beaten to death on the Senate floor. A few years after that, states began to leave the Union one by one.

So forgive me if I don’t find today’s spats to be believably extreme. That’s not to say there’s nothing at stake here, or that we shouldn’t care. It’s just that we should keep a perspective on things.

I try not to be cynical, though my thoughts sometimes come out that way. Whether this will go down as a memorable election or not, what’s important is America–the idea of America. What we’re seeing today is nothing new, and we’ve weathered worse as a nation.

Living as I do in Washington D.C., having been born as I was an American citizen, I often forget just what it means to be American and what wonderful things that entails. This American experiment is still a work in progress. When it stops being such, it will have stopped being. As my favorite historical personage ever (ever!) said presciently in 1838, as a nation of freemen (and women) we will live through all time or die by suicide. As long as we don’t take it for granted, we’ll avoid the suicide part.

When I start feeling a little jaundiced about things, I like to think of good old Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) coming to Washington DC. It’s healthy to reflect and to shake the scales from your eyes, so to speak. Like “Jeff”, I find one of the best places to remember these things is the Lincoln Memorial:

And so I leave you on that optimistic note.

The National Gallery of Art and Vigée-Le Brun

So, I was at the National Gallery of Art the other day for a guided tour of the gallery’s statues. It was a great tour, and I really liked getting to know more about the statues that most people just walk by. But it was on my way out that I found something that totally made my day. I was on my way out of the gallery, walking past an open doorway, when what to my wondering eyes should appear, hanging on the wall above a roll-top desk, but this:


I just about flipped out. I may have made some sounds of excitement that surprised the guard keeping watch over that set of rooms. I whipped out my camera and started snapping pictures. Glare is always a major problem when trying to take pictures, but I did my best.

Why was I so excited? Well, somewhat obviously, that is Marie-Antoinette. Perhaps less obviously, this image played an integral part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. I wrote a post on it here. The summary is this: Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, one of the finest painters of her day, was the queen’s favorite artist, and the queen had a penchant for discarding decorum. A fashion trend she helped set off was the craze for light, white muslin dresses like the one she’s wearing in this portrait. The trouble is that this dress resembled the underclothing of the day that people were shocked when this painting by Vigée-Le Brun was put on public display. Why has she been painted in her underwear? How tacky! Marie-Antoinette’s reputation took a hit.

Oh, but that wasn’t all. This painting also inspired the “Grove of Venus” scene in which a prostitute named Nicole d’Oliva dressed up in a very similar outfit to the one in this painting and handed a rose to Cardinal Rohan. (Also, there was a candy box with a copy of this painting on the underside of its lid. See this post.) This little stunt would later blow up into one of the most sensational trials of the century, one that deeply affected the public’s view of the Queen.

In any case, having written a whole novel about the topic, I was delighted to see this portrait hanging in the National Gallery. I had no idea it was there (silly me!). From what I understand, however, this is actually a period copy, not the original. A Google search seems in to indicate the original Vigée-Le Brun painting is in a private collection. I really don’t care, though. I was so incredibly pleased to see it that I almost started jumping up and down and pointing. People would have had no idea what the heck was so exciting, so I restrained myself.

Nearby was another lovely portrait, this one of Madame du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV and a lady who was not well-liked by Marie-Antoinette:


The National Gallery also has two other Vigée-Le Bruns on display (she’s a fantastic portraitist, and I love almost everything she painted) and one not on display. So, if you happen to be in the Washington DC area and want to see these paintings (as well as all the other fabulous art), then stop by the National Gallery. It’s more than worth your time. (By the way, it’s not a Smithsonian; it’s funded/run by the Federal government, as I found out when I tried to get a discount with my Smithsonian membership card.)

Here’s a link to the National Gallery’s listing for the painting (notice the “Anonymous”):


And here’s a link to the National Gallery’s listing for Vigée-Le Brun:


A Few History-related Links

As well as being very interested in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, I’m also interested in American history. Since I’m currently a resident of Northern Virginia, I’m particularly interested in the history of the Washington, DC area. And let me tell you, there’s a lot of history here. It’s easy to forget just how much when you look at the multitude of squat, concrete, mid-century buildings that abound here. But here are a few reminders of DC’s history:

1. Lost Watercourses of D.C.

This short blog entry shows the way that the original waterways running through the District of Columbia were submerged by development. Most dramatically, about half of the current National Mall, from the Washington Monument west to the Potomac River (including the current site of the Lincoln Memorial) were underwater until the late 19th century. The land was reclaimed from the swampy Tiber Creek where it flowed into the Potomac. The weather is still swampy, the land less so. Tiber Creek is now entirely underground. This isn’t unusual for large cities; several rivers in London, for instance, have disappeared under centuries’ worth of building.

Here is a link directly to the PDF of the city’s vanished waterways superimposed on a modern map.

2. Lincoln’s Funeral Train Was . . . Deep Maroon.

Thrilling, I know. But there is some interesting history here. I had assumed that the funeral train would be black, though when I think about it a bit, that’s a bad assumption. After all, the train wasn’t made specifically to transport a dead president. It was meant to transport a living president.Of course, I’d also assumed that no one cared a heck of a lot about exactly what color the train was painted. After all, there were,apparently, eyewitness records indicating that the train was dark red or brown. Those are pretty close, so I’m not sure anything more specific was really needed. But, someone felt it was very important to find out the exact shade of dark red/brown/maroon. After decades of searching. . . success! Although I’m a bit dubious as to the necessity of this line of inquiry, the result is interesting, and the article is, too. The train was deep maroon, but more importantly we have a slightly better image of one of the most important events of the 19th century: Lincoln’s assassination and his funeral procession by train. Millions of people grieved for the President as he passed along the route. The assassination played a huge role in keeping the nation from slipping back into war. After all, the war had just ended days before, and there were plenty of Southerners not quite ready to give in. Heck, it’s been 150 years, and there are still a few Southerners who haven’t given in . . . . But the death of the president somehow seemed to put a lot of animosities to rest, and to signal the true, definitive end of a war that had literally ripped the nation apart.

A Blog from Ford’s Theater

Check out a blog from Ford’s Theater, one of the many historical sights here in Washington, DC:


The question is raised, what does one do with a site that is noteworthy for the tragedy that happened there? A very good question indeed. I think commemoration is the best answer–not demolition.The current Ford’s Theater has been rebuilt, but it looks very much as it did in 1865 when President Lincoln was assassinated there. I find there’s nothing more important than experiencing that sort of place for oneself, so I fully support fully preserving these places–as respectfully as possible.

The US Capitol

I’m going to detour again into American history.

The US Capitol is a familiar, iconic part of Washington, DC’s monumental landscape of. It’s dome is featured alongside the obelisk of the Washington Monument and Greek temple of the Lincoln Memorial in brochures and on the sides of buses. Like the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, or London Eye, it’s a symbol of the city and–ultimately–the nation. It wasn’t always quite this way.

The East Front of the Capitol, facing towards Maryland and the sight of presidential inaugurations until Ronald Reagan.

The East Front of the Capitol, facing towards Maryland and the sight of presidential inaugurations until Ronald Reagan.

The West Front of the Capitol, facing towards the National Mall and then Virginia. This has been the sight of Presidential inaugurations since Ronald Reagan.

The West Front of the Capitol, facing towards the National Mall and then Virginia. This has been the sight of Presidential inaugurations since Ronald Reagan.

Keep reading….. Continue reading