In Memoriam

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. The origins vary, but days of memorial to fallen soldiers of the American Civil War were observed shortly after the end of that conflict in the late 1860’s.

After World War I Memorial Day acknowledged not just the war dead of the Civil War, but of all conflicts in which America was or became involved. For most Americans this day is just one of a three day weekend, time for a family barbeque or other late spring outdoor activities. We tend to reserve our patriotism (or what there is left of it) for Independence Day on the 4th of July.

Memorial Day used to be a far more formal occasion with parades and solemn observes during which families would decorate the graves of loved ones who had served in the military. This is a day of mourning and I think we’ve lost that distinction.

To that end, let me explain why we mourn by providing you with a list of America’s war dead:

Revolutionary War-             4,435 American dead

War of 1812-                          2,260 American dead

Mexican War-                       13,283 American dead

Civil War-                               364,511 Union dead

289,000 Confederate dead

Spanish-American War-    2,446 American dead

World War I-                          116,516 American dead

World War II-                        405,399 American dead

Korean War-                           36,574 American dead

Vietnam War-                         58,220 American dead

Persian Gulf War-                  383 American dead

Since 1980 until 2008

and including the Persian Gulf War-

45,706 American dead

Total–                                         1,338,350 American dead

These Americans died in dispute or defense of our right to exist as a nation and uphold the daily freedoms upon which we rely.

(Sources: “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics,”, and “Civil War Statistics,”, any mistakes in sums or typography are my own.)

Whether or not we have family who served or whether we believe in bearing arms or not, our gratitude is still required to acknowledge the debt we owe those who willingly gave their lives for a purpose greater than themselves.

Human history is a series of conflicts punctuated by occasional bursts of peace and cooperation, or at least grudging armistice. We are not, by nature, a peaceful species. Peace requires reaching outside ourselves for the good of others. Ironically, war produces in those who serve the altruism to sacrifice for others around them in battle or for the ideal of a peaceful and prosperous homeland.

There are other reasons people go to war, but when you try to understand history the exceptions generally prove the rule. Look at the broad view, history is holistic and requires stepping back from the minutiae in order to understand historical trends and see the larger picture in full.

Please think on these things as you mourn today.

Back to the Victory Garden!

Recommended: WWII era Victory Garden film

Working in my own garden has narrowed my focus for the time being to Victory Gardens. In the course of an Internet search on the subject I came across a short film from the 1940’s covering the virtues of a Victory Garden and the need for it on the home front.

Click here to view video.

It’s only about 20 minutes long, but it gives you a clear picture of what the ideal Victory Garden looked like. It puts to shame my pitiful little kitchen garden, but then again, the garden patch in the film could contain nearly my entire yard!

Make no mistake, growing a substantial garden like this was no walk in the park. It took a lot of hard work, a hugh time commitment, and it didn’t end with the harvest. Keeping vegetables for the winter wasn’t a matter of washing, chopping, filling a plastic bag and throwing them in the freezer. Canning or “putting food by” was a big job in the kitchen. Besides that, non-processed food that could be stored through the winter was packed in sand, sawdust, wood chips or newspaper to keep it dry and placed in a root cellar (the same place everybody went during a tornado).

Living off the land was a full-time job!

When you watch the video, take note of the “engines” used for plowing the soil! Not your average garden tractor – no, this was the original horsepower! It really wasn’t that long ago that human kind switched from animal power to internal combustion power. Imagine feeding your John Deere and scratching it on the nose as it whinnies softly when you put it in the barn for the night!

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Having recently spent time getting my own small vegetable garden prepared for planting I was reminded of the work that went on across the nation as Americans got back to the land and grew Victory Gardens during World War II.

Victory Gardens were a pivotal way to make a personal sacrifice of time and effort on the WWII home front. Not that growing your own food was much of a novelty at that time. Many people still filled their produce needs by growing their own as agrarian America had done for centuries.

Veggie tales

According to the Victory Garden Manual published in 1943 and written by James H. Burdett, “War, food rationing, and the Victory Garden campaign have given millions of Americans a new appreciation of vegetables.

“… when our appetites were stimulated and our cooks trained, we were summoned as a patriotic duty to grow our own Victory Gardens so as to release commercial crops and canned goods for war demands [to feed the troops].”

The book goes on to say that, “War gave dramatic emphasis to vegetable gardening, but it is an art which is as important in peace as in war. The need for abundant supplies of garden-fresh vegetables in every home is far from ended by a peace treaty.”

“Those who enjoy the making of Victory Gardens should resolve never to abandon a practice which gives so much of exercise, recreation, and good health to all who follow it.”

Productive produce

About 20 million Victory Gardens were planted in the United States during the war. Folks in the country and those in the city turned their yards into large vegetable patches capable of feeding a whole family for most of the year if stored properly. Victory Gardeners effectively produced 9 million tons of vegetables.

For many young adults during the war the habit of growing a large, “Victory-style” garden never left them. My grandparents, for the rest of their lives, continued to grow a massive vegetable and berry garden that took up nearly half of their large yard. I have great memories of visiting the red raspberry vines and eating my fill. My first experience of harvesting potatoes was with my grandma in the garden as I helped her fish them up from the depths of the soil, like buried treasure.

Historical trends swirl around and pop up in the present every now and then and growing one’s own produce is about as good a trend as I’ve seen in a long time. Many people are growing their own because it cuts down costs and enables a more bountiful table during a crummy economy, others are influenced by the philosophies of environmental causes, and some believe that homegrown is healthier because it is generally treated with fewer chemicals.

Me, I just like reliving history and knowing that if I had to grow my own produce, I could. That said; I still have a long way to go to achieve a true Victory Garden!

My Kingdom for a Ship

A Short History of Athenian Naval Wars

From about 506 B.C. onward until 322 B.C. the Greek city-state of Athens was in a nearly continuous state of making war or preparing for it. And lest I single them out, so were the rest of the Greeks as well as the Persians and generally most of the occupants of the Mediterranean shores.

To help you locate it, here is an image of the cover.

According to John R. Hale’s Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy the Peloponnesus, that peninsula that juts into the Mediterranean and which is connected to the Greek mainland by a narrow slip of land called the Isthmus of Corinth, was embattled with internecine wars, primarily between the Athenians and the Spartans (of 300 fame).

Oddly, these two archenemies could also be allies if the need arose. When the Persians to the East decided to wage a campaign to increase their imperial holdings in Mediterranean Greece, the two allied against Kind Xerxes. This led to the famous Spartan loss at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. followed in concert by the victorious Athenian naval battle of Salamis in the same year. At Salamis the Greeks wailed on the Persians and rendered their fleet useless.

Athens rules the waves

Hale explains that Athens was a significant naval power from this point onward until the rise of Alexander the Great, and the ensuing Macedonian empire (322 B.C.). They policed the Mediterranean and brokered deals with various city-states, receiving tributes of silver or gold for protecting harbors and ships on the sea. Athens invested in its navy by building a fleet of the state-of-the-art ship of the day – the trireme.

This vessel, originally a product of Phoenicia, was 120 feet long, powered by rowers on three tiers (hence trireme) in the hold. The Greeks added a top deck that could double as a troop carrier for marines. It was guided by a steersman and commanded by a trierarch. It was the kind of ship that worked well on calm seas but was useless in inclement weather when swelling seas could pour water into the oar ports and swamp the ship.

I’ll have my say…

The author of Lords of the Sea contends that because the ships relied on significant manpower the less wealthy individuals who risked their lives to row their superiors in the Athenian class system (the steersman and trierarchs) to and from battle wanted and had the leverage to demand a voice in the Athenian assembly. This resulted in eventual suffrage and leadership roles for all citizens of Athenian society, regardless of wealth.

The investment of funds and lives in the Athenian navy meant that those who served, every male citizen, had a say in the governing of the city. This was the motivating force for democracy in this place, at this time in history. It did not, however, mean that Athens was the ideal democracy.


The Athenians grew, through alliances with other city-states and the tribute paid to them, into an imperial power. If your city-state angered or defected from the league you were subject to the wrath of Athens, generally wholesale massacre of all citizens in your city. If Athens didn’t get enough tribute from its allies it would also resort to pillaging and piracy to gather the extra funds from enemies and allies alike.

Occasionally the democracy would even turn self-destructive. After one famous victory against the Spartan navy at the Battle of the Arginusae Islands in 406 B.C. six of its victorious generals were executed for failing to pick up the bodies of the dead from the sea because of bad weather despite their overall success in the battle. One of these generals was Pericles, the son of Pericles, the great man of Athens.

Athens had a democracy, but it also had great men of vision who guided the democracy: Themistocles, Pericles, Socrates, and others. However, without these men who could think into the future, Athens struggled.

Hale’s writing is easy to read, but the book is a little battle heavy as one reviewer put it. It gives a clear analysis of Athens and its naval ambitions, and really, much of the rest of Greece during their heyday just prior to the ascension of Alexander the Great and the Macedonians.

Gateways to History: Getting Started

What makes a person like history?

Is it just a quirk of personality that leads them to be insatiably curious about the past?

Is it a family member who shared his or her own love of history?

Is it just a coincidence of factors: good books, great teachers, a need to know?

All of these things can contribute to the creation of an avid historian, but what if you didn’t have the benefit of such circumstances – are you doomed to dislike history?

Not at all! There are other gateways to history and finding yours is the challenge!

Image: Amanda Stiver

Image: Amanda Stiver

More than one way to… study history

History is stereotypically fed to students via the textbook and a class lecture. A good textbook can spur an interest in students, but more importantly a good teacher can spur a lifelong love of the subject.

I had two particularly memorable high school history teachers. They each had a different approach to teaching, but were equally successful.

One teacher taught by lecture. The good thing was that he was one of the best lecturers I have ever heard. He gave us clear instructions from the start, if you want to get a good score on the Advanced Placement U.S. history test at the end of the year, then read the textbook twice. His expectation that we would do our reading and come to class with a clue about the day’s subject freed him up to add extra material from his vast store of historic knowledge during the lecture. He could tell a great story.

The other teacher had a different approach, but was also a gifted storyteller. She was a multi-media historian. We watched videos, read textbooks, read primary source excerpts, viewed art history slides and maps, did re-enactments, had class discussions, and completed writing assignments. She illustrated to me the importance of a variety of sources and approaches that make the subject vibrant and alive!

I had other great teachers, but I think this makes clear that the best gateway to a love of history is a fantastic teacher.

Find your gate, take the path

If you don’t like history because you had bad teachers, all is not lost. Try this: go watch a movie that has an historic setting or read an historical novel. How many people who went to see 300 or Braveheart consciously thought they were going to study history – surely not many.

Movies and historical fiction aren’t perfect, but they are a kind of gateway. Ideally they should spur a curiosity into an area of history that draws you to your local library and a good book on the subject. They are highly interpretive, so by all means, if something sounds far-fetched in a book or movie – go prove the author or directors wrong by researching the subject yourself.

Let a productive curiosity be your gateway into history. Maybe you want to know more about family genealogy – research the era in which your relatives immigrated! Maybe the history of a national or religious holiday has always made you wonder about its origins – go find out! Perhaps you read a short article that was so well written it made you want to know more.

Best of all, if you are planning a trip, don’t leave until you have at least one book under your belt about the area you are going to visit. When you get there, go see some of the places you read about, make the story come alive.

Once you cross the threshold, keep your curiosity alive. Make it a challenge to find the thread that connects each historical era or subject you study or come across. Or my personal favorite, when you’re at the store and you get the total cost of your purchases, take four of the digits and try to remember what happened in that year in history. If you can’t think of anything, go home and use a search engine to find out!

Take the plunge, it’s more exciting that you ever imagined!

Play Me A Dirge, Matey…

A few years ago my folks were out on a garage sale tour and they came across an estate sale with a significant collection of books. Garage sales are fun on their own, but with the added incentive of books they are irresistible, to me at least. So I went along.

The collection was breaking up at a rapid pace, but before they disappeared I located part of a series of Time-Life books called The Seafarers. I ended up with eight volumes out of a set of 22.

Ever since high school when I read C.S. Forrester’s Captain Hornblower I have been curious about naval history. I’ve not sailed, but have had the chance to tour a replica of Captain Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour and my haul at the estate sale came as a boost to my curiosity.

Would you be interested in buying…

I remember commercials for Time-Life books when I was a kid, but I didn’t realize, until I got my hands on the nautical volumes, how detailed and fascinating they were. The illustrations are spectacular and the writing very approachable.

Collections of books like the ones sold by Time-Life take me back to the days of encyclopedia sets as well. My mom tells me childhood stories of curling up with a crunchy apple or wedge of cabbage and reading through a volume of the encyclopedia. I remember going through our own set and being fascinating by the pictures and the concise descriptions or explanations of various entries – mostly scientific.

The history of science

It wasn’t until my parents did some research that we learned the rocky relationship encyclopedias have had with history. Early on in the 18th century these compendiums of knowledge contained history as well as the burgeoning study of science and the natural world. This trend continued until the early 20th century, around WWI. At this point the history got dropped in favor of the multitude of scientific discoveries that were coming along at a rapid pace.

Our modern default setting is for science and scientific proof to back up even historical discoveries. Sometimes this “proof” is debatable, science itself not being a science, but an art and subject to interpretation. Human witness can get relegated to second place behind scientific substantiation in anthropological and archeological pursuits. Perhaps not always without cause, humans can be liars.

Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy the pages of well-reasoned, carefully researched history and see if someday I can track down a few more volumes of The Seafarers.


I’ve written about using documentaries, historical journals, museums, and re-enactments to explore history, but I can’t go on without praising one of my favorite publications. It is a magazine that brings primary source history to my fingertips and reminds me of the struggles and challenges my parents and grandparents faced.

Don’t jump to conclusions! I’m not talking about WWII history magazines, archeological reviews, etc. I like those too, but they’re for another day.

I’m talking about entry-level history where even the most disinterested beginner can take a bit out of time and enjoy it.  A visual layout with great, short, first person reports on the historical past of the 20th century is the fundamental strength of Reminisce magazine published by Reiman Media Group which is a subsidiary of The Reader’s Digest Association, INC.

Tales of the past

This is the kind of history that you might hear your grandparents or great-grandparents tell if you are lucky enough to have these resources still alive. It isn’t ground breaking, never-before-seen historical research, but it is just as important. Knowing the daily details of the past and the experiences of our elders help us to live a fuller life, to respect them more, emulate the great things they did, and, one hopes, not make the same mistakes.

Magazines like this are a great teaching tool for kids and teens and a way to get them interested in history. Reminisce in particular has a surfeit of photographs, illustrations, and reprints of old cartoons and advertisements. Every issue is colorful, like having your own personal museum to page through whenever you need to fill a few minutes.

Did people really act like that?

After flipping through the past, it might surprise you to realize how degraded our current society has become. Wholesomeness is not something marketers feature much anymore. We are so used to the world in which we live that sometimes it takes a virtual journey back in time to realize how sordid it has become.

Scanning the advertisements of years past is an education in what people valued. The advertising professionals of the era designed their material to appeal to those values: wholesomeness, dignity, respect, faith, hard work, thrift, good clean fun, cleanliness, good cheer, family, marriage, the innocence of romance. From our 21st century cynical viewpoint we often see this material and think it looks hokey or syrupy. Kind of sad that good clean fun isn’t considered fun anymore.

There is one requirement when delving into this kind of historical record (or any part of the past, actually): check your modern sensibilities and put them aside, don’t reason from our contemporary perspective. Trade cynicism for a lighter approach to life in order to appreciate an era, only a few decades old, which had a greater sweetness and innocence than what we suffer through today.

Read Me A Little History…

Read aloud. Or better yet, listen to someone else read aloud. Really, try it!

Sound a little too dramatic? Seems kind of weird, maybe, because we don’t do that kind of think anymore. Or do we?

Have you ever watched a news anchor talk at you? They aren’t gabbing from memory – they’re reading aloud! Yep, from that teleprompter screen right next to the camera!

Guess who else reads aloud? Right – politicians. Teleprompters being the modern default, but some still use good old note cards.

Whatever the case, they are all reading aloud. We do a lot of reading these days, the Internet has made that a necessity, and so we don’t often take the time to read out loud from a book. However, back before moving pictures, radio, television, and Internet folks regularly read to each other.

Tell me a story, read me a book

On a cold winter evening around the fireplace of a rough log cabin, by the light of homemade candles, settlers would read out loud from the Bible, maybe Plutarch’s Lives (thank you Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), or perhaps a collection of Shakespeare. They didn’t have many books, but what they had, they read.

It was entertainment and education. Poetry was read aloud (sometimes from memory) as were plays, works of fiction, works of history, and religious works. It was a shared experience.

If you read aloud often enough, you begin to understand written works in a different way. Try reading the Bible silently – zoom through a few verses in the historical books of Chronicles or Kings – kind of dull, you say?

Okay, change tack, read aloud as if you are narrating a Cecil B. DeMille production of epic biblical proportions! Make sure that your audience, real or imagined, can understand each word and that the transitions from action to description are clear. Suddenly it isn’t so dull! Try the same thing with Jane Austen – you’ll be amazed at how her works come to life!

Reading aloud is an art form and a connection to the historic past. Back in the days of limited literacy those who could read aloud did so that others would have a chance to hear whatever it was they were reading. It was the default mode of literacy for many centuries until fairly recently.

Try it and you’ll find that a simple activity like this is a fun trip to the historical past.

When is history fact – wait, let me revise that…

Human interest in its own history has been around for, well, since humanity began. Through different means – oral, written, re-enacted – has history been passed down between generations. It was important to live up to the expectations and deeds of the elders.

Herodotus is given credit for being the father of history, but if we look further back we will find that various cultures had already been recording their history in writing. The Israelites spring to mind with the earliest historical works in the Bible: the five books of Moses.

Were all of these accounts (Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Israelite, etc.) factual? Some yes, some no. Do humans revise their history? Certainly. So are there really facts in history? Yes – the key is how to find and organize them to accurately understand an historic event.

You printed what?

Think of a reporter in an old black and white film, being chewed out by the editor of the paper for not getting the facts. The editor goes on to remind the wayward employee that he needs to get back to the basics – who, when, where, what and then, maybe, how and why!

Reporting or researching history works along the same lines. Who was involved in the event in question? When did it occur? Where? What kind of event was it? These can usually be verified by physical evidence – inscriptions, written records, archeological ruins, etc.

When the concrete details are corralled, then the suppositions may begin. How was it done? And, most iffy of all – why it happened?

It’s like working through one of those logic puzzles, with a series of clues and a criss-cross chart. Verify the easy items first. Then come the mental gymnastics.

See, what I really meant was…

Revise means to correct or improve – not a bad idea if past research was flawed or a supposition was off base because of societal taboos or bias. It has another meaning, slightly less virtuous sounding – to amend (not so bad) or alter (hmm, bad).

Alteration to rectify a mistaken fact is what history is about, but altering an historic record to change the interpretation based on current societal bias, personal opinion or grudge isn’t history – it’s misleading and dishonest. Ironically, the record of human history is full of this kind of revision.

To see through revision, learn about the authors; find out their philosophy of history. Then if you subtract the bias of their philosophy, does their interpretation still hold up? Be your own historian, be it academic history or any story or human event because, tomorrow, it will all be history!

The Great Museum Debate

Narrowing the itinerary, I had decided on four museums. The Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum, the Imperial War Museum, The Churchill War Rooms, and lastly, the grand poobah – The British Museum.

Sadly, on that trip to the UK I had no time for the first three-fourths of the list, but I made it to the British Museum. The edifice is impressive – a wide yard with steps that lead up to a long portico of sturdy, grey columns.

Fetch your hiking boots…

When I think museum, I think a small, well organized place with five or six rooms you can see in a fairly short time. This is not the right impression for the British M. The £2 map you can buy to keep you on track is a maze of room upon room of antiquities.

With only a few hours to see a tiny sampling of what it has to offer, I strolled through the main exhibit hall of Egyptian artifacts (the Rosetta Stone among them) into the Parthenon sculptures and back down the Assyrian hall. I looked in vain for a Scythian exhibit, only to find out it was closed for repair, so I took a short turn in the temporary display of 18th century exploration. I entirely missed the ancient British artifacts, Asian, and African exhibits, among all the rest.

It’s hard to take in the scale of so many ‘things’ housed in the museum complex, but it helps to imagine a very classy warehouse where you can see into most of the boxes. To learn more about the museum, the web address is

I recommend going because it’s the abode of bits and fascinating pieces of ancient civilizations, but also because the building itself is an historic landmark. Frankly, most of London is an historic landmark.

Museums draw you to the past. Coming face to face with an ancient Egyptian carving brings reality to your sense of history – something that looking at a picture in a book cannot do. You may be surprised at how your assumptions are burst by seeing how much smaller or larger a famous artifact is from the way you imagined it would be.

Who owns what?

On a related note, there is a continuous debate about the ethics of major European museums keeping ownership of items discovered in other countries (mostly former colonies or protectorates). British, German, and French museums, among others, house some of the seminal pieces representing Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Many nations want their items returned, and fairly enough, as they exemplify the cultural history of those places. On the other hand, with the instability, politically and religiously of many nations of origin, some argue that human history is best protected by keeping the items where they have been for the past century or more.

Arguing in favor of this sentiment was the 2001 destruction in Afghanistan of two giant statues of Buddha by Islamic extremists. Likewise the ensuing chaos and devastation of Iraq at war has resulted in the pilfering and destruction of many Assyrian and Babylonian artifacts from Iraqi museums.

Consensus eludes the world on this issue at present, but compromises have been suggested. Returning the originals to their homes, but not before precise copies can be made to remain in place at western museums. Not unlike the copy of the Lascaux caves in France that was made to protect the original from too many respirating tourists.