Remembering the Assassination of 50 Years Ago

22 Nov

In commemoration of John F. Kennedy’s assassination fifty years ago today,  I was given the great privilege of being on WAKM Radio in Franklin, Tennessee. Hosts Hudson Alexander and Tom Lawrence took calls as we discussed that tragic moment with those who had lived through it.

The phone lines lit up, callers spoke of where they were when they heard the news. But after awhile, I noticed a remarkable pattern - they weren’t talking about Kennedy.

Instead their words spoke of a significantly different experience…

“It was the first time I saw my mother cry.” “The school secretary went silent.”  “The older students were coming down the stairs, sobbing.” “I have never seen my father so upset.”

On the day of the assassination, well over 8  million Americans were between the ages of 5 and 14. Today, many of those who can personally remember that day were children when it happened. For them, the impact came not from “the end of Camelot” but through something far more immediate and personal.

In an instant, their homes and schools were transformed into places of collective mourning, and the vast majority of their adult authority figures suddenly humanized themselves into fragile and emotional beings.  While the moment would not last, the memory of that moment itself remained indelible, for a half century onward.

9 Sep

Tomorrow morning, Tom Lawrence and I will record our 200th episode of Sesquicentennial Stories for WAKM radio, and here it is…

Episode #200: 

NARRATOR: Early Autumn, 1863. Spotswood Hatcher of the 45th Tennessee Infantry Regiment was serving in north Georgia, when he sat down to write a difficult letter to his beloved spouse Mary Ann, who was back on their farm southeast of Franklin.

MALE VOICE (dejected): “My dear wife…We had a major engagement with the enemy on the 19th and 20th of September…In the battle, we lost brother R.L. Pollard, which was very distressing to me. He was shot through the neck just below the ears, which killed him immediately…what can I say to comfort his wife?”

NARRATOR: Hatcher was referring to the battle of Chickamauga, which proved extremely costly to the families of Williamson County. At least sixteen soldiers from this area were killed in action, and some 58 were wounded, many severely. Overall, the combined number of Americans killed or wounded at Chickamauga was a staggering 28,400, making it the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War, standing only behind Gettysburg.

You are There: Your Weekly Civil War Conundrum #3

25 Aug

Each week I present an actual event in the lives of those who resided in or came to Franklin, Tennessee during the Civil War. The region serves as a microcosm of the nation (as well as the focus of my dissertation), and these events ask of you - what would you have done in their place?… 

This week you are Ferdinand Beech of Franklin, Tennessee. In 1862 you join up with many of the local boys in Co. H, 20th Tennessee Infantry of the Confederate Army. At the Battle of Chickamauga in September 1863 you are badly wounded. Two months later at the Battle of Missionary Ridge, you are captured and sent all the way in the dead of winter to the aptly named Rock Island, Illinois POW camp, where ramshackle barracks and subfreezing temperatures await. Soon after, scores of your comrades start to die of disease, primarily smallpox. You are given the option to take the oath of loyalty to the United States for a chance to be released. What do you do?  

What did Ferdinand Beech do? He took the oath of loyalty, but only after a nearly year had passed. By that time, well over 1,500 of his fellow prisoners had died. Eventually some 1,960 prisoners (and a number of guards) would perish from disease and exposure at Rock Island, making it the 9th deadliest POW camp in the war.

You are There: Your Weekly Civil War Conundrum #2

13 Aug

Each week I present an actual event in the lives of those who resided in or came to Franklin, Tennessee during the Civil War. The region serves as a microcosm of the nation (as well as the focus of my dissertation), and these events ask of you - what would you have done in their place?… 

This week you are Col. John Baird, Union commander at Fort Granger in Franklin, Tennessee. It is the night of June 8th, 1863. There has been heavy fighting recently, including an attack your fort by Nathan Bedford Forrest and his cavalry.  

This evening, two men in Federal uniform show up with signed passes from Gen. James Garfield. You ask their identity and allow them to inspect the fort. You also invite them to stay the night, which they decline. As they ride on, you wonder if you should have vetted them further. You call them back to the fort and telegraph your commander, Maj. Gen William Rosecrans, for clarification.  

Meanwhile, the two men admit they are one Lt. Walter Peter, aged 22, and Col. Lawrence Orton age 26, both of the Confederate Army, and they claim to have entered the fort on a bet. 

The telegraph comes back from Rosecrans. He has no idea who they are. Try them as spies. If they are guilty, execute them in the morning. What do you do

What did Col. Baird do? Reluctantly, Baird followed orders. The young men were hanged the following morning, with nearly the entire Union garrison standing at attention. And although hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers had died in and around Franklin before this incident, the sadness of the execution moved many in the garrison to tears, and the event was reported in newspapers across the country.  


Stumbling Upon History

2 Aug
Isn’t it wonderful when we discover something amazing, and we aren’t even looking?  My publicist Ann Rushton and I recently experienced such a moment in Louisa County, Iowa. We were in Columbus Junction helping their historical society with a project, and they told us of their “Tennessee Cemetery.” Sometime during the tumultuous Andrew Jackson years, several families left the Volunteer State and came to this little corner of Iowa. Soon after, they formed this grave site. Among those later interred were several veterans of the American Civil War. Including below is an image of of John Wren’s headstone. He came from Tennessee in the 1830s, served in the 25th Iowa Infantry, and died in Iowa in 1896.
Tennessee Cemetery Louisa County
John Wren 25th Iowa Tennessee Cemetery Louisa County

Your Weekly Civil War Conundrum

25 Jul

Each week I present an actual event in the lives of those who resided in or came to Franklin, Tennessee during the Civil War. The region serves as a microcosm of the nation (as well as the focus of my dissertation), and these events ask of you - what would you have done in their place?… 

This week you are Private Jesse K. Hay. You were just 19 years old in May of 1861 when you joined the Confederate “Marion Rifles” in your hometown of Franklin, Tennessee. In doing so, you left behind your mother, four sisters, and two brothers. Your company became part of the 20th Tennessee Infantry.

Combat and camp life were brutal for your regiment. Between 1862 and 1863, your unit fought in several costly engagements, including the battles of Fishing Creek, Shiloh, Stones River, Hoover’s Gap, and Chickamauga. At Chickamauga alone, your regiment suffered almost 50 percent casualties.

It is now February 1864. Things are looking bleak as you are about to defend Atlanta against a growing foe. You know that your hometown is now under Union occupation, and now you are fighting for the state of Georgia, a place you have never seen before. What do you do? 

What did Private Jesse K. Hay do? Actually, you tell me. According to William J. McMurray’s History of the Twentieth Tennessee Regiment (1904), Hay died in 1862. According to Michael Cotten’s Williamson County Confederates (1996), Hay deserted on February 23, 1864. You have (hopefully) done some moral searching on what you would have done if you were in his place. Take this opportunity to do some forensic searching to find out the true fate of the beleaguered Private Hay, and share your findings.

Thanks in advance,

Thomas Flagel

“Lincoln” and the American Desire for Mythic Proportion

21 Jan

Historical accuracy is a weighted term, but when it comes to period films, it often devolves into an unbearable lightness of being. Minor details receive disproportionate attention, and thus the critical, overarching context is frequently overlooked. To be certain, Steven Spielberg’s much-celebrated Lincoln has its own share of small errors. For example, Mary Todd did not attend the House gallery during the contest for the 13th Amendment. Robert Lincoln was not at the Wilmer McLean home at Appomattox during Grant and Lee’s meeting. Thomas (Tad), often seen reading in the movie, was barely literate while his father was alive. The scene of Lincoln riding among the fresh corpses of Petersburg greatly exaggerates the numbers of bodies present at the time (and understates the damage to the landscape). The Gettysburg Address, depicted as famous and mass-memorized in 1865, did not become so until many years after Lincoln’s death.

Yet for every little miss, there are tenfold impressive makes. Most compelling is Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of the 16th President, who was indeed an amiable but emotionally detached lawyer who depended more on timing than on principle to reach his ends. Lewis even achieved Lincoln’s symbolically plodding walk, planting each foot awkwardly but firmly flat, just as the original man traversed.

But these particulars overlook a much larger concern. Understandable is Spielberg’s narrow focus. The fight over national emancipation was indeed a sordid, dramatic, and radical departure from the long American tradition of human enslavement, and it fits within a two-hour timeframe. Yet the entire narrative misleads us down an old mythic folkway. As addictive as the simple story may be, even when wrapped in the moral comfort of a Spielberg story, all history does not turn on the whims workings of politicians. No law exists without an organic blend of acceptance and enforcement. Sadly, for the four million unchained by a multitude of events forged within and by a massive civil war, pen strokes and votes did not set them truly free. The society and economy in which they remained, one bent on cheap labor and severely limited opportunities, remained in place and by force for many decades thereafter. In short, the 13th Amendment was a turning point that failed to turn.

Today is Inauguration Day, a time-honored event that has always been far more show than substance. As much as our political figures want us to believe, and for the millions of us who embrace their self-proclaimed hegemony upon fate, our history still revolves more on our personal relationships than with any associations with presidents or generals, princes or kings. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the painfully slow rise of African American freedom on this continent. Despite what Spielberg’s “Lincoln” wishes us to believe, the most meaningful leaps forward for racial equality came not in 1865 but in 1965.


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