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10/20/08 - Civil War, Cradle to Grave, All in One Day

Manassas: where The Civil War began.
This is the stone bridge in Manassas, VA, where on July 21, 1861, Union canons fired the opening shots of the first major land battle of the Civil War.

The fire was aimed at Confederate troops on the opposite side of the stream, and the attack was a ruse. A Union Infantry detachment was, all the while, circling around upstream in an attempt to outflank the main Confederate force. It didn't work.

That first day of the war turned into a long one for the Federals and the last one for the nearly 900 who fell on the field.
Survivors trudged off cleansed forever of the romantic fantasy that had fueled their passion to fight one another.

Both sides had been confident that their bravery alone would carry the day against a less committed and less valorous foe and make for a short, glorious war.

The name of the stream that runs under the bridge in the picture was (and still is) Bull Run.

Appomattox: where it ended.
This is the home owned by Wilmer McLean in Appomattox Court House, VA, where Lee surrendered to Grant. It was the biggest house in the area, with a large enough parlor to accommodate all the officers involved in the surrender.

McLean was living with his family in Manassas at the outbreak of the war, and he liked to say that the Civil War started in his front yard and ended in his parlor. Not exactly true, but only a slight exaggeration. The McLain farm in Manassas was slightly southeast of the fighting, but their house served as Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard's headquarters during the opening battle and was supposedly slightly damaged in the fighting. At least, a stray canon ball may have rolled up on their lawn.

(Note: there were actually two Battles of Bull Run, in 1861 and again in 1862. The outcome was the same; the Federals lost. If your sympathies lay with the South, it was First Manassas and Second Manassas. Yup, they even named them differently.)

In any event, McLean headed south to put some distance between himself and the fighting. One could say it found him anyway, but the truth is he never really left it.

During the war McLean made a good living as a sugar speculator, working on behalf of the Confederate army. One reason he resettled in Appomattox (named Clover Hill-before it got its courthouse) was its proximity to the railroad. Unfortunately for McLean, he was paid for his work in Confederate War Bonds.
Like so many of our national treasures, the McLean House is a reconstruction. The original was dismantled in 1893 by speculators who intended to reconstruct it in Washington, DC, as a tourist attraction. It didn't pan out.

One would be hard put to improve on the prose of the National Park Service brochure: "But the piles of bricks and lumber were never moved. Exposed to the elements, they eventually disappeared. The little village was either going up in smoke or crumbling into dust."

Fortunately, the speculators, whatever their shortcomings, left behind meticulous plans and specifications. The National Park Service rebuilt the McLean House in the 1940s as part of the restoration of the entire village.

Start to finish, the Civil War spanned four years of brutal, bloody fighting. At the end, the Union was pretty much back where it started, albeit with some deeply bruised feelings, an end to slavery, the South in ruins and more than 600,000 dead on both sides. The most costly war in US history.

The distance from Manassas to Appomattox Court House is 137 miles, mostly all on US 29. We drove it in under three hours. It only takes an hour or so to see Appomattox, but at Manassas you can spend as much time on the battlefield as your appetite will allow.

5/20/08 - On This Day in History, Colonial Charlotte Stood Up for Liberty, Maybe
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in two days, faster than college kids finish a term paper. Term papers are generally consigned to oblivion the moment they’re done. Jefferson’s words have endured for over two hundred years, to the minds of most Americans and a good many historians around the world the most eloquent expression ever created of the ideals that shaped the American vision of liberty.

John Adams thought it an embarrassment. James Madison apologized for its lack of originality. Jefferson himself was distraught over changes the Continental Congress made to his text. He took pains to record his original draft with the Congressional edits annotated out. To his fellow Virginians he complained they had destroyed his document.

Jefferson never claimed it was original. This was the Age of Reason. He, like his contemporaries, was consumed with notions about the rights of man and the legitimacy of rulers being promulgated by great minds like John Locke. Madison’s apology was more defense than criticism: "The object was to assert, not to discover truths."

But some of Jefferson’s critics went so far as to accuse him of plagiarism. The record doesn’t show whether any of them hailed from Charlotte, but they could have. Every May 20th, with varying degrees of fanfare, Charlotteans celebrate the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, written and distributed on that date in 1775.

The “Meck Dec” was published a full year before the Declaration of Independence, and yes, a copy was sent to the Continental Congress. It contains some of the very same resonant phrases that would make Jefferson famous. Word traveled fast even in those days, and good ones got reused.

It didn’t pretend to be so portentous as the more celebrated National Declaration, but it evoked the same “mad as hell” tone and the same invocation of independence. It was written in committee, by twenty of Charlotte’s leading citizens in reaction to news about the battle of Lexington, which had taken place a month before in Massachusetts.

The state flag of North Carolina, approved by the North Carolina Convention on June 22, 1861. The top date commemorates the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. The bottom date marks the publication of the Halifax Resolves, the first official action by a colony calling for independence. The flag originally carried a different bottom date: May 20, 1861, representing the date of North Carolina's secession from the Union.

One signer was Hezekiah Alexander, whose homestead still stands east of town on Shamrock Rd. between Sharon Amity and Wendover, a part of the Charlotte Museum of History. It’s open to tours, which on Sunday are free. The kind of place everybody's kids have probably visited on a school trip, but is for the most part unknown to the local populace. (As noted on other occasions, Charlotte is not a place that dwells too much on the past.)

Herewith, the Meck Dec's phrasing that resonates so closely in Jefferson's declaration:

“ …we do hereby Declare ourselves free and independent people; that we are, and of a right ought to be, a sovereign and self-governing people …”
“ … to the maintenance of which independence we solemnly pledge to each other our mutual co-operation, our lives, our fortunes and our scared honor.”

Whoa! Pretty close, huh? So did the Author of our Country filch those stirring words from his colonial brethren to the south? Adams, a close friend of Jefferson’s despite a long history of stirring disagreements, supposedly asked him as much in a letter some years later. Jefferson in his response invoked the Bart Simpson defense: “I didn’t do it, nobody saw me do it, nobody can prove anything.”

The original Declaration of Independence sits today behind glass in the Library of Congress. The Meck Dec? Well, it sits nowhere. There is no original. Just like all the earthly possessions of a number of panhandlers on New York subways who obviously studied their craft under the same tutor, all copies of the document were evidently lost in a fire.
Everyone in the county celebrates on May 20th, the day the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was signed. We have been doing so since at 1825. It is to honor the men who signed the declaration in 1775. Throughout this week in May there are eating contests, races, patriotic bands and orators. In 1909, William Howard Taft the President of the United States is the guest of honor.
Image and text lifted from "Turn of the Twentieth Century Life in Charlotte 1900-1910," a website of Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. http://www.cmstory.org/1900/default.asp?heading=10&page=87. Click on image for larger version.

In 1819 The Raleigh Register published a version of the Meck Dec said to have been reconstructed from memory 40 years after the fact by John McNitt Alexander, another signer and the meeting’s recording secretary (Hezekiah’s brother; five different Alexanders are recorded as having signed the Meck Dec.) He acknowledged his reconstruction might not be completely accurate. For one thing, he had rewritten the whole thing in the past tense.

Historians today are by and large dubious about the Meck Dec’s authenticity. Folks in Charlotte need no convincing. A Charlotte Public Library website poll says that 77% of respondents believe the document is real. Of course, there were only 471 voters, and there’s no record whether any of them were bona fide historians (or descendants of the Alexander clan). Anyway, it's kind of like taking an opinion poll on global warming.

Let the doubting Thomases doubt. History makes clear that there was a meeting on May 19-20, 1775, that was memorialized in some kind of written outrage and stated opposition to British rule. Charlotte’s founding fathers were among the first to take a public stand against British tyranny and for American Independence. The North Carolina state flag and seal proudly bear the date, May 20, 1775.

And what of the actual words? Even if they matched exactly, Jefferson is off the hook. It turns out the passages in question probably weren’t ones he put into the Declaration of Independence. They were inserted in place of sentiments of his that had been rejected by the Continental Congress.

The replacement passages were most likely penned in by Richard Henry Lee, another notable founding father from Virginia. (He was the first cousin once removed to the father of Henry Lee III, known to those who were paying attention in elementary school history class as Light Horse Harry Lee, a military hero of the Revolution and in turn the father of another notable military hero, Robert E. Lee.)

The Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was supposedly signed by more than twenty-five prominent citizens of Mecklenburg County on May. 20, 1775. Biographies of each can be found on the Charlotte Library Website at http://www.cmstory.org/meckdec/bios.asp?id=1492844342
Abraham Alexander Adam Alexander
Charles Alexander Ezra Alexander
Hezekiah Alexander John Alexander
Waightstill Avery Hezekiah Balch
Richard Barry Ephraim Brevard
John Davidson Henry Downs
John Flennekin John Foard
William Graham James Harris
Richard Harris Robert Irwin
William Kennon Matthew McClure
Neill Morrison Duncan Ochiltree
Benjamin Patton John Phifer
Thomas Polk John Queary
David Reese Zaccheus Wilson

Richard Henry Lee, among many notable accomplishments, served as sixth President of the United States in Congress assembled under the Articles of Confederation, from Nov 30, 1784, to Nov 22, 1785.

That's right. On top of everything else, George Washington wasn't really—at least not technically—our country's first President. Plus, Paul Revere never really made it to Concord. The Battle of Bunker Hill was fought on Breed’s Hill. Washington wasn’t even standing up in the rowboat. And Jefferson? Well, who knows what he really did? They don't in Charlotte.

History is full of stuff like that.

Text presented as the "Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence" by the Raleigh Register on April 30, 1819:

1. Resolved, That whosoever directly or indirectly abetted, or in any way, form, or manner, countenanced the unchartered and dangerous invasion of our rights, as claimed by Great Britain, is an enemy to this County, to America, and to the inherent and inalienable rights of man.

2. Resolved, That we the citizens of Mecklenburg County, do hereby dissolve the political bands which have connected us to the Mother Country, and hereby absolve ourselves from all allegiance to the British Crown, and abjure all political connection, contract, or association, with that Nation, who have wantonly trampled on our rights and liberties and inhumanly shed the innocent blood of American patriots at Lexington.

3. Resolved, That we do hereby declare ourselves a free and independent people, are, and of right ought to be, a sovereign and self-governing Association, under the control of no power other than that of our God and the General Government of the Congress; to the maintenance of which independence, we solemnly pledge to each other, our mutual cooperation, our lives, our fortunes, and our most sacred honor.

4. Resolved, That as we now acknowledge the existence and control of no law or legal officer, civil or military, within this County, we do hereby ordain and adopt, as a rule of life, all, each and every of our former laws - where, nevertheless, the Crown of Great Britain never can be considered as holding rights, privileges, immunities, or authority therein.

5. Resolved, That it is also further decreed, that all, each and every military officer in this County, is hereby reinstated to his former command and authority, he acting conformably to these regulations, and that every member present of this delegation shall henceforth be a civil officer, viz. a Justice of the Peace, in the character of a 'Committee-man,' to issue process, hear and determine all matters of controversy, according to said adopted laws, and to preserve peace, and union, and harmony, in said County, and to use every exertion to spread the love of country and fire of freedom throughout America, until a more general and organized government be established in this province.

4/28/07 - Queen's Cup Steeplechase: A Little Jewel in Charlotte's Crown
Charlotte is nicknamed the Queen City (just like San Francisco, Cincinnati, both Marion and Terre Haute. IN, Bangor, ME, Cumberland, MD, Springfield, MO, Seattle, WA, Spearfish, SD, and a host of other towns—the list is too long to tick off in its entirety here).

But Charlotte is named for a real queen (just like the borough of Queens, NY, which was named for Catherine of Braganza, queen-consort to Charles II). Charlotte of Mecklenburg was the wife of England's King George III—yeah, that King George.

A statue of Queen Charlotte (which looks like she's skateboarding) adorns the airport, and there's another one in "Uptown" Charlotte.

The folks of the Piedmont region showed little affection for their British monarch in the period leading up to the rebellion (the first rebellion).
During the American Revolution, Lord Cornwallis described Charlotte as "a hornet's nest of rebellion." (Hence Charlotte's first basketball team's name—now they're the Bobcats, but that's a whole 'nother story.)

The locals did take a big shine to George's German-born queen for some reason, and the affection remains, even today. Charlotte is the county seat of Mecklenburg County, named for Queen Charlotte's home town. All the street

signs are decorated with a little crown shaped like an articulated "M." Lots of things in the area are named after Charlotte or acknowledge her in one way or another. Queens College is one. The steeplechase is another. It's a namesake of which she would likely approve. I'm not really royalty, but I was pretty impressed, too.

The Queen's Cup Steeplechase is an annual event, a day of races measured in miles rather than furlongs and run over a rolling, verdant course set in a place called Brooklandwood, which is located not in Charlotte actually, and not even in Mecklenburg County, but in a little town called Mineral Springs, pop 1,370, in neighboring Union County. It's approximately 30 miles southeast of downtown—or as they say here, "Uptown"—Charlotte. It's rural. Our trip there was delayed at one point when traffic stopped because two farmers were trying to rope a runaway calf along the side of the road. The mother cow could be heard lowing with concern in an adjacent field. True.

(Where I am is already about 20 miles south of Charlotte, and the sign at my exit on the beltway says "Downtown," so I figure that's actually where I am. I don't think they mean it that way, but that's the way I figure it.)

Charlotte does not have, even locals will admit, the smack and feel of a city of the deep South. The city fathers don't stand much on tradition or history. No Civil War monuments. No major battlefields, from either the Revolutionary or the Civil War. Three famous encounters with the British, the Waxhaws Massacre and the battles of Kings Mountain and Cowpens did take place nearby, but Charlotte saw virtually no military action during the civil war, although it did serve as the location for the Confederate Mint. Before that, it was a Federal Mint, but after the war it didn't get its old job back.
Thrills and spills. Steeplechase means hurdles, both hedges and, as they say, timber, and they can be dangerous to both horse and rider. Several spontaneous dismounts of the sort depicted above occurred this day, some of which we got to examine up close. Tough way to make a living.

Charlotte was also the site of a Confederate Naval Yard, even though it's 150 miles from the coast and not on a major river. But that was because the naval yard was basically a munitions dump. The Norfolk Yard was too close to the Yankee lines and subject to attack. So they moved the munitions here and then wound up blowing it up themselves by accident, and that was the end of that.

It's worth noting that Charlotte is where Jefferson Davis was when he got word that Lincoln had been shot. History records he knew right away that without the moderating influence of Lincoln a far more vengeful attitude toward the rebellious South would take hold in Washington. He is quoted as having said, "Next to the destruction of the Confederacy, the death of Abraham Lincoln was the darkest day the South has ever known."

Today uptown Charlotte features the thinnest of historical districts, and no "old town" per se. For years they've been dedicated to putting up new, and they tear down everything that gets in the way. I've been living here a year, and only recently I came upon Old Settlers' Cemetery a couple of blocks off the center of downtown. It has graves going back to the 1700s, and that's the first thing I've found around here that predates 1970.

But the Steeplechase is one venue that exhales a fairly deep breath of Southern charm. A Mint Julep in hand would feel right at home here. The women are all turned out in stylishly cut sundresses and wide-brimmed hats.

The men sport blazers, seersucker suits, striped ties and suspenders. There's not a pair of jeans in sight except on a few grooms. Tables and tents are set up along the hills that rise from the track replete with candelabra, flowers, stem glassware and fine china.

We were guests of Providence Day School. Our real estate agent, Mark Joyce, was president this year of the school's alumni association , which arranges the space and caters the food for the school and its guests. No candelabra but a fine spread, including some of the best Southern Fried Chicken I've ever had and an endless supply of beer. We were grateful for their hospitality, and they treated us graciously even though we were nothing but freeloaders. By way of saying thanks, a brief profile of the school.

Providence Day School, founded in 1970, is an independent, coeducational college preparatory school set on a 45-acre campus in southeast Charlotte. The school stresses academic excellence, personal integrity and social responsibility. During the 2006-07 school year 1490 students were enrolled in Transitional Kindergarten thru grade 12, 13% of whom represented minorities.

The school’s faculty comprised 168 full-time and part-time men and women. 42% hold advanced degrees in their field. Last year, 100% of graduates enrolled in four-year colleges or universities, and 95% of the Upper School students participated in extracurricular opportunities.

More than seventy-five percent of students take Advanced Placement courses. Typically, twenty-five percent of graduates qualify as second semester college freshmen and another ten percent graduate with enough credits to enter college as sophomores. In 2006, 233 students took 416 AP exams in 23 subject areas 93% of the scores were a "3" or higher. 70 % were "4's" or "5's". Fifteen students were named National Merit Finalists and 17 were named Commended Students by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC) over the past two years. Two were named National Achievement Scholars, and 98 were named AP Scholars during the fall of 2006. Fifty-six percent of the graduating class were offered 2.6 million dollars in scholarship awards.

Providence Day School fields 56 interscholastic teams in 19 varsity sports. Last year, 1,030 student-athletes (grades 7-12) participated on one or more teams, and 74 seniors played one or more sports. There were 7 college signings, 86 student-athletes received All Conference Honors, 37 were named to all-state teams and two were named Academic All Americans.

In 2003, Providence Day was recognized as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the United States Department of Education.

Next year's Steeplechase will be the thirteenth annual (April 26), and we're already fixing to go. I've been shopping around for some seersucker, and it would do my heart good to see June (my wife, not the month) in some cleavage again. Y'all find yourselves down this way the last week of April, you might consider paying a visit, too. Dress up nice.
The Queen's Cup Steeplechase: some facts and figures

Sanctioned by the National Steeplechase Association, the sanctioning body of steeplechase racing in the United States. Held annually in April.
Six races: 4 over national fences, one over timber, one flat.
Distances: Longest, three miles and one furlong; shortest, mile and a quarter.
Total of Day's Purses: $105,000 plus trophies for all races.
Feature Race: 4th, Queen's Cup Allowance Hurdle, two miles and one quarter over national fences, $25,000 purse.
Average Attendance: 10,000 - 15,000.
Money raised for Charity through Steeplechase venues: $350,000+ since 1995.
General Admission Fee: $23 in advance ($30 on race day) + $10 parking.
Website: www.queenscup.com