The sad story of Robert Harris–one of the first Americans to die in World War II

From John Hennessy:

Sadness touched Fredericksburg earlier than most communities at the start of World War II–two years before the US was officially involved in the war. It was a fact starkly driven home to me when I stumbled upon the memorial stone to Robert Shenton Harris in the City Cemetery.

Harris's grave in the City Cemetery

Robert Shenton Harris, whose father Robert ran a grocery store on William Street (where the Free Lance-Star now stands) and whose mother Susie Shenton Harris managed a household at 1308 Winchester Street, did what many students do when they graduate from college: he decided to take a trip before enrolling in graduate school at Cornell University.

The Harris family store on William Street before World War II.

The summer of 1939, Harris and his friend Bill Buchannan of Danville set out for Europe–into a region aboil with unrest and talk of war. They started their tour on bikes, eventually switching to trains, taking up with locals, even at one point joining in a salute of Hitler (long before the world recongnized the Hitler we know). But in August, Robert’s grandmother died, and his father cabled him asking him to return early. He did, booking passage on the S.S. Athenia, along with 1,103 other souls, departing Liverpool on September 3, 1939.

Two days before his departure, Germany invaded Poland. And just hours before Athenia pulled out of the docks at Liverpool, Great Britain declared war on Germany. That evening, 60 miles off the Irish coast, a German U-boat spotted Athenia. A single torpedo ripped into the passenger liner, and the doomed ship starting sinking by the stern.

Royal Navy vessels and merchant ships rushed to the scene. Most of the passengers were rescued, including Robert’s companion Bill Buchanan. But what happened to Robert Harris in the minutes and hours to follow is not known. Perhaps he died in the initial blast. More likely he died when one of the lifeboats was crushed in the propeller of one of the rescue ships. In any event, he was one of 117 who did not survive the disaster, one of 28 Americans. Robert Harris was among the first of more than 400,000 Americans who would die in World War II.

From the Free Lance-Star, September 5, 1939.

Robert’s sister, Anne Harris Skinner, told me the family heard on the radio that Athenia had been torpedoed (the ship did not sink until September 4), and they knew Robert was on board. A reporter from the Free Lance-Star visited the house, asking for news, seeking a photo. The family waited for news–hoping that a rescue ship had taken Robert to some as-yet unreported port. A week…two…three…and then it became obvious that he was lost. His body was never recovered.

The family declined offers for any sort of memorial service, though finally Robert’s parents agreed to place a memorial stone in the cemetery. Anne Harris Skinner, 16 at the time of her brother’s death, went on to become a USO girl in Fredericksburg during the war, providing company to visiting soldiers at the USO center on Canal Street–today the Dorothy Hart Community Center. Today she lives in California.

Robert Harris's home on Winchester Street.

The memorial stone for Robert Shenton Harris is located near the front wall of the City Cemetery, about 100 feet to the left of the main gate on Amelia Street.  His parents are buried next to him, and his grandmother–whose death prompted his change of plans–next to them.  The Harris family was the first of dozens of Fredericksburg families that would suffer crushing sadness over the next six years.

My thanks to Anne Harris Skinner for sharing with me her memories and some of her photographs.

Waysides at Chatham

From John Hennessy:

1978. That’s when the most recent exhibits were installed at Chatham, just three years after the NPS acquired the place from John Lee Pratt. But this week, that’s changing. New wayside exhibits are going in–exhibits that interpret the landscape, slavery, and give visitors something of an overview.  Here are some images from the work ongoing.

New exhibits near the parking lot.

At no time prior to 1860 was the white population likely more than 20% of the whole at Chatham. Several of the new exhibits interpret Chatham's majority population.

Two new exhibits interpret what is likely the most famous view in the Fredericksburg region--from Chatham looking into Fredericksburg.

Interpreting what was historically Chatham's back side, now its front.

The display of pontoon boats and two exhibits overlook the site of the December 11, 1862, pontoon crossing by Union soldiers.

A Cold War oddity–in Fredericksburg

From John Hennessy:  While going through some photo files yesterday at the Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, I came across this aerial view of Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, apparently taken in the 1960s.

Look at the top of the image. There’s a jet fighter sitting along Kenmore Avenue, on the site of what is today the tennis courts. It was an obsolete F-9H fighter, phased out in 1959. This specimen came from Dahlgren–hauled with wings folded on the back of a truck–donated as a “World War II” memorial, even though the plane didn’t fly until six years after the war. Kids were free to climb on it at will.

But what happened to it?

Port Jervis, Manila Bay, and Beyond: Defining and Re-Defining Chancellorsville Through Its Different Connections

from: Harrison          

Recently, I’ve found myself impressed by the wide variety of stories, some clearly related and others less obviously so, to which the week-long campaign of Chancellorsville is linked in our collective understanding and memory.  These stories are connections of a sort that stand largely independent of one another and exert enough influence to dramatically redefine the campaign when we look through the lens that each provides. 

Chancellorsville thus comes to possess strikingly different identities simultaneously; it’s an event, for example, that kills a great general, inspires a moving photograph, or influences the writing of a classic novel.  I am also interested in a related phenomenon:  connections and stories that at one time exerted such influence over the popular understanding of Chancellorsville but do so no longer.    

In an effort to understand better the capacity of a given historical subject to hold simultaneous connection with multiple stories that redefine it, I have adopted the “chemistry” analogy described below.       

In the most enduring example of this re-defining, Chancellorsville’s myriad far-flung events become understood essentially as the lead-up to and then the wind-down from the mortal wounding of Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on May 2, 1863.  Whether fully or partially, consciously or unconsciously (or somewhere in-between, as Eric J. Mink has discussed in a post about the selection of a location for the visitor center), a narrative of Chancellorsville overall is thus defined down to one of its component stories.              

Yet even the incredible drama and impact of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding have not given that story a monopoly over the defining of Chancellorsville.  Beginning in the 1960’s, some students of Chancellorsville and of Stephen Crane’s writing publicized, and thus reinforced, a very different connection for the campaign:  Chancellorsville as the historical inspiration for the battle in The Red Badge of Courage, a novel that makes no reference to Stonewall Jackson.  (Its pages likewise assign no specific designation to the battle; Crane identified the setting as Chancellorsville only in a relatively obscure short-story published after Red Badge was released, a short story in which his protagonist, Henry Fleming, spoke as a veteran.)          

A first-edition of The Red Badge of Courage.

The work of scholars such as Harold Hungerford, Charles J. LaRocca, Stephen W. Sears, and John Hennessy—Hennessy in an annual Red Badge of Courage evening-tour on the battlefield itself—changed this.  Their interpretations have traced in detail how Chancellorsville came to provide the stage, or at least essential framing for the stage, upon which Henry Fleming had his classic, unforgettable immersion in combat.           

As is the case, I suspect, with other aspects of the Civil War, the postwar interpretation and re-defining of Chancellorsville includes a dynamic that I’ve taken to thinking about in terms of chemistry (especially now that I can rely on Wikipedia rather than on vague but traumatic recollections of my eleventh-grade chemistry class): the campaign as an electron shared by more than one atom.  With each additional “atom,” the Chancellorsville electron acquires an additional interpretation or defintion.  The story of Chancellorsville is shared, for instance, by the story of Jackson’s decisive Confederate career spanning a number of different battles, but also by the story of  Stephen Crane’s extraordinary imagining—mainly in a lodge in Port Jervis, New York in the 1890’s—of a war fought when Crane was only a child.  To cite yet another example of the phenomenon, historian John F. Cummings III has just offered a new analysis, here and here, of a famous connection for the Chancellorsville campaign that references neither Jackson nor The Red Badge of Courage:  early war-photography. 
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A star comes to Fredericksburg

From John Hennessy:

Greer Garson speaking at Maury Field, September 10, 1942. Image courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

Fredericksburg has always been small enough to get excited when someone big comes to town (unless it’s Abraham Lincoln, whose visit here during the Civil War stimulated “no demonstrations of joy… from any of the citizens,” said the local newspaper). Few visits have stimulated more anticipation and excitement–surely a mixture of patriotic fervor and starstruck awe–than British-born actress Greer Garson’s trip to Fredericksburg to sell war bonds on September 10, 1942, at the height of World War II. At the time, Greer Garson was perhaps the most popular actress on earth. Her Oscar-nominated film Random Harvest had just finished its nationwide run; the magnificent Mrs. Miniver (for which she would win an Oscar in 1943) was then in theaters. The Free Lance-Star fairly gushed at the prospect of her coming, tossing away any pretense of gender neutrality—titling an editorial about her appearance “Beauty and the Bonds.”  “It has been a long time since Fredericksburg entertained a movie star of Miss Garson’ stature—not we believe since Gloria Swanson spent some time here in 1926—and it is going to be fun.  But remember, folks, buying War Bonds is the big idea and Miss Garson won’t let you forget it.”

For Garson, Fredericksburg was the second of three rallies she would do on September 10. She arrived from Winchester and crossed the Falmouth Bridge at 12:15–about 45 minutes late—and went straight on to James Monroe High School at what we today know as Maury School. There more than 2,000 people awaited on the football field.   

It cost attendees $200 in bonds to have lunch with Garson at the Princess Anne Hotel. Courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

She appeared in “a red fez, with cock feathers of green and red.  Her travelling suit was of aqua,” with a corsage of orange and red gladiolas–a variegated pallet that more than a few noted.  The paper wrote delicately:  “Some people were momentarily shocked by the vivid colors of her ensemble, but when she talked in such a friendly and sincere manner all was forgotten except the compelling charm of her personality.”

She spoke for about ten minutes and then was whisked through town to a luncheon at the Princess Anne Hotel (which today houses offices on Princess Anne Street)–open to anyone willing to buy at least $200 in bonds.  After lunch, she posed for pictures, and then sped up Route 1 to another rally in Alexandria.  Her stop in Fredericksburg helped sell $160,000 in bonds, wiping out the city’s $59,000 shortfall for the year.

The fatigue that would ultimately hospitalize Garson is clearly visible in this image. Does anyone know who the officer is? Courtesy Historic Fredericksburg Foundation.

The FLS rejoiced at the visit, but young reporter Charles Rowe offered a sobering assessment of “the Hollywood Queen”—one that surely displeased her publicist.

“Visibly worn and haggard from her exhausting trip on behalf of the Treasury Department, Miss Garson definitely lacked the exquisite beauty movie goers in “Goodbye, Mr Chips…and Mrs. Miniver….  Days of speeches and luncheons have left their mark on the lovely…actress.  The dulcet voice theater goers remember has become worn from countless addresses on the tour…”

In fact, within the week Greer Garson was hospitalized for exhaustion.

Fredericksburg’s experience during World War II has several interesting wrinkles, and we’ll explore of them as we go forward. Next, we’ll look at the single biggest event in Fredericksburg during the war…and it had nothing to do with the war at all.

Slave revolt at Chatham

From John Hennessy, (for more on the slave landscape at Chatham see Eric Mink’s posts on Mysteries and Conundrums here and here):

The laundry at Chatham, once the domain of Chatham's slaves.

The laundry at Chatham, once the domain of Chatham’s slaves.

The park’s superintendent, Russ Smith, recently found this vivid letter and affidavit at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (which has become truly an important repository over the last many years). It, more than anything else we have ever seen, explains the origins and nature of the slave revolt at Chatham on January 2, 1805.  By way of context, Chatham was still owned at the time by its builder, William Fitzhugh, but he had removed his residence to Alexandria, leaving supervision of Chatham’s slaves to a new overseer named Starke. Starke had managed to antagonize at least a part of the resident slaves at Chatham, and after the holidays some rose in a spontaneous act of defiance that resulted in death and confusion. One slave died in the battle that followed, and a white man was mortally injured.

The affidavit included here was sent by a local Falmouth Resident, William Richards, to Governor John Page, seeking clemency for one of the slaves implicated (and sentenced to hang) in the rebellion–a man named Robin. Robin was likely well-known to his owner Fitzhugh as a determined soul; in a 1797 letter Fitzhugh recorded that he “had him whip’d and continue to do whenever he comes” to Chatham (Robin was then likely being employed at Eagle’s Nest, another of Fitzhugh’s plantations in King George County.  The request for clemency ultimately worked. Robin was spared, though he was likely deported to the Caribbean.

The Chatham slave revolt is one of the few uprisings recorded in the Fredericksburg area, and the only one I know of that resulted in death to either the slaves or their white controllers.

The document is ripe for extensive analysis…and indeed we will take a look at it in increasing detail over time. But here it is, unimproved.  Our thanks to Russ Smith for turning this up. Continue reading

Should parks be museums of interpretive expression, too?

From Hennessy (originally posted on Mysteries and Conundrums, but this is more properly a topic for Fredericksburg Remembered. See also Noel Harrison’s musings on the future of new monuments.):

Unlike most governments, whose planning horizons can’t extend too far beyond the next election, planning and management of an NPS site has to look forward decades, even centuries. These places are, after all, supposed to be as vivid and meaningful to Americans in 1,000 years as they are today.  At the same time, battlefields have become a setting where Americans across generations have expressed themselves toward their past.  The veterans were most ardent about this, of course, but later generations have also found need to leave a mark in the form of monuments–from the Centennial to as recent as last May, when South Carolina dedicated a monument near the Bloody Angle. In the last fifteen years, the NPS as a whole has recognized the long-term implications of a continuous accumulation of memorial expressions and has put in place a very tough process for getting a monument in a National Park approved. Rightly so.

But we are left still with an even more numerous form of expression:  interpretive exhibits and signs.  At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP, the park does not have the old War Department markers that are so common at Gettysburg, Antietam, and other  battlefield parks created before 1933, but we do have a fondly regarded layer of interpretation dating from the 1950s: the Happel signs, mentioned by Craig Swain in his post of yesterday.  These are cast aluminum, text-only signs (a few later attempts at imitation include some simple graphics) intended to be read from your vehicle, planned and written by long-time staff historian Ralph Happel.  Here’s an example of a set on Grant Drive at Spotsylvania.

Like many, this set of signs includes a companion cast-aluminum map, also from the 1950s.  These signs are beautifully written, generally accurate, and their distinctive form has become closely identified with the park.  Some local developers have even copied the style, and a few grace local subdivisions.

But, they are upright and huge.  They were designed in a different age, when the intent was for visitors to tour the park in their cars, without much footwork on the ground (though over time they were often put in places only accessible to pedestrians).  And the maps that accompany them are invariably badly out of date. As an added joy, they need to be hand-painted every few years.

The park is in the process of installing new wayside exhibits throughout the park; indeed, Spotsylvania is the final component of that project.  The wayside project stimulated an interesting, sometimes intense discussion about the future of the Happel signs.  Some staff members wanted them to remain, feeling them to be an integral part of the park’s identity and landscape–that our new exhibits should work around them.  Others in the NPS and public have argued that we should preserve them as historic–as manifestations of the park’s evolving approach to onsite interpretation over the decades.  Others among the staff and public were ambivalent (not necessarily disinterested).  I had strong views in the other direction.  Our ultimate solution:  the park is keeping the Happel signs at sites that are “drive-by”–that is, at sites that we cannot have or don’t necessarily wish to have visitors get out of their cars.  Several, for example, will remain along Jackson Trail.  But where we want visitors to be on the site, we are removing them.

Here is an example of what’s going in throughout the park: Continue reading

Are we historians or memorialists? part II: some thoughts

From John Hennessy, NPS.

In our last, we posed the question–speaking of those who work at NPS battlefield sites–are we historians or memorialists?  Today, some thoughts in response.  [By the way, for those of you interested in the public memory of the Civil War, visit on a regular basis Kevin Levin’s blog, Civil War Memory.  He stirs things up in a way public historians generally cannot.]

Veterans of the 114th Pennsylvania dedicate their monument at Chancellorsville.

Historians or memorialists?  I’d offer that we are a bit of both.  We must be.  As I pointed out the other day, many NPS sites come to us directly from participants or descendants.   Are we not affected by the mandate or wishes of those who bequeath their legacy to us?  Of course we are.  Should we be?  Absolutely, unabashedly.  The National Park Service, as part of the government, is charged with helping to sustain our nation—its identity, its values, its memory.  We as a nation acquired and accepted these battlefields as a form of tribute and commemoration to those who fought on those grounds.   Continuing to fulfill that mandate is a moral and national obligation. We are not, and should not be, above the forces of historical memory and tradition.

Does that imply some restraint, some compromise in our practice of history? No question, but those compromises must come largely in the realm of presentation rather than substance. We have a mandate to be respectful, thoughtful, careful, both to the history we present and to our visitors. We’re not out there to create mayhem and controversy.

But pure devotion to the role of NPS sites as memorials (and NPS historians as memorialists) necessarily commands us to narrow the scope of our historical inquiry–to limit ourselves only to those things that support that narrowed mission. Jerry Russell, the late, heroic battlefield preservationist and perhaps the greatest of all advocates of the continued and singular view of battlefields as memorials, felt strongly that that’s exactly what we should do.  His rationale rested on his belief (shared by many) that the nation needs a single heritage, a single national memory:  “This nation’s future and survival rests upon all Americans having a shared experience, a shared understanding of American history, a shared language, and a shared culture–a culture that unites us, not one which divides us.”  One version. A common understanding.  A single memory.

But the obvious question: whose memory becomes The One? White Southerners? Northern abolitionists? Slaves? The women North and South who jumped into industrial jobs?

As it relates to the Civil War, Jerry’s wish for a singular, uncontested memory was an American reality for probably a century (he famously often said that we don’t really need to understand WHY soldiers were fighting; we need only know that they did, where, and how).  Most scholarship focused on drilling deeper into the narrative of the Civil War, revealing details about battles and leaders that were and are sometimes compelling and interesting. Public historians (including myself, the author of two books on battles) joined and reflected the search for detail. Often lacking in our work–and antithetical to the downward drill for detail–was the upward quest for understanding and meaning.

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Are we historians or memorialists?

From John Hennessy, NPS (f0r Part II of this post, click here):

A significant percentage of historic sites  managed by the NPS (or the stories related to them) were received either literally or symbolically from the participants in the event or their descendants. Port Chicago, Jimmy Carter, LBJ in the Texas Hill Country (one of the best presidential sites), the Selma to Montgomery Trail, Martin Luther King, Jr., NHS in Atlanta, the World War II Memorial, Manzanar, and dozens of others.  Among these are Civil War Battlefields.  While most were privately owned prior to the War Department or the NPS taking over, there can be little doubt that the stories–indeed the history–associated with these sites were the domain, first, of the veterans, and then their descendants.  A few, like Manassas, were literally owned first by the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  Descendant groups like the SCV still stake a powerful claim of ownership to the history of these sites and the way they are interpreted to the public.

D.S. Freeman was the featured speaker at the 1935 re-enactment at Chancellorsville. Note the immense battle map behind the podium.

The passage of virtually all these sites–most Civil War battlefields included–came with at least a tacit bargain that the NPS would continue to interpret the site in accordance with the participants’ wishes and inclinations (or those of their descendants). At Manassas, that understanding was explicit; it was enshrined in the deed that conveyed the first 130 acres to the NPS in 1936, which declared that the NPS would “care for and preserve this battlefield without prejudice to either the North or the South” and not detract from “the glory due Confederate heroes.”

The emphasis was on remembering, memorializing, and inspiring–and not on engaging in controversy or conversations that might bring scrutiny to the motivations of either side. The scope of the historians’ work was kept narrow, focusing on the narrative of the event only, with some later emphasis (in the 60s and 70s) on the human experience of battle.  As one 1930s NPS historian at Fredericksburg put it, “the most effective way to memorialize the epic deeds of our forbears is [by] sound instruction in the how and wherefore of those great events with all their inspirational quality.”

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