December 17, 2015
‘Mystery’ Diary Reveals Civil War Life In Tennessee
By Jill Cowan
Nashville, TN (AP) Its marble-printed cardboard cover made the journal look ordinary — like something you could pick up at Barnes and Noble today — hiding the brittle, yellowing pages covered with fine script inside.
A penciled inscription on the front page was retired science teacher Andrea Shearn’s only clue to its origins.
``Captured at Fort Henry, Stewart Co., Middle Tennessee Feb. 6 1862 by Captain M. Wemple Co. H 4th Ill. Volunteer Cavalry. Presented to Mrs. Sue Wemple.’’
Like a bunch of old stuff from her parents’ house in Cincinnati, Shearn shipped it home to San Francisco. She wasn’t sure what else to do with it.
But now, about two years later, the contents of the diary are set to be published in Tennessee’s historical quarterly as part of what historians say is one of the most illuminating Civil War-era accounts of life in the state.
And Shearn’s unlikely discovery, it turned out, was the key.
Diary of Randall McGavock
The diary itself is stored in an acid-free file folder alongside eight other diaries written by Randal William McGavock, a Confederate officer, Democratic politician and member of one of the region’s most prominent families of that time.
Most of his papers have been at the Tennessee State Library and Archives since 1960, with one glaring omission, historians said. Missing was the slim book in which McGavock detailed his life from Oct. 1, 1860 to Feb. 5, 1862.
That was the day Confederate soldiers fled Fort Henry as Union troops closed in. As was common, the victors picked over the belongings left behind.
McGavock was an unusually rigorous record-keeper, State Librarian and Archivist Chuck Sherrill said as he leafed delicately through the newest addition.
``He was obviously very disciplined about sitting down at his little lap desk every day,’’ Sherrill said.
And as a member of the region’s political class — the Harvard-educated lawyer served as mayor of Nashville from 1858 to 1859 — his writings provide clear insight into Tennessee’s shift from conciliatory to secessionist.
``Watching the progression of his thinking during the period in that diary gives you a window into how a lot of other Tennesseans were thinking at that time as well,’’ Sherrill said.
Sherrill said that because it includes the critical period surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s election as president, the diary is of particular historic interest.
In early October 1860, before Lincoln was elected, McGavock wrote that, ``all parties in Tenn. Were lovers of the Union and opposed to secession . “
By mid-December, his views had changed. He described reading a senator’s letter published one day in the Union and American, a local newspaper.
``He says that it is certain that five of the cotton states will be out by the 4th of March and he thinks the other three will follow soon,’’ McGavock wrote. ``Tennessee and the other slave states will have, he thinks, to go with the South or form a separate confederacy. Thus dividing the Union into three parts.’’
McGavock continued: ``I oppose his plan in toto. (sic) I desire to see the South unite and demand of the north a rigid compliance with our compact of confederation.’’
To be sure, much of McGavock’s writing centers on the routine.
He mentions visiting his relatives at Carnton Plantation in Franklin, for instance, and calling on an official for tea in Tullahoma.
``Occupied the day in the Courts and in my office,’’ he wrote on Dec. 7, 1860. ``No news.’’
Sherrill said that if you read closely, you can learn about the minor romantic intrigues and spats among family members.
Skim through and there’s also a dark side to the writings, at least through the lens of history and to a modern reader.
Days of entries will pass without a mention of the era’s fundamental conflict — slavery.
And then a chilling reminder.
``The excitement of the times has reduced the price of negroes one half. Mr. Shaffer offered me today two No. 1 negro men for $1800, which would have sold for $2800 six months ago.’’
Sherrill said that primary, handwritten sources like diaries create a more visceral sense of life during a given time period — for better or worse.
``You get a much more personal connection,’’ he said.
McGavock died on May 12, 1863, killed in battle at Raymond, Miss.
Shearn, who has lived in California for years, said that she was never much of a history buff.
She had, however, recently gotten into genealogy when she stumbled upon the diary in a wooden box on a shelf.
That’s why the name Wemple rang a bell, even if McGavock meant nothing at the time.
``My dad’s family, the Wemple family, has been in the U.S. since 1620,’’ she said. ``It was pretty funny to follow that all the way back. I used Ancestry.com.’’
An auction house told her she might get a couple hundred bucks for what appeared to be another of many soldiers’ diaries, pocketed by a Union soldier and quietly passed down through her family.
She hung onto the diary, and eventually, idle curiosity turned into a months-long endeavor.
Shearn slogged through a transcription, typing slowly with frequent pauses to Google places and people.
``If I’d found it 20 years ago, I couldn’t have made any sense of it,’’ she said.
She figured out that the diary’s author was from Middle Tennessee, so she looked up a genealogist from the area and asked her for help.
The genealogist told her she should reach out to the state library and archives. Shearn offered to donate the document.
Shearn also got in touch with Roderick Heller — a Franklin preservationist who counts the McGavock family as part of his own ancestry — through what she described as a ``fluke’’ mutual acquaintance.
When Heller got the call, he said, he was shocked.
``I literally was silent for a minute and said, `You have the missing McGavock diary,’ “ he recalled on a recent afternoon.
The two agreed to co-edit the volume and Shearn and her husband arranged to visit the area.
``We were just blown away when we saw McGavock streets and McGavock High School,’’ she said. ``Who would have ever thought?’’
The Boston Yeti Is Back, And Here’s What He’s Been Up To
By William J. Kole
Boston, MA (AP) - The Boston Yeti is back — just in time for another winter.
The furry phantom provided much-needed comic relief last winter when the city fell siege to a record 9 feet of snow by running around in costume and stopping to help dig out stranded drivers. He kicks off another season next week with an appearance at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Brattle creative director Ned Hinkle says the Yeti — who still hasn’t publicly revealed his true identity — will take the stage Dec. 17 at a screening of ``Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’’ and field questions from the public.
``He brought people together and gave us some respite from the ridiculous amount of snow we had to endure,’’ Hinkle said. ``We hope he won’t be needed as much this winter.’’
The Associated Press caught up with Boston’s favorite folk hero on Friday via email:
The Boston Yeti, during one of last year’s snow storms
AP: We haven’t heard much from you since the snow melted in spring. How did your hibernation go?
Boston Yeti: Hibernation provided all of the relaxation and rejuvenation I had hoped for! Believe it or not, I spent a lot of time at the movies, catching up on comedies and documentaries at the Brattle Theater. Under the dark of night I would also occasionally escape to a midnight movie at the Coolidge Corner Theater. (Aside from that mostly just playing solitaire in the woods.)
AP: Everyone’s worried about this coming winter, wondering if we’re going to get whacked by blizzards again. What’s the Yeti’s forecast?
Boston Yeti: The warm weather here in Boston that caught everyone off guard earlier this week will soon show signs of letting up, just in time for Christmas! Conditions in the coming weeks, while cooler, will also bring bouts of rain and clouds. Furthermore, my instincts tell me we will experience significant snow in January with periodic flurries throughout February and into March. Snowshoers, skiers and sledders alike will rejoice! And to those folks who are fearful of another brutal winter and eager to avoid it I say: Think warm and see you at the movies!
AP: What have you asked Santa to bring you for Christmas?
Boston Yeti: The last I spoke with Santa I had four gifts in mind: a Fitbit, slow cooker, slippers and joy for all New Englanders. I’ve been mighty good this year so I’m hoping he’ll come through — but if he can only manage one of the gifts then I hope it’s the last one.
AP: There’s a new smartphone app that people can use to get help shoveling snow. Not surprisingly, it’s called ``Yeti.’’ What do you make of that?
Boston Yeti: Imitation is the best form of flattery.
AP: We’re in an election cycle. Would you ever consider running for office?
Boston Yeti: First things first. I need to register to vote. After that, I’m considering starting my own party: The Yetiquality For All Party (YFAP.) If elected I would ensure free snow removal for all and offer nationwide, bi-monthly hugs to anyone in need of one. In fact, I’ve already spoken with Santa and Bigfoot and they’ve both agreed to serve as YFAP chairperson and secretary, respectively. We’ll see what happens!
In 1977, Reviews Of The Original Star Wars Varied Greatly
By The Associated Press
When George Lucas’ ``Star Wars’’ first landed in 1977, some critics were swept away, while others resisted the tide. A sampling:
```Star Wars’ is like getting a box of Cracker Jacks which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience.
Scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, opening this week
There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. ... It’s an epic without a dream.’’ Pauline Kael, The New Yorker.
```Star Wars’ taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it’s done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we’d abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories.’’ Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.
``Strip `Star Wars’ of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ``future’’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like, that, in downtown Los Angeles today... O dull new world!’’ John Simon, New York magazine.
```Star Wars’ ... is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of `Flash Gordon’ serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic:
‘Force’ Director JJ Abrams & Chewbacca with a Twizzler
`Quo Vadis?’ `Buck Rogers,’ `Ivanhoe,’ `Superman,’ `The Wizard of Oz,’ `The Gospel According to St. Matthew,’ the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. ... One of Mr. Lucas’s particular achievements is the manner in which he is able to recall the tackiness of the old comic strips and serials he loves without making a movie that is, itself, tacky.’’ Vincent Canby, New York Times.
``The only way that `Star Wars’ could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional. ... I kept looking for an `edge,’ to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world’s affairs or — in any complex way — sex intruded.’’ Stanley Kauffmann, the New Republic.
```Star Wars’ is Buck Rogers with a doctoral degree but not a trace of neuroticism or cynicism, a slam-bang, rip-roaring gallop through a distantly future world full of exotic vocabularies, creatures and customs, existing cheek by cowl with the boy and girl next door and a couple of friendly leftovers from the planet of the apes and possibly one from Oz (a Tin Woodman robot who may have got a gold-plating as a graduation present).’’
Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times.