Return of the Non-Prodigal Son

24 November 1894 - Venice, Italy

My word! What a day! All of Venice is celebrating the return of Giuseppe Melchior Sarto. He was born in the nearby village of Riese. Now he returns to Venetia as Cardinal Sarto, the Patriarch of Venice.

This is more than just a celebration of “local boy makes good.” Venice is a no longer the powerful city-state that it was. It’s no longer a power at all. That Sarto has been allowed to enter the city is a triumph for Venice.

Venice started out as a refuge for nearby towns trying to escape the barbarian invasions in the 5th century. They began creating islands out of the marsh to build on. It slowly developed into a trade center and acquired an impressive navy to protect itself from pirates. By the 12th century, Venice had become a “super-power.” It was so powerful, it paid for a 4th Crusade that never made it to the Holy Land, but instead sacked it’s former master, Constantinople, and carted off a good many artworks as plunder. (I’m not sure if Venice ever came up with a believable excuse for that one.) They also acquired a lot of land.

The Republic of Venice and it's empire
(click on to enlarge map)
Then hard times came. While Venice was a big fish in the Mediterranean, her Medieval navy was left behind in the “New World Race.” Portugal found a sea route to the Far East, destroying Venice's trade monopoly from the overland route established by Marco Polo. A thirty year war with Turkey about that time took most of the eastern portion of her empire. The Black Plague devastated Venice in 1348, 1575 and 1630 taking up to a third of her population each time. Finally in 1797, the Republic of Venice fell to Napoleon Bonaparte, who then lost the city to Austria. In 1866 Venice became part of the Kingdom of Italy.

Italy in the 16th century
(click on to enlarge)
We now think of Italy as a country that has always held “the boot,” but that is something that only came about in the 19th century. After the fall of the Roman Empire Italy became a collection of warring city states. One of those was “The Papal States.” It’s 16,000 square miles has been whittled down to 110 acres within living memory, swallowed up by the Kingdom of Italy. It was not a happy merger, and the King and the Pope are still arguing over what rights the Vatican City has. That won’t be ironed out until 1929.

Which brings us to why Cardinal Sarto was denied entry into Venice. When Pope Leo XIII appointed Sarto Protectorate of Venice last year, King Unberto I protested, saying he had the right to appoint the position. So the King refused to let Cardinal Sarto into Venice until today. Politics! They can get messy.

Cardinal Giuseppe  Sarto
Venice is overjoyed to finally get her Cardinal. This afternoon a steamship of the Royal Marine carried Sarto down the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Cathedral, where he will hold mass tomorrow. Every church bell in the city was ringing and throngs lined the canal or hung out of windows, to wave white flags and cheer. The Cardinal, dressed in Scarlet robes, blessed them, which brought even more cheers. The only thing missing was a marching band and cavalry escort, but they would have drowned. Parades can be a problem in Venice.

This event is the major focus of my trip. You may wonder why the University of Venice would pay for me to come here to bring back recordings of this happy but seemingly minor incident? That’s because in 1903, Giuseppe Sarto will be sent on a new assignment by the Vatican when he is elected pope. He will take the name Pope Pius X not because he thinks he’s more pious than anyone else, but because he will hope he can live up to the name.

Pope Pius X will be a bit controversial. Perhaps in reaction to the power the Kings of Italy have taken, or because he is from conservative working class roots, Pius will try to bring back the good old days by trying to eradicate modernism in the church and reinstate old traditions. He will go so far as to revive Gregorian chants. He will however renovate communion to include children as young as seven.

Pope Pius X
Despite the controversies, Pius will be a beloved pope. Sarto was born the son of a postman and a seamstress, and he will never forget his humble beginnings. He is always trying to help the poor and sick. As Pope he will beat the government to natural disasters with relief for the victims. He will drive the Swiss Guards balmy by sneaking out at night unescorted to visit hospitals. He will die only a few days after the start of World War II, his sorrow at failing to stop it being a contributing cause of his death. He will be well remembered for his benevolence and compassion. Perhaps it was inevitable so many sick will pray to him until he will be finally canonized in 1954.

Despite all the pomp surrounding him, Sarto did not strike me as an arrogant man. He seemed to pay less attention to the wealthy in the crowd and more to the underprivileged. I don’t think this was for show. He has a kindly, if serious, face. I’m not at all sure how this canonization thing works. I had a priest explain to me once that the Church does not have the power to create saints--it can only acknowledge them. Cardinal Sarto looks pretty saintly to me.


Mathew Brady - The Father of Photojournalism

18 January 1864 - Washington, DC

Today I had my portrait taken by one of the greatest photographers who ever lived--Mathew Brady. I found his studio at 352 Pennsylvania Avenue here in Washington.

No one, not even Brady knows when he was born for sure (1822 most likely) to poor Irish immigrants. When was sixteen-years-old he moved to New York City to find his fortune. There he discovered the new art form of photography and opened a studio in 1844. By 1845 he opened a gallery of all the rich and famous people he had taken portraits of.

Brady started this studio, just a few blocks from the Capitol Building, to be closer to the real history makers. He is the photographer of senators, foreign dignitaries, and presidents. He is Abraham Lincoln’s favorite photographer. Just about anybody who is anybody in the mid-19th century has had their portrait taken by Mathew Brady. The walls of his studio look like a “Who’s Who”.

President Lincoln by Mathew Brady
I was surprised to find Brady at his studio. “I thought you would be out on the battlefield taking photographs?”

He smiled at me as he set up his camera. “I can’t be everywhere at once. I have a few assistants that follow the army with portable darkrooms. And I let it be known I’ll buy negatives from freelancers--from either side. To be honest, my eyesight is getting bad. I’m probably more useful staying in Washington and managing the project and storing the negatives and photographs.

A Brady photography wagon and crew
“The project?” I asked.

“Do you have any idea how fortunate we are to have photography at this point in time? The camera is the eye of history and I feel I have an obligation to my country to record this war. Future generations will be able to see what it was really like.”

“Erm, yes. You do take quite a few photographs of corpses.”

“I would take photographs of the battles themselves, but people have to stand still or I only get a blur. Dead men don’t move. I suppose I could stage a battle scene with soldiers posing, but that would be a lie. The public thinks war is heroic and noble. It’s gory and men die.”

“Yes, I suppose you are right. Before photographs the only visual record we had of battles was romantic paintings of generals dying like Shakespearean actors. Your battlefield photographs are a real eye-opener for the public.”

Mathew Brady after Battle of Bull Run
“Yes. The aftermath of the first battle of Bull Run was an eye-opener for me, too. I nearly ran into trouble myself.”

“What made you foolish enough to go into battle?”

“You sound like my friends. They did everything to dissuade me. They told me I was risking my life and my fortune. But I had to go. A spirit in my feet said 'Go,' and I went."

“So, you have not been sitting in this studio the whole time then?”

“No, but like a said my eyesight is failing. It is hard to avoid trouble if you cannot see it in time. Poor Juliette, that’s the missus, was so worried I decided not to put her through that again--well, not too much anyway. There are a lot of forts and hospitals and camps for me to record near Washington. We are not far from the frontline, as you are aware.”

“Isn’t hiring assistants and buying negatives expensive?”

“Indeed. I don’t know how many thousands of dollars I have spent so far. I am gambling my fortune on this project. I know in the end it will be worth it. I’m sure Congress will be more than happy to compensate me. Now if you will sit perfectly still, sir.”

I froze, not wanting any of my face to blur by moving. Poor Brady. I couldn’t tell him that he would spend $100,000 dollars on his collection. At this moment his photos are in great demand, but by war’s end everyone will be so sick of battle, no one will want to look at his photographs. He will be forced to sell his New York studio. In 1875 Congress will finally relent and pay Brady only $25,000 for his collection of over 10,000 plates, only a quarter of what he spent on it.

In 1887 Brady will suffer an even worse blow when his beloved wife, Juliette, will die. Brady will take his last breath in 1896 in the charity ward of a New York hospital, broke and nearly blind, a forgotten man. Well, not completely forgotten. His funeral will be paid for by grateful veterans whose story he had recorded at great sacrifice to himself.

And I think if I told him the future, Mathew Brady would do it anyway. Especially if I told him how priceless his photos will become to future historians. They are the best record we have of the Civil War. No wonder he is considered the Father of Photojournalism.

Mathew Brady’s National Portrait Gallery Virtual Tour

Mathew Brady’s Civil War photographs from the National Archive
(photos taken after battles might be disturbing to some readers--they certainly disturb me)


John Mix Stanley

Smithsonian Institute
Today I spent at the Smithsonian Institute’s first museum, affectionately known as The Castle. Next year in 1865, at only ten years old, it will suffer a devastating fire in the upper floor of the main building. The Castle will be rebuilt, but the items in the collection will be lost. The top floor has the personal effects of James Smithson, whose legacy started the Smithsonian Institute. Historians will decry the loss of the manuscripts of this great scientist.

However, historians will forget the perhaps greater loss on a lower floor. The newspapers will report the lost of 200 “Stanleys.” The artist John Mix Stanley is so famous in his day, that everyone knows exactly what a “Stanley” is. Because of that fire, later generations will forget him.

John Mix Stanley was born in the Finger Lakes district of New York in 1814. Stanley always had a natural talent for painting and drawing. He moved to Detroit and began painting the landscapes and Native Americans of the upper Midwest.

Buffalo Hunt on the Southern Prairie by John Mix Stanley
In 1842 he took a trip into “Indian Territory” (later Oklahoma) to paint the Indians of the Southeast who had recently been dragged there. His painting were exhibited in several Eastern cities, his name becoming well known.

In the days before photography, the U.S. Army would employ “draughtsmen" to record what was seen. Stanley was hired by the Corps of Topographical Engineers and was sent to California during the Mexican-American War.

Fort Walla Walla 1853 showing Wallula Gap on the Columbia River
Stanley left the Army and headed north to the new Oregon Territory, there recording the scenery and people. He eventually wound up in Hawaii, painting the portrait of the Royal Family. He even traveled across the Isthmus of Panama. The man went just about everywhere painting what he saw.

Right now, most of Stanley’s works are on display at the Smithsonian. They are only on loan, so losing these precious works will mean a financial, as much as a personal blow to the artist.

Oregon City on the Willamette River
Stanley’s importance as an artist lie not only in his skill, but as a record of the people and landscapes of the early West. By the time photography makes it there, things will have greatly changed. The destruction of these paintings will be a tragic loss not only to art lovers but to historians and anthropologists. Being all three, I can’t explain the excitement I feel at having to opportunity to study these paintings.

I am carefully digitally recording each painting, so replicas can be made, down to the last brushstroke. The Smithsonian Institute of the 27th century will once again be able to display the lost works of John Mix Stanley. It makes me feel both proud and humble to be able to be a part of this.

The Trial of Red Jacket


Walt Whitman, Civil War Nurse

3 January 1864 - Washington, D.C.

It is estimated as many as 700,000 Americans died in the Civil War. This is more than all the U.S. casualties of the Revolution, World War I and II, Vietnam and everything else in between. Of course, one is counting the fallen on both sides of this tragic war.

Millions of other soldiers were injured or fell ill. Washington, D.C., never far from the front, has been turned into a giant hospital. I have pointed out many of the buildings here, from churches to colleges and even government buildings, have been conscripted, for short or long term use, as a hospital. Despite these efforts, more than one patient has been forced to try to recover in a tent.

These hospitals are under-staffed, and the doctors poorly trained. Medicine is just coming out of the Dark Ages. However, the physicians are learning fast from their hands on experience. Unfortunately, hospital hygiene is not fully understood yet, or possible. Wounds too often get infections. The only cure, to keep the infection from spreading and killing the patient, is amputation.

The war has brought one new innovation. When Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton suggested that women volunteers could serve as nurses, the military laughed at the notion. Last thing they needed was a bunch of silly women flirting with the men or fainting at the sight of blood.

The ladies proved as valiant as any soldier. It is estimated 2,000 to 8,000 women volunteered on both sides. The actual number is unknown, for many did not wish to be recorded. They worked for little or no pay. With no credentials, other than a compassionate heart, the volunteers assisted doctors, tried to keep the hospital clean, cared for the sick, and kept up the spirits of their patients. How many soldiers would have died, being too sick to get up to get food or water for themselves, or too weak to even ask for help? Sometimes the nurses duty might be to just hold the hand of a dieing man. No wonder the soldiers called them “angels of the battlefield.”

The nurses had more to deal with than just the hard work and emotional trauma. Some were very close to the frontlines and we in danger of being hit by gunfire. Even more dangerous is the rampant disease. Probably twice as many soldiers died of sickness than wounds. The crowded, filthy camps are hotbeds of disease. Being exposed to these deadly illnesses everyday, takes its toll on the caregivers. One of the more famous of these nurses, Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, will die young of complications from the typhoid she contracted while a nurse here.

I found out today that not all the volunteer nurses are women. Remember yesterday on my Twitter feed how I told you I saw a man that looked a lot like Walt Whitman? Today I returned to the Patent Office, now one of the many make-shift hospitals. There I found the same gentleman changing the dressing on a soldier who was missing a leg. I waited until he was done, and then went over to him and asked if he was a doctor.

He smiled at me. “No, I'm only a nurse.”

I introduced myself as Mr. Howe. (I didn’t want to be “drafted” as a doctor, over a misunderstanding. A history degree hardly prepares one for surgery.) The gentleman shook my hand and told me his name. It turns out I was right!

“Walt Whitman!” I said. “The poet? I thought you lived in New York?”

“I did. My brother, George, joined the Union Army. A little over a year ago, middle of December, I saw a name on a list of dead or wounded soldiers that looked like it could be my brother. All right, the name was G.W. Whitmore, but you know how records get confused in war. I headed south to find my brother. I searched through camp hospitals full of wounded soldiers.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “I found piles of limbs outside most of them.”

Civil War Field Hospital
(Yes, those are patients laying on the ground)
 “Dear Lord! Did you ever find your brother?”

“Yes, he only had a minor wound on his cheek. He was fine. All those other men were not. They haunted me. So, just before the new year, I headed for Washington, determined to do something. I got a part-time job as a clerk to feed myself. My free time I spend here, doing whatever I can to help. I’m forty-four, probably too old to be a soldier. I doubt I could shoot anyone anyway. I think I’m doing far more good here as a nurse than I would on the battlefield trying to be a soldier.”

Looking at those gentle eyes, he was probably right.

“How long do you plan to stay?” I asked.

“I plan to stay here until there are no more wounded soldiers. I doubt they will all become well, simply because a peace treaty is signed. I may well spend the rest of my life here.”

A soldier groaned and asked for water. He acted delirious. Whitman excused himself and went to find a pitcher of water.

Walt Whitman (photo by Matthew Brady)
I checked my history files. Apparently this will not be a good year for the poor Walt. This coming September, his brother, George, will be captured and put in a Confederate prison. Next December, his brother, Andrew, will die of tuberculosis compounded by alcoholism and his brother, Jesse, will have to be committed to an insane asylum.

Luckily 1865 will be rosier. Walt will get a better paying job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in this very building. Brother George will be released. The war will end, and Walt will publish, Drum Taps, a poem inspired by his experiences in the hospitals.

He will work with the Bureau until 1867, when they discover he was the author of Leaves of Grass, which many considered obscene. Whitman’s good friend, William O’Connor, from the Saturday Evening Post, will protest until the Attorney General hires him. After all, Whitman is the man that wrote the poem O Captain, my Captain as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln.

He will work there until he has a stroke in 1871 that will leave him partially paralyzed. He will move to New Jersey and live another twenty years, constantly adding to his Leaves of Grass until it becomes a compilation of his life’s work.

Walt Whitman will always be remembered as an innovative poet. However, as I watch him tending the patients here, I think these men will remember Whitman as that chap that was there when them needed him the most.

Includes published works and letters from the Civil War

Civil War Medicine