Historical Matchmaking

One of the great challenges of historians and genealogists is matching an individual in a historical record or newspaper article to vital records.  The John Smiths and the like are usually the worst: common first and last names who seem like they will never be found.  My own family tree contains a line of Joneses that I would have probably never been able to sort out if a member of the family hadn’t written a family history (and it seems like a well-researched one too).

Professionally, I find myself trying to figure out lighthouse keepers and military servicemen.  Depending on the record there is sometimes little to go on besides a name, a branch of service and rank, and the deductions than can be drawn.  A man generally had to be in a certain age range to serve at a certain time and in peacetime enlistments usually came soon after high school.  For the Coast Guard I know a S2C or SA (Seaman 2nd Class or Apprentice Seaman, the post-1948 equivalent) indicates someone who has not been in the service very long.

Headstones are useful as military service is often recognized on a tombstone, especially wartime service and/or a long career.  Another great resource for piecing things together is the Department of Veterans Affairs BIRLS Death File, 1850-2010 on Ancestry.com. It contains branches of service with dates of enlistment and discharge as well as birth and death dates.  BIRLS does have some limitations though.  Some people who served either do not have a file or their file does not have dates of service (or at least this information is missing or incorrectly transcribed into Ancestry). Middle names/initials are usually absent so it can be a slow process to wade through more common names and Ancestry does not seem to effectively search for the branch of service.  Sometimes, though not frequently, the BIRLS files are simply wrong.  The wrong branch being listed is probably the most common, but sometimes service dates only show 1 of 2 periods of service or show an enlistment date that is actually when the serviceman reenlisted.

One of the more usual mistakes in a BIRLS file I’ve found pertains to a man named William Lee Coats.  I am quite confident I have found the BIRLS file for the correct person of that name.  His service is listed as 1948-1951 and 1957-1958.  I know from logbooks and newspaper articles his service was continuous through the 1950s.  His service prior to 1948 is also missing.  His obituary mentions World War II service, the 1940 census indicates he was living in Norfolk, VA in 1935, and he married his wife in 1938 in North Carolina despite having been born and grown up in Florida.  However, that same census lists him back in Florida with his wife and parents.  My deduction is that he enlisted in the Coast Guard when he turned 18, went to VA and NC during his 3-year enlistment, got married, and didn’t reenlist.  Then he reenlisted for the war, probably being discharged during demobilization.  Then he rejoined the USCG for the third and final time in 1948.

Another mystery man is Jack M. Peebles.  He served in Florida during World War II with the beach patrol as a BM2 (Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class) and possibly as a lighthouse keeper.  A search for people with the right dates of service and right age comes up with only one possible match: Jack McFarland Peebles of Georgia.  However, his BIRLS file and obituary both refer to his World War II service as being in the Navy.  Are they both wrong?  His brother, Frank, served in the Navy (at least according his BIRLS).  The Coast Guard was under the Navy Department during World War II. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve heard as someone being referred to as serving in the Navy during the war when they were actually in the Coast Guard.

Both of these mysteries could probably be solved with military personnel files, but Coats’ would probably be unavailable due to when his service ended (they are not normally available to non-relatives until 65 years after discharge/retirement). Regardless of accessibility, getting personnel files is expensive.

Most Anticipated Books Of 2016

Much like my Favorite Books of 2015, this is going to be a list of what I’m planning to read during the next year, regardless of when it was published. In fact, few if any of these books are due out in 2016 as I rarely learn about books of interest to me until after they are already published.  This is again just an attempt to spotlight some things that really interest me and might interest you also.

Postwar by Tony Judt
History after World War II, especially outside of the USA, is that part that always got skimmed or skipped at the end of the semester in school. Not only am I interested and the book is supposed to be pretty good, but I really feel like I should know this stuff.

American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 by H. W. Brands
I’ve read one American History book by this author which I really enjoyed, but I have yet to get around to reading a second.  Dr. Engle, my outstanding college professor also read and recommended this during my final semester.

The Chickamauga Campaign (3 volumes) by David Powell
I’m planning to visit the battlefield in May so I want to brush up on the latest (and probably most definitive) works on the subject.  I’ve only previously read Peter Cozzens’ book on the battle.

Shiloh: Conquer or Perish (and possibly Untold Story of Shiloh and Rethinking Shiloh) by Timothy Smith
I’m also planning to visit Shiloh so I’m going to try to read what possibly the top modern expert on the subject has to say. I’ve previously read Cunningham’s and Groom’s books on Shiloh.

Truman and The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
I’ve previously read McCullough’s excellent Path Between The Seas so I’m looking forward to his older book that I understand had a huge part in the reevaluation of Harry Truman’s presidency and also his most recent work.

Target: Rabaul by Bruce Gamble
I enjoyed Fortress Rabaul about operations against the Japanese stronghold through the death of Yamamoto and look forward to this sequel covering the rest of the war.

The Day of Battle and Guns At Last Light by Rick Atkinson
Continuing a trend of sequalitis, I really enjoyed Army at Dawn and want to complete the trilogy.

West Virginia and the Civil War: Mountaineers Are Always Free by Mark Snell
I would want to read this as a Civil War buff, but also double curious as it is technically my home state.

Searching for George Gordon Meade by Tom Huntington
Meade interests me as both a Civil War buff, but also because of his lighthouse connections.  I understand this is not exactly an orthodox biography either.

Those are just my Top 10 (or so).  My official goal for the year is 75.

You can follow my reviews on Goodreads.

Favorite Books of 2015

I read 66 books in 2015.  As usual, most were non-fiction history, but there were some biographies and fiction as well, including some comic book trade paperbacks.  Few of them were published for the first time in 2015, which is not unusual for me.  I have always gotten most of my reading material from the public library and that often means getting books several years after publication.  So this is not any attempt at a “best of 2015” and merely my desire to spotlight what I liked the best during the last year.

10. Overland Campaign series by Gordon Rhea
I’m going to cheat a little on a “Top 10” by lumping together a series of 4 books by the same author. Rhea’s books cover the Grant-Lee battles of 1864 at Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor. They are all of the same style written chronologically in sequence so it’s rather difficult to pick a favorite, but I would give a slight nod to Cold Harbor simply because that is where the greatest common misconceptions are addressed.  Must read series for any Civil War buff.

9. Hernando de Soto and the Indians of Florida by Jerald Milanich
A rather interesting narrative of the infamous De Soto expedition to Florida that is as interesting for the subject as it is for the way the author weaves together the different narratives of the expedition along with archaeological evidence.

8. Ditch of Dreams by Steven Noll
The Cross-Florida Barge Canal is probably not something most Floridians are familiar with, but if you’ve ever been to Ocala National Forest or heard of Marjorie Harris Carr you want to read this book and learn the story.

7. Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson
You’ve probably heard of the myth of Lawrence of Arabia, especially thanks to the famous Hollywood movie of the same name.  This is a modern biography/history of Lawrence and some of his contemporaries in the Middle East.

6. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
The lone fiction on this list.  Fun dystopian sci-fi loaded with geek references and 80s nostalgia.  This book is being made into a movie.

5. A Short Bright Flash by Theresa Levitt
If you’re interested in lighthouses or science then you’ll be interested in this biography Augustin Fresnel which doubles as a history of the development and implementation of his eponymous lighthouse optic.

4. American Warlords by Jonathan Jordan
If you liked Doris Keane Goodwin’s Team of Rivals then you’ll like this treatment of FDR’s top military advisers in World War II.

3. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
The ideas presented in this book may not be groundbreaking, but their synthesis is monumental.  This is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand some of the broad patterns of world history. Environmental determinism isn’t a two word explanation for all pre-colonial history, but it’s a significant factor that needs to be understood by everyone.

2. The Men Who Lost America by Andrew O’Shaughnessy
Americans too often see the American Revolution from the American perspective.  This outstanding book looks at the British leaders, both military and political, and the role each played in Britain’s defeat.

1. The Swamp by Michael Grunwald
Excellent history of the Florida Everglades that should be read by anyone who lives in South Florida and anyone else who wants to know more about them (or have an opinion on what should be done about it).  The Everglades have been in the news regularly as long as I have lived in Florida.

You can follow my reviews on Goodreads.

Privleging of the Present


“This leads to my third major concern: the excessive privileging of the present. So powerful are the online forces of conformity and political correctness that it sometimes seems that knowledge of the past is being judged as irrelevant and every former age dismissed as unenlightened. For centuries, antiquity might have been over-reverenced; now earlier eras are condescendingly patronized, smugly disdained at racist, imperialist, classist, sexist, and generally reprehensible. Such presentism is intellectually impoverishing, as well as generally bad for one’s character, and should be resisted. The timeworn adage remains at least partly true: we are but pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants.”

An example of this is the school of thought that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were actually terrible people because, regardless of what good they did, they did not believe black people where the equal of white people.  They also scoff at the term “Age of Enlightenment” and will write books about how history is nothing but rich white men abusing and oppressing minorities.

The ironic thing is those guilty of privileging the present are basically all people who will vocally rail against white privilege, male privilege, etc.

This isn’t theoretical; I have met some of these people on the internet and in person.

Lights That Never Shined

I was skimming through the 1889 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board and came across something rather interesting. Anyone ever heard of the Fort George Island Lighthouse aka Mount Cornelia Lighthouse? Trick question: you haven’t, because it was never built. But the Lighthouse Board proposed its construction – the second tallest light tower and highest focal plane in Florida on the highest point in Duval County, a 65 ft high hill north of the St. Johns River.

Why didn’t it get built? Maybe I’ll see the answer in subsequent annual reports. My guess is cost. The government definitely didn’t give the Lighthouse Board everything they wanted; on the contrary, the Board sometimes requested funding for the same project for years. A lighthouse at Hillsboro Inlet, FL was recommended by an Inspector at least as early as 1859 and the Board started requesting funding in 1885, but the lighthouse wasn’t finished until 1907. A lighthouse reservation on Cape Romano, FL (where some famous dome homes are decaying today) was created in the 1880s, but the construction was never funded despite a decade of requests by the Board.  The property eventually got sold off after about 50 years.

There’s probably an interesting magazine article to made on the subject of lighthouses that were never built.

The Historical Use Of Words

One of the most interesting TED Talks is this one about data mining from Google Books:

Here is the website they mention for running your own searches:

As someone who studies the Civil War (and in light of racism being a current events topic), I decided to check the history of a certain racial slur beginning with the letter N.

Even though black slavery existed in the American colonies since 1619, the N-word doesn’t make a noticeable appearance until around 1820 and had a peak around 1836. There was a a sharp increase from 1848 to 1854 and a peak in 1863 during the Civil War (which of course had nothing to do with slavery some say) then plummeted until 1873 (i.e. the height of Reconstruction). It rose steadily to a sustained peak in the 1930s (Great Depression = racism?) only to fall in the the late 1950s to its lowest usage since Reconstruction. It hit an all time high in the late 1960s, another low in the 1980s, and is currently at its highest point since the 1970s (which is also its fourth highest peak – after the 1860s, 1930s, and 1960s).

“Negro” has always had a significantly higher usage. There are some expected peaks during the Civil War and late 1960s like the N-word. Interestingly, Negro doesn’t peak in the 1930s like its counterpart, but does peak in the mid-1940s – a connection to the segregated units in World War II? Curiously, there’s also a sustained peak roughly 1755-1763 – what did the Seven Years War have to do with blacks? Interestingly, it saw a massive decline in use during the 1970s and early 1980s, leveling off around the time “African-American” started showing up. Curiously, “African-American” still shows up far less than “Negro”.

Let’s look at politics. “Libertarian” basically wasn’t a thing until the 1950s. “Conservative” and “Liberal” both had an all-time high in the late 1960s. “Conservative” was rarely used before the 1820s and saw a slow rise after that. “Liberal” has had regular use much longer. It had a pretty substantial increase in use during the 1770s, which suggests our Founding Fathers certainly thought of themselves as Liberals (in the context of their time).
“Progressive” has been used back to the 1700s. It’s use has remained somewhat steady over time. Communist/Communist and Socialist/Socialism (the adjectives are were used much more than their noun counterparts) were more talked about starting in the 1930s. Interestingly, communist peaked in the early 1960s but socialist not until the 1970s. Communist has gotten more use than socialist since the start of the Cold War.
“liberal media” (no caps) came into use in the late 1960s, but “Liberal Media” not until the 1990s.
“Conspiracy” is mentioned much less in the 20th century than in the 19th, 18th, or 17th. “Conspiracy theory” has been on a steady rise since it became a thing in the 1950s.
If we judge by the word “sex” alone, the prudish Victorian Era lasted most of the 1800s. It’s been written about like never before since the 1960s.
Cocaine was a more popular topic 1890-1918 than it was again until the 1980s. Maybe there is some merit to that idea that World War I happened because too many people were coked out of their minds?
The devil was the subject of much writing in the 1620s and 1690s, but satan got the attention in the 1640s. Along with lucifer, they’ve been much less talked about since 1700. Interestingly, their lowest point of discussion was roughly 1950-2005; they’ve been making a comeback in the last decade. The anti-Christ gets talked about far less and still isn’t anywhere near his peak of discussion in the 1720s.

Those Who Do Not Know Their History: World War I Edition

Franz Ferdinand had crossed the Danube into Bosnia in order to witness an exercise by two corps of the Austrian army – staged with the obvious intent of cowing local unrest.  Had he any awareness that he was entering a land of long memories, he might have chosen a day other than the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, when a single Serb had gone behind Turkish lines and knifed Sultan Murad I to death.


Teenage boys, Princip and Cabrinovic could hardly have been aware of the full range of ironies – historical, cultural, and strategic – impinging on the archduke’s visit.  Franzjosefstrasse, the thoroughfare into which his driver had accidentally turned – thronged with tarboosh-wearing Muslims, bulging with Russian Orthodox domes, and bearing the name of an octogenarian Austrian Catholic – was in itself symbolic of the combustible elements that had long threatened an explosion in the Balkans.  By killing Franz Ferdinand in such a place, at a moment when both Austria and Germany were spoiling for war against the East, the conspirators had acted with more lethal consequences than they knew.

Thats some mighty fine writing.

For anyone unaware, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo in 1914 was the spark that set off World War I.  He’s also the namesake of a 21st century rock band.

It should be noted that the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 was a bloody tactical draw and a strategic defeat for the Serbs – another World War I parallel.

Quote source: “Colonel Roosevelt” by Edmund Morris (pg 362)