Over the weekend this country lost another American hero from World War II and my family lost a dear friend. Joseph Weiner was 17 years old when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. From there he fought his way across Europe and in the process was awarded two Purple Hearts and five Bronze Stars.
I first met Joe when I was still in high school. What I remember more than anything else was his friendly personality and especially his sense of humor. Joe always had a smile on his face and his jokes were the life of the party. I will never forget him asking me to think about the theme of a local shopping center that somehow managed to include a BJ’s, Siemens, and Dicks.
Like most kids growing up along the Jersey shore, I spent most of my free time during the summer months on the beach. Growing up in a beach community you eventually learn where to look for certain people and Joe was no exception. I could always count on Joe sitting in the same spot with his wife Esther, his step-daughter Janeen and often with my parents as well. My favorite days, however, were when Joe was alone and we had a chance to talk. During my high school years it was the war in Europe that held my interest and imagination. I knew that Joe served in the war and that he took part in the Normandy invasion. I wanted nothing more than to talk with Joe about his experiences, but early on I understood that this was not going to happen. He offered little more than a short list of battles he had taken part in and I did my best to respect his privacy. Even after Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released Joe showed no interest in revisiting his past.
The one exception took place on the beach years later after Michaela and I had met. It was just the three of us. Perhaps it had something to do with Michaela being German. Joe talked for what seemed like and hour about a weekend furlough in Paris in late summer ’44. It certainly wasn’t the kind of war story that I had anticipated as Joe described spending the weekend above a bakery with two young French girls. At one point a woman seated close by, who was previously occupied by a magazine, desperately strained herself to pick up every last detail from Joe’s story. It was that good. In that moment Joe was 17 years old again.
Later my wife thanked Joe for his service, not simply for helping to liberate her country, but for making it possible for the two of us to meet. I’ve been thinking a lot about that comment over the past two days. Regardless of how Joe remembered his experiences in WWII, I hope the thought brought him some comfort.
Looking forward to seeing some of you next month in Gettysburg for the Future of Civil War History conference. As I’ve mentioned before I am moderating a panel discussion on interpreting United States Colored Troops at Civil War sites. We’ve got a nice selection of panelists who can address different aspects of the challenge of engaging the general public about race and the history of USCT through the National Park Service, museums, and the classroom. Pre-conference discussions are already taking place so that we can take full advantage of our time together in Gettysburg.
Here are the questions we are thinking about.
What is gained and lost in trying to understand the USCT experience through the theme of “new birth of freedom”? How does recent scholarship on the USCT experience grapple with this theme? In restoring agency to the USCT at historic sites, have we inadvertently made the message visitors receive too celebratory?
How does the movie Glory continue to shape popular understanding of the USCT?
How can we effectively convey the diverse experiences of USCT soldiers at Civil War sites, and help visitors to understand what changed – and what did not change – between 1863 and 1865?
How can Civil War sites use the USCT to move beyond the battlefield discussion of Reconstruction, citizenship, and westward expansion?
For a number of reasons I am very interested in the first question. I know a few of you out there are planning to attend the conference so having these questions should give you a sense of the scope of the panel. Even if you are unable to attend feel free to share your thoughts about any of the questions or anything else related to this topic that you think the panel should consider. C-SPAN is slated to record this panel so it should be available for viewing at a later date.
Earlier today the Museum of the Confederacy held their symposium to determine 1863’s Person of the Year. Most of the choices were once again predictable, though a few are just downright odd to me. Robert Krick’s selection of Stonewall Jackson is neither surprising or interesting in any way. I want to hear more about why Jennifer Weber believes Clement Vallindigham is so important. Ed Ayers decided to change things up by giving a nod to the United States Colored Troops. That makes perfect sense to me. Here is the final tally.
Final vote tally. Grant-48. Jackson-37. Vallandigham-19. Russell-8. US Colored Troops-7. Thanks for following! #POTY1863
Joe Glatthaar should have had it much easier by selecting Ulysses S. Grant, who is the logical choice. Jackson coming in a close second is just downright bizarre. And how the USCTs placed last even with a charismatic advocate like Ed Ayers is inexplicable to me. Oh well.
I am sure everyone had a fun time, which is ultimately what this is all about.
A number of my friends on Facebook are sharing a pic of the new release by Don Troiani. This new watercolor of a private in the 4th United States Colored Troop is, if I am not mistaken, Troiani’s first stand alone black soldier since his 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry print, which was done a number of years ago. I absolutely love it and I am very close to clicking the “Pay Now” button at my PayPal account. Than again, my birthday is coming up soon and my wife is always looking for that perfect gift that shows her undying love for me. 🙂
Before moving to Boston I owned a fairly large collection of framed Troiani prints. Unfortunately, I knew I wouldn’t have room in my new library/office and I couldn’t bear keeping them in the basement so I sold them. I still have a giclee edition of “Mahone’s Charge” which is featured on the cover of my book as well as two regimental prints.
It is hard not to see this new release as a direct result of the popularity of Spielberg’s Lincoln and the broader emphasis on the history of black Union soldiers during the Sesquicentennial. We shall see if it sells.