Podcast review: 1865

Since returning to Indiana, I’ve gotten more interested in Civil War history than I ever thought I would. In the mid-19th century, Indianapolis was apparently an up and coming town and Indiana a strong supporter of the Union (though arguably there were lots of divided families, especially in the southern end of the state). Historical sites in the state often hark back to Civil War days with some general or colonel in the family fighting in the Union Army.

In any case, given that experience and my interest in history, I was clearly primed as the target audience for the podcast 1865.

1865 is a serial podcast with a clear beginning and ending date given the subject matter: the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Think you know all about it? Well, probably not actually. At least I didn’t realize that Lincoln wasn’t the only intended target. Or that originally the plot wasn’t assassination but kidnapping Lincoln to demand the exchange for Confederate soldiers. Or, well, any number of points.

Rather than a rehash of facts or history, the episodes alternate between traditional radio dramas and a discussion about what was fact and dramatic license in the previous episode.

Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, is the central figure in this retelling of the time from Lincoln’s assassination through the conviction of the Lincoln Conspirators. Three final episodes are devoted to Booth. While some items, like private conversations, are conjecture, everything is based as much as possible on primary sources (letters, diaries, etc.). It is a fascinating look at a moment of crisis in our country’s history and dispels the tidy myths we were taught about the Civil War, Lincoln, and the assassination.

My only wish was that the serial did not need to end. Or that the assassination never happened. What if Lincoln lived and Andrew Johnson, a racist southern Democrat hadn’t ascended to the presidency? Would Reconstruction have been different? Would the scars from slavery still be so prominent and fresh even now?

Podcast review (update): Backstory

With some shock, I learned that Backstory, a history podcast, will be stopping production on July 3, 2020. I previously reviewed Backstory and felt I would be remiss if I didn’t announce its impending demise.

Backstory has broadcasted episodes for 12 years. After that lengthy production, I cannot begrudge the historians from moving on to other things, but they and their program will be sorely missed.

Podcast review: Uncivil

Stumbling across the podcast Uncivil was like finding a jewel. I was excited by the promise of this podcast: a historical look at the untold stories and different perspectives of the Civil War.

Uncivil discusses long-forgotten or never recounted events from the Civil War, events that were mis-recounted or distorted. Its goal is to uncover the myths of the Civil War and reveal the fragmented nature of the Civil War monolith that we were taught. The hosts, journalists Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika, examine a variety of topics, such as who fought in the war, the origins of the anthem of the Confederacy, the existence of spy rings, and the use of paper money to undermine the Confederacy.

The first episode appeared in late September 2017 but then as suddenly, the podcast stopped producing episodes in late 2018.

I discovered this podcast not long after it stopped broadcasting. I gorged on all dozen or so episodes in brief succession. And then experienced withdrawal after no more episodes were forthcoming. It left me wanting more and wondering why it was no longer being produced. Surely, they didn’t run out of material?

The podcast was even recognized for its excellence. It received the Peabody Award in 2017 for the episode The Raid. How could Uncivil shine so brightly and then vanish?

To quote Chenjerai Kumanyika from his acceptance speech for the Peabody Award, “Now more than ever, we need to recover untold histories…we need to recover the histories of black people, indigenous people, brown people, queer people, feminists who are participating in an ongoing resistance. In other words, we need to see history for what it is. A fight for the future.”

Fortunately, I have encountered Chenjerai Kumanyika elsewhere (as a guest host in the On Scene podcast in a serial discussion of Whiteness). But I would love for Uncivil to start back up.

Podcast review: Backstory

I am not entirely sure how I came to know about Backstory. I think I wasn’t getting enough history from the various podcasts I listen to. I started trolling history podcasts and stumbled across Backstory. Hmmm. “…a weekly podcast that uses current events in America to take a deep dive into our past.” I was intrigued and decided to give it a shot.

Fast forward to the present. I look forward to Backstory every Friday. What topic will I be learning more about? The 1918 flu? Taxidermy? Puerto Rico? Socialism? The topics are diverse and fascinating. Each podcast is a collection of snippets across time in America’s history.

Their topics are often timely. They are always informative. The episode on the history of blackface and minstrelsy was fascinating…and humbling. I learned ways that discrimination has permeated our culture up to the present day that I wasn’t aware of. And I better understand the horror that is blackface. (I highly recommend that episode to understand the depth of discrimination that white America has remained ignorant of.)

The podcast is made possible thanks to the generosity of Virginia Humanities. Stories are recounted by historians of different American eras: Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, Joanne Freeman, and Nathan Connolly. Often they bring their own experiences to the discussions, such as childhood experiences with beach culture while growing up in southern Florida, California, or even Tennessee.

Far from dry and dull—and I have tried lots of other history podcasts—BackStory is an enlivening look at topical history. The historians interview various people and introduce stories from different times and places. They make history come alive. I learn something and am entertained at the same time. And as their website describes it, “BackStory makes learning about history like going to a lively cocktail party.” That is actually kind of true.

If you are interested in American political, social, or cultural history, give BackStory a shot. I doubt you will be disappointed.

Podcast review: American Revolution Podcast

I love history. History teaches about the past and illuminates the present. It focuses on events and people but often reveals things about current situations and oneself. History done well can challenge assumptions and widen one’s perspective on the world. It can broaden horizons and deepen knowledge. The American Revolution Podcast lives up to this historical legacy.

A couple years ago, I stumbled across the well-established Revolutions podcast by Mike Duncan. I decided to start at the beginning, rather than jumping into the most current episodes. When I got to the American Revolution, I was surprised by what the podcast illuminated—both about events and people I knew and those I didn’t. After completing the episodes on the American Revolution, I searched for historical works to learn even more.

And then I learned about the American Revolutions Podcast by Michael Tory. (Full disclosure: Tory alerted me to his podcast in a comment to my blog post about the Revolutions podcast. Intrigued, I subscribed to his podcast and started to soak in his talks.)

I am still winding my way through his podcast, trying to catch up to the present episodes. (I’ve listened to 13 episodes so far.) I’m hooked. It is a completely different animal than Revolutions. True to his word, Troy goes into more detail about the revolution than Duncan does. (Of course, American Revolution Podcast is focused on the American Revolution whereas Duncan goes in-depth about a particular revolution for dozens of episodes before moving on to a different revolution.)

Troy begins by laying the groundwork for the revolution a few decades before the revolution technically begins in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. His focus is decidedly on military aspects. He gives wonderful blow by blow accounts of military expeditions—who was involved, the strategies used, the outcomes reached, and the implications. The sheer amount of information that he shares (and that is completely new to me) is staggering. Thirteen episodes in and I am not yet to what one typically thinks of the start of the revolution.

Troy walks listeners through the relations between the British, the French, and the Native Americans in the decades prior to the revolution. I suspect that many of the places and the people will resurface later, and that knowing about pre-revolutionary America will deepen my understanding about the colonies, our relations with others in the world, and the revolution itself.

I am patiently waiting (ok, maybe not so patiently) for if/when present-day Indiana enters the discussion on the Ohio River Valley. After my travels to historic sites in Vincennes and reading fiction set in the time of George Rogers Clark, I am finding the descriptions about skirmishes between the British, French, and Native Americans (aka the French and Indian War) enlightening.

Interesting tidbits in the episodes routinely jump out at me. I’ve learned why Washington was not the magnificent military leader early in his career—a fact alluded to in the musical Hamilton. Spoiler: Washington failed miserably at an expedition in the Ohio River Valley.

King George I (not The King George during the revolution—that was King George III) was actually originally over 50th in line to the throne, but as he was the only next in line who wasn’t Catholic, he got the throne. (You know that whole bloody mess they had in England over Catholicism.)

Delaware was originally a Swedish colony. (I didn’t know the Swedes were some of the early colonists.)

The Forbes Road—a military path in Pennsylvania—later became the basis of the Lincoln Highway in Pennsylvania, a highway that spanned the US in the early 1900s.

Both American Revolution Podcast and Revolutions contain information on military exploits but the latter focuses more on political history. American Revolution Podcast focuses more, at least so far, on military history. Troy’s podcast is filling in gaps in my knowledge (or entire lack of knowledge) about pre-revolution America.

Troy’s episodes are so rich—I could easily listen to them multiple times and learn more each time. I am looking forwarding to continuing past episode 13…and seeing what I learn next.