American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?


Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

03 February 2016

The Brooklyn Dodgers

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Fan devotion to a local sports team is common throughout the world but only in America do the faithful face the prospect of the object of their emotions being uprooted and moved thousands of miles across the country.

The recent news that the St Louis Rams of the NFL are heading to Los Angles is just the latest in a long list of sports teams to move cities: since 1950 forty one teams in America’s big three sports – football, basketball and baseball – have re-located. Next year marks the sixtieth anniversary of the most notorious relocation of all: when the Brooklyn Dodgers left New York for Los Angeles just two years after winning the World Series. Bitterly opposed at the time, it is a move mythologised as the betrayal of the people of Brooklyn, an act of treachery by the team’s owner which precipitated the economic decline and urban decay of New York’s largest borough.

Dodgers sheet music

[Shelfmark VOC/1957/ROSS]

The Mike Ross baseball collection, which the Library acquired in 2014, is rich in material celebrating the Dodgers’ Brooklyn years and lamenting the move to California. Among several books which take a fan-based view of the period, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s memoir Wait Till Next Year (New York, 1997; shelfmark YKL.2015.a.11716) – which begins, ‘when I was six, my father gave me a bright red scorebook that opened my heart to the game of baseball’ – evokes the club’s ties to its community and the sense of the end of an era when it left town. The seminal scholarly work on the relocation, Neil J Sullivan’s The Dodgers Move West (Oxford, 1987; shelfmark YK.1988.b.992), lays the responsibility for the upheaval not so much on the demonised Dodgers’ owner, but on the machinations of local politicians thousands of miles apart.

The Dodgers were famous for their aggressive style of play and the collection contains a copy of The Dodger Way to Play Baseball (1954; shelfmark pending) by Al Campanis, who went on to become the general manager of the club. His book effectively became a manual for coaches on how to play the hard-running, defence-orientated, pitching-based game typical of Dodgers’ teams. And of all the Dodgers’ pitchers none was greater than Sandy Koufax, a Brooklyn native and arguably the most prominent Jewish athlete in the history of American sports, who famously sat-out a World Series game because it fell on Yom Kippur. The signed copy of his autobiography, Koufax (New York, 1966; shelfmark pending) recounts his extraordinary career, beginning in his home borough in 1955 and ending 2,800 miles away a decade later as a Dodger on the west coast.


Sandy Koufax. Image believed to be in the public domain. (Wiki Commons)

By Chris Birkett, Masters student at the Institute of North American Studies at King's College London.

29 January 2016

What's Next?

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Today is my last day at the British Library as a member of Team Americas and before that the Department of Manuscripts. Looking at the several hundred blog posts, that amounts to a lot of words. So, today, I'm turning to a few numbers (431 of them).

1) In 14 years and two months, I've ordered up 4695 books. If you sort them by decade, it looks like primary materials were focused around the end of the eighteenth century, the late nineteenth, and the Great War. I could do with catching up on some more recent scholarship, and the stats are skewed by n.d. materials. You can do the same by visiting and chosing the export function, and playing with data analysis tool in your favourite spreadsheet or statistics software.

Books by decade

2) 14 years equates to roughly 210,000 emails sent. This explains why the letters are no longer present on several of the keys on my keyboard. Historians in the future will be aghast at this method of working (and in other spheres the loss of the historical record).

3) Over $1-million worth of books acquired for the nation. This is the one statistic that staggers me, and is a reminder of the vast resources lying in the basements here in St Pancras or in the low-oxygen stores in Boston Spa. I wish there could be a blog post - and a reader- for each one of them.

4) circa 330 exhibition labels for nine exhibitions, meaning around 330,00 words, no doubt cut down from 500,000.

5) I am not calculating the number of teas or coffees consumed in the staff canteen, except to say the appropriate way to measure out my life here is by the helpful conversation and companionship of colleagues.

7) several ml of blood in paper cuts.

8) 240 miles covered for the Tour de BL.

9) several hundred infractions of the Optimum clock (my DPhil was on the history of timekeeping, so I feel justified in noting here).

10) 59 calories: the estimated amount of energy required to walk from the British Library to the Institute of Historical Research, where I am pleased to say I will be starting work as librarian next week. I suspect has not included the stairs in this calculation. And I'll be cycling in any case.

Thank you for reading over the years - this blog, as well as, of course, the collections.  You will, though, be in very capable hands as Laurence, Beth, Matthew and Mercedes continue posting here, and helping to keep the Americas collections the extraordinary research resource (and site of memory) that I have been enormously privileged to work with.

— Matthew Shaw


26 January 2016

An Irish Account of the First Days of the American Civil War

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'It is not in the nature of an Irishman to fight with four or five pounds of boiled pork and biscuit banging at his hip' – so beings the third and final part of the short, thirteen page account of The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia: A Narrative in the Three Parts (General Reference Collection, written by then-Captain Thomas Francis Meagher in 1861 during the early days of the American Civil War. It is one of a number of archive holdings the British Library has relating to the conflict and the involvement of Irish American men and women in the fight for the survival of a United States between 1861-1865, an area which forms the foundation of my doctoral research, with the generous fellowship support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.


Thomas Francis Meagher, The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia: A Narrative in Three Parts (New York, 1861), title page. Image in the public domain.

Meagher, a former Young Irelander who had escaped exile in Van Diemen’s Land and migrated to America in the early 1850s, was one of the most prominent Irish-born soldiers during the war. He rose from a captain attached to the 69th New York State Infantry Regiment to founder and commanding general of the Irish Brigade, the bastion of Irish American military service, with its constituent regiments present at every major battle of the brutal conflict. The 69th New York formed the Brigade’s foundation. They were born from a state militia regiment whose pre-war fame originated after the refusal of their commander Colonel Michael Corcoran (also Irish-born and later himself a prominent Union general) to march the past Edward, Prince of Wales during the future king’s visit to New York City in 1860. The exploits of Meagher, Corcoran, the 69th New York and the Irish Brigade’s military service during the Civil War were widely known in contemporary Union and Confederate societies and were recounted in several of the memoirs, accounts, newspaper records and ballads. Some of the songs relating to the Irish experience of the conflict can be seen in the Library’s online gallery collection of digitized American Civil War archives.

Meagher’s Last Days of the 69th in Virginia details events the 69th New York Infantry participated in from 12-18 July 1861 – the days leading up to the First Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Virginia, the first major battle of the Civil War. It thus gives a fascinating and unique insight into the mobilisation and immediate experiences of thousands of soldiers rallying to the impending front-line, completely unaware of the battle and the subsequent four long tortuous years of war that would soon be upon them. Meagher chose to focus on the days preceding the battle fought on 21st July because its “incidents and events, the world, by this time, has heard enough… the battle, the [Union] retreat, the alarm and confusion of the Federal troops, columns and volumes have been filled”. Instead, Meagher’s writing reveals the journey of the 69th New York from their base at Fort Corcoran on Arlington Heights outside of Washington D.C., to the fields around Manassas, travelling through the Virginian town of Centreville, made famous in a wartime photograph taken by Timothy H. O’Sullivan showing its use as a Confederate supply depot and war’s scarring on the land. The image was published in Alexander Gardener’s collection of Civil War photography, of which the Library holds a copy (General Reference Collection 1784.a.13.). Meagher was not particularly complementary about Centreville, describing is as a 'dingy, aged little village' with a 'miserable little handful of houses. It is the coldest picture conceivable of municipal smallness and decrepitude…One is astounded on entering it, to find that a molehill has been magnified into a mountain.'

Captain Thomas Francis Meagher

Captain Thomas Francis Meagher, later General Meagher, commander of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade (1861).

Someone else turned into a mountain in Civil War histories is 'our Brigadier, Colonel Sherman, a rude and envenomed martinet' who, for 'whatever his reasons for it were…exhibited the sourest malignity towards the 69th'. Meagher spoke here of William Tecumseh Sherman, more famous as the general who led the Union advance through the southern states in the final years of the Civil War. A colonel at the First Battle of Bull Run, Sherman’s continual ordering of the Irish soldiers to bivouac on “the dampest and rankest” of ground led Meagher to state that the then-colonel 'was hated by the regiment'. Despite no love being lost between Meagher and Sherman, the former unwittingly included a rather pointed note of historical irony about the latter. He described how advancing Union soldiers passing by farmsteads on the road to Manassas were 'forbade' to touch the 'cocks of hay and stacks of corn'. The people of Georgia would have surely wished that this version of Sherman had marched through their state in 1864.

Alongside derogatory descriptions of southern towns and fellow Union Army officers, Meagher detailed the exhausting march and Confederate skirmishes through the Virginian countryside in the July heat. Bivouacking subjected the men to night-time humidity, which caused the Stars and Stripes to become 'damp with the heavy night dews'. In the day the men of the 69th New York dealt with 'heat and dust and thirst'. His account paints a sensory portrait of the Union Army mustering to face the Confederacy; a visual 'splendid panorama, those four miles of armed men – the sun multiplying, it seemed to me, the lines of flashing steel, bringing out plume and epaulette and sword, and all the finery of war, into a keener radiance, and heightening the vision of that vast throng with all its glory'. He spoke similarly about aural imagery: 'the jingling of the bayonets, as the stacked muskets tumbled one after another… The sound was so like that of sabres slapping against the heels and spurs of charging troopers'. Amongst those on the march was the 79th New York Infantry Regiment looking 'stanch and splendid'. Led by Colonel James Cameron, the regiment were nicknamed 'The Highlanders' in honour of their connection to New York Scottish fraternity organisations.

The Library’s copy of The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia was 'published at the office of the '"Irish-American"' in New York City by Lynch and Cole, publishers of the Irish-American newspaper, the foremost Irish organ for the largest community of Irish men and women in America. It was subsequently circulated in other Irish newspapers in the country, namely the Boston Pilot. The account is in three parts, leading to the suggestion the publishers serialised Meagher’s writings before producing a book form sometime in the last summer/early autumn of 1861. It is possible that it was used as part of Meagher’s promotion tour of Irish American communities in New York, Boston and Philadelphia while he was galvanising support for the formation of the Irish Brigade. Very few copies of the account in this book form exists today and although it appears in the bibliographies of Irish American, wartime and Meagher histories, it is rarely quoted from, with scholars choosing newspaper accounts of his numerous wartime speeches and Michael Cavanagh’s Memoirs of General Thomas Francis Meagher (General Reference Collection 10882.g.1.) as their primary source focus. With limited personal wartime writings of Thomas Francis Meagher available, The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia provides a revealing insight into one prominent Irish American’s contemporary account of the initial days of the American Civil War. It helps show how the Irishman’s gift of rhetorical skill transposed itself to his writing, despite his friend Captain W.F. Lyons stating in his book Brigadier-General Thomas Francis Meagher (General Reference Collection that 'journalism was, in fact, not Meagher’s best field of action…[which] he had abandoned…for the stormy life of the soldier'.

What The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia demonstrates is that Meagher’s writing of the actual field of action was extremely eloquent. He could switch from the humorous – describing how Corcoran’s horse 'was greedily eating newspapers' on the morning of the First Battle of Bull Run – to the patriotic fervour that became commonplace amongst lyrical expressions of Irish American dual identity in the nineteenth century. He also provides a perfect description of why such a source is important for American Civil War scholars. Meagher’s account created 'a picture far more striking and exciting than any I had ever seen. War, assuredly, has its fascinations as well as its horrors…and so emboldens and spurs the tamest into heroism.'

Catherine Bateson