Virginia is for History Lovers

Map of Virginia during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Two years after Virginia seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy, the western counties of the state seceded and formed the Union state of West Virginia.

I moved to Virginia in March of 1973 in the middle of the sixth grade. We were living in Memphis, Tennessee and my father was offered a job at Madison College (renamed James Madison University right before I moved to California in 1977) in Harrisonburg, a small town in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Four years earlier, the state tourism board had adopted the new slogan “Virginia is For Lovers.” The round black buttons with the white letters and red heart were everywhere when we arrived.

I would learn over the next four and a half years that Virginia was (and is) especially a place for history lovers. Eight U.S. Presidents were born there, including four of the first five. The first permanent settlement in English-speaking America was established there at Jamestown in 1607. Virginia grew from trade in tobacco, iron, and slaves to the most populous and powerful of the thirteen British colonies, and played a major role in achieving American independence from Great Britain. The preserved buildings and historical recreations at Colonial Williamsburg seek to capture the feel and significance of this bygone era.

Jamestown and Williamsburg are located near the Atlantic Coast, and I visited them both when my parents took me to Virginia Beach for summer vacation. Harrisonburg, however, is located in the northwestern portion of the “Old Dominion,” and it was there where most of my childhood historical adventures took place. The town had a population of around 14,000 inhabitants at the time (today there are close to 50,000) and was surrounded by rich farmland and the parallel forested spines of the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. Harrisonburg itself sat in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain, a popular hiking spot in summer and ski resort in winter.

I settled into my new school and formed friendships. I still had a few months of the sixth grade to finish before moving on to Thomas Harrison Junior High School, named after the 18th century settler who founded the town. Once in junior high, I began visiting local historic and cultural sites while delivering newspapers for the Richmond Times-Dispatch (see painted rock below). American history was my favorite class in school. I joined a local Boy Scout troop and attended a Presbyterian church that met in an old farmhouse used as a hospital in the Civil War.

My first job was as a paperboy for the Richmond Times-Dispatch when I was attending school in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Artwork Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney.

My mother was an avid history buff, and took me with her to several noteworthy places in the area, beginning with Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s stately home in the hills above Charlottesville. She was a big admirer of Jefferson and his eclectic interests. I saw evidence of these in his extensive gardens, the titles in his library, and the collection of artifacts and inventions that were displayed in every room. I marveled at the map brought back by Lewis and Clark and the scientific instruments of Jefferson’s private study. The grounds were lovely and serene and filled with flowers at the time. We had lunch at the nearby Michie Tavern, built in 1784 and a local gathering place during the first decades of the Commonwealth.

I also visited historic homes in the northern part of Virginia, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Stratford Hall, the childhood home of General Robert E. Lee. Like Monticello, these houses were well-kept and filled with period furniture and fascinating exhibits. I made several trips to the museums of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC during my time in Harrisonburg, particularly the National Museum of American History, where I saw the gigantic Fort McHenry garrison flag, known throughout the world as the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The museum remains a major attraction today, along with its sister museums scattered throughout the nation’s capital.

Living in the Shenandoah Valley brought the sights, sounds, and tastes of the past alive. There were so many historic churches, storefronts, farms, schools, and battlefields that I was unable to take them all in as quickly as I wanted. The Highland Maple Festival in nearby Highland County showcased colonial arts and crafts and local bluegrass music. Grocery stores had iron horse hitching posts in the parking lot to accommodate the buggies of the local Mennonite community. Farmer’s markets offered delicious and wholesome produce from fertile fields that had been feeding the Valley for two centuries. My mother was enraptured by the recently published Foxfire book series that highlighted traditional Appalachian recipes, crafts, and medicinal remedies.

There were many recreational activities of which I took advantage. Hiking and camping in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park, canoeing down the Shenandoah and New Rivers, bicycling up and down the hilly country roads, and spelunking in local caves were all fun pastimes I enjoyed, especially in spring and summer. I attended high school football and minor league baseball games. I worked in a summer day camp for disabled adults at my church. There were art activities, live music, and holiday festivals all year. Fourth of July fireworks in the nearby village of Elkton in the Bicentennial summer of 1976 were particularly memorable.

Living in such a rich historical environment inspired me to create. I wrote a novel set on the 18th century frontier. I joined a Dungeons and Dragons role playing group in 1975, the year after the paperback rule books were first published by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR). I acted and sang in school plays and musicals. I helped my mother dig, plant, and harvest in our extensive backyard vegetable garden. Afterwards we canned fruit together. I wrote letters and poetry. I collected records, costumes, and miniatures. It was a prolific time for a young artist.

In my sophomore year at Harrisonburg High School, I signed up for an independent study course that allowed me to explore a local historical topic in detail and create a special project. I decided to design a board game on the French and Indian War (1754-1763) which I entitled The Fall of New France. I met with history professors at Madison College and began drawing a playing board and pieces, as well as uniforms of the participants (see below). Virginia played an important part in the colonial struggle between England and France. Young George Washington experienced his first taste of battle at Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity, just over the border in southwestern Pennsylvania, and spent the remainder of the war defending the Virginia frontier.

One of the drawings I completed for a special studies project in American history at Harrisonburg High School, a detailed board game on the French and Indian War called The Fall of New France. Copyright (c) 1976 Torin Finney.

The historical period that commanded my greatest interest, though, was the American Civil War (1861-1865), in which the Shenandoah Valley formed a major theater of operations. After Virginia seceded from the Union, the Valley provided vital food, horses, and other supplies to the Confederate armies. As such, it became a target for repeated Union invasion. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s brilliant Valley Campaign of 1862 hurled back several Northern attempts to seize the Valley. I remember visiting the monument to slain Confederate cavalry commander Turner Ashby in the woods near Harrisonburg. Ashby was somewhat of a local legend and was the namesake of our rival high school.

I visited local Civil War battlefields at Port Republic and Cross Keys and attended my first reenactment in the Bicentennial summer of 1976. Winchester to the north of Harrisonburg changed hands more than 70 times during the war. The Cedar Creek Battlefield was an interesting destination in the middle of a rich pastoral landscape, as was the New Market Battlefield, where the May 15, 1864 charge of the Virginia Military Institute cadets is reenacted annually. I enjoyed watching the 1965 film Shenandoah with Jimmy Stewart, which was staged as a Broadway musical while I was living in the Valley.

Elsewhere in the state are the battlefields of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, and the cluster of sites at Richmond National Battlefield Park, where the outcome of the war was decided in the climactic standoff in 1864-1865 between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. I also enjoyed visiting the Revolutionary War battlefield at Yorktown, which figured prominently in McClellan’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Numerous restored 18th and 19th century homes are scattered across the state and show how prominent civilians lived and struggled during these pivotal periods in history. I walked the halls and grounds of many of them during my years there.

I had plans to finish high school in Harrisonburg and stay local for college, perhaps at the iconic University of Virginia campus designed by Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville. But then my father was offered a job at California State University, Long Beach in the summer of 1977, and my time in the Old Dominion came to an end. I have returned only once in the years since then, in August of 1983 when I was visiting Washington, DC before my first semester of graduate school in Boston. Harrisonburg still looked much the same, including the brick house where I lived as a teenager with its sloping acre of grass and willow trees.

It has changed considerably since then, according to stories from friends and colleagues and information I have seen on the internet. I can still recall the dogwood blossoms in spring, the fireflies of the humid summer, raking leaves in the cool autumn air, and sledding down the nearby hills in winter. But most importantly, my time and experiences in the Shenandoah Valley and other parts of Virginia nourished my love of American history. From these roots grew a fruitful career in teaching and reenacting. Whether or not I see the Old Dominion with my own eyes again, I will always treasure my memories of its natural beauty and rich past.

Another drawing from the playing board of my high school simulation game design on the French and Indian War, The Fall of New France. Copyright (c) 1976 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Climbing the Family Tree

Finney (Feeney) family tree I completed in 1995 after several years of genealogical research. My great-great-great-grandfather arrived in Chicago from Canada in the 1840s with his brothers and their families. Their descendants settled across the United States from Massachusetts to California. Artwork Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Compiling a family history may seem like a relatively easy task at first. As long as the relatives have oral histories or some written records and artifacts to share, a basic narrative can be constructed to pass down to the next generations. Many families do this and do it well. Others show little knowledge of or interest in the family tree. Anyone from this kind of background is on their own, and starting from scratch can be daunting. Constructing a pedigree chart or any other genealogical tool can require patience and diligence if information is not readily available.

Fortunately, I had grandmothers who appreciated and encouraged my interest. My father’s mother had stories, photographs, and some family tree charts, especially for the Finney side, which was of Irish and German extraction. My mother’s mother did not have too many stories for me, but she did pass down a collection of Civil War medals that had belonged to her grandfather (see image below). My mother did provide me with some information, but she did not have many historical details at her immediate disposal. She said her side was mostly German with some Polish, French, Scots-Irish, and Cherokee mixed in.

Civil War medals belonging to Michael Schneider (1842-1900), passed down to me by my maternal grandmother in 1974. I had them mounted and framed in 1995. Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

My maternal grandmother died in Virginia in 1974 when she was 63 and I was 13. A few years later I moved to California and went off to college. Busy with school and work, I did not return to my genealogical interest for many years. Then in the spring of 1992, after moving to a small town north of Wichita, I began listening to an NPR show on Radio Kansas called “The Thistle and Shamrock”. Scottish radio host Fiona Ritchie had developed a thematic program highlighting the connections between Appalachian folk music and traditional Celtic songs and ballads from northwestern Europe. I was able to listen to the entire hour each Sunday afternoon as I drove through the long expanses of wheat and sunflowers along U.S. 50.

As someone of Irish and Scottish heritage who spent much of my boyhood in Appalachia, I quickly became an avid fan of her show. On the Irish side, I knew from childhood that my surname was originally spelled O’Feeney and was changed to Finney around the time of the Civil War. But there were few other stories of my Irish heritage passed down to me as a boy. I was hungry for more information. I visited the local public library and checked out everything they had on Ireland.

Digging deeper, I discovered that the name Feeney was Fiadhne in Gaelic and was derived from ancient legends of Irish warriors. The Feeney clan were Irish speakers from Connaught in western Ireland. Many left the potato famine for North America in the 1840s and brought their emigration songs with them. When I first heard the poignant lament “Green Fields of Canada” by the Irish band Deanta on Ritchie’s weekly broadcast, I was surprised to find myself overwhelmed with emotion. Something had struck a deep chord.

When I returned to California that fall, I continued to listen to “The Thistle and Shamrock,” this time on Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. I continued my genealogical research, contacting relatives on both sides and compiling primary and secondary sources. One of my father’s cousins sent me an extensive notebook with many helpful names and dates. Another lived in an historic 1850s farmhouse in the Gold Rush town of Sutter Creek, only a few hours drive from where I was living, and I spent a day with her as she shared family photos and stories. From these family records, I began constructing the family tree chart pictured above.

On my mother’s side, I found three Union Civil War soldiers, Ohioan Michael Schneider and father and son Thomas and Samuel Laughery from Iowa. Family charts listed the regiments in which they had served, and with just this information I was able to order their military service records from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It was a thrilling moment to receive and open these documents and read through them for the first time. Here before my eyes were the signatures of my Civil War ancestors and the stories of their wartime service. The medals wrapped in tissue paper from my late grandmother suddenly took on human form.

As I continued my research, I was particularly drawn to my maternal grandmother’s Scottish roots. Her maternal grandmother, Sarah Margaret Laughery (1862-1947), was born in Iowa shortly after her father and brother enlisted in the Union Army. Her mother was descended from a Scots-Irish Pennsylvania veteran of the American Revolution who was awarded land in Morgan County, Ohio for his wartime service. His ancestors were a sept of Clan Davidson in the Scottish Highland region of Inverness. The name Laughery was originally Lochrie in the Scottish Lowlands and connected to Clan Douglas, then changed when the family moved to northern Ireland.

In 1882, Sarah married James Allen Davis, a native of Perry County, Missouri and the son of Scots-Irish, French, and Cherokee pioneers. The young couple moved to Los Angeles, California in 1886 in pursuit of land and job opportunities, where James died tragically in an accidental fire eight years later at the age of 38. Sarah returned to Iowa with her small children (including my great-grandmother Clara Belle) and remarried, this time to a one-legged Civil War veteran named Jacob Kimm, who moved his new blended family to eastern Washington to start a frontier church mission. Clara Belle married Sherman Schneider in 1910 and gave birth to my maternal grandmother in Spokane the following year.

I began filling out a pedigree chart for both sides of my family and drawing individual charts for each branch (see handmade diagrams below). I filled in as much information as I could from the family history records at my disposal, including birth, marriage, and death dates, full names, birthplaces and places of death, and baptismal and other church records. When I ran into a dead end, I had to look elsewhere. In the 1990s when I was heavily involved in this activity, that meant calling courthouses and making road trips across the country. The internet was first making its public debut and online genealogical resources were in their infancy. I had to use “old school” methods.

One of the charts I compiled on my paternal ancestors from Hannover, Germany. My great-great-grandfather Heinrich Meiring fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 before emigrating to Canada and then Oregon, where his daughter married George Finney and gave birth to my grandfather in 1900. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

Most of the vital records offices I contacted by telephone were very helpful. I managed to obtain a few death certificates on my father’s Irish side and some photographs from the German side. More family heirlooms arrived from distant relatives. One sent me my great-grandmother’s Roman Catholic Confirmation prayer book from 1885. Another sent me my grandfather’s 1919 high school yearbook from Sheridan, Oregon. I contacted the historical societies of several of the counties in Oregon and Ohio where my ancestors had lived and was able to glean some bits on land and marriage records.

By the end of 1994 I had compiled quite an extensive scrapbook with several pedigree charts and family narratives. I visited the local LDS family history library, which kept an impressive genealogical collection that was available to non-members such as myself, and was able to gather a few more details on dates and locations. Then I came up cold. There were no more details to be found, at least in the sources available to me. I had to fill in the blanks myself.

I began by researching the time periods and locations in which my ancestors lived. I studied the history of the Irish potato famine, including the ordeal endured by passengers on the notorious “coffin ships” across the Atlantic in the 1840s. I read British historian Cecil Woodham-Smith’s classic The Great Hunger (1962) and exchanged a series of letters with my father’s cousin in Portland, Oregon who had done extensive research on that period. I ordered the regimental histories of my Civil War ancestors’ units from the Ohio and Iowa state archives and included them in my scrapbook. Armed with more contextual information, I began asking more specific questions of relatives and was able to fill in some more blanks.

Finney family portrait from 1885 in front of their home in Gervais, Oregon. My Irish great-great-grandparents, James and Mary Ann Finney, stand at left; their daughter Ella in the center, and my great-grandfather George and his brother Ed at right. Photo courtesy of my late cousin Agnes Grady.

Then in the summer of 1995 I decided to take a road trip north from Sacramento to Marion County, Oregon. I learned that my great-great-grandparents from Ireland were buried in the St. Louis Catholic Cemetery outside the small farming town of Gervais. It was a long drive in the heat and humidity along Interstate 5. When I finally arrived at my destination, I was overwhelmed to stand in front of my ancestors’ graves. Buried with James and Mary Ann Finney was their son Francis (Frank), who was the fourth of their seven children to die before the age of 30.

Scores of other Irish and French immigrants were buried around them. The peaceful surrounding fields, silent tombstones, and white wooden church where my great-grandparents were married a century earlier seemed to have changed little in appearance since that earlier time. Afterwards, I visited the graves of my German immigrant great-great-grandparents and Irish-American great-grandparents in nearby Salem. All in all, it was a life changing experience. I felt a deep connection to my roots and this land that I had not sensed before. I felt the presence and blessing of my ancestors.

Standing at the graves of James and Mary Ann Finney, my Irish-born great-great-grandparents, in the St. Louis Cemetery in Gervais, Oregon in the summer of 1995. He died on New Year’s Day in 1905 and she followed him six weeks later on Valentine’s Day. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Over the next two decades, I added more information to my genealogy scrapbook as online resources became more available. I returned from a visit to my mother in Oklahoma in the summer of 2001 with a large collection of family photographs and memorabilia, which I photocopied and returned to her.  That year I also found a Feeney cousin living in County Offaly, Ireland, who wrote to me with stories and information.  A genealogical society in County Roscommon I contacted by email was very helpful. I compiled an online family tree which I shared with distant relatives who found me on the internet.

Ancestry.com and familysearch.org are among the many excellent tools with which to conduct research. Vital records from counties and states across the country as well as federal military records can also be obtained by digital means. But in the end, an old-fashioned phone call, conversation, or road trip is still the best way to learn some things. Find out who has the photos, the stories, and the artifacts in your family. That is always a good place to start. Genealogy can become a rewarding, lifelong hobby. Understanding your roots can help you live a more grounded and fruitful life.

Hand drawn pedigree chart for my paternal Irish side. In the end, I discovered I have Irish, Scottish, French, English, Polish, German, and Cherokee ancestry. Copyright (c) 1995 Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.


140th Franklin

2004 image (by period photographer Wendell Decker) of eight of the twelve “Bohemian Brigade” living historians who attended the 140th anniversary Battle of Franklin event in Spring Hill, Tennessee. I am third from left in the linen duster.

After participating in the 140th Gettysburg event in Pennsylvania in the summer of 2003, I was determined to attend more large reenactments on a regular basis. The smaller events I attended every month back home in California were no longer enough to satisfy my hunger for reliving the American Civil War period on a grand scale. My artist correspondent impression had attracted some interest in national reenacting periodicals, and I longed to reach a greater audience with my sketches and dispatches.

As planned at Gettysburg, those of us representing the “Bohemian Brigade” on the reenacting field began expanding our internet presence. My friend Michael Farnsley augmented the section of his website on “Fellow Bohemians” to highlight our various impressions, and by the summer of 2004 he had a dozen or so featured with photo and bio. The Camp Chase Gazette, a journal which focused on reenacting the Civil War period, included an article I wrote on portraying the artists and correspondents. By this time I had amassed a considerable collection of sketches and dispatches and began distributing them to a growing list of email subscribers.

Michael and fellow Gettysburg event veteran David Foote let me know they would be attending the 140th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Franklin near Nashville and encouraged me to join them again on the field. The event was scheduled for the first weekend in October (rather than November 30, the actual date of the battle in 1864) in Spring Hill, Tennessee, just south of the battle site and the locale of another fight that had preceded the slaughter at Franklin. Michael’s old army unit (of which David’s son Josh was still an active member), the 9th Kentucky (U.S.), agreed to host us again in their camp. This time I would travel alone and bunk with Michael in his A-frame tent rather than book a hotel room.

I had also been corresponding online with Tom Grandy, a reenactor from Colorado who portrayed a Southern correspondent for the Richmond Daily Examiner. He and I exchanged several lively and engaging “period” letters in the personae of our Civil War characters. This exchange evolved into the interesting scenario of a hypothetical dialogue between North and South. We shared some of the letters with our online community and built interest in the idea of our meeting in person at Franklin.

An Ohio reenactor named Eric Tipton contacted me and offered to create a webpage on my impression for the Camp Chase Gazette‘s online presence. Eric and I shared a Civil War connection to the Buckeye State (my ancestor Michael Schneider served in Fuller’s Ohio Brigade and had entrained with them at Camp Chase during the war) and I was flattered and encouraged by his interest. He let me know he and his company would be at Franklin as well. I looked forward to meeting him and his group, which was a respected “campaigner” unit, i.e., one which strives for meticulous authenticity in its historical portrayal.

All these preparations unfolded as my school year was ending in Bakersfield, California, and as summer school began, I made plans to attend the annual Civil War Days event at the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Museum is a restored 19th century town complete with homes, barns, shops, businesses, and a school. Rick Brouse and the other organizers had contacted me with an invitation to participate in the civilian portion of the program. I went in mid-July and enjoyed the experience immensely. When I returned, I used the sketches and dispatches I created there to continue to build interest in the Franklin event.

The new school year began at the end of August and I spent the first month of the semester shoring up my plans for Franklin as well as getting my students on track in their history classes. I was teaching 7th grade world history and coaching an after-school drama club at the time during the day and teaching the U.S. history survey course three evenings a week at the local community college, so I had a captive audience of all ages with which to share my Civil War reenacting hobby. I gathered more online subscribers to my James Allen Davis dispatches and made my final travel arrangements.

I flew out of LAX into Nashville on Friday, October 1 and was met by Michael at the airport. I had not been to Tennessee in many years (I attended 5th and 6th grade in Memphis in the early 1970s and had passed through Bedford County in 1992 to visit my maternal grandmother’s grave), and it was a thrill to see the old sights again. We arrived at the event near Spring Hill and registered, and then made our way across the cool autumn fields with their changing leaves into the camp of the 9th Kentucky.

I was glad to see those boys again, and we spent some time catching up on the events of the past year since we had last met at Gettysburg. There was also a small contingent of Danish lads in the company who had traveled all the way from Copenhagen to quench their thirst for an authentic American Civil War experience on an actual battlefield site. They informed us that this period from our history attracted quite a bit of interest in Europe, information verified by my experience interacting with the crowds at the Gettysburg event and gathering online supporters.

Steve Diatz, who portrayed a New York Herald correspondent and was the fourth member of our “Bohemian Brigade” at Gettysburg, also showed up at Franklin with his impressive field kit and ensembles. I also ran into Ohioan Eric Tipton, who gave me a warm welcome and introduced me to some of his comrades in arms. We obtained our correspondent passes from the Provost and met General Mark Dolive, the event’s Union Army commander. General Dolive was a gracious host and informed us that he had 3,000 muskets under his command. The Confederates had around 7,000 showing up for the event, and plans were made to have several of their units “galvanize” into blue-coated Yankees to even out the odds for the battle scenarios.

One of the grand highlights of that first day was my face-to-face meeting with my friend Tom Grandy in the Confederate camp. He was dressed in a black slouch hat, gray suit, and campaigner bedroll (see image below). We embraced and exchanged stories and agreed to fall in together in between battle engagements. I also met Michael Sanchez, who was portraying an artist from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and had traveled with his partner all the way from Utah to attend.

Falling in at Franklin with my friend and colleague Tom Grandy (left), who portrayed a correspondent for the Richmond Daily Examiner. Tom passed away in 2006 and is greatly missed. Photo Copyright (c) 2004 Torin Finney.

John Nevins, a reenactor I knew from California, also made a surprise appearance as a New York Tribune correspondent. He apparently had been inspired by my impression at the Kearney Park event in Fresno and began developing his own newspaperman character. Cincinnati artist and engraver Shawn Kohrmann represented the German language press and shared some fine pastels and French blue cotton paper with me. Alan Lloyd from Colorado and artist Jim Hoffmann from Kentucky were also portraying newsmen. In all, twelve reenactors from across the United States had stepped forward to cover the Franklin event as members of the “Bohemian Brigade.”

The Friday battle scenario was designed to recreate the November 29, 1864 fight at Spring Hill, Tennessee, which preceded the larger battle at Franklin. Following Eric’s unit and the other Union columns, we marched down worn dirt paths that had been trodden by the very men whose deeds we were portraying. This realization alone made my hair stand on end. We passed by an old cemetery that held graves dating back to the War of 1812 and took our positions along its stone wall to view the action. I began a sketch and took a series of photographs, including the one below of Michael drawing our battle lines moving forward.

“Bohemian Brigade” reenactor Michael Sanchez sketching the first day’s action at the Franklin event near Spring Hill, Tennessee, October 1, 2004. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

I soon discovered that 140th Franklin was more of a “campaigner” event than the one at Gettysburg. There were more bedrolls instead of A-frame tents, fewer civilian impressions, more distressed uniforms, and leaner men wearing them. Many of the Union soldiers wore Hardee-style and other black slouch hats in various stages of condition rather than kepis, to remain truer to the character of the western campaigns. There was also some suspicion of my ensemble (in line with General Sherman’s notorious distrust of the press), with its straw hat and light colored duster and trousers, and I was suddenly surrounded once by Union pickets demanding to see my pass. The entire event had a harder and grittier feel to it than the more Fourth of July picnic atmosphere at Gettysburg.

As at that earlier event, I enjoyed walking through sutler row in between the engagements and interacting with the public. One reenactor who portrayed a traveling professor and showman had followed my website and was delighted to make my acquaintance. I bought a commemorative poster of the event and had all my journalist colleagues sign it. There was a period embalmer and a full display and model of the C.S.S. Hunley, the Confederate submarine that had been brought up from the bottom of Charleston Harbor just a few years prior. The period musicians present were outstanding.

The second day’s battle portraying the actual fight at Franklin was truly spectacular. Many of the Union and Confederate units marched all day through the dust and dark to muster a realistic air of grime and exhaustion. Authentic trenches, rifle pits, and artillery emplacements were built. There was even a scale recreation of the infamous cotton gin house where so much savage fighting took place. The assaults of Cleburne’s division and the other rebel units were breathtaking. The cacophony of shot and shell filled the air for more than an hour. Pungent black powder smoke singed my lungs and nostrils. The battle flags rose and fell. Orders were bellowed and reinforcements rushed in. It was a perfect and awful “universe of battle.”

When it was over, scores of Confederate prisoners, sullen and exhausted, were herded behind our lines where we correspondents were finishing up our sketches and dispatches. Tom Grandy had been captured as well, and we escorted him to General Dolive’s headquarters, where he was paroled and delivered into our “custody” at the camp of the 9th Kentucky. We gave him a fine cigar and sat around the campfire together, regaling our recollections of the day’s action as the sun set over the horizon and illuminated the surrounding grassy fields with a golden glow. It was a perfect ending to a memorable day.

The third day’s fighting recreated the December 16, 1864 Battle of Nashville, and we marched into another end of the battlefield behind the army columns under General Dolive’s personal command. He was mounted on a white charger and cut quite the commanding figure. The rebels were entrenched on a hill that could only be accessed through a dense forest of low trees and undergrowth, and several thorny bushes and branches made a vain attempt to grab hold of my duster and haversack to hinder my progress. I did manage to finish a fine sketch and make my way safely back to Union lines.

I was compelled to leave the event early because of my flight home to California, and Michael was gracious enough to interrupt his own experience to drive me to the airport. Franklin had been a marvelous experience on many levels and I enjoyed its aftermath for many months. By the time the semester ended and I went off to winter break, I had much to share with my online readers and my new life partner, web designer and fellow reenactor Jill Forbath. Within six months, Jill had created an amazing website highlighting my campaigns. We began taking the field together and presenting at school and community events until our retirement from the hobby in 2011.

The “Bohemian Brigade” continued to grow over those years following the Franklin event. Several recent publications by professional historians and journalists have called attention to this important group of the American Civil War period. There are now correspondent reenactors of the “Millennial” generation in many countries across the world, still schoolchildren when I attended Franklin, who joined the hobby as young adults and post their artwork and impressions on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram. Their continued efforts ensure that the vital historical contributions of these brave 19th century artists and correspondents will not be forgotten.

Reenactors of the “Bohemian Brigade” posing for the camera of Mr. Wendell Decker at the 140th Franklin event, October 2, 2004. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Labor Day Weekend

Hand painted stones from a 2014 art project I called my “Rock Resume.” Happy Labor Day Weekend! Copyright (c) Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894 after several states had already begun honoring the contribution of the working classes every year on May 1, known as “May Day.” President Grover Cleveland favored moving the holiday to September to avoid associations with more radical labor movements such as socialism and anarchism, which had long recognized May Day as International Worker’s Day. For more than a century, Labor Day has thus been observed on the first Monday in September.

Labor Day weekend is considered the end of summer and marks the beginning of the new school year. Many of you have this weekend to rest after the first week of school. You have met your teachers and your classmates and have some idea of where the school year is headed. This is a good time to set your goals for the semester and create a schedule for yourself in which to accomplish those objectives.

This country was built by hard work. Many of you hold jobs outside of school. Labor Day is a good time to recognize the efforts of workers, including those who are members of labor unions. As you can see from the collection of painted stones pictured above, I have held many jobs over the course of my life. In all those jobs I worked with people who accomplished great things.

Make this semester one of your outstanding accomplishments. Create a weekly discipline for yourself and complete all your assignments in a timely manner. The rewards will be worth your efforts.

In the meantime, enjoy the holiday weekend!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Independence Day

Historical flags displayed in my classroom from 2001 to 2018. The “Betsy Ross” flag with its circle of thirteen stars was first designed in 1777.

Happy Fourth of July! We are only seven years away from America’s 250th birthday. I still remember with fondness the historic festivities of the Bicentennial in 1976 when I was a teenager in Virginia. President Ford danced with Queen Elizabeth at the White House. Tall ships, elaborate fireworks, exciting parades, rousing speeches, television specials, and living history demonstrations all captured my young imagination.

In the 43 years since then, our increasingly diverse population has grown by 50% and our role in the world has expanded significantly. Our identity as a pluralistic nation continues to evolve, fed by the hopes and dreams of both newcomers and each new generation of Americans. The principles of equality and human rights articulated in the Declaration of Independence continue to inspire millions around the world.

Independence Day marks the halfway point of the calendar year and the last major holiday before the new school year begins. Whether you have the entire summer off or just today during your summer school session, I hope this day is fun and relaxing for you and yours. Put on something red, white, and blue, find your way to some fireworks, and join in the celebration!

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Preparing for Tests

Tests and final exams are standard methods of measuring your mastery of a subject in school. Although they may take many different forms, they usually represent the largest portion of your course grade. Whether they are multiple choice or matching questions, project presentations, essay prompts, or maps and diagrams, it is crucial that you perform well on tests. Coming up with a successful strategy for studying will ensure satisfying results.

Objective style tests typically come with some kind of study guide. Pertinent topics and vocabulary you will need to know should be included. If your teacher does not provide one in advance, ask him or her to give you a copy or post something in the online classroom. Verify which sources you need to review (chapters in the textbook, handouts, completed homework, etc.) and focus your preparation on them. Many of my most successful students color coded their class notes and went over the topics with dependable study partners.

Some questions can be answered in more than one way. Read every question carefully and always choose the best answer based on your intuition and knowledge. This strategy applies to state tests and AP/IB exams as well as those in your regular subjects. Answer the questions that seem easier at first and then return to the more difficult ones. Take your time. Breathe. Trust in your preparation and the work you have given in class all semester.

For essay questions, read the prompt carefully and flesh out your response completely. Present a strong thesis backed up by multiple points. Support your argument with whatever sources you can muster from memory or those provided during the test. If essay writing is more stressful for you than answering objective questions, get a head start on the essay before you return to the multiple choice. Let the teacher know if you need more time to finish. Most teachers will accommodate your request. They want you to succeed.

In your history class, keep track of personalities and patterns in your notes. Organize your notes, graded homework, and study guides according to unit and topic. Try to make connections between the people, places, and events. A multidimensional or interdisciplinary approach will bolster your retention and understanding. Look for links between history content and what you are learning in your other classes, especially in English. Demonstrating that you have done so will impress your teachers, especially on tests.

In government and economics, staying on top of concepts and vocabulary is key. Some economics tests include graphs and equations as well. If you have done your homework, you can build on theoretical foundations and show your understanding of real life applications. Supply and demand are at the core of the marketplace. Follow business news on your phone and pay attention to current events. The same is true for political science. Keep on top of the positions of both major parties on crucial issues in the public debate. Watch both conservative and liberal news channels. The more material you have, the better your responses will be on tests.

Be proactive in your preparation. Keep up on the material week by week. Turn in your homework on time and read all the required chapter sections as you go. Ask for help from the teacher and other classmates on a regular basis. Do you own work. Avoid procrastination and “all-nighter” study sessions. Get a good night’s sleep before a test. Eat a full breakfast and get to school early. Bring the pens, pencils, paper, and other supplies you need. Take all the time you are given during the test. If you finish early, go over all your answers before turning it in.

Save all your graded work and study guides until the end of the semester. They will help you when you prepare for the final examination. Most social science finals are comprehensive, so you will be responsible for everything you have learned during the term. Continue to organize your work as you move through each quarter. Always pay attention in class. Write your name on everything you submit. Remind the teacher to return your work before the test if you have to. Take charge of your own learning.

If you do poorly on a test, ask the teacher if you can make it up. If that is not an option, offer to complete an alternative assignment to be counted as extra credit. Most teachers will appreciate your desire to do well and rectify your mistakes. If you demonstrate a desire to succeed on a regular basis, your teacher will take notice. Your goal is to finish the class with the highest grade you can achieve. Adopting sound and organized test preparation practices will help you achieve that goal.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Religion and the Social Science Curriculum

The First United Methodist Church of San Diego first organized in 1869 and celebrates its sesquicentennial this year. The current sanctuary in Mission Valley was completed and opened in 1964. Photo copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

The study of religion can add a valuable dimension to academic programs in both the humanities and the social sciences. Religious history, theology, art, liturgy, organizations, and architecture have each played a large part in the development of our modern world. Religious conflict and cultural pluralism continue to shape politics and economics at home and international trade and diplomacy abroad. A sound understanding of the major world religions will help your students better understand the complex patterns and dynamics of U.S. and world history as well as government, geography, and economics.

Many people assume that religion can only be taught in private schools. At first, I was among them. I began my teaching career in the theology department of a Roman Catholic high school, where I taught Old and New Testament classes, the history of Christianity, and comparative religions. I was hired in part because I possessed a seminary degree and had a book published by a religious press. When I moved to the public school system after two years, I thought I would not have further use for this background. I soon discovered to my surprise that the state social science content standards also included topics related to world religions.

World history standards for grade 10 highlight Judeo-Christian and Islamic influences in the development of western democratic thought. The origins, teachings, and spread of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism are all part of the California Social Science Standards for grades 6 and 7, as are the Crusades, the characteristics of Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman mythology, and the indigenous religions of Africa and the Americas. Even religious texts such as the Bible, the Quran, and the Bhagavad Gita can be referenced as historical sources in class.

American religious history has its own category in U.S. History state standards for grade 11, including key events such as the First and Second Great Awakenings, the Disestablishment Clause of the First Amendment, and the role of religious reformers in the Antebellum and Progressive Eras. The establishment of churches and synagogues in America is part of what is covered in the story of national development, as well as new Christian denominations in the 19th century and other faiths brought through the Ellis and Angel Island immigration stations in the first half of the 20th.

The caveat in public schools, of course, is that religion can be taught but not preached. Classes in my first teaching assignment began with a Catholic prayer as well as the Pledge of Allegiance, and students of all faiths were required to attend mass several times a year. This made sense for a school run by the local diocesan office of education. In the public schools where I spent the remainder of my career, however, religion became a purely academic subject. Students of various faiths could form their own extra-curricular clubs, but the practice of religion was no longer appropriate on a school-wide level.

Religion may be taught in public schools as long as no particular tradition is favored. The focus must be inclusive and balanced with respect to the variety of religious pluralism. Many public schools offer comparative world religion courses as humanities or social science electives, but the emphasis is on critical study rather than personal spiritual or moral development. Tread carefully and deliberately as you design your lesson plans. Misunderstanding can lead to conflict. Be clear with parents that you are teaching material from the state social science content standards. Be willing to offer alternative assessments, but stick to the standards. Your state teaching credential grants you the right and the duty to do so.

Religion appears all across the curriculum. From the role the Bible played in spreading literacy on the American frontier to the conflicts over war and slavery between Quakers and other groups in the 19th century, many topics arise in class that tie in religious themes. The various faith traditions introduced by immigrant groups are as vital a part of the national “melting pot” story as are their cuisine, language, dress, and culture. Many landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases have dealt with issues of religious doctrine and practice. Faith still motivates political activism on both the right and the left.

When I taught world religions, I had students of various backgrounds bring artifacts and stories to class. We took field trips to local houses of worship, including a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue, and a Protestant chapel. We compared theological traditions and liturgical practices and discussed how they influenced political and cultural relationships. In my history and economics classes, the attitudes of different religious groups toward the environment, the role of women, the treatment of labor, and the growth of business and trade were great topics for Socratic Seminars, class projects, and DBQ essay assignments.

Religion plays a large role in the lives of many of your students. A careful study of diverse religious traditions will increase your cultural literacy and sensitivity as an educator. If you decide to pursue formal studies at an accredited institution of higher learning, there are many excellent choices. My Master of Divinity degree was completed at the interdenominational Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, a renowned center of religious pluralism adjacent to the University of California campus.

When I was there, there were nine separate seminaries and several affiliate centers for religious study. GTU students were enrolled at a particular school but were encouraged to take classes at all of them. Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians learned alongside Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and secular humanists. My church history course included a series of lectures with faculty and students from all the schools as well as a smaller weekly seminar at my school of affiliation. For someone like me who did not come from a particularly religious background, studying at the GTU was a rich and rewarding experience.

This was in the time before the internet. The new digital world in which we live offers far more opportunities for learning than what I had at my disposal then. Take advantage of these vast resources to develop the religion element of your state standards. Like rhetoric, etiquette, Latin, and Greek, theology and religion were once part of a “classical” education. Now they have been largely discarded from today’s course offerings. I think this does our students a disservice. As long as state standards include religious topics, their study should be included in what the kids get in class.

Learn as much as you can about world religions (to read my World Religions Topic Summaries, click here). As you do so, be aware of your own biases. Get to know the cultural and religious backgrounds of your students. Respect those who are believers and those who are not. Hold to your own personal beliefs, but avoid favoritism in class. Teach rather than preach. Give your students the forum to explore various ideas and come to their own conclusions. Empower them to be critical thinkers. Their ability to do so will serve them well in our complex and challenging world.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for mentoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.



San Diego at 250

Historical marker at Presidio Park in San Diego, California. Photo copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney.

Two and a half centuries ago today, on May 17, 1769, a party of Spaniards led by Gaspar de Portola founded the Presidio of San Diego in the hills above the bay first sighted by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542 and named by Sebastian Vizcaino in 1602. Portola’s fortified camp was followed a few months later by the first of 21 Franciscan missions, called San Diego de Alcala by Father Junipero Serra.

The Spanish were eager to establish a foothold on the west coast of North America in the vast and rich land they would later call Alta California. Their conquest of the local indigenous people was efficient and ruthless. The Kumeyaay and other native tribes were driven off by the soldiers or baptized and put to work by the friars, and by the 1820s a small Spanish-speaking adobe settlement had been built at the foot of the hill where the mission stood. By the time California was admitted to the United States on September 9, 1850, this pueblo of 650 people had been incorporated as the city of San Diego.

This has led many to consider San Diego the “birthplace of California.” Annexation by the United States and the Gold Rush began a century of astronomical population growth, and by 1962 California had become the most populous of the 50 states. The Golden State today boasts the widest ethnic diversity of any state, including the largest Hispanic and Asian American communities, and California’s economy is now the fifth largest on earth. Summer 2019 will see many celebrations commemorating San Diego’s role in the origins of this great success story.

The original pueblo at the bottom of the mission hill is now Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, maintained and administered by the State of California since 1968. For several of the past 50 years, it has been the most visited of the 280 sites in the California State Park System. Its Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead festivals are among the largest in the United States. Old Town’s 27 restored historic buildings highlight the settlement’s 19th century history and are surrounded by scores of popular restaurants and shops.

Naturally, an honest appraisal of California history must include its darker side. San Diego’s story in particular includes many shameful chapters. In addition to the decimation of local Native American peoples by disease, warfare, and subjugation, the Spanish-speaking Californio families who formed the original community were soon marginalized by the English-speaking newcomers. “Old Town” was eventually eclipsed by the “New Town” of downtown San Diego along the bay side waterfront, notorious for shady business deals, a vibrant red light district called “Stingaree,” and a succession of corrupt politicians.

Then came the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal a year earlier. San Diegans and thousands of visitors were welcomed to the newly completed Balboa Park with its grand Spanish colonial architecture and lush gardens. Twenty years later, the California-Pacific International Exposition was held in Balboa Park to boost morale during the Great Depression. By then San Diego had become a vacation destination and tourism had grown into a major local industry. A thriving tuna business and active military bases led to further development and new communities.

The burgeoning shipping and aviation industries grew exponentially overnight with the coming of World War II. San Diego became the civilian and military port and base of operations for the war in the Pacific. Many who arrived during the war decided to stay afterwards and contribute to the city’s growth. By the end of the 20th century, San Diego had become California’s second largest city and the eighth largest in the country. Today the city is host to many new and exciting industries, resurgent historic neighborhoods, and a metropolitan population of more than three million.

San Diego’s story set the pace for the growth of California, as California did for the nation as a whole. Despite a high cost of living, a struggling public school system, unresolved immigration issues, and continuing economic inequities, there is still much to celebrate this summer. California represents the land of promise for thousands of newcomers who arrive each day, and the state government in Sacramento has made valiant efforts to expand public health care and other social programs to reach more of the state’s 40 million people.

I have called California home since 1977. In those four decades I have lived in Long Beach, the Bay Area, Sacramento, Bakersfield, Orange County, and many other places before moving to San Diego last summer. Over the years I moved to other states for a brief time, but the excitement, beauty, and opportunity of California always brought me back. The Golden State has led the way in the emergence of our diverse, entrepreneurial, digital, global society. I am pleased to be here in the place where it all began 250 years ago.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Taking Notes

Taking notes is a big part of your history class or any other subject in the social sciences. There is a lot of material to keep track of, and state content standards are rigorous and extensive. Knowing how to take detailed notes in the right format will help you keep up with that content and achieve your best grade possible.

Cornell style notes are a time-proven method of organizing and engaging with historical content. I used them for most of my time as a high school teacher and encouraged my college and middle school students to employ them as well. They were a required part of both lectures and documentary films in my classes. I provided a paper copy of printed Cornell forms for students to use as well as online copies in my digital classrooms.

If a printed Cornell form is not at your disposal, create your own. Write your name and the course title at the top of the page and the subject of the lecture or discussion in the top left corner. Draw a column along the left margin about a third of the way into the page and divide that column into three or four parts. This is where you will create topics or questions that can funnel the content you are hearing or seeing into specific categories.

If the instructor is unclear about those categories ahead of time, you will have to do that part yourself as best you can. Keep track of the information you hear and see in the larger space to the right of the subject column. Write down important dates and places (When and Where), people and groups (Who), important events and ideas (What), cause and effect (Why), and cyclical patterns (Historical Consequences). These were the same themes I had my students use when creating their quarter projects and taking notes on them in class.

Repeat this pattern on both sides of your paper. At the bottom, create another margin where you synthesize the page’s content into a summary statement or conclusion. Then review everything you have written before turning it in at the end of class (if that is what the teacher requires) or filing it in your subject notebook.

Of course, Cornell notes are not universally required or accepted by all instructors, but they are nonetheless a good way to organize content as you go. Organize your notes into sections according to the units of the course so you can use them to study for tests and exams. Color code your notes to help you make connections between patterns of people and events. Use the same color code in linking your class notes to the written assignments you complete in your textbook. The more consistency and connection you can create, the better.

Many people try to rely on their “photographic memory” and feel that extensive notes are unnecessary. I can tell you from decades as a student and teacher that this is not the case, at least for the majority of learners. History tests tend to be fact heavy and historical writing demands detail and documentation. The same can be said for economics, psychology, sociology, political science, anthropology, and world religions. Copious and well-organized notes are an essential part of academic success in the social sciences.

Save all your notes and other written assignments until the end of the semester after your final exams are over. If the course lasts for an entire year and culminates with a comprehensive final, continue to save and reorganize your notes until then. It is too much to ask of yourself to try to remember something you learned many months earlier. A well-organized notebook will aid you in recall and reanalysis.

Use your notes to help you in constructing essay assignments. Remember that writing in the social sciences is different from the expository or creative writing you might do in your English class. The more evidence and analysis you include in historical essays, the more persuasive and impressive they will be to the person reading them. In history, one can never have too many notes. The key to success is to organize them in such a way that they can help you achieve it.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.

Cesar Chavez Day

Copyright (c) 2017 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

Today would have been Cesar Chavez’s 92nd birthday. In the years following his death in 1993, support grew to commemorate March 31 each year as a “day of national service.” President Barack Obama established Cesar Chavez Day as a federal holiday in 2014 and now eleven states have followed suit.

I decided to answer his call to service as an educator. During my five years as a middle school social studies teacher and drama coach in Bakersfield, California, I had the good fortune to have some of his grandnieces and grandnephews in my classes. Chavez’s wife Helen Fabela attended nearby Delano High School during World War II and many of her relatives settled in Kern County.

Cesar’s legacy is strong in the Bakersfield area. He is buried at Cesar E. Chavez National Monument near the rural town of Keene. I incorporated the story of his civil rights and educational work in my history curriculum over the course of my seven years in Bakersfield and continued to do so during my subsequent thirteen years in Orange County.

There are many forms of national service. As teachers, we have the unique opportunity to continue Cesar Chavez’s work for equality and human rights in a lasting and meaningful way. May his vision of an America that celebrates dignity and diversity come to fruition through the efforts of all those who serve.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at torinfinney.com.