I NCIDENTS IN HISTORY ARE USUALLY SIGNIFICANT ONLY IN COMBINATION with a succession of other incidents. Isolated incidents can assume importance only when they summarize an epoch in one dramatic moment or when fuller knowledge of the event might alter interpretations.

The moment of Samuel E B. Morse’ s proclaimed “flash of genius,” during which he believe that he invented the telegraph, retains critical uncertainties. Morse was returning to the United States on the S.S.Sully in 1832 when he engaged in spirited conversations on Ampere’s recent electromagnetic experiments. The Boston chemist Dr. Charles T. Jackson told him that the length of wire did not retard the speed of electricity . Morse declared, euphorically, ‘I see no reason why intelligence might not be instantaneously transmitted by electricity to any distance.” He always believed this idea was the true invention, and it was wholly his own. Others denied it, including those already experimenting in the field. Jackson believed that he and Morse had cooperated in reaching Morse’s declaration and that they had agreed to cooperate in developing the telegraph. Lawsuits collected conflicting remembrances, and our present understanding of all invention has become complex. Yet whatever the whole truth, Morse’s “moment” was a key point in setting the course toward “instantaneous” electrical communication—toward the telegraph, the telephone, radio, radar, television, and the computer.

                                                               Brooke Hindle, Senior Historian,

                                                                        the National Museum of American

                                                                        History of the Smihsonian Institute


I would have liked to visit Thoreau’s hut: nothing in our past interests me more. The Gettysburg address perhaps, but it was a big crowd and I would get tired waiting. The tea party in Boston sounds like an escapade that became big news; but the hut—that I would like to have seen, with a tape measure to verify the figures in Walden, and check up on other details—not to put down Henry David but simply to see what the distance was between the facts and his fancy. He had such a large fancy.

                                                                        Leon EdeI, Emeritus

                                                                                  Citizen Professor of English,

                                                                                  University of Hawaii.



The one event I would most like to have participated in was hardly recorded—the first vision of that endless sea of grass, when the first explorers crossed the Mississippi and headed west across those plains the like of which no other world boasted, the plains that extended to the horizon, deep with grass to a man’s armpits. There buffalo lazily wandered, headless and secure, feeding on this natural abundance, fearless of man, be he white or red. That ocean of land would vanish as men cut it, plowed it, burned it, ravaged it, killed the buffalo, killed the Indians, turned it into a network of steel, concrete, and plowed furrows, and exterminated one of the wonders of the world. I can not get the sight of it out of my eyes, and it brings me close to tears.

                                                               Harrison Salisbury, journalist

                                                                        and author of the forthcoming

                                                                        The Long March: The Untold

                                                                        Story of Mao’s Red Army in China.


F OR ME THE MOMENTS OF HIGHEST DRAMA IN OUR HISTORY are the congressional debates preceding the monumental tragedy that was our Civil War. Like the chorus in a Creek drama, the players had their say and moved offstage within two years’ time.

In the Senate were not only Clay, Calhoun, and Webster but Benton and Sam Houston, who refused to secede when Texas did. They were all there. Clay had already spoken, in all his golden eloquence; Calhoun, sitting by like a ghost, had had his last warning read for him on March 4,1850, which, according to the press, might have forced the Northern senators to bow. to the will of the South, “had it not been for Mr. Webster’s masterly playing.” The day was March 7, when Webster delivered his magnificent oration in defense of the Union he so loved, Calhoun creeping into the chamber to hear his great antagonist once more.

Within a month, Calhoun was gone, murmuring that he would die happy if the Union could be preserved. Two years later, Henry Clay died in Washington; Webster died in Massachusetts that same year, his last gaze fixed on the flag of the Union, “not a stripe obscured.” None of the three lived to see the curtain rise on the great tragedy, which John Calhoun had foreseen. I would like to have been there with the press that March, but with the insights of my present incarnation, knowing that in the end, the Union would be preserved.

                                                      Margaret Coil Elwell, biographer and

                                                             retired Professor of Social Science, Fair-

leigh Dickinson University. Author of,

                                                             most recently, Massachusetts.


Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Scottish friend Thomas Carlyle said of Daniel Webster: “No man can be as great as that man looks.” .Looked and sounded.. I elect to have heard and seen him; but I don’t choose one of the famous set-piece occasions (in the Supreme Court, or the Senate, or at Bunker Hill, where an attentive multitude listened for hours in the hot sun). Instead I go for a more relaxed, almost neighborly set of vignettes, spread out over several days in August 1843.

Webster had come to Concord, Massachusetts, to argue a case before the Suffolk County bar. Emerson went along to observe and was enchanted. Even among prominent attorneys Webster was, said Emerson, “a schoolmaster among his boys.” His rhetoric was “perfect, so homely, so fit, so strong. He dominated the scene, even to adjourning the court, “which he did by rising, & taking his hat & looking the Judge coolly in the face.”

In the evenings I would with Daniel be entertained in local parlors, where Emerson found him irresistibly “goodnatured” and nonchalant. A glowing Concord lady said Webster was “magnificent,” as prodigious as Niagara Falls.

What a President Webster might have been! But history is full of if and alas. In a few years New Englanders—and Emerson—were denouncing him as a compromiser over slavery. In that heady week of 1843. though, they (and I) would have been content merely to appreciate the magic of “godlike Daniel.”

                                                               Marxuc Cunliffe

                                                                        University Professor

                                                                        George Washington Unversity


I wish I could have witnessed that intimate moment when Lincoln, as Presi-dent-elect, said farewell to his neighbors at Springfield. I grew up in a county-seat town in central Illinois and as a boy I heard how Lincoln, the lawyer, traveled the eighth judicial circuit, put up at the West Side House on the courthouse square, and joked and jousted with the local wits under the locust trees. I remember descendants of those trees. Here is the scene on the morning of February 11, 1861, at the little brick station of the Great Western Railway in Springfield: Clouds hung low. A cold drizzle set the mood. When the engineer sounded his whistle, the people made way as Lincoln walked onto the car and stepped out onto its platform. And he said to them, in part: “To this place, and the kindness of these people I owe everything . . I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.” Need I go on? The words are famous, down to the closing “ 1 bid you an affectionate farewell.” For years I had an old photograph of the West Side House and a copy of Lincoln’s remarks tacked on my study door. In central Illinois, he was one of ours.

                                                      Gerald Carson, author of, most recently,

                                                             The Dentist and the Empress.


The incident that I would like to have witnessed is that described in Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s ARMY LIFE IN A BLACK REGIMENT. He writes of a ceremony in South Carolina on January 1, 1863, celebrating the coming into effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. The ceremony was conventional and simple until Higginson got up to speak and waved the American flag before the audience of all black soldiers, white civilians and officers, and a large number of slaves, who at that moment were legally receiving their freedom for the first time. As the flag was being waved, Higginson tells us, “there suddenly arose....., a strong male voice (but rather cracked and elderly), into which two women s voices instantly blended, sing- ing, as if by an impulse that could no more be repressed than the morning note of the song-sparrow ----- “‘My Country, ‘tis of thee, Sweet Land of Liberty, of thee I sing!’

The ceremony ended as the former slaves sang on, irrepressibly, through verse after verse. Higginson motioned the few whites who began to join in to be silent. The moment, as he said, was electric. “Nothing could be more wonderfully unconsc-ious; art could not have dreamt of a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting; history will not believe it....

This incident epitomizes the most profound moment in America’s social history: that point when millions of people ceased to be slaves in the home of the free and set in motion the historic challenge that white America make real its own vision.

                                                                        Carl N. Degler,

                                                                                  Margaret Byrne Professor

                                                                                  of American History, Stanford.




With the sun flashing off their muskets, fifteen thousand men—a phalanx of men a mile across and half a mile deep—begins to move silently, slowly, in parade fash-ion, out of the shadows of the trees and into the open, sunbaked fields.., this anti-que military creature, a giant throwback to how men fought in the Middle Ages, has just made it to within two hundred yeards of the Union guns when the Federals opened up with canister...

This moment fills me with awe. Something I would like to be prersent during the ominous march of George Pickett and his men on the third day of fighting at Gettysburg in 1863. Not only to see this deadly spectacle but to know at the same time the outcome was ensuring that our great and noble experiment was going to last.

                                                               Philip Kunhardt, Jr. Formerly

                                                                        managing editor of LIFE

                                                                                  Author of, most recently,

                                                                                  A New Birth of Freedom.


THIS IS AN INVITATION TO FANTASY — to see the unseeable, to witness the unwitnessable, to summon the past into the present. Since we are entering an imaginary world through the looking glass, why not go for broke? Why not choose to recover what no one has ever seen, • not even the participants, not even the protagonist? Many of the most important events of history never had any witnesses, were in fact invisible. Yet they happened, and historians are always writing about them. They were the decisions, the fateful commitments, and they took place entirely within the mind and heart. If we may enter the mind as we enter the looking glass, many temptations present themselves. No accounting for choices in such matters. Forced to pick one, I would look in on the mind of Col. Robert F. Lee on being offered the command of Union forces in 1861.

                                                                        C. Vann Woodward,

                                                                                  Sterling Professor of History

                                                                                  Emeritus, Yale University

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