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"Behind the Lines: Olmsted at War" Topic

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306 hits since 26 Feb 2018
©1994-2018 Bill Armintrout
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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP26 Feb 2018 4:13 p.m. PST

"IN JULY 1861 A SLIGHT, 39-YEAR-OLD MAN with a limp (the result of a recent buggy accident) watched Washington, D.C., descend into a new kind of chaos as the survivors of the First Bull Run battle thronged the muddy, miasmic city. "Many regiments are but a mob…a disintegrated herd of sick monomaniacs," he wrote to his wife in New York. The soldiers, "pale, grimy, with bloodshot eyes, unshaven, unkempt, sullen, fierce, feverish, weak, and ravenous," slept in the streets, while their officers, by and large oblivious to their regiment's whereabouts and condition, drank at the Willard Hotel. But the writer himself—Frederick Law Olmsted—was determined to "overcome in some details the prevailing inefficiency and misery."

After a restless early manhood that took him to Europe and China, Olmsted had established himself first as a writer and then as a designer and superintendent of New York's pioneering new urban park. In the former capacity he had made a long sweep through the antebellum South about a decade earlier, with an eye to understanding how slavery impacted the region and its economy, a subject—and lifestyle—he believed most Northerners had no true comprehension of. His articles on the subject had appeared in several newspapers, and his book The Cotton Kingdom, would be out later in that first year of the Civil War. More recently, Olmsted had spent almost three years on upper Manhattan Island, turning a vast rock-ribbed wasteland "steeped in the overflow and mush of pig-sties, slaughterhouses, and bone­-boiling works" into a "rural park" meant to humanize a city that was becoming increasingly crowded and industrialized. Central Park—the creation of Olmsted and his partner, the older, well-established Calvert Vaux—was to be far more than a decorative respite: It would bolster the physical and mental health of the city's inhabitants…"
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