Medal of Honor Winners on the African American Civil War Memorial

(1) African-American Civil War Memorial

African American Civil War Memorial

Enraged by a Confederate massacre, the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and other African-American fighting troops earned 24 Medals of Honor in the years between the Battle of Fort Pillow and the end of the Civil War.  Nathan Bedford Forrest enlisted in the Confederate Army when the war began and was immediately commissioned a general because he was rich, having made his fortune in the slave trade.  Did he have leadership capabilities?  He was responsible for one of the worst massacres in U.S. history at the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee.  Confederate troops murdered soldiers who had surrendered, black and white, but mostly black.  Other victims may have been tortured and burned alive, including civilian women and children.  Despite multiple eye witness accounts, the accusations of torture remain controversial.  You can see a sanitized version of the Fort Pillow massacre in the 2016 television mini-series Roots, Part 4 (Bruce Beresford).  After the war, Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan but he lost his fortune.  As an old man, preparing to die and meet his maker, he made amends with the African-American community by giving a speech promoting racial harmony.

African-American Civil War troops became ferocious after the massacre, rallying to the cry of “Remember Fort Pillow.”  They fought to the death because they knew they faced torture if they didn’t.  Except for William Harvey Carney’s Fort Wagner medal on July 18, 1863 and Robert Blake’s naval medal on Christmas Day, 1863 , the remaining 24 African-American and United States Colored Troops (USCT) Medals of Honor were earned in the year between Fort Pillow on April 12, 1864 and the end of the war on April 9, 1865.  These men from the South experienced slavery.  Those from the North experienced racism, a racism that continued in their own military as they were dying for their country.  They kept fighting for freedom, a fight their descendants carried into the Civil Rights movement, a fight that inspires us even today.

John Lawson

John Lawson

The Wessyngton Plantation memorial that we looked at on Memorial Day 2016 indicates which slaves joined the USCT to fight for the Union in the Civil War.  A reader expressed interest in the USCT and found the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington DC which has a memorial that lists names.  This memorial includes the Spirit of Freedom statue by Ed Hamilton depicting three African-American Civil War soldiers and a sailor.  It is surrounded by four low walls in a semi-circle with the names of 209,145 members of the USCT and other African-American army units.  African-Americans who served with white units, such as Medal of Honor winner Bruce Anderson, are not listed.  Members of the Navy are also not listed.  Seven African-American sailors received Medals of Honor during the Civil War:  Aaron Anderson, William H. Brown, Wilson Brown, John Lawson, James Mifflin, Joachim Pease, and the first African-American to receive a Medal of Honor during the war, Robert Blake.

The names on the memorial are organized in alphabetical order within their regiments.  There is no designation of rank.  One of the purposes of alphabetical order is to create equality and that is the result here.  In the USCT regiments, almost all of the officers were white, so organizing by rank or giving the rank with the name would build an inappropriate racial hierarchy.

The regiments are organized primarily numerically and alphabetically within each number.  They begin with the 1st Regiment, USCT Cavalry, Virginia, the second being 1st Regiment, USCT Heavy Artillery, Tennessee.  The state indicates where the regiment was formed.  Units may have had different names originally and took new names after being incorporated into the USCT.  These two can be found on panels A-1 and A-2.  There are four walls, but both sides are used on the innermost wall, so the panels are designated A – E.  The 157 panels number consecutively from A-1 to E-157.

The last USCT unit is the 138th Regiment, USCT Infantry, Georgia on panels E-140 and E-141.  The remaining panels are not so obviously arranged.  These include four military bands from Louisiana, the first being Brigade Band Number 1 Corps d’Afrique; African-American regiments that were formed early in the war and then abandoned; and state sponsored regiments that never entered the USCT.

(3) Andrew Jackson Smith

Andrew Jackson Smith

One such unit is the famous 54th Regiment, Massachusetts Cavalry (Colored), which the film Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989) was based on.  This film is highly recommended for its depiction of the experiences of African-American soldiers during the Civil War.  It builds up to their valiant attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina, which, while not successful, was inspirational and encouraged other young African-American men to enlist.  Massachusetts even formed another regiment, the 55th.  Both claim Medal of Honor winners – Andrew Jackson Smith of the 55th at Honey Hill, South Carolina and William Harvey Carney at Fort Wagner.  Carney’s action is the earliest to win a Medal of Honor for an African-American but it was issued in 1900.  Smith received his medal posthumously in 2001 at a ceremony that also gave a posthumous Medal of Honor to Theodore Roosevelt for his military actions during the Spanish-Civil War.  Roosevelt’s oldest son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., earned a Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day during World War II.

Each name on the African American Civil War Memorial is separated from the next by one of three symbols.  The primary symbol is a star that simply separates the names.  A circle indicates multiple records in the regiment with that name.  A diamond shows this soldier may have served in other regiments, although he will only be listed once.  I would like to honor the people who put together the list of names.  They were dealing with fragile hand written records at least 140 years old, collected during a war.

These names can also be seen in a three volume print reference work titled Book of Names: The United States Colored Troops by Frank Smith Jr., Walter B. Hill Jr., and Hari Jones (2007).  This organizes the regiments by geography:  (1) The Northern States, (2) The Border States and (3) The Southern States.  Each volume lists regiments by the state where they were originally formed.  States and names are in alphabetical order with associated memorial panel.  Within each state, the regiments are organized as on the memorial, numerically and then alphabetically.  Regiments without an associated state are in the first volume.  That includes the four Corps d’Afrique brigade bands presumably because Louisiana is not officially part of their names.

(4) 4th or 36th USCT Infantry

4th or 36th USCT Infantry

At the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, also known as New Marked Heights, 15 members of the USCT, earned Medals of Honor.  These soldiers were battle hardened from the siege of Petersburg in Virginia.  During that action, two of the regiments, the 4th and the 5th, experienced one of the worst Union losses at the Battle of the Crater.  The Union used explosives to initiate a battle but instead dug a crater from which they could not escape.  Surviving Confederates simply shot down at Union soldiers in what was called a “turkey shoot.”  This battle is portrayed in the film Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella, 2003), where the action is shown from the South’s point of view.  The film displays the beginning of trench warfare, a style of war that continued into World War One.  Decatur Dorsey of the 39th USCT Infantry, Maryland received a Medal of Honor for his role in the battle.

(5) USCT soldiers at Dutch Gap

USCT soldiers at Dutch Gap

As they headed toward Chaffin’s Farm, Virginia, the 4th and 6th USCT infantry regiments participated in the action to protect the canal at Dutch Gap.  After Chaffin’s Farm, the 36th Regiment returned to Dutch Gap.  The photo here shows USCT soldiers at Dutch Gap.  Perhaps they are members of one of these regiments.

Christian Fleetwood

Christian Fleetwood

Three Chaffin’s Farm Medal of Honor Winners from the 4th Regiment USCT Infantry, Maryland appear on panel A-11 – Alfred B. Hilton, Christian Fleetwood, and Charles Veale.  Hilton is the only African-American Civil War Medal of Honor winner to die from wounds received in battle.  Fleetwood was a diarist, so his writings provide much information about the African-American troops.  Uncommon Valor: A Story of Race, Patriotism and Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War, by Pulitzer Prize winner Melvin Claxton and Mark Puls (2006), is based in large part on his work.  At the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, Hilton carried two flags, the United States flag and the regiment flag.  In the Civil War infantry, the flag bearer leads the soldiers who are trained to follow him into battle.  When Hilton fell, Fleetwood and Veale picked up the flags and continued to lead the 4th Regiment into battle.

Powatan Beaty

Powatan Beaty

Four more Medal of Honor winners from Chaffin’s Farm appear on panel A-14:  Powhatan Beaty, James H. Bronson, Milton M. Holland, and Robert Pinn of the 5th Regiment, USCT Infantry, Ohio.  All the officers from the 5th Regiment were killed and these men took over leadership.

On panel A-17, the Chaffin’s Farm Medal of Honor winners are Nathan Huntley Edgerton, Thomas R. Hawkins, and Alexander Kelly of the 6th Regiment, USCT Infantry, Pennsylvania.  Edgerton was an officer.  These men picked up the flags after their flag bearers fell and continued to lead the regiment into battle.  Their actions are depicted in the painting “Three Medals of Honor” by the well-known modern Civil War illustrator, Don Troiani.  The painting now hangs in the Union League of Philadelphia.

Two Medal of Honor winners from the 36th Regiment, USCT Infantry, North Carolina appear on panel C-51.  James Daniel Gardner went ahead of his fellow soldiers and killed a Confederate officer who was urging his troops into battle.  Miles James rallied his USCT troops into battle despite a serious arm injury that resulted in a battlefield amputation.

The final three USCT Medal of Honor winners from Chaffin’s Farm appear on panel C-53:  William H. Barnes, James H. Harris, and Edward Ratcliff of the 38th Regiment, USCT Infantry, Virginia.  These three men ran ahead of their fellow troops into the battle.

If we look at these 15 USCT Medal of Honor winners from Chaffin’s Farm, the common theme seems to be leadership.  Four of them took on the responsibilities of officers who had died.  The honor came for six of them because they carried the flag and therefore took their men into battle.  The remaining six ran ahead of their fellow troops, also leading their men into battle.

"The Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts (Colored) Infantry" by Currier & Ives. Note Union flag bearer as leader.

“The Gallant Charge of the Fifty Fourth Massachusetts (Colored) Infantry” by Currier & Ives. Note Union flag bearer as a leader.

Only a few African-Americans were allowed to become officers, although many did achieve non-commissioned officer status.  Christian Fleetwood, the diarist, advanced as far as he could within a few weeks of enlisting.  However, white enlisted men could become officers if they simply transferred over to the USCT or if, like Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Confederacy, they had a lot of money.  The massacre at Fort Pillow shows the result of selecting leaders for reasons other than demonstrated skill.

The film Glory explores this theme of leadership.  The character of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is shown as someone who may not be prepared for this level of leadership and who grows into his role.  Sergeant Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) leads because he has the wisdom of age.  However it is Private Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) who has natural leadership capabilities.  Just about every scene involving him displays his leadership.  His actions inspire Shaw to get the men new shoes.  He leads the revolt for equal pay for African-Americans.  Finally, in the battle to take Fort Wagner, Trip grabs the fallen flag, as did Medal of Honor winner William Harvey Carney.  Unlike Trip, Carney survived and returned to camp with the flag and the words “Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”

Graphic Credits

All graphics are licensed under Creative Commons.  The photo of the Memorial is from Sites of Memory.  The remaining photos are from Wikimedia CommonsLawson, Smith, Infantry (This is for the 4th Infantry.  Another caption for the same photo indicates it is the 36th Infantry.), Dutch Gap, Fleetwood, Beaty, Gallant Charge

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Pearl Harbor: Equality in Service

Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, USN (1884-1941)

Today is the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  On that day, 19 American ships were damaged or sunk; 171 airplanes destroyed; 1,178 people injured; 2,389 killed; and 14 Medals of Honor awarded.  Pearl Harbor memorials to those who died tend to list the names in alphabetical order.  This is especially significant because one of the names is Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, Commander of Battleship Division One.  The highest ranking casualty of the attack, he was the first U.S. Navy flag officer killed in action against a foreign enemy.  The USS Arizona was his flagship.

In the early 20th Century, the Pearl Harbor memorial would have been a larger than life statue of Rear Admiral Kidd, probably not on a horse because he was a Navy man.  We started seeing lists of names during World War I, with its massive losses and better record keeping.  In that war, Rear Admiral Kidd would have been at the top of a hierarchical list of names.  But in 1962, when her memorial was dedicated, the names from the USS Arizona were carved in alphabetical order, signifying equality of service.  Rear Admiral Kidd is almost exactly in the middle, surrounded by his men.


Anchor of the USS Arizona on display at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, Phoenix, AZ.

In Hawaii, Pearl Harbor or World War II memorials with names include the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma, USS Utah, the Valor in the Pacific Remembrance Circle, and the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.  In Phoenix, the Arizona’s anchor sits atop a base displaying the names of her dead.  The only exception to alphabetical order is the list of Arizona survivors who choose to be buried in the submerged ship.  These names are located near their shipmates on the Hawaii memorial, but for practical reasons, they are chronological.

Rear Admiral Kidd among His Men at the USS Arizona Anchor Memorial in Phoenix









The Arizona accounts for almost half the deaths from the attack.  She remains in the harbor, her superstructure removed and her hull visible under water.  Most of the bodies were not recovered and are considered buried at sea.  The USS Arizona Memorial, designed by architect Alfred Preis, straddles the mid-section of the ship without touching it.  An open air building, reminiscent of a covered bridge, it is high on both ends and shorter in the middle, to symbolize December 7 as a low point from which America recovered.

USS Arizona Memorial


At the far end of the memorial is a wall with the 1,177 alphabetized names of those who died on the ship.  Listings include initials, last name, and rank.  Most are Navy, with 73 Marines in a separate section.  Rear Admiral Kidd and the ship’s captain, Franklin Van Valkenburgh, have an extra line indicating their position in the ship’s command.

Both earned Medals of Honor, as did Lieutenant Commander Samuel G. Fuqua, who became the ship’s highest ranking officer during the attack.  When personnel abandoned ship, he made sure everyone who could evacuate did so and he was the last person off.  Many survivors credited him with saving their lives.  About 90% of those on board at the time of the attack died.  Today, when ships pass the memorial in the harbor, sailors honor the Arizona by manning the rails, standing evenly spaced along their ship’s railing.

USS Oklahoma Memorial

Don Beck’s 2007 memorial for the USS Oklahoma overlooks the harbor.  Here the 429 alphabetized names are engraved on separate pillars, with the group of pillars fronted on two sides by short marble walls containing engraved quotes about Pearl Harbor.  The visual effect is that of a ship with its sailors manning the rails to honor those who died.  Two men from the Oklahoma earned Medals of Honor.  Ensign Francis C. Flaherty and Seaman First Class James R. Ward both held lights in different turrets so the crew could escape.  They did not survive when the ship rolled over.  The Oklahoma was eventually salvaged but sunk while being towed to San Francisco for scrap metal.

USS Utah Memorial (with her exposed hull on the left)



The USS Utah is its own memorial, remaining in the harbor rolled over with its hull exposed.   There are several plaques on a pier overlooking the wreck.  One contains the names of the 58 who died including Medal of Honor winner Peter Tomich, the Utah’s Chief Watertender and a Croatian immigrant.  His citation reads, “Although realizing that the ship was capsizing, as a result of enemy bombing and torpedoing, Tomich remained at his post in the engineering plant of the U.S.S. Utah, until he saw that all boilers were secured and all fireroom personnel had left their stations, and by so doing lost his own life.”

USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center - Remembrance Circle

Also overlooking the harbor is the Remembrance Circle at the Visitor’s Center of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, containing the names of all who died at Pearl Harbor, except those from the Arizona.  Here the names are essentially organized by location, although military personnel are initially divided into their respective branches.  Within each grouping the names are alphabetical.  Based on this photo of an summary plaque, the branches are organized by Department of Defense order of precedence: Army, Marines, Navy.  Today the Air Force would be in fourth place, but at the time it was part of the Army.  Because of the overwhelming majority of Navy deaths, order of precedence continues to evoke equality.  Note also that civilians are first.  At the 1925 memorial to the Revolutionary War Minute Men in Medford, MA, a civilian who died is placed last. 

Located in the Punchbowl area of Oahu, the Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific consists of a wide staircase leading to a Liberty statue with Courts of the Missing on either side of the stairs.  The Courts contain names of those missing or buried at sea from American wars in the Pacific – World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  The World War II missing from the southwest Pacific are memorialized at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines, where the names are alphabetized within each military branch.

Punchbowl (Honolulu Memorial at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific)

The architects of the Honolulu Memorial, Weihe, Frick & Kruse, may have been influenced by Edwin Lutyens’ World War I Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in Thiepval, France.  That memorial is an open air building with a wide staircase leading to a memorial stone.  On either side of the stairs are areas which could be termed “courts of the missing,” formed by interwoven structural arches.  (I have written extensively about the Somme memorial in IsisInBlog.) 

The names in France are in a full hierarchy, beginning with British Army Order of Precedence and continuing in a listing by rank.  World War I British recruitment strategy built military units from individual towns.  So this arrangement keeps neighbors together, but it does not express equality.  At the Honolulu Memorial, names are organized first by war, then by military branch, then alphabetized.   

Those who died on the USS Arizona, and whose bodies were not recovered, are declared buried at sea and therefore missing, so Rear Admiral Kidd is on the Honolulu Memorial.  As the highest ranking officer to die at Pearl Harbor, his name is among the K’s with other Navy personnel missing from World War II.  Here he is surrounded not only by his men on the Arizona, but also by almost 12,000 Navy personnel whose bodies, like his, were not found.

Photo Credits

Heiter. (n.d.). Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, USN (1884-1941) Naval Historical Center. Photo NH 48579-KN.

Victor-nv. (April 13, 2010). Anchor of the USS Arizona on display at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, Phoenix, AZ. Wikipedia.

Katherine Bertolucci. (November 29, 2011). Rear Admiral Kidd among His Men at the USS Arizona Anchor Memorial in Phoenix.

Jayme Pastoric. (May 23, 2002). USS Arizona Memorial. U.S. Navy photo 020523-N-9769P-057.

Wally Gobetz. (May 26, 2010). USS Oklahoma Memorial.

Rosa Say. (August 20, 2008). The USS Utah Memorial.

Wally Gobetz. (May 26, 2010). USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center – Remembrance Circle.

Jiang. (December 22, 2005). Punchbowl. Wikipedia.

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Dec 2011

Arranging to Persuade: Reduction or Persuading through Simplifying


Last month I introduced B J Fogg’s seven tools of persuasion as outlined in his book, Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do.  I showed how information arrangement exploits these tools with specific reference to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM).  The VVM arranges its names in chronological order by date of casualty, grouping together soldiers who served at the same time.  In so doing, the memorial demonstrates six of the Fogg’s seven persuasive tools.  This month, let’s take a deeper look at the first tool, Reduction or Persuading through Simplifying.

Reduction strategy is all about cost/benefit analysis.  How much effort (cost) achieves the benefit?  Fogg describes Amazon’s 1-click ordering method as pure reduction.  Before
this innovation, every click in the online sales process was a chance for customers to change their minds.  Will they go on to the next buying step or will they give up and click over to anotherWebsite?  At Amazon, one click seals the deal.  If a mind changes later, there’s a new cost/benefit analysis for the effort involved in cancelling the order.

Many years ago, when Ma Bell stopped being our only telephone company, the new phone services battled mightily for customers.  It became very easy to change your long distance company.  One brief request and it was done.  Sometimes you didn’t even have to bother with the request.  Sign your name to some freebie promo and you might find out later that the small print was an agreement to change phone services.  One step and it didn’t even involve thinking about phones.

Maya Lin’s VVM is a more honorable example of reduction, but her controversial proposal almost didn’t get approved.  Among many complaints about Lin’s design was the chronology, which requires the use of an index to find an individual name.  Critics wanted the names on the VVM in alphabetical order, making the memorial itself a giant index. 

MIT’s John Maeda, in his book, The Laws of Simplicity, assigns organization as the second law.  Organizing arranges similar items together and simplifies our efforts to use them.  Alphabetical order on the VVM would have made it easier to find a single name, but much harder to find a group of names.

First, a vet would have to remember names from more than 30 years ago.  Then he would have to look up each name individually, walking along the panels from A – Z.  To prepare for the effort, he might alphabetize the names of his dead buddies, the ones he remembers, so he doesn’t have to move back and forth among the 144 panels.  The names near each lost friend would have no meaning other than an alphabetic
similarity, or even the same name in some cases.  Names he can’t remember would remain forgotten.  The primary memorial activity here is similar to using a print dictionary, an exercise in the alphabet rather than an emotional experience of memory.

Chronology reduces the effort and increases the depth of feeling.  The vet only has to remember one name.  He finds that name in the printed index and goes to a panel representing the time he spent in Vietnam.  There are all his friends who died or went missing.  If he can’t remember someone’s name, the memorial remembers for him.
They are together again, the vet seeing his reflection in the polished marble among the names of those he lost.  The next time he visits, he won’t need the index.  He’ll know where to find his friends. 

Illustration used with permission from Microsoft.

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Practice What You Preach: Manipulating First Place

In my previous post, “Creative Literary and Pragmatic Lists”, I indicated that one creative component of a pragmatic list is the selection of a category to sit in first place.  When I added the essay to my “Directory of Postings,” I realized my first place was “Arrangement Structures > Alphabetical Order.”

Of all arrangement structures, alphabetical order is certainly the most boring.  In addition, there are people, some in the information industry, who hate alphabetical order.  They feel it has no meaning, which of course is its beauty.  But do I really want my first category to be something that is both boring and controversial?

So I need to put a category in front of “Alphabetical Order,” which is not so easy.  My Directory is hierarchical with categories alphabetized.  If I keep “Arrangement Structures” as the first major category, I need a structure that appears earlier in the alphabet than “Al.”  There ain’t one.  The alphabet is alpha.  The word is based on the Greek word for “A.”  It’s supposed to be first, which is one way it keeps its primacy.

The next idea places a different major category into first place.  It has to fit in the alphabet before “Arrangement Structures.”  My second major category is “Arrangement Theory.”  I need a word for theory that begins with a letter before “S.”  That word is “Principles.”

My first category is now “Arrangement Principles > Categories.”  Not controversial, but not very sexy either.  So I look at the first few categories of arrangement principles:


I could find a synonym for categories, but “Findability” is not very sexy either.  The sexiest is “Persuasive Strategies,” a phrase I use often so I can’t change it.  Then I realize all I have to do is put “Arrangement” in front of a category and my problem is solved.

Unfortunately, “Arrangement Persuasive Strategies” is awkward and changes a phrase I use often.  “Findability,” “Information Architecture,” and “Knowledge Development” also awkward, plus lots of people work in those areas.  I want to feature something where I am the primary practitioner.

That brings us to “Parameters” and “Perspective.”  “Arrangement” fits nicely in front of both.  But “Parameters” is a little amorphous.  I use it to represent the sometimes odd characteristics that must be considered in an arrangement.  For example, in “Working with Parameters,” a post about my client Snoopy, I discuss building an arrangement around Bloglines’ inability to accurately display spreadsheets.

Which leaves “Arrangement Perspective.”  How delightful.  I always promote designing arrangements from the perspective of the user.  And there’s an added bonus, a double meaning.  “Arrangement Perspective” could also mean my perspective on arrangement, which is what IsisInBlog is all about.              

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Creative Literary and Pragmatic Lists

Umberto Eco’s four month Louvre exhibit about lists finished its run in February.  So if you want to see his “Mille e tre,” exhibit, you’ll have to get the beautiful catalog, The Infinity of Lists, with essays by Eco about the history of lists, along with examples of literary lists and photos of lists in visual art.  One shows a painting of edible vegetation combined to make a realistic human face with a zucchini nose (p. 130).

Following the trail of Eco’s footnotes, I found a delightful book about literary lists by Robert E. Belknap, The List: The Uses and Pleasures of Cataloguing.  Belknap distinguishes between literary lists and pragmatic lists, the type usually made by my readers.

We expect creativity in literature and lists are no exception.  Here’s an example from Tom Sawyer identifying the contents of Tom’s pockets as “a lump of chalk, an indiarubber ball, three fish hooks, and one of that kind of marbles known as a ‘sure ‘nough crystal’” (Belknap, p. 17).  Belknap shows how Twain’s language enhances each object, with the marble given “the privileged, anchoring, final spot” (p. 18).

We don’t usually think of pragmatic lists as creative. Yet they are composed of words and any use of words has a creative component.  Just think about placement, which Twain used for the marble.  In a pragmatic list, the first item holds the privileged spot.  First place may be anointed through an accident of the alphabet.  It might also be an example of what Belknap calls deliberate arrangement.  Even in alphabetical lists, first place can be deliberate.  Words have synonyms and some of those synonyms start with an A.

Here’s where we begin to see the connection between literary and pragmatic lists.  They both communicate.  The literary list communicates the author’s intentions and, in many cases, so can the pragmatic list.  If you are the author of a pragmatic list, what are your intentions for the list?  What do you want to give your readers?  The answers will help you build a deliberate arrangement that intentionally communicates. ~


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Names on a Memorial: The Wittenbergplatz Concentration Camps Sign

(Today is the anniversary of the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk at the hands of fellow Supervisor Dan White.  It happened nine days after the Jonestown massacre and the assassination of Leo Ryan, a Bay Area Congressional Representative.  Jim Jones himself was well connected in the San Francisco political scene.  At the time, I was working in Davis, east of San Francisco near Sacramento.  I remember clearly Dianne Feinstein’s announcement of the assassinations as she became Mayor of the city.)

In my ongoing research on the arrangement of names on memorials, I am reading an excellent book by James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning.  It won the Jewish Book Council’s National Book Award in the Holocaust category.   I highly recommend this to anyone interested in the nature of monuments and memorials.

On p. 54, Young shows a photo and describes a memorial at the Wittenbergplatz transit station in Berlin.  A simple sign listing the names of ten concentration camps, it begins with the phrase “Places of terror that we should never forget.”  Young writes that the camps “are in no special order, other than that the German camps are listed last.” 

As an arrangement expert, I realized listing the German camps last indicates someone thought about the order of the names.  People who like to organize tend to take another step, if only for their own benefit.  So I used Wikipedia to find a pattern, building a spreadsheet of categories that might be organizing criteria, including locations, dates of operation, numbers of prisoners, and numbers of deaths.  I discovered the camps are listed in a complex order that adds meaning to our understanding of the memorial and of the Holocaust.




Number of Prisoners















         Extermination camp





         Extermination camp
































(Data from Wikipedia’s List of Nazi-German Concentration Camps.  The number of deaths at Bergen-Belsen is not included in the Wikipedia table, but is estimated from the first paragraph in the Wikipedia article on Bergen-Belsen.)

The first four camps in the arrangement are located in Poland.  The fifth, Theresienstadt, is in Czechoslovakia, with the rest in Germany.  In Poland and in Germany, the first camp is the largest.  The remaining camps in the two countries are then listed by the date the camp was established. 

There may be several reasons for placing Poland first and Germany last.  Auschwitz is by far the largest camp, with the largest number of deaths, so placing it first in the full list is appropriate.  In addition, Germany is the host of the sign and perpetrator of the Holocaust, so the sign designers placed themselves last.Therefore Theresienstadt, the sole Czech camp, is in the middle. 

Why did the designers combine size and date as an arrangement?  If they wanted the largest camp first, why not list the rest in order by size?  I believe they wanted to avoid a hierarchy of horror.  Treblinka, which only had enough space to kill people, was not more benign because it was smaller.  Another option that would place Auschwitz first is alphabetical order.  But alphabetical order has no meaning.  Auschwitz is not first because it starts with an A.  It is first because it is the largest place of terror.

This arrangement is so complex, with three different placement strategies, that an honored Holocaust scholar did not see it.  What is the purpose of something so obscure?  Should the designers put a paragraph on the back of the sign explaining their intentions?

Memorials, even simple signs, are a form of art.  We don’t usually explain art on the piece itself.  We let viewers discover their own understanding.  Like most artists, the sign designers offered clues.  They placed Auschwitz, which begins with an A, first in a non-alphabetic arrangement.  They also set apart the three countries.  This sign is intended for Germans who would know the five camps in their own country.  The clues tell us there is some sort of arrangement here.  Young recognized this when he commented that the German camps were last. 

The Wittenbergplatz sign is at a transit station in a busy Berlin shopping area.  There may be thousands of commuters who see it every day.  If the sign were in alphabetical order, it would be stagnant.  Instead it has a structure that is implied but not obvious, an enigma perhaps adding more conscious thought to those thousands who every day see the words, “Places of terror that we should never forget.”

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Reinventing Knowledge: The Medieval Controversy of Alphabetical Order

In their Reinventing Knowledge chapter on monasteries and convents, Ian McNeely and Lisa Wolverton mention findability techniques developed following the invention of the page, including alphabetical order (p. 91).  David Weinberger, in Everything Is Miscellaneous, also discusses the development of alphabetical order in the Middle Ages.  He points out that it took a long time tocatch on because, in his opinion, it was “conceptually confusing.”  To prove his point about confusion, he quotes alphabetizing instructions from 1286, which apart from the funny spelling, are actually quite clear (pp. 26-27).  Weinberger is correct, however, that alphabetical order took centuries to be accepted, but he is wrong about the reason.  It was not too confusing, it was too easy. 

According to Mary and Richard Rouse in their article “Statim invenire: Schools, Preachers, and New Attitudes to the Page,”* the alphabet is an artificial method of ordering as opposed to a rational method.  This distinction can be seen in glosses, reference works that explained details of the Bible without biblical interpretation.  These glosses eventually evolved into glossaries.  Information in early glosses appeared in the same order that it appeared in the Bible or other religious books.  This is called a rational order.  Even indexes were arranged in the same order as the book being indexed.  To find something, you had to already know what page it was on.  Rouse & Rouse indicate these early finding devices were meant to reflect the concept that the “universe is a harmonious whole” (p. 202).  So the primary concern of arrangement was to promote philosophy not to find information.

That changed when authors of religious books needed streamlined access to information.  As preachers, they started alphabetizing material called distinction collections to help them prepare weekly, or in 1200 perhaps daily, sermons.    Alphabetical order is an artificial method because it has no purpose other than to arrange information.  It does not reflect how the book is organized.  It does not reflect a philosophical theory.  It just puts material into a simple, easy to understand structure.  The preachers apologized for using alphabetical order, but they went ahead and developed the method because they needed to find information fast. 

            The controversy over alphabetical order continues today.  An information architecture discussion list recently had a lively exchange about popularity ranking vs. the alphabet.  One person preferred popularity because it was felt that alphabetical order is essentially random.  The respondent here was confusing an artificial arrangement with a complete lack of order.  More interesting, however, is the assumption that a rational order with unknown values, such as popularity, is preferable to an artificial order with known values, such as the alphabet.  We pretty much all know the alphabet, but if you look at a list of items arranged by popularity, you can only guess at individual placement.

Function determines the form of an arrangement.  Popularity and the alphabet serve different functions.  There are many situations where popularity is the most valuable organizing choice.  But if you just want to display information for fast location, those preachers in the Middle Ages developed a very easy method.

* The Rouse and Rouse article is available as a chapter in their book Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts (1991) and in the conference proceedings Renaissance and Renewal in the Twelfth Century (Robert L. Benson and Giles Constable, eds., 1982). 

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Names on a Memorial: Findability and the Alphabet

The benefits of random are equality and insignificance.  Both attributes contributed to Michael Arad’s theme of “Reflecting Absence,” in his random display of victims’ names at the World Trade Center Memorial.  For Arad, random represented the “the haphazard brutality of the attacks.”  But random costs findability, making it difficult to locate one name among thousands.  Arad’s solution was an index, like the index at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

Even with an index, many family members and their organizations objected to the random arrangement.  For them, random symbolized desperate missing person fliers and spontaneous walls of memory.  Random recalled failed searches that for many did not even provide the remains of a body.  Arad probably did not consider the symbolism of findability.

His theme is absence not missing persons and, as an arrangement novice, he missed the shattering unintended consequence.

Of course, findability is easily solved by replacing random with alphabetical order, a solution immediately suggested when the controversy erupted.  Alphabetical order is almost a variation of random.  Every name is equal.  Placement has no meaning other than the accident of letters.  Of course, it is not haphazard, a primary focus of Arad’s theme, and would have decreased the impact of absence.  But at least you could find each name.  No need for an index.  The whole Memorial is an index.

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Information Arrangement in the ER

I had the opportunity to work on an emergency blog that grew from one of the environmental crises we have experienced too often in recent years.  The blog was a primary source of survival information.  Local bloggers in the disaster area posted emergency resources with increasing frequency as the rescue progressed.

When I entered the project, the blog’s long list of time-based postings made it difficult to find targeted information.  The best contribution I make is always structure and the blog’s lead team was ready.  We triaged categories, developing the most urgent into separate pages.  Instead of a chronology of postings, we organized by location and alphabet.  It’s a fast technique with immense ROI.  The investment was a few minutes of cleaning data and sorting.  The return was a logical and efficient structure offering a calm interaction for desperate people.

I immediately started pulling all-nighters.  Sleep was a challenge.  Wake up and the whole crew had changed, but the new volunteers were eager to help.  Local bloggers inside the disaster sent us lists of emergency services with as much contact data as they could gather.  The lists were always random.  These bloggers were too busy surviving and looking for relatives to think about structure.

My team sat in safe offices, an eternity away from the disaster.  Instead of the shirts off our backs, we gave extra minutes of organizing.  The effort at our end saved critical time for survivors, time that could be the line between life and death.

We were soon approached by a computer professional.  The next priority was a list of emergency responders.  The computer pro took the project and did pretty well on the location part.  But here’s what we got for an alphabetized list of names, substituting characters from the TV show ER.

Abby Lockhart, RN Dr. Doug Ross Elizabeth Corday, MD Jeanie Boulet, PA
Benton, Peter, MD Dr. Greene, Mark Finch, Dr. Cleo Kerry Weaver, MD
Carter, Dr. John Dr. Malucci, Dave Gregory Pratt, MD Luka Kovac, MD
Dr. Anna Del Amico Dr. Romano, Robert Hathaway, Carol, RN Mr. Michael Gallant
Dr. Chen, Deb Jing-Mei Dr. Susan Lewis Intern Ray Barnett Ms Knight, Lucy

When I explained the problem, the pro got hysterical.  That was how the names had been originally delivered.  To correct the error, someone would have to go in and manually change the names and no one in their right mind would do that.  It was the only fight I experienced in the blog’s otherwise cooperative atmosphere.

The list of emergency responders had about 100 names and would have taken possibly 15 minutes to clean up.  Fifteen minutes for people in dire stress.  But for our pro, that was cheating.  If desperate people had to spend extra time in the midst of chaos, well, that’s just the rules of the game.  The computer pro put marginal mechanics above human suffering, even as the blog team changed all the rules and cheated death.

Technical certificates do not equal a talent for information display nor do they indicate an understanding of information’s service component.  In the previous July 26 posting, retail environmentalists naively combined navigational categories with product categories.  Like the computer pro, they don’t understand the basics of arranging information for display.  But unlike the pro, they understand service.  They’re serving the earth, doing what they do best by distributing innovative environmental products.  When I had the opportunity to join a rescue effort with bloggers who served 110%, I did what I do best and taught the team to think structurally.  The computer pro was too absorbed by a machine to offer the best.

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Aug 2006