Interpretive Challenges with Portraying Slavery in Film

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

One of my greatest and most exciting challenges with being a Park Guide at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) lies in interpreting the experience of slavery to the audiences who come to our site. Ulysses S. Grant’s father-in-law Frederick Dent–the owner of the White Haven estate that is preserved and interpreted by the National Park Service at ULSG–owned upwards of thirty slaves prior to the Civil War. Grant himself also owned a slave named William Jones for roughly one year, although there is a lack of evidence to tell us how and why Grant purchased this slave.

The slaves’ experiences at White Haven play a crucial role in the way we interpret this estate’s history in the years before the Civil War. Someone in my position simply cannot afford to leave out any mention of slavery when providing a historical context for explaining Frederick Dent’s economic prosperity or the privileged childhood of Julia Dent, Frederick’s first daughter and the eventual wife of Ulysses S. Grant. As Ta-Nehisi Coates succinctly put it in his recent essay on reparations, “to celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.”

The interpretive staff at ULSG is dedicated to giving an honest and accurate portrayal of slavery at White Haven, and new discussions have emerged among the staff about the possibility of adding a brief two-minute film in the winter kitchen of the estate to tell a story about slavery from the perspective of slaves themselves. There is a belief among some that by adding this film we can do a better job of giving the slaves an interpretive voice that conveys to our audiences the emotions, fears, needs, and challenges these people endured while laboring at White Haven. I don’t want to give too much away because everything is very tentative at this point (and there’s no guarantee the video will be added), but there are several interpretive challenges worth pointing out here.

While we know that Frederick Dent’s slaves freed themselves by running away from White Haven at some point during the Civil War, we have little primary source evidence to help guide our understanding of how the slaves came to this decision. We have no documentation to tell us how the slaves’ interacted with each other or the style of speech they used. Did they use some form of slave dialect to communicate with each other? If so, what form of dialect? Would it be appropriate for this film to have people speaking in dialect? What were the slaves’ concerns, motivations, and choices leading up to their eventual running away from the estate? How can we propose to give the slaves a voice when we have so little documentation to help us define the nature of that voice? Is it appropriate for us as historians to build a “composite” sketch of slavery that is built in part without primary source evidence? Are there people within the St. Louis community we should consult with as we work through the process of creating this film? Is film the most appropriate medium for portraying the slaves’ experiences? Can all of these questions along with the actual experience of slavery be meaningfully conveyed to public audiences in a two-minute film?

These are some of the questions I am currently thinking through as we continue our discussions over this ambitious yet fragile idea of portraying slavery on film. Public historians face these sorts of questions on a regular basis, and I’d love to hear the feedback of others in the comments section.

Cheers

Public History: Craft or Profession?

K-12 educators and administrators have debated with each other for many years about whether teaching constitutes a craft or a profession. There is certainly an element of experiential “craft” training within all professions, and crafts can definitely constitute a profession. But the debate over craft vs. profession is important for education because a more precise definition that explains how teachers should be trained for their work could provide clearer expectations for students looking to become teachers. Many students become disenchanted with teaching before even stepping in the classroom or at an early part of their career, and a recent study by sociologist Richard Ingersoll confirms that between forty and fifty percent of all new teachers leave the field within the first five years of receiving their teacher’s certificate. Perhaps a part of this high turnover can be attributed to shortcomings in teacher education programs that do not adequately prepare their students for the classroom.

Advocates for craft-based teacher education argue that the process of teaching should be the primary focus of students’ training. Advocates for craft-based training argue that much like a carpenter, mechanic, or plumber, prospective teachers should be placed in a realistic work environment as soon as possible so that they have an opportunity to learn through trial-and-error and experience rather than stuffing their way through theoretical concepts in an education classroom. When these students do read and study theory, they should focus their curricular studies on theories of education and teaching methods rather than a specific discipline or form of content such as history, science, or mathematics. Many of these students end up getting straight education degrees without any certification or degree in a particular field of study.

Advocates for profession-based teacher education argue that disciplinary content should be the primary focus of learning for prospective teachers. Advocates for this type of training argue that much like a lawyer, dentist, or military officer, prospective teachers need to be first and foremost experts in their field of study, whether that be history, science, mathematics, or any other number of disciplines. By grasping a clear understanding of their respective fields, prospective teachers are better prepared to educate their students about a specific discipline. Gaining experience teaching in a classroom is important, but not at the sacrifice of learning content. We can see this type of thinking most clearly in higher education, where many college and university professors are experts in their field of study but often do not hold any educational credentials. Many of these profession-based students have degrees in a certain discipline but not necessarily education. Yours truly, for example, has a BA in history with a certification in education – not an education degree that the craft-based training programs typically offer.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if the field of public history could benefit from its own “craft vs. profession” discussion.

When I studied public history at IUPUI, there was a heavy emphasis on our training as historians. We received “practical” experiences and training in the field through yearly internships with various university partners in the Indianapolis area, but the bulk of our classroom experiences revolved around the writing of a master’s thesis, acquiring knowledge of historical methods, and developing skills that would help us become good historical researchers. I took several classes through the university’s museum studies program that provided me with valuable training in interpretation, education theory, and ideas for communicating the stuff of history to public audiences, but those classes were electives that I voluntarily chose to take and not required for my degree. While my training included elements of both craft- and profession-based training, it was evident to me (at least) that the majority of my training was geared towards having a strong understanding of the content within my historical research interests.

Other public history programs do not require a thesis and instead require a portfolio or some sort of major project that oftentimes places a stronger interest on process and “practical” skills like grant-writing, budgeting, and the experience of working on a collaborative team. Again, these programs are similar to mine in that they include both craft- and profession-type elements of training, but it seems to me that this sort of training can at times be starkly different than what I received when I was in graduate school due to its emphasis on the craft of public history.

These are preliminary thoughts on my part and perhaps it is unnecessary to even discuss whether or not public history is a craft or a profession. I personally think these questions are useful, however, for considering the role of theory and practice in public history. I will keep thinking about these questions and perhaps they can be discussed further at the National Council on Public History’s April 2015 conference in Nashville if I am able to get out there.

Cheers

News and Notes: July 15, 2014

Master's Thesis Cover

Some brief notes on upcoming publications and other personal news.

  • As you can see above, my Master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana is fresh off the bindery and now in hardback form. I took a short trip to Indianapolis during the Fourth of July weekend to pick up hard copies for the IUPUI history department, my thesis chair, my parents, and myself. The IUPUI University Library has a PDF copy of the Master’s thesis that will soon be published digitally for the entire world through their online open access repository, IUPUIScholarWorks. The Library hasn’t posted my thesis yet and I can’t tell you why, but it’s my hope that it’s going to go up soon. Due to copyright restrictions I can’t share my thesis publicly on this website, but if you’re anxious to get your hands on a digital copy please leave a note in the comments section or send me an email and I’ll get you a copy as soon as I get the green light to do so.
  • My first magazine article has just been published by History is Now, an online history magazine based out of London, UK. The article is about 2,500 words long and addresses sectional conflicts in the naming of the American Civil War. A nice essay by Chandra Manning and Adam Rothman about naming the war appeared in the New York Times in August 2013 and was helpful for me as I put together this essay, but I go beyond their arguments by analyzing the United Confederate Veterans’ efforts to rename the war as the “War Between the States” and suggesting that the term “Civil War” grew out of the Civil War Centennial of 1961-1965. Christian Smith, an editor at History is Now, contacted me back in January about doing a piece for the magazine. He and his team gave me a lot of flexibility and time in picking a topic to write about, and I thank them profusely for giving me a chance to get published (and thanks to Andrew Joseph Pegoda for providing edits and comments during the draft phase). Readers who follow the link above will note that History is Now is designed for smartphones and iPads and that you have an opportunity to take advantage of a two-month free trial of the magazine before subscribing to anything (which means you can get the summer issue, including my article, for free). If you do not have smartphone technology, however, once again feel free to contact me via the comments section or email and I will work on getting you a different copy of the essay.
  • Even though memories of the National Council on Public History’s 2014 Annual Meeting in Monterey, California, are still fresh in my mind, today was the deadline for panel submissions for the 2015 Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. I am working with two separate groups on submitting proposals for the conference and will be sure to post updates here once I know whether or not these proposals have been approved.
  • Readers will note that I recently wrote an essay about taking a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about material culture through Harvard EdX. Unfortunately those plans fell through within the first week of class following my Grandfather’s placement in the hospital on June 4 and his eventual passing on June 12. The MOOC fell by the wayside pretty quickly at that point and I lost interest in pursuing it any further. Perhaps I will take another MOOC in the future, but for now I hold the distinction of being just like the vast majority of students who take a MOOC: a dropout.

Cheers

 

Kids Can Handle Tough History If You Expose Them To It

Part Five of a series of posts on the CWI 2014 Summer Conference and the Civil War in 1864. To read earlier posts, see parts one, two, three, and four.

This essay on Yale professor Crystal Feimster’s discussion of rape and mutiny at Fort Jackson, Louisiana, will conclude my series of posts on the Civil War Institute’s 2014 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College. It’s been three weeks since the end of the conference and I regret that it’s taken so long to get all of my thoughts onto this website, but life happens. There are times when the things you want to do have to be put to the side because there are other things you need to do first, like working full-time and figuring out how you’re going to pay back your student loans.

Feimster’s analysis of the conditions at Fort Jackson during the American Civil War were eye-opening, fascinating, and disturbing. The most troubling aspects of her discussion revolved around a case of attempted rape at Fort Jackson. White Union troops at the fort in 1864 cornered an African-American woman who was working at a nearby contraband camp as a laundress (throughout the war slaves ran away from their owners and sought refuge with the U.S. military. Several confiscation acts passed by Congress aimed to punish the Confederacy by allowing the military to protect these runaways rather than sending them back to their masters. Contraband camps were established by the military to ostensibly provide aid to these runaways as their numbers increased). These troops attempted to have sex with the woman; the only thing that stopped their pursuit was the woman’s threat to dump her chamber pot on them.

From there the record gets murky, but we know that the white troops seemed surprised that this woman would stand up for herself and reject the advances of white men. The troops eventually resorted to name-calling, insults, and threats to otherize and place the blame for their sexual advances on the African-American laundress. Cases of attempted and actual rape of women in contraband camps was disturbingly common, according to Feimster, and there were times when troops went from camp to camp demanding sex from women. Seen in this light we can see how white Union troops often utilized the same tactics as slaveholders to control black women through threats, sexual assault, and rape.

These insights greatly complicate our understanding of the relationship between soldiers and members of the contraband camps and between white troops and black women. One person, however, seemed to take exception to Feimster’s discussion on Twitter. This person, declaring herself to be a teacher, suggested on Twitter that the discussion “was interesting, but…” (which usually means that they didn’t find the discussion interesting). According to this person the problem lied in her belief that topics like rape and mutiny were “not appropriate” for an eighth grade history classroom setting. Was there room to make these topics more appropriate for that setting?

The answer is certainly a matter for open debate and interpretation, but count me as someone who finds Feimster’s focus on rape at Fort Jackson to be uniquely appropriate for an eighth grade history classroom. If historians are interested in finding a “usable past” that speaks to our concerns and helps us address pressing problems in contemporary society, then rape at Fort Jackson in 1864 is an extremely relevant discussion to be having with teenagers right now.

Middle school is a trying and difficult time for just about anyone who has to endure the hellish environment of puberty, hormones, and judgmental classmates. During my time as a teaching assistant for grades 6-12 the topic of gender relations was a constantly pressing issue for the entire faculty. Working as an In-School Suspension and substitute teacher always challenged me to make sure that males and females were treating each other with dignity and respect, and there were plenty of times when that was not the case. Middle school is a particularly difficult time for all of us because we are still very much finding ourselves and forging our sexual identities.

After this teacher criticized Feimster’s talk, I started thinking about the parallels between the rhetoric white troops used against the black laundress at Fort Jackson and the type of rhetoric we hear around cases like the Steubenville rape episode in Ohio and the concerns of those who believe we live in a rape culture today. I’m not sure whether or not we live in a rape culture, but it’s hard to imagine a time when there weren’t teenage boys blaming their sexual outbursts on their victims or objectifying those who rebuff their sexual advances. Can history help us start meaningful conversations with teenagers about sexuality, gender, and mutual consent?

A while back my friend Andrew Joseph Pegoda left a thoughtful comment on this blog about the fact that schools introduce topics like drug and alcohol abuse and gang membership to students through the D.A.R.E. program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) at a very young age, sometimes as young as first or second grade. Generally speaking, most students can handle these sensitive topics and engage in thoughtful conversation about them in a classroom. What makes us think they can’t handle sensitive or tough history by the time they’re thirteen or fourteen?

Rather than shielding our students from tough history or contemporary problems in the classroom, I believe we can and should make time in the k-12 classroom for addressing all different kinds of difficult history, whether it be about slavery, imperialism, genocide, or rape. Teachers, of course, must practice a bit of discretion as they facilitate these conversations and ensure that they organize enough prep time for themselves and their students to tackle these topics. Nevertheless, I’ve seen time and time again that students want to have these sorts of discussions and are often willing to share their own experiences if given the opportunity. Having a historical perspective to facilitate classroom discussion can help teachers and students address difficult history and the challenges of living in a tough world today.

How would you incorporate Fort Jackson into a Civil War history lesson plan?

Happy Bastille Day

Reconsidering Guerrilla Warfare in Missouri During the Civil War

Part Four of a series of posts on the CWI 2014 Summer Conference and the Civil War in 1864.

Irregular conflict and guerrilla warfare was commonplace during the American Civil War. Small bands of irregular troops engaged in raids, ambushes, and in some cases outright slaughter against the United States military and their supporters in war-torn states like Virgina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri. The Confederacy recognized the destructiveness of guerrilla warfare early in the conflict and attempted to forge a partnership with these irregulars by passing the Partisan Ranger Act on April 21, 1862, which gave President Jefferson Davis the ability to recruit officers for companies, battalions, and regiments of partisan bands. According to Washington & Lee history professor Barton Myers–a speaker at the CWI 2014 Summer Conference–the Partisan Ranger Act provided an opportunity for Southern men who had not enlisted in the Confederacy a chance to do so on their own terms. These partisan bands, however, proved to be more of a hindrance than a help to the Confederacy, and in early 1864 the Partisan Ranger Act was revoked by the Confederate Congress.

The bloodshed from guerrilla warfare was particularly acute in Missouri, where guerrillas such as William Quantrill, “Bloody” Bill Anderson, and Jesse James conducted raids in western Missouri and eastern Kansas. Such internecine warfare had taken place on the Missouri-Kansas border well before the firing of Fort Sumter in 1861 thanks to heated disputes in the 1850s about whether or not the new territory of Kansas would be a free or slave state. Myers focused much of his discussion on guerrilla warfare towards events in Missouri, and this discussion inspired me to write out some personal thoughts on how guerrilla warfare in Missouri has been remembered since the end of hostilities in 1865.

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It is my opinion that guerrilla warfare in Missouri before and during the American Civil War has been greatly romanticized since the end of the war, dominating the memories of Missouri’s Civil War experience at the expense of a more holistic understanding of Missouri’s relationship to both the United States and Confederate governments.

Missouri was a crucial state for both the United States and the Confederacy for four reasons:

1. Missouri’s population increased 73% from 1850-1860, creating a large pool of fighting-age men willing to serve one side or the other.

2. In 1850, there were no railroads in Missouri. By 1860, however, a rapidly expanding railway system of roughly 770 miles of operational railroads traversed the state.

3. Navigational access to two extremely important riverways (the Missouri and the Mississippi) had implications for the entire war.

4. Resources like iron (readily available in large quantities in Southeastern Missouri) were desired by both governments.

Events such as Governor Claiborne Fox Jackson’s attempt to have Missouri secede to the Confederacy in 1861, the Camp Jackson Affair, the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, Confederate General Sterling Price’s failed effort to conquer St. Louis in 1864, and Missouri’s abolition of slavery in January 1865 prior to the passage of the 13th amendment are frequently overshadowed by the narrative of guerrilla warfare. For example, there is a Jesse James Wax Museum in the state that bills itself as the homeplace of “The TRUE Missouri Legend,” while a recent film aimed at promoting Civil War tourism in Missouri argues that “Missouri lays claim to legends of its own” and then proceeds to focus on the aforementioned guerrilla warriors at the expense of other important figures like Jackson, Price, Frank Blair, and B. Gratz Brown.

Why does this narrative have such staying power? Part the answer lies in the efforts of surviving guerrillas to shape the memories of the war in the late 1800s and early 1900s, while the other part lies in popular depictions of the Civil War in Missouri throughout the twentieth century.

Following the end of the war, former guerrillas like Frank James (brother of Jesse) told their stories to anyone who listened. In the early 1900s Frank led a short-lived traveling pageant entitled “The Great Cole Younger and Frank James Historical Wild West” that traversed Missouri and attempted to educate audience members about the Civil War in Missouri. Former Missouri guerrillas also started having annual reunions beginning in 1898. These affairs were open to the public and both Republican and Democratic politicians gave speeches at these events. Although the reunions professed to be non-political events, speakers often discussed contemporary events like the ongoing Spanish-American war and the gold/silver coinage debate while using the past to justify their positions in the present. While the rhetoric of reconciliation and “burying the hatchet” was prevalent in these reunions, Missouri State history professor Jeremy Neely argues that “the Quantrill men reunions . . . became a public expression of one distinctly local flavor of [Confederate] lost cause history” (249).

Many former guerrillas argued at these reunions that their exploits were actually honorable and courageous. Local members of the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy argued that these men were fighting a defensive war against an overbearing Union military that regularly attacked men, women, and children in Missouri who were alleged supporters of the Confederacy. The guerrillas, according to their supporters, had not strongly supported one side or the other and simply defended local residents and “hearth and home” against Union outrages such as the Sacking of Osceola and Union General Thomas Ewing’s 1863 General Orders No. 11 expelling all residents from four counties in Western Missouri. And to be sure, revenge was certainly a factor in the actions of some guerrillas. “Bloody” Bill Anderson, for example, led the massacre of more than 150 men and boys in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863 partly in response to three of his sisters being imprisoned by the Union military on suspicion of housing guerrilla fighters. When their makeshift prison collapsed one sister died, another broke both of her legs, and another had permanent injuries that crippled her for the rest of her life.

This “guerrilla defense of hearth and home” argument was depicted most clearly in Clint Eastwood’s 1976 film “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Eastwood portrays Wales, a simple Missouri farmer whose wife and son are murdered by a Unionist Kansas brigade. After burying his family, Wales decides to join the Confederacy and Anderson’s guerrilla fighters not because of his dedication to the Confederate cause but because of the U.S. military’s murdering of his loved ones. This narrative undoubtedly appeals to some Americans today who view the relationship between the federal government and the various state governments with suspicion and disdain. Guerrillas who fought against an overbearing government were virtuous individuals heroically defending Missouri families, especially women and children, against an abusive federal government rather than fighting for the preservation of slavery or any other pressing political question at the time.

The actual reality of guerrilla fighters and their motivations for fighting is much more complex than the “defense of hearth and home” argument would have us believe, however.

According to Diane Mutti Burke, one reason guerrilla fighters gained so much support in Missouri was because they readily acted as slave patrollers for local slaveholders. Guerrilla fighters regularly engaged in violence against and sometimes killed runaway slaves. In some extreme cases they even sold runaway slaves to new owners. To wit:

Patrollers . . . always brutalized slaves . . . Many Civil War-era “patrollers” were indeed Confederate Bushwackers, who attempted to intimidate local slaves into remaining with their owners, targeted white Missourians who hired former bondsmen and -women for pay, terrorized slave women through physical and sexual assault, and after 1863, brutalized slave men on their way to enlist in the Union army. Confederate soldiers and guerrillas kidnapped others and took them south, where they were sold (158-159).

In sum, the “guerrilla defense of hearth and home” argument falls short of explaining why so many men in Missouri chose to follow Anderson, Quantrill, and James into battle during the Civil War, and the idea of these guerrillas having no preferred allegiance to either side along with a distaste for politics is hard to justify. Politics were often central in the decision to become a Missouri guerrilla fighter.

Even though guerrilla warfare in Missouri was especially harsh compared to other states and remains a key factor in scholarly analysis of Missouri’s Civil War, scholars like Barton Myers at the same time readily acknowledge that guerrilla fighters were “mere rouges” in the larger battle for Missouri during the Civil War. Ultimately, I’d like to echo Bob Pollock of Yesterday…and Today in challenging us to consider “why the focus on Anderson, Quantrill, and Jesse James? What makes them so important? Is the guerilla warfare really the most important story to tell about the Civil War in Missouri? Is it the most compelling? Is the average visitor to Missouri more interested in people like Quantrill than in other people of the time?”

Cheers

Was Sand Creek A Part of the Civil War or the Indian Wars?

Part Three of a series of posts on the CWI 2014 Summer Conference and the Civil War in 1864.

John M. Chivington. Photo Credit: National Park Service

John M. Chivington. Photo Credit: National Park Service

The summer of 1864 in Colorado territory was marked by tension and violence between local Indian tribes and newly emigrated white settlers moving to and through the region. These disputes prompted territorial governor John Evans to call for a regiment of U.S. volunteers to serve a one hundred day term in Colorado to encourage peace and provide stability in the territory. Around the same time Evans got his troops, however, local Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes made a peace overture at Fort Lyon, Colorado. U.S. forces then demanded that these tribes lay down their weapons and surrender themselves to the military at Fort Lyon. Fort commander Edward W. Wynkoop accepted this surrender and proceeded to provide rations and government protection to the tribes before being sent to Washington, D.C. on assignment. New fort commander Scott Anthony finally ordered the Indians in October to move forty miles to Sand Creek, where they joined Black Kettle’s Cheyenne tribe. Even though the actions of the Indian tribes seemed to point the way to peace, Evans’ regiment remained on guard in Colorado.

With the Indians surrendered at Sand Creek, Colonel John M. Chivington made a fateful and sickening decision to attack Sand Creek. On November 29, 1864, Chivington’s men slaughtered at least seventy defenseless men, women, and children. In addition to killing many Indians outright, Chivington’s men scalped their victims and dressed their weapons with ears, fingers, and genitalia. Although Chivington defended his actions for the rest of his life, the massacre shocked many Americans at the time. Three separate government investigations of Sand Creek occurred in the aftermath of the massacre, with Congress’s Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War concluding that “for the purpose of vindicating the cause of justice and upholding the honor of the nation, prompt and energetic measures should be at once taken to remove from office those who have thus disgraced the government by whom they are employed, and to punish, as their crimes deserve, those who have been guilty of these brutal and cowardly acts.”

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Penn State history professor Ari Kelman’s talk at the CWI Summer Conference addressed the Sand Creek Massacre and the ways the massacre has been remembered in American memory. He also has a book on this topic. During his talk, Kelman challenged audience members to consider whether Sand Creek should be considered a part of the American Civil War or of the Indian Wars that continued well into the early twentieth century. Even though Sand Creek occurred during the American Civil War, scholars have been reluctant to categorize the massacre as an outgrowth of that war. According to Kelman, Colorado schools today teach students that Sand Creek was a part of the Indian Wars, while the Sand Creek Massacre Wikipedia page currently describes the event as “an atrocity in the Indian Wars.”

Is it time to reconsider Sand Creek’s place in American history? I provide my answer below:

Before addressing whether or not Sand Creek was a part of the American Civil War, I believe it’s important to ask “what was the American Civil War?” At its most basic level, fundamental disagreements between white Americans over contested notions of freedom, liberty, citizenship, and democracy (many of which revolved around the institution of slavery) led to a sizable portion of white residents in eleven slave states to undertake an effort to formally secede from the United States. These people sought to form a separate nation whose founding principles rested on the perpetuation of a slavery-based economy and an ostensibly “federalist” style of limited government and state sovereignty. From the perspective of the U.S. government and its loyalist supporters, the war was first and foremost a war to stop this “rebellion” and preserve the Union, although emancipation would later evolve as another war aim of the U.S. military. Both sides used the legacy of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers to justify their respective positions.

Underlying these visions, however, was a rhetoric of empire that colored the perspectives of both Unionists and Confederates. The Civil War itself was not merely a battle for control of established American states but also Western territories mostly under Indian control. As Kelman argued at a “Dine-in” meeting I attended, the pressing questions in 1860 with regards to new western territories such as Kansas, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were “Who’s version of empire will lead the nation moving forward? Who will lead America’s expansion into the west: local/state governments or the federal government? Will the economies of these territories be based on slavery or free labor?” Control of western territories in the eyes of both Unionists and Confederates was integral for establishing political legitimacy both at home and abroad. Whoever gained control of the west would have control of a wealth of resources and an opportunity to oversee the growth of a potentially powerful empire.

These contested white visions of empire cannot be divorced from the outbreak of the American Civil War because these heated debates over westward expansion directly contributed to the outbreak of armed conflict in 1861. Take, for example, the efforts of white Americans in both free and slave states to settle in Kansas following the opening of that territory in 1854. Prior to 1854, new western territories were determined to be free or slave states based on their location in relation to the 36 30′ parallel established in the 1820 Missouri Compromise. In 1854, however, Congressman Stephen A. Douglas helped pass a bill abolishing the Missouri Compromise in favor of the idea of “popular sovereignty,” which stipulated that residents of a new territory would have the freedom to determine whether or not there would be slavery within its borders. Abolitionists, free soilers, and slaveholders rushed to Kansas to establish settlements and vote on a new constitution that would determine whether or not the state would have slavery. During the deliberations on the “Nebraska-Kansas” bill New York Senator William Seward, himself a strong opponent of slavery, warned his Southern colleagues in Congress that “We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give victory to the side which is stronger in numbers as it is in right.”

Seward’s reference to the “virgin soil” of Kansas alerts us to the rhetoric of empire that accompanied any discussion of Union, freedom, and westward expansion. Kansas, of course, was not literally a “virgin” area untouched by humans. Indians had been there for hundreds of years, but in the eyes of Americans like Seward, Kansas was a “virgin soil” ripe for white expansion, conquest, and settlement. The growth of the United States empire–which included the westward expansion of railroads, the easy availability of cheap land, and the eventual spread of white settlements westward–required the removal of Indian tribes that stood in the way of “progress” and expansion. White Americans disagreed about the best methods for expanding their control to western areas of the continent, and these disagreements accompanied other conflicts over the best methods for promoting democratic governance in previously established American states. But almost all white Americans, regardless of region, tacitly agreed that the rights of Indian settlers were secondary to their wishes of empire.

Therefore, it is my opinion that the Sand Creek Massacre was a part of the Civil War and should be taught as such. The massacre was an outgrowth of prewar visions of white hegemony and westward expansion that cannot be divorced from the U.S. government’s eventual promotion of free land for white laborers in the west during and after the war. Indeed, I think it’s appropriate for us to consider the idea that the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century were not a collection of battles separate from the Civil War but rather an extension of the Civil War that lasted far beyond the end of Union/Confederate hostilities in 1865.

So I guess the new question I have is “Did the Civil War really end in 1865?”

Cheers

Non-Academics and the Historical Enterprise

Part Two in a series of posts about the CWI 2014 Summer Conference and the Civil War in 1864.

One of the great things about history is that anyone can study and contribute their own historical scholarship without the need of fancy credentials or even employment in a history-related field. History is all around us, and there are many ways to engage with it beyond the confines of an academic classroom. Even if you grew up hating high school history courses and their seemingly endless focus on “dates, dead people, and dust,” many people in their adult life eventually acknowledge the importance of history and accumulate enough historical knowledge to at least partially recognize their place in it.

The Civil War Institute’s 2014 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College demonstrated to me–perhaps better than any other conference I’ve attended–the benefits of academics and non-academics sharing historical knowledge with each other. Almost every history conference I’ve attended or participated in prior to last week was dominated by academic historians in the crowd and at the speaker’s podium, an environment that essentially consisted of academic historians talking to each other about topics that were mostly of interest to them and only them. I have no problem with academic conferences that are mostly composed of professional historians, but it was a really remarkable experience seeing so many non-academics at the CWI conference, both as attendees and participants. I met so many people who attended the conference not because they worked for a prestigious university that paid for their travels but because their love of Civil War history led them to spend their own hard-earned money and time at Gettysburg. People from a wide range of occupations came to see the conference, including high school teachers on summer break, people in business and law, and retired enthusiasts who now spend their time learning about history.

The presenters at CWI also came from a wide range of occupations. Emmanuel Dabney and Eric Leonard of the National Park Service, independent writer Megan Kate Nelson, high school teacher Kevin Levin, and Licensed Battlefield Guide Sue Boardman all demonstrated to me that one does not need to be a university professor to help shape the field of Civil War studies. I must also acknowledge the talents of Gordon Rhea, who participated in a sit-down interview with Gettysburg College professor Peter Carmichael on the first day of the conference. Rhea was a full-time lawyer in Washington, D.C. in the 1990s and 2000s when he wrote his trilogy of books on Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign in Virginia, essentially turning himself from a lawyer into a historian by nightfall (a fourth installment on the campaign is forthcoming). These books have become standard resources for analyzing the Overland Campaign and are doubtless included in the libraries of academic Civil War historians across the country. Rhea’s accomplishments are really amazing if you think about it. You don’t often see non-academics writing standard treatises on medical practices, quantum physics, or German literature. But that’s the great thing about history – anyone who’s interested can ostensibly contribute their interpretations of history without worrying about a lack of credentials. All you need is good evidence and interpretive skills to back up your claims.

As someone who has great reservations about pursuing a history Ph.D. or an academic career, it was inspiring to see so many public historians, students, and history enthusiasts contributing to the scholarly discussions that took place at CWI. While I haven’t completely ruled out the possibility of someday continuing my education, I’ve come away from this conference thinking I can get pretty far in the history world even if I choose to focus on my public history career without any further education. For now we’ll have to wait and see what happens on that front. Life as a public historian has been pretty great so far.

Cheers

Reflections on the Civil War Institute 2014 Summer Conference

I have returned to St. Louis refreshed and re-energized after five days at the Civil War Institute’s 2014 Summer Conference at Gettysburg College. I really enjoyed myself and learned a lot of new information about the Civil War in 1864 that I believe will help me do a better job of interpreting U.S. Grant’s experiences during the Civil War in my work with the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Once again I cannot thank the staff at the Civil War Institute enough for awarding me a scholarship to attend my fist CWI summer conference and for providing all conference attendees so many opportunities to network and socialize with some of the best Civil War scholars in the field. I made a lot of connections with students, enthusiasts, scholars, and public historians at the conference and hope to stay in touch with these connections well into the future.

There were a lot of presentations during the conference, most of which I got to see. Here are a few personal highlights:

  • Brooks Simpson of Arizona State gave an excellent presentation on the challenges that Ulysses S. Grant faced as a Civil War General in Virginia during the 1864 Overland Campaign. Simpson argued that Grant’s strategy for engaging Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces was as much about providing his subordinate generals in other theaters of the war a chance to win the conflict as much as it was about defeating Lee. By neutralizing Lee in Virginia, Grant enabled General William T. Sherman to advance upon Atlanta in 1864 and eventually commence his March to the Sea and trek through the Carolinas.
  • Simpson also gave fantastic tours of both the Wilderness and Spotsylvania battlefields in Virginia despite our bus’s A/C breaking down, the bus driver going the wrong direction for about ten miles, and a subsequent shortening of our time on the battlefields.
  • Ari Kelman of Penn State gave a wonderful presentation on the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre that challenged us to view the Civil War as not only a war for Union and emancipation but also a war for empire and conquest of western territories. I also had an opportunity to sit in on a “dine-in” session with Kelman in which he discussed the process of writing his award-winning book A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory at Sand Creek. Kelman described how he conducted more than 1,000 hours of interviews with National Park Service staff at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and local Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes while also admitting that he re-wrote the draft of this book “at least six times.” Wow!
  • Independent writer Megan Kate Nelson gave a talk on the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, by Jubal Early’s Confederate forces in 1864 and how popular media responded to this event through the use of pictures, drawings, and editorials. Even though Early openly admitted his role in burning Chambersburg, northern publications gave a range of responses that placed the blame for the attack on the Union military and even the citizens of Chambersburg. Nelson also gave another fantastic presentation on soldier doodles, drawings, and sketches on the last day of the conference. She showed us how soldiers used these drawings (which were often included in personal letters) to communicate the soldier experience to loved ones at home.
  • Emmanual Dabney of Petersburg National Battlefield gave an excellent presentation on the Battle of the Crater, one of the most fascinating yet sickening battles of the entire Civil War. Dabney argued that the Crater tells us more about racial divisions in Civil War America than it does about tactical maneuvers. Civil War scholars have known for a long time that some Confederates engaged in ruthless killing of United States Colored Troops (USCT) during the battle, but Dabney showed us that some Union troops also started killing USCTs once Confederates began their slaughter “in order to preserve white [Union] lives.” I was stunned when I heard that.
  • Eric Leonard of Andersonville National Historic Site discussed the experiences of Civil War prisoners throughout the conflict, but especially 1864. Prior to 1864 Confederate and United States leadership regularly engaged in prisoner exchanges during the conflict, but once Confederate leadership began refusing to exchange black prisoners of war and in some cases even tried to sell them back into slavery, all prisoner exchanges stopped. Sites like Andersonville began to exceed their holding capacity once prisoner exchanges stopped, leading to truly horrific conditions for prisoners stuck in these places.
  • Crystal Feimster of Yale University had an eye-opening presentation on rape and mutiny at Fort Jackson, Louisiana. In one incident she discussed how white Union soldiers attempted to rape an African American laundress who was working in a nearby contraband camp. When questioned about the incident, the soldiers expressed shock that a black woman would not want to have sex with white men. They also resorted to threats, name-calling, and victim-blaming to otherize the woman.
  • Antwain Hunter of Butler University had a nice talk on African American firearm usage in North Carolina prior to the Civil War. Hunter pointed out that the use of firearms was often seen as a form of labor, and black slaves were sometimes given weapons by their masters as a part of their labors in the rural fields of North Carolina. A complex regulatory system for black firearm usage emerged by the 1840s, however, and free blacks in the state were often prevented from carrying arms.
  • Sue Boardman, a Licensed Battlefield Guide at Gettysburg, gave a nice battlefield tour of Culp’s Hill, which is on the eastern part of the battlefield. Boardman found the diary of Michael Schroyer of the 147th Pennsylvania in an estate sale several years ago and used this diary to lead us through the Battle of Gettysburg through his eyes. It was an amazing tour, and I loved the way she used this primary source to help us build a sense of empathy for the experiences of those who fought at Gettysburg. One woman in our group actually came to tears once she realized her Virginia ancestor had most likely died at Culp’s Hill.

Over the next few days I will share some additional thoughts in future posts about the conference and about the Civil War in 1864. As always, thanks for reading.

Cheers

Mr. Sacco Goes to the Smithsonian

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

I am currently hanging out in Pennsylvania eagerly anticipating the start of Gettysburg College’s 2014 Civil War Institute Summer Conference, which begins later today. I won a public historian scholarship to be here and am looking forward to five days of listening, learning, reading, socializing, and tweeting. The conference lineup is stellar and I have no doubts the event will be a smashing success.

Yesterday I flew into Baltimore, Maryland, and decided to spend the day in Washington, D.C. prior to the conference. When I was in DC for the first time last year I spent my time walking around the National Mall and taking as many pictures as possible. This time I wanted to actually visit some attractions in the area and spend my time in a slightly more focused fashion. I had never been to any Smithsonian museums before, so I decided to spend most of the day at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Going to the NMAH was a dream come true for me. I stayed at the museum for four hours and visited every gallery and exhibit currently on display, trying my best to see every artifact and read every exhibit label text (I quickly realized the fruitlessness of this endeavor, however). Interestingly enough, my favorite exhibit in the entire museum was “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000,” located on the first floor of NMAH. Given that my research interests stray far from late-twentieth century food history, this view may be surprising to some. But I found the entire exhibit to be really well-done in terms of exhibit design/room layout, artifact aesthetics, and pithy, concise exhibit labels with well-researched information. As I went through the exhibit I appreciated the ways Smithsonian staff created a balanced interpretation that acknowledged technological developments in food production while at the same time pointing out the potential consequences to labor, capital, and family culture that these technological developments brought with them.

Below is one example of an exhibit label text I think does a nice job of creating a sense of tension in describing “innovation” and “progress” in food production.

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

The only thing I would change here is more explicitly stating who exactly is asking questions about mass production and consumerism. “Many raised questions…” is too vague, in my opinion.

I also enjoyed several exhibits on transportation and technology and the NMAH’s featured “Star Spangled Banner” exhibit, which includes the American flag flown at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, that inspired Francis Scott Key’s writing of the Star Spangled Banner. The “Star Spangled Banner” exhibit did a nice job of focusing on tangible artifacts instead of exhibit labels – the labels were short and complemented rather than dominated the artifacts on display. “Star Spangled Banner” is pretty small compared to other exhibits at the museum, but I think that’s actually a good thing because visitors are not mentally or physically overwhelmed while going through it.

One exhibit I was not impressed with was “The Price of Freedom: Americans at War.” Granted, I was running on fumes by the time I got up to see this part of the museum and did not read every label with exacting precision, but overall I found the display to be too celebratory and exceptionalist in its design and interpretation.

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

George Washington’s experiences during the Revolutionary War are interpreted in a way so as to almost deify him (David McCullough’s 1776, among many other works on Washington, shows that Washington made plenty of mistakes as a General during the war), and visitors never get a sense of the Loyalist perspective that was shared by many colonists who sought to maintain their allegiances with the British empire and opposed colonial revolution. The section on World War I is about 1/8 the size of the section on World War II and mostly focuses on technological developments in the types of weapons used during the war. The WWII section is full of nice artifacts but portrays too much of a “good war” vibe for my liking.  In each of these displays I also thought there was not enough focus on explaining how the U.S. military has found itself in so many armed conflicts over time, nor are there any portrayals of the fears, uncertainties, and consequences of life as a soldier. Shirking, draft dodging, PTSD, and suicide don’t make any appearances in these walls.

Within “Price of Freedom” I did like the interpretations of some nineteenth century “Wars of Expansion,” including the Mexican-American War, the Indian Wars of the late 1800s, and the Spanish-American War. I also thought the Civil War section did a nice job of outlining the disagreements that emerged in American society before the war over slavery, states’ rights, and other topics.

I do have one brief theoretical question to ask my readers about the Civil War section, however.

I found it interesting that this section interpreted the experiences of both Union and Confederate soldiers. But when we talk about “Americans at War,” should the experiences of Confederate soldiers be included in this discussion? Are Confederates “Americans”? After all, this war was fought between the United States military and the Confederate military, correct?

To be sure, some white supporters of the Confederacy believed they had a right to secede from the United States precisely because they were the true Americans whose values and beliefs were in tune with the legacy of the founding fathers. But as scholars like Gary Gallagher and Drew Gilpin Faust have demonstrated, many other white Confederate supporters supported a war against the United States because they believed the white South was composed of a stock of Anglos that was culturally distinct from their Northern counterparts. These people believed they were not Americans and that threats against their way of life (i.e. the removal of slavery, increased tariffs, the changing nature of federalism) justified the creation of a sovereign nation separate from the United States.

Is the Confederate war experience worthy of inclusion in a discussion about “Americans at War”?

Cheers

Looking for Resources on Oral History

When the doctors told my Grandfather in early June that they hoped to extend his life an additional two months, I immediately thought about conducting an oral history interview with him, even going so far as to get a verbal agreement from him to conduct the interview at his house once he got out of the hospital. Although I knew a lot about my Grandpa and his life experiences, there were parts of his early life that I wanted to know more about and I knew there was a lot of interest from other family members in documenting and preserving his story. My idea came too late, however, and as I outlined in my last post, we lost Grandpa on Thursday, June 12.

I really, really regret that my family and I were unable to get Grandpa’s story before he passed. We should have taken steps to get his story long before this point in time, especially after he was first diagnosed with cancer in 2012. I’m also frustrated because my knowledge of oral history is rather limited even though I’m a professional public historian. I received a little bit of training in oral history while a history graduate student at IUPUI and could probably do a decent informal oral history interview with a family member, but I don’t really have the skills to conduct a professional oral history project.

On the one hand, oral history seems to be a pretty straightforward process. I believe oral historians do a significant public service by giving a voice to those whose experiences may not get into the history books or recognized by the rest of society. Oral historians act as facilitators by empowering the people they interview with tools, context, and questions to help them recall important details of their life and tell their stories. On the other hand, oral history presents its own unique challenges when it comes to accessibility and preservation over time. As Cleveland State University history professor Mark Souther asserts, good oral history projects that engage a wide audience are easily discoverable, interactive, and reusable. Even if I had been able to conduct an oral history with my Grandfather, what equipment would I have used and how would I have preserved this document so as to encourage accessibility and interaction in the future for both family members and other interested parties? I’m afraid I don’t know.

What do you consider to be the best resources for learning more about oral history? If you know of any books, articles, webpages, or anything else that you deem relevant, please let me know in the comments below. I hope to be in a position to someday conduct oral histories of other family members and potentially engage in oral history projects in a professional capacity.

Cheers

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