On February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified by the required three-fourths of the states after the Iowa State Legislature became the 28th state to ratify*. (The Republican-majority in the New York State Legislature approved the amendment in April 1869, but a new Democrat majority attempted to “rescind” the state’s ratification in January 1870. New York nevertheless re-ratified on March 30th, which is the date listed on the official certification of the amendment). The amendment states that the right to vote could not be denied by the U.S. or any state “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about not just the transformative nature of the amendment, but also its shortcomings and general ineffectiveness for much of its history since 1870. On the one hand, the amendment ostensibly created a biracial society where all men, regardless of color, were enabled to vote and hold office. The amendment lays down the foundation for legal and political equality throughout the country. Black men who had been enslaved and were legally considered property ten years earlier were now constituents, voters, and citizens. The presidential election of 1872 between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley was one of the fairest elections in the U.S. during the 19th century and African American voters played an integral role in Grant’s reelection (Black Southerners who had previously been enfranchised by the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867 had also played a role in electing Grant to his first term in 1868). The 1872 election signaled a promising future of color-blind electoral politics in the United States.
On the other hand, the 15th Amendment ultimately failed to protect African American men in their right to vote in the long run. One underappreciated but extremely important reason whey the amendment failed lies in a provision of the 14th Amendment that has never been enforced.
When debates about the 14th Amendment began in 1866, supporters were concerned that including any language allowing for universal manhood suffrage would kill further support for the amendment. Ratifying an amendment is intentionally difficult and requires support from two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-fourths of the states to ratify. Radical Republicans in Congress argued that it would be far better to confer citizenship and equal protection of the laws to African Americans without pushing for black voting rights rather than losing on all three counts because of national hostility towards the latter provision. And yet, a major problem existed. The pre-Civil War Constitution included the “three-fifths Clause.” This clause stated that representation in Congress would be based on “the whole number of free persons” and “three fifths of all other persons,” which was a politically correct way of saying “slaves.” But with the end of slavery came the end of the three-fifths clause and the new practice of counting African Americans as full persons for representational purposes. This change meant that Congressional representation in the former Confederate states would actually increase by almost two dozen seats. If African American men could not be guaranteed a right to vote, how else could Southern power in Congress still be curbed?
The answer comes in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment. Section 2 was a compromise measure. It states that yes, Southern states could disenfranchise their population, but at the expense of their representation in Congress. Disenfranchisement would carry a heavy price with it through the terms of the 14th Amendment. And, of course, Section 2 was the first time the word “male” was inserted into the Constitution, pushing the women’s rights movement into a state of rage for basing Congressional representation on the male population.
When the 15th Amendment was ratified two years later in 1870, the new amendment stated that voting could not be denied on the basis of race. However, the 15th Amendment was also a compromise measure by still not guaranteeing universal manhood suffrage. Ostensibly “race-neutral” tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes could still be used to keep blacks away from the polls. And that is exactly what happened. By 1900 the spirit of the 15th Amendment was replaced by Jim Crow practices and the near-complete disenfranchisement of all black voters. Congress and the courts were empowered through Section 2 of the 14th Amendment to lower the South’s Congressional representation as a punishment, but that authority was never exercised.
A great counterfactual to consider during this 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment is how much more effective it would have been in guaranteeing black voting rights and a genuine biracial democracy in the South had Section 2 of the 14th Amendment been invoked as a punishment for Jim Crow tactics.
My colleagues and I have been discussing strategies for creating interesting museum exhibits. Our museum suffers from many of the same issues experienced at other historic sites: too much text, broken digital technology, outdated content, and a lot of head-scratching about the best path moving forward. During the discussion a suggestion was made to include more digital content in the form of interactive video and audio exhibits. While I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea, I raised a few concerns along the way:
Digital Technology Breaks Down Quickly: From a financial standpoint, digital technology can create new roadblocks for museums. Say what you want about textual exhibit panels, but it’s fair to point out that in most cases those text panels are going to last a long longer than the fancy interactive touchscreen video you just purchased for tens of thousands of dollars. How many times have you visited a museum and you saw a video screen that wasn’t working and an “out of order” sign in front of it? The catch-22 of digital technology is that despite its fanciness and potential for meaningful learning experiences, the technology will break down, oftentimes sooner than later. Any site that invests in this technology must also invest in ongoing maintenance and eventually replacement technology.
It’s also worth mentioning that despite the allure of digital technology, there’s no guarantee people are going to interact with it in a museum space, or that the people who interact with it will get something meaningful from the experience. One example that Andrea Jones pointed out on Twitter was that the use of videotaped oral histories in museums can be isolating and “anti-social.” Digital technology can separate groups as they visit a museum and could ultimately prove to be uninteresting to visitors who either lack the time or simply don’t know the purpose of the technology. In sum, museums have to really think about the intended audience and develop a meaningful strategy behind their digital content.
It’s Too Loud in Here! Our site’s museum, as it currently stands, has no audio descriptions or videos that produce loud noise. But let me tell you, have I ever been to some loud museums before! The role of acoustics in museum exhibit design is always a hot topic within the field, and I admit that some of my hesitation about new technology comes from the potential sound consequences that could adversely affect visitor experiences. I have been to a good number of museums that had things like background audio, videos being played in a loop, and touchscreen computers with loud noises. Sometimes there are exhibits with all three and more going on at the same time. One example is the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which I previously wrote about here. While I enjoyed the museum for the most part, many of the exhibits are way too busy with loud music, looping videos, and visual effects all going on at the same time. At times the noise around me was very disorienting and prevented me from focusing on the exhibit content. Hearing the same video ten times in a row in an exhibit does not make me want to stay in that space and learn more.
What’s Unique About Your Museum Space? I gladly admit that I am a reader. I try to read as much museum text as I can, and I like to spend a lot of time in each room/exhibit of a given museum (my wife usually has to keep me moving when we go to museums together). Not everyone feels the same, and I do believe museums should offer a variety of experiences within their spaces. But what makes museums memorable and unique as tourist destinations? It’s their collections. What will people remember from visiting a given museum? Is it the fancy technology or exhibit text they’ll remember the most, or will it be the unique artifacts and material culture that can’t be seen anywhere else? For many people, the answer will be the latter.
To be sure, I believe digital technology has a place in history museums. But I think technology has to be used in service to the museum’s most unique aspect, which is its historical artifacts. Everything has to point back to the unique content of the museum. When I do museum education programs with students, I don’t share videos or have them read a bunch of text. I have the students look at pictures and artifacts (and what I call “the big words” such as exhibit titles that help orient visitors to the museum content) as a foundation for facilitated dialogue and audience-centered education. Students can read or watch a video about history at home. But when they’re at the museum, they’re seeing content that can’t be seen anywhere else. I want to highlight the collections and use that as a guide for my education programs.
P.S. Happy 15th Amendment Day! The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on this day 150 years ago.
If you haven’t heard already, Dana Goldstein has a very interesting article in the New York Times about history textbooks today and how the content in those books varies widely from state to state. It’s an informative read and really highlights how much the process is influenced by partisan politics. It is very difficult, of course, to gauge how much teachers and students actually utilize textbooks in the history classroom, but those textbooks can be a useful tool for understanding the currents of historical scholarship and how those currents are shaped by educational and political leaders.
Debates over school textbooks are nothing new, and to that point I will shamelessly self-promote my first journal article from 2015, which explored the ways Indiana Civil War veterans tried to shape public culture in the state. These efforts included a very intense battle with the Indiana State Board of Education over the ways the Civil War was being taught in the classroom in the 1890s and early 20th century.
2019 saw the deaths of two noteworthy scholars who wrote biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. Both biographies were popular best-sellers when they were released and both represent crucial landmarks within the Grant historiography. And yet both are what could be best described as a double-edge sword; they advance our knowledge of Grant and his times while still making crucial mistakes along the way that illuminate the difficulty of writing an accurate historical biography.
Jean Edward Smith died in September at the age of 86. The New York Times described Smith as “a political scientist and renowned biographer whose works helped restore luster to the tarnished reputations of underrated presidents.” That was certainly the case with his 2001 biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Smith specialized in 20th century presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower for most of his career. His study on Grant, however, is notable because it was one of the first major birth-to-death biographies that attempted to overturn some of the common stereotypes of Grant being a drunk butcher who oversaw a hopelessly failed and corrupt administration. While more recent popular narratives on Grant from biographers like H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have undoubtedly supplanted Smith on the best-seller list, I would actually place Smith’s study above all three of them. Grant is a readable page-turner that offers a sympathetic but also convincing interpretation of Ulysses S. Grant’s life. It was the first biography of Grant that I read while in college and inspired me to learn more about the American Civil War, so for that I will always be grateful to Jean Edward Smith.
Nevertheless there are shortcomings and mistakes that make me very conflicted about the biography. At times I believe the book is too defensive of Grant. To cite but one example, Smith portrays Grant’s Indian Peace Policy while president as progressive and forward-thinking. Grant certainly disagreed with the “removalist” school of thinking that wanted to eliminate all Native Americans through violent means (embodied most notably through General Philip Sheridan’s remark that “a good Indian is a dead Indian”). But Grant’s policies essentially called for forced confinement of native populations in poorly-supplied reservations and harsh assimilation policies that some scholars today would describe as cultural genocide. Grant’s views may have been moderate for the time, but they were most certainly not forward-thinking, in my opinion.
An equally serious problem with Smith lies in at least one documented instance in which his writing veers dangerously close to plagiarism. Here’s the bit from Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf:
From Jean Smith’s Grant, page 411, bottom paragraph:
The President’s casket, draped in black crepe, rested on a raised platform under a domed black canopy. President Johnson, the Supreme Court, members of the cabinet and the diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for the President’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln felt unable to attend. At the head of the catalfalque, standing alone throughout the ceremony, was Grant – the living symbol of the cause for which the President had given his life.
Correspondent Noah Brooks reported that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant later said he was grateful that Lincoln had spent most of his final days with him at City Point. “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”
From Grant Takes Command by Bruce Catton, 1969 ed., page 479, bottom paragraph:
Draped in crepe and black cloth, the President’s casket lay in the East Room under a domed canopy of black cloth. President Johnson, members of the Supreme
Court and the cabinet, the uniformed diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for members of Mr. Lincoln’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln feeling unable to attend. At the head of the catafalque, all through the service, stood General Grant, alone.
Correspondent Noah Brooks said that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant reflectively said he would always be glad that Lincoln had spent most of his final days in Grant’s company, and when he tried to sum up the man he could only say: “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”
William McFeely died just a few days ago at the age of 89. Like Smith, he received a New York Times obituary that describes him as an acclaimed biographer of Ulysses S. Grant and also Frederick Douglass. Contrary to Smith, McFeely was trained as a historian and specialized in African American history and the Civil War Era, particularly Reconstruction. His 1981 biography of Grant won a Pulitzer Prize and was the standard study on Grant for at least a generation. Also contrary to Smith, McFeely went the opposite direction and was a harsh critic of his subject. One quickly gets the impression from reading the book that McFeely simply didn’t like the guy.
On the one hand, McFeely’s book remains one of the best and most widely-researched studies within the genre. For example, while most biographers today consider Grant to have held anti-slavery beliefs throughout his life, I actually agreed with McFeely when he argued that Grant’s 1854 resignation from the Army and move to St. Louis to become a farmer was in part based on a desire to emulate his father-in-law’s luxurious plantation lifestyle. I appreciated McFeely’s attempts to contextualize Grant’s St. Louis experiences, and his interpretation on this subject makes an appearance in my Journal of the Civil War Eraarticle on Grant’s relationship with slavery that was published this past September. On the other hand, McFeely made his own mistakes along the way. And his overall interpretation of a cold, heartless tactician who did not care about African Americans or Reconstruction more broadly led Brooks Simpson (who is, in my view, the preeminent scholar of Ulysses S. Grant over the past thirty years) to suggest that Grant would not recognize himself in McFeely’s biography.
The biggest problem with McFeely’s biography, in my opinion, is his excessive use of psychoanalysis to interpret Grant’s thoughts and personality. There are many examples to cite, but the most obvious one comes on pages 10 and 11. Here McFeely assesses Grant’s early boyhood in Ohio and how he communicated that upbringing in his Personal Memoirs. He cites this passage from the Memoirs:
A Mr. Ralston living within a few miles of the village . . . owned a colt which I very much wanted. My father had offered twenty dollars for it, but Ralston wanted twenty-five. I was so anxious to have the colt, that after the owner left, I begged to be allowed to take him at the price demanded. My father yielded, but said twenty dollars was all the horse was worth, and told me to offer that price; if it was not accepted I was to offer twenty-two and a half, and if that would not get to him, to give the twenty-five. I at once mounted a horse and went for the colt. When I got to Mr. Ralston’s house, I said to him: ‘Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won’t take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won’t take that, I am to give you twenty-five.’ It would not require a Connecticut man to guess the price finally agreed upon.
. . . this transaction caused me great heart-burning. The story got out among the boys of the village, and it was a long time before I heard the last of it. Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did, and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity. I kept the horse until he was four years old, when he went blind, and I sold him for twenty dollars.
McFeely argues that this “one boyhood experience haunted Grant all his life. He referred to it often, usually giving the appearance of laughing it off; but something that must be laughed off repeatedly cannot be dismissed.” McFeely continues:
In the Memoirs, Grant presented this incident as having provided a lesson well learned in his education as a maturing businessman, but actually it functioned in the opposite way. It reminded him every time he had business to do that he was not good at it, that he was still an embarassable boy. What was more, he had been humiliated and mocked not for being discovered secretly doing something nasty, but for being innocent and open; in effect, he had been told that grown-up things, business things, were the affairs of men who laughed at boys who were direct about what they wanted. The mockery came not from the horse, but from the boys in town who feigned sophistication, from the owner of the horse, and very probably his father, who without malice but with great ability to harm, may have laughed at the boy’s ingenuousness. If the story is seen as demonstrating a second point, Ulysses’ love of horses, the blinding of the animal sours the effect. ‘My colt’–that unspoiled beautiful moment–became a broken animal, and in the terrifyingly cruel end to which the creature had come Grant saw himself. The blinded beast walked nowhere in the ceaseless drudgery. Trivial though the story of the purchase of the horse may seem, Grant spent a lifetime not getting over the transaction with Mr. Ralston.
Is this a fair and reasonable interpretation of Grant? Does the blinded horse really symbolize how Grant viewed himself; a broken beast walking through ceaseless drudgery to nowhere? Did Grant include this story in his Personal Memoirs because he was traumatized by the event? Could it not be interpreted with equal credibility that Grant’s own explanation for telling the story–that it was an important lesson in the harsh realities of the business world and reflective of a small, rural town’s culture where everyone knows everyone’s business–is valid?
Historians and particularly biographers face a tough task when they attempt to interpret their subjects inner-most thoughts and personality. The subject offers the biographer pieces of the puzzle through letters, diary entries, written books like a Personal Memoir, and other related documents. The biographer must sift through those pieces and put together a picture that makes sense and an accurate portrait of a person’s life and times. Psychoanalysis may serve a purpose in that process, but sitting a historical subject down and becoming an armchair psychologist requires a great deal of caution. In my view McFeely too often throws caution to wind to craft interpretations that are too loosely based on personal speculation and innuendo.
By all accounts, however, McFeely was a generous scholar who advanced the fields of black studies, African American history, and Reconstruction. His biography on Frederick Douglass is still highly regarded, and from what other historians have said he was a thoughtful, caring person (as I’m sure Smith was as well).
Both biographers’ studies of Ulysses S. Grant represent important landmarks for understanding Grant and should be taken seriously by scholars. May they both rest in peace.
1. I am pleased to announce that my manuscript on Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery has been published with The Journal of the Civil War Era. I won’t spill all the beans here, but my central thesis is that most Grant biographers and Civil War historians have missed crucial details about Grant’s views towards slavery and experiences while living at his wife’s family plantation in St. Louis, White Haven, from 1854 to 1859. These oversights occurred in large part because scholars have relied too much on Grant’s Personal Memoirs and personal recollections from his St. Louis contemporaries that were conducted in the 1880s and 1890s, long after Grant had lived in St. Louis. By going back to the limited documentation we have from the 1850s and continuing into the first year of the Civil War, we can see how Grant wasn’t necessarily the strong, lifelong anti-slavery advocate he is often portrayed to be in popular scholarship.
If you are not a subscriber to the journal, here’s a direct link to the article for download and purchase if you’re interested in reading it.
2. I have been thinking a lot about visitation to historic sites, particularly the narratives that have emerged about an alleged lack of interest in Civil War historic sites. I interviewed several public historians who work at these sites and shared some of my own thoughts in a blog post for Muster that you can read here.
3. I have another blog post that I’m currently working on for the National Council on Public History’s History@Work blog about inclusive public history. I’m hoping this essay will be published within the next week or so.
4. I joined a group of scholars in proposing a panel for the NCPH 2020 Annual Meeting to be hosted in Atlanta, Georgia. We were interested in looking at public iconography beyond Confederate monuments and I was going to discuss St. Louis’s three monuments to Unionists Edward Bates, Franz Sigel, and Frank Blair that are located in Forest Park. Unfortunately the panel was rejected for the final program. No worries, however! I am changing course and looking into possibly presenting at the Society for Civil War Historians’ conference next summer to discuss my Grant and slavery article and/or blogging for The Journal of the Civil War Era. For the first time since 2014 I will not be attending NCPH’s annual meeting, but I feel like I have an opportunity to expand my professional network and connect with more Civil War scholars if I’m able to get to the SCWH conference. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my research on the three St. Louis Unionist monuments, but there’s definitely an interesting discussion to be had about them and I will keep working on this little side project in my free time.
5. Finally, I got married earlier this month to my best friend in the whole world. Mrs. Sacco and I met in early 2016 and I proposed to her about a year and a half ago. After lots of planning and several other unrelated life events that have kept us very busy we were finally able to tie the knot and enjoy a wonderful day with our loved ones and best friends. Life is good and we are very blessed!
When it comes to discussing the origins of the Confederacy, it’s common to run across defensive assertions that “the North was also racist.” By portraying the majority of white Northerners as deeply prejudiced against blacks–both free and enslaved–it becomes easier for some to contend that the American Civil War had little to do with slavery and was more about abstract principles such as states rights and tariffs. This argument is misleading in several respects.
For one, no self-respecting Civil War historian has ever argued that racial prejudice didn’t exist in the North before the Civil War. It is well-known and acknowledged among historians that racial prejudice was strong in the North, and there have been books published on this subject. Arguing that the North was racist is therefore a strawman argument. Secondly, discussing the extent to which white Northerners held racial prejudices against African Americans does little to tell us why eleven Southern states chose to leave the Union in 1861. After all, none of the various state Declarations of Secession proclaimed that they were leaving the Union because white Northerners were racist. Thirdly, what we see at play here is a failure to distinguish between discussions about slavery and discussions about race in antebellum America.
To be sure, race and slavery were closely intertwined in U.S. slavery both in law and in practice. While slavery had already existed for thousands of years in many places all over the world, black chattel slavery in the United States took on its own unique form in three different ways: it was based on race, was inherited from one generation to the next (in most cases based on the status of the mother), and lasted an entire lifetime (as opposed to most cases of indentured servitude). What sometimes gets lost, however, is that just because someone held racist views towards blacks does not mean that they also supported slavery.
Abraham Lincoln serves as a useful example of the complexities of race and slavery. On the one hand, Lincoln at various points in his political career believed that “a perfect social and political equality” between the races was “an impossibility,” stated that “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality,” and openly advocated for colonization schemes that would (voluntarily) send black Americans to permanently settle in Africa.
On the other hand, Lincoln hated slavery with a passion and believed that freedom was the natural state of humanity. No one, regardless of their background, should be held in chains and prevented from enjoying the fruits of their labor. And when it came to the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln asserted that all were entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Although the Declaration was a statement of principles and not codified law, those principles declared that “the inferior races are our equals.” Lincoln’s fifth debate with Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858 was an extended debate about the Declaration of Independence and whether or not the Declaration applied to only white men or to all men. By arguing that the Declaration applied to all men, Lincoln was branded by Douglas as a radical promoter of social equality between the races. Even though Lincoln disavowed such intentions, Douglas repeatedly hammered him and argued that the Declaration was created for and applied only to white men. In the end, Lincoln’s belief that all were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was viewed by many white Southerners as such a grave threat to the institution of slavery that they were willing to tear apart the Union to protect what the state of Mississippi declared was “the greatest material interest in the world,” slavery. That Lincoln held prejudicial views towards blacks as a race was of far less importance to those secessionists then the fact that he hated slavery and hoped to someday see the institution ended in the United States.
Another interesting person to study when it comes to race and slavery is Congressman Frank Blair. Blair was a strong antislavery Unionist who played a pivotal role in keeping Missouri in the Union, but he was also an avowed racist who had his own colonization plan that received some support in the North in the late 1850s. I wrote about Blair’s racial views here.
Was the antebellum North a hostile place for free people of color? Yes. Did many white Northerners hold prejudicial views towards blacks? Yes. We should remember, however, that someone could simultaneously hold racist views while still opposing slavery. Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was feared by slaveholders not because of the racial views of its members, but because of their position on stopping slavery’s westward expansion.
I recently toured a historic Catholic church in my local area. The church has all the ingredients of a fascinating visit; a historic structure dating back to 1821, loads of artifacts and church records that provide insights into Catholicism’s westward expansion (for better or worse), and an inspiring story of grassroots preservation when the Archdiocese of St. Louis planned to demolish the church in 1958. The local community at that time did not want to see the church demolished, and for the past sixty years it has been run by a private foundation that relies on donations to stay afloat. The lone paid employee mentioned, for example, that the entire church was recently re-plastered after an elderly woman who had visited the church insisted on paying for a professional to do the job. That’s how a lot of small, local sites like this one get by.
What struck me the most during my visit, however, was a comment the employee made about local support. She stated that she was in her sixties and that all of the volunteers who assist at the site are in their eighties and nineties. The resignation in her voice when she quite honestly wondered if the site would be able to continue operating in the next ten or twenty years was palpable. Who would step up in the future to support this historic church and continue the mission of interpreting this history?
As noted in my last post, there’s been a lot of recent soul-searching, anxiety, and discussion among historians about visitation to historic sites throughout the United States. But for the most part this discussion has focused on large institutions with a national following such as Colonial Williamsburg or the Gettysburg Battlefield. By focusing too much on the big national sites, however, we run the risk of forgetting the thousands of small historical societies and sites like this Catholic church that face much more dire circumstances moving forward.
I don’t propose to have solutions for saving this particular church, but I do think a lot of the work must start on the local level. Generally speaking, small sites are not going to show up on the top of a TripAdvisor list and will not be on the radar of someone visiting from out of town. The financial support and patronizing of the site’s resources has to start at the local level with residents who care about the history. I suspect that the particular Catholic church I visited faces some unique challenges thanks to the ongoing struggles of the Catholic religion more broadly and a changing local population that is no longer majority-catholic. Those challenges will be hard to overcome moving forward. The larger point, however, is that just about every community in America can point to some sort of historic site in their area that is going through similar challenges.
To put it simply, I’m more concerned about the future of small local history sites than I am Colonial Williamsburg. We need to keep that mind as we continue this conversation.
I’ve been thinking about visitation to historic sites in recent weeks. I wrote a post for Muster last year about visitation trends at National Park Service Civil War historic sites, but the topic is back in the news with two articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico lamenting a supposed decline in visitation at both Civil War sites and historic sites more broadly. I’m currently working on a new piece for Muster about what we can do to keep making Civil War sites relevant in the future, but in the meantime I went back and reread John Coski’s opinion essay for The Civil War Monitor (Summer 2018) about the state of Civil War public history. Dr. Coski is an excellent scholar and public historian. He’s also the go-to expert on the history of the Confederate flag. Unfortunately, I disagreed with almost every argument he made in this piece.
Coski contends that public historians at Civil War historic sites have tried to “make the Civil War more attractive and more politically palatable for people who have not been interested in the subject as it was taught in schools and presented at historical sites until recent decades.” While he offers lukewarm support for this goal, he cautiously warns that these efforts can go overboard and potentially alienate people who have long-supported Civil War historic sites. If “traditional” audiences stop visiting and sites continue to struggle with recruiting new audiences, the future of Civil War public history could be in trouble as popular interest in the era continues to wane.
Coski’s argument is understandable and fair, but in making the argument I strongly disagreed with his characterization of public historians and their goals when working at Civil War historic sites.
A common talking point that Coski emphasizes is that “the rise of digital technology” has played a role in declining visitation trends. People can now learn about historic sites online without visiting them, and so they simply choose to stay home. The problem with this argument, however, is that there has been no comprehensive study undertaken to prove a correlation between increased digital technology usage and decreased visitation to historic sites. While both trends can be true independently, it is not at all clear to me that one trend explains the other. Plenty of other historic sites and museums have had no problem with declining visitation. For example, visitation to art museums has experienced a slight increase in recent years, and the popular National World War II Museum smashed its previous visitation record in 2018. In fact, some argue that digital technology actually boosts visitation to museums and historic sites because people see content online and become more motivated to visit in person. This data seems to suggest something besides digital technology as the cause behind sluggish visitation at Civil War sites.
Coski continues by arguing that public historians are trying to attract new audiences by “emphasizing non-military aspects of the conflict and repudiating the Confederate side of the story.” Here again, these claims are questionable. Have Civil War sites placed an increased emphasis on the political aspects of the Civil War? Absolutely. Are many sites more willing to discuss the role of slavery in creating the conditions for armed conflict? Absolutely. But just because non-military topics are discussed more in-depth does not mean that military history has been removed from the story. Moreover, it’s not clear to me what it means to “repudiate” the Confederate side of the story. Is Coski saying that public historians are completely ignoring the Confederacy, or are they just interpreting the history in a way Coski disagrees with?
I have been to Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and Fort Donelson over the past five years. Every single one of these battlefields discussed military history through programs, wayside markers, and museum exhibits. Gettysburg has an enormous Civil War weapons collection in its museum that rivals anything you’ll see anywhere else. Every single site told stories from the Confederate perspective. Every single site has dedicated public historians who are ready to discuss military history, political history, and Confederate history. Not a single monument has been removed from a Civil War battlefield managed by the National Park Service. I concede that the war’s narrative has most certainly changed (for the better), but when Coski asks, “what about the majority experience? What about the millions of white Americans on both sides who fought and endured the Civil War?” I just have to roll my eyes. Last I checked they were still there.
Coski then expands his discussion of Confederate history at Civil War sites by asking whether “emphasizing ‘relevance’ mean[s] the only legitimate way of studying the war will be as a morality play.” He also contends that the popular backlash to Confederate iconography is a “rejection of Civil War history that accords respect to the fighting men on both sides.” Today’s backlash against Confederate iconography, according to Coski, is unique because the “breadth and depth of anger aimed at the Confederacy, Confederate symbols, and all perceived vestiges of Lost Cause thinking” has led to “a widespread willingness to vilify anything associated with the Confederacy as ‘racist.’ Labeling is becoming a surrogate for understanding.” As such, public historians who emphasize “inclusiveness, tolerance, empathy, and an acceptance of complexity” fail to live up to their own self-defined standards by attacking the Confederacy this way.
Here again there is much to disagree with. For one, striving for relevance does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy or relying solely on emotion to win hearts and minds. Discussing Civil War era politics or the experiences of women and people of color during the war is no more a “morality play” than a narrative that focuses on sectional reconciliation or the shared valor of Union and Confederate soldiers. Striving for relevance means expanding the narrative and creating space for multiple perspectives. It does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy at the expense of so-called identity politics or political correctness.
Second, who among Civil War public historians in their professional life is going around doing nothing but vilifying the Confederacy at their workplace? Do some people get heated on social media about the Civil War? Sure. Do some people want all Confederate monuments taken down? Sure. Do some people feel like Confederate icons are intimidating and that the entire Confederate political experiment was rooted in racism? You bet. But in Coski’s telling of the story, interpretations at Civil War sites nowadays largely consist of visitors being treated to long rants from public historians about how bad and racist the Confederacy was in the interest of attracting new audiences to their sites. Public historians design gimmicky programs, share their personal views, and strip the past of its complexity as historical understanding is placed at the bottom of the food chain. As such, visitors are allegedly treated to an interpretation of the war from an “activist” perspective that is more interested in shaming than understanding. This description may accurately explain the culture of social media interactions on Twitter, but I completely reject this characterization when it comes to describing trained professionals whose job is to provide a compelling, complex, and accurate interpretation of the Civil War. Many public historians today reject the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War because it is largely inaccurate, but that does not mean they also reject a nuanced understanding of the past that acknowledges the complexities of Confederate allegiance and military service.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think the white actors of Civil War history are going anywhere. I don’t think public historians at Civil War historic sites place anything ahead of telling a good, accurate story. I don’t think anyone who’s long been a student of the Civil War should be alarmed by the fact that Civil War scholarship is expanding and changing. I don’t think a “both sides fought for what they believed in” or Lost Cause-inspired interpretation is the solution to bringing back audiences to Civil War historic sites. I don’t think complaining about identity politics today is particularly wise when for a very long time Confederate identity politics dominated the culture surrounding historic interpretation at Civil War sites.
Where we go from here is a difficult question, and I think there’s a lot more evaluation and study needed before we can start to formulate an answer. While I think Coski’s basic wish to remember the traditional audiences of Civil War history is fair, his characterizations of Civil War history and the public historians who interpret it today are badly flawed.
I recently took a historic home tour that was very fascinating and enjoyable. The house was very nice and the furniture was ornate and fancy, classically Victorian all the way through. I suspect most people go through this home and feel very much the same way I did. At the end of the visit, however, I concluded that I hadn’t really learned anything new about the people who lived at this house.
A few years ago I wrote an essay on this website contending that many historic house tours are boring because they lack a human element. Somebody in the comments section complained about “furniture tours” and stated that a sofa has never changed the world. I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot lately.
Many museums that were constructed around the turn of the twentieth century were designed to overwhelm visitors, repeatedly hammering the idea that these places and these things possessed a reverential quality that needed to be respected by all. Jeffrey Trask even points out in Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Erathat the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art intentionally limited its operating hours to keep out the mass of working class residents in the city. The museum stayed closed on Sundays for many years during the Progressive Era, even though that was the single day of the week many of those working class residents had off.
I still think a lot of historic homes operate under a similar mentality. The homes are preserved with meticulous care and designed to overwhelm and awe visitors with their beauty. These places are important because they have stuff. But the longer I work in the field of public history and the more home tours I take, the more I yearn to see what’s underneath all of this beauty. An ornately furnished historic home is very difficult to interpret because the guide must fight the urge to make it exclusively a tour of “things.” This table was built by person x and cost this much money and isn’t it just beautiful? The situation is even more complicated because many visitors crave this sort of tour and will go around asking what’s original. It’s not that historic furniture is meaningless, but that too often visitors never learn why any of it matters to our understanding of history.
At the end of the day, a tour about people is always more fascinating to me than a tour about things. As I’ve previously argued, a historic home without people breathes no life.
I saw this tweet about empathy in historical practice and it got me thinking. Is empathy the most important skill a historian should posses?
First off, there is the issue of defining terms. My view is that, broadly speaking, empathy is a conscious effort to place oneself in the shoes of another. Empathy is NOT the same as sympathy, but a deliberate consideration of perspectives, experiences, and life challenges that are different from my own. I don’t have to sympathize with General Lee’s decision to join the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, but I can empathize with the decision he faced in that moment. I don’t consider empathy a “skill” so much as a spirit or ethos that emerges from the skills one develops to become a successful historian. When we tell inclusive, accurate stories that are communicated effectively, empathy holds the potential to become a happy byproduct of the historical process. Nevertheless we must remember that empathy–like sympathy & pity–comes from a place of privilege. As a good disciple of Michel-Rolph Trouilott, I believe historians demonstrate power over the past by actively choosing what perspectives are worthy of empathy in their narratives. Historians also demonstrate privilege when determining WHO is in need of empathy. Regardless of whether a historian works in academic or public history, all should consider who in their audiences needs a lesson in empathy.
I don’t think empathy is the most important skill a historian should have, although I think they would benefit from demonstrating empathy in their own work as scholars and communicators of the past. Ultimately a spirit of empathy emerges when the “skills” of good historical work–research, interpretation, communication, evaluation, and others–are put into effective practice.