I wrote the following short essay about General Ulysses S. Grant’s 1865 tour of the South for our park’s quarterly newsletter. I liked how the final version came out and decided to re-post it here. Enjoy!
United States General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant called for a quick restoration of the Union and reconciliation between Unionists and former Confederates following General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. “The Rebels are our countrymen again,” explained Grant, and he wanted to end military rule and restore civil state governments in the South as soon as possible. When President Andrew Johnson expressed his wish to hang General Lee for treason in the summer of 1865, Grant threatened to resign. He argued that Lee had been protected by the surrender terms at Appomattox and that hanging him would only complicate efforts at sectional reconciliation.
In the fall of 1865, President Johnson asked General Grant to take a tour of the South to assess the sentiments of local residents and write a report on his findings. During his fifteen-day tour (November 27 – December 11) Grant made stops in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. He met with political leaders, Confederate veterans, and black Southerners during his tour. In a letter to his wife Julia while in Georgia, Grant stated that “people all seem pleasant . . . at least towards me, and I think towards the Government.” At the same time he told a reporter that “my faith in the future rests on the soldier element of the South. I feel assured that those who did the fighting may be depended upon to restore tranquility.”
When Grant returned to Washington, D.C., he reported that white Southerners were “more loyal and better-disposed that [I] had expected to find them.” But he also believed that some whites were still vengeful and that black Southerners still needed the protection of the U.S. military. These concerns were validated when Grant’s commanders wrote him a month later stating that black and white Unionists in the South were subjected to persecution, fraud, and violence by former Confederates. In May 1866 a series of riots in Memphis, Tennessee, saw 46 African Americans killed and more than 100 homes, churches, and schools destroyed. Grant now realized that the protection of black Southerners trumped reconciliation with angry rebels.
The work of reconstruction was only beginning.
Over the past few days I’ve observed at least three postings on social media perpetuating an old, hackneyed claim about Ulysses S. Grant that has resurfaced in force. The reasons for its resurgence should be obvious to most readers, but it will suffice to argue here that a heightened uncertainty about the appropriate place for Confederate iconography in U.S. society has mobilized some Confederate apologists into a fighting position on the front lines of history. Their claim about Grant goes a little like this:
U.S. Grant had several slaves who were only freed after the 13th amendment in December of 1865. When asked why he didn’t free his slaves earlier, Grant stated that “Good help is so hard to come by these days.”
As Abraham Lincoln argued in 1862, “don’t trust everything you read on the internet,” and this claim is patently false despite its seemingly wide acceptance online. Here’s why.
Prior to the Civil War Grant lived with his wife Julia and their four children in St. Louis, Missouri, at his father-in-law’s White Haven estate from 1854 until 1859. At some point during this experience Grant obtained a slave named William Jones. The sole document we have confirming Grant’s ownership of Jones is a manumission paper freeing Jones on March 29, 1859, written in Grant’s own hand:
How, when, and why Grant obtained a slave are all unknown, although Grant’s mentioning of Frederick Dent suggests that he most likely purchased Jones from his Father-in-law (Grant also had a brother-in-law named Frederick Dent who was serving with the U.S. Army in the western frontier at this time. The brother-in-law could have sold Jones to Grant, but these circumstances suggest that it was unlikely). Grant never mentions Jones in any correspondence or in his Personal Memoirs, so we don’t know his thoughts on this matter. What happened to William Jones after his emancipation is also a mystery lost to history.
There are literally no other pieces of historical evidence to suggest that Grant ever owned slaves at any point after 1859. The quote about Grant not being able to find any good labor is a complete fabrication and you will not find it in his edited papers or any newspapers from the time. It’s simply not true.
That is pretty much the heart of the matter regarding Grant’s alleged ownership of slaves during the war, but I believe there is one more piece of evidence that can further advance us towards a conclusive answer.
Grant’s wife Julia grew up in a household that benefited from slave labor. My friend and colleague Bob Pollock details Julia’s relationship to the enslaved people at White Haven in this fine essay, which I will not repeat here. For our purposes we just need to know that Julia’s father was running into serious financial troubles and struggling to maintain ownership of White Haven by the time of the Civil War. Grant, writing from a camp in Corinth, Mississippi, on May 16, 1862, received word of these struggles and mentioned to Julia that:
Your father sent Emma [Julia’s sister] a bill of sale for the negroes he gave her. To avoid a possibility of any of them being sold he ought to do the same with all the balance. I would not give anything for you to have any of them as it is not probable we will ever live in a slave state again but would not like to see them sold under the hammer.
Grant expresses concern about Frederick Dent’s slaves being confiscated and possibly broken up to be sold at a slave auction to pay off debts. He suggests that Dent write a bill of sale to Emma for all of his slaves instead of the four he originally sold to her. And, importantly, Grant states his intention not to invest any of his own money in his father-in-law’s slaves because the likelihood of his family moving back to a slave state is slim to none. Through this letter it’s apparent that by 1862, Grant–regardless of his own views about slavery at that point in the war–had no intention of investing any funds to become a slaveholder again.
Given this evidence, why is it claimed that he owned slaves until December 1865? By arguing that Grant didn’t care about slavery’s demise and that he even owned slaves himself during the war, the people who buy this narrative are trying to spread the idea that slavery had little to do with the pretext or context of the Civil War. Ultimately, however, those spreading the claim will be hoisted by their own petard.
My friend Andrew Joseph Pegoda and I have been engaging in a friendly conversation about the Confederate flag and the best future path for attacking institutional racism in the United States. Andrew, like me, is encouraged by recent efforts to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings, but he fears that this now-ubiquitous national conversation is distracting us from what he describes as “much more serious, much more internalized, much more systematic, much more institutionalized issues.”
Andrew recently wrote a post on his website listing thirteen actions he “would rather see happen than Confederate flags removed,” and in other discussions he suggests that the U.S. flag is also a symbol of enslavement and oppression. Elsewhere I’ve seen arguments from others suggesting that because both symbols convey bad messages of oppression, the question of whether the Confederate flag should come down is moot because the U.S. and Confederate flags at the end of the day are mere fabric. Flags aren’t racist, people are (the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” argument), and many racists and non-racists alike probably embrace both flags. For years these arguments have been deployed by Confederate apologists in their quest to keep Confederate flags flying in public spaces, so it has been an interesting case of strange political bedfellows to see some commenters on the left employing the same argument to suggest that the Confederate flag debate is a red herring.
I believe Andrew is correct about this nation’s troubled history and agree that we must keep our eyes on the ultimate extinction of institutional racism and white supremacy in the United States, but I think his effort to downplay the importance of lowering the Rebel flag is mistaken. What we’re looking at here is not an “or” situation but a “both/and” situation. We must call for the lowering of the flag at government spaces and the end of racial discrimination, and we can do both at the same time. Furthermore, I also think we can make distinctions between the meaning of the U.S. and Confederate flags, although it is certainly true that adherents to both flags have deployed their symbolism for oppressive purposes.
Andrew’s call to action includes the following initiatives:
- “Non-white fictional characters featured in legitimate, seriously-considered roles such that [people of color] of all ages are represented in positive ways. Representations matter because they create the impressions people have.”
- “Serious coverage and respect given to Black History and culture and listening to Black people.”
- “A recognition of the legacies of enslavement.”
How is the discussion about the Confederate flag’s role in American society a detour from the practical application of these goals? If black people want the Confederate flag down, shouldn’t we listen to that? Wouldn’t the lowering of the Confederate flag be a significant step in recognizing the legacy of slavery and its eventual demise in the United States? If representations matter, then surely what flag(s) we choose to fly can have a strong influence in shaping impressions and perceptions of U.S. society today.
Dylann Roof posed for various pictures in which he waved the Confederate flag and burned the U.S. flag. If the U.S. flag embodies the same principles as the Confederate flag, then why burn one and identify with the other, and why have two flags in the first place if they mean the same thing? The distinction lies in fundamental differences in philosophy over freedom, liberty, and natural rights. As Keith Harris clearly explains about the crux of the Civil War, “the Confederate battle flag few over soldiers who were fighting for a clearly articulated national cause: the preservation of the institution of slavery. The United States did not.”
The United States was conceived under the basic premise that all men were created equally. The interpretation of this ideal has evolved far beyond its original context, and by no means has it been perfectly implemented then or now. But the Confederacy was conceived under a fundamentally different premise: that the world and its people were inherently unequal and that Thomas Jefferson’s claims to the contrary were mistaken. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said as much in his infamous “Cornerstone Speech“:
The new [Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution[.] African slavery as it exists amongst us [is] the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted…
Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”
William Tappan Thompson, the creator of the second national flag of the Confederacy, stated the following about his design:
Our idea is simply to combine the present battle flag with a pure white standard sheet; our southern cross, blue, on a red field, to take the place on the white flag that is occupied by the blue union in the old United States flag or the St. George’s cross in the British flag. As a people we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematical of our cause.
Again, if the ideas and symbols embodied in the Confederate flag are exactly the same as those in the United States flag, then why have Americans from the Founding Fathers to the Ferguson protesters consistently rallied to the U.S. flag (and not the Confederate one) as a symbol of freedom and equality?
A partial answer, I think, lies in a popular assumption that the foundational ideals of our country provide a sufficient framework in which to pursue the ends of a more perfect equality. I’d argue that the expansion of those ideals is necessary in an ever-changing nation vastly different from the one created in 1776, but that’s a debate for another time. No such goal is symbolized in the Confederate flag or its constitution. Just look to the creators of those documents for guidance.
The recent horrific act of political terrorism perpetuated by an avowed white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, last week has aroused a new round of discussion and debate about the Confederate flag and its placement in the front of the South Carolina State House. Similar discussions have emerged about racism in the United States today, the symbolism of the Confederate flag, and what defenders of the flag like former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford (and many others) mean when they talk about promoting “heritage” and “states’ rights” by flying that flag. I tend to think that debating the merits of the Rebel flag gives it a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve, but continued debate seems necessary precisely because it is still considered a legitimate symbol of freedom by a sizable minority of Americans in all parts of the country.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has previously defended the act of flying the Confederate flag in front of that state’s Capitol building, or at least acted very apathetically about it. Back in October she made an economic defense of the flag and suggested that maybe it wasn’t really a big deal: “What I can tell you is over the last three and a half years, I spent a lot of my days on the phones with CEOs and recruiting jobs to this state. I can honestly say I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag.”
Well, apparently that stance has now changed with Governor Haley’s announcement today that she would like to see the flag lowered and removed from the State House. I’m glad the Governor made this announcement, although I think it’s more than fair to ask why it took the death of nine African Americans by a white terrorist to finally advance this particular conversation when the state’s African American community has been arguing since 1964 that the flag’s presence at the State House was offensive and insulting. The publicity folks in the Governor’s circle have most likely played some sort of role in pushing her to make these comments.
But perhaps Governor Haley’s perspective really has changed for sincere reasons. I found it interesting how she argued in today’s speech that “the events of this past week call upon us to look at [the Confederate flag] in a different way.” This point reinforces a similar argument I have previously made on this website about the reciprocal nature of the past and the present. Historians often talk about the ways the past influences our understanding of the present, but it’s equally true that the present influences our understanding of the past “in a different way” as well. The American Civil War offers important insights into the U.S.’s present-day issues with racism, white supremacy, economic inequality, and unequal treatment before the law. But these contemporary issues also shape how we understand the American Civil War.
Symbols matter a great deal to individuals and societies because they convey significance to and messages about our ideas and beliefs. Otherwise, why would something like a flag be created in the first place? Many Confederate apologists and white supremacists will be unmoved by any efforts to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House, but it’s undeniable that Governor Haley’s announcement could be one of many future roadblocks for “Confederate Heritage” advocates who wish to fly the Confederate flag at public places of governance and activity throughout the South. The connection between Dylann Roof’s racist violence and his love for the Confederacy is so blatantly obvious and undeniable that we could someday see a wave of Confederate flag removals from other public places amid public outrage over this tragic event. As Brooks Simpson notes at Crossroads, “it may be that in 2015 people marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War by doing to Confederate heritage what Grant and Sherman did to the Confederacy itself in 1865.”
We will have to see how all of this plays out, but for now I will continue to stand with those who want to take down the Confederate flag–now.
When you first walk into the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranienburg, Germany, you immediately notice that you are standing underneath a watchtower with a clear panoptic view of the entire camp. Unlike other Nazi concentration camps that had either a square or rectangular shape, the barracks at Sachsenhausen compose a semi-circle with the main watchtower at its base. This design set the standard for Nazi concentration camps and–thanks to its close proximity to the German government in Berlin–the camp was soon touted by the National Socialists as a symbol of humane treatment towards political dissidents, homosexuals, criminals, “undesirables,” and, later, Jewish people. Politicians and dignitaries from other countries were often taken on tours of this camp by the Nazis before the outbreak of World War II. Prisoners were rounded up beforehand and forced to sign songs of loyalty to the Fuhrer for the gazing, sometimes admiring tourists to prove that things weren’t so bad. And this musical charade, which probably took place right at the watchtower you first walked through upon arriving at the camp, marked one of the first of many instances in which the victims of the Nazi Holocaust were forced to contribute their own part in the process of their very destruction.
Roughly 200,000 prisoners were housed at Sachsenhausen from 1936-1945, about 30,000 of which died from disease or murderous extermination. And you must reckon with this suffering on your own. There are no first- or third-person actors wearing period clothing and doing living history to “make history come alive” for you. There are no weapons demonstrations or candle-making tables or any other “hands-on” activities to speak of. There are no kitschy gift shops nearby for buying replica weapons, hats, t-shirts, magnets or other memorabilia. And there are definitely no evening “historic ghost tours” run by actors who make up their own scripts and tales of mystery for high-paying audiences.
Sure, there are museum exhibits at the camp (perhaps too many, actually) with text, videos, and artifacts, but this desire for fun, entertainment, and “engagement” that pervades so much discussion about public history in the United States is noticeably absent. Those desires, in fact, come off as distinctly inappropriate and out of place at a site like Sachsenhausen where reflection, reconciliation, and closure are integral to the entire experience.
And so it is that my own experience at Sachsenhausen has challenged me to think about the ways public historians commemorate difficult histories in the United States and how paradoxical these practices can be sometimes. On the one hand we are encouraged to create active learning experiences in which visitors engage in hands-on activities, contribute comments through talk back boards, dress up for historical reenactments, and participate in other related programs. But on the other hand we are told that public history has the potential to help individuals and societies heal from past wrongdoings while offering a framework for constructive dialogue about the future. One idea doesn’t necessarily mesh with the other. You don’t come to terms with the past or even begin to understand it by learning how to make candles at a Southern plantation or buying a kepi at a Civil War battlefield.
Make no mistake about it: I’m not interested in comparing the suffering of Holocaust victims with the victims of racism, slavery, Indian removal, or any other sort of oppression in the United States, nor do I think all public history sites in the U.S. should take a one-size-fits-all approach for interpreting the past. And I’m certainly not opposed to entertainment in the right context. The question is how to appropriately interpret difficult histories in a public history setting. I do find it interesting how a place like Gettysburg–where there were roughly 50,000 casualties in three days of fighting in 1863–sometimes creates programs and experiences that turn a event of brutal warfare and massive suffering into a place of entertainment and profit while the same sort of mechanisms at Sachsenhausen would be considered disrespectful by most visitors and professionals. Ghost tours have been taking place at Gettysburg for more than twenty years. Will we see the same sorts of activities at Holocaust sites someday?
I can think of two circumstances for possibly explaining these discrepancies at public history sites where difficult history is interpreted. One lies in the passage of time. Gettysburg happened more than 150 years ago and no one today has a living ancestor from that war. The fact that we don’t have a personal connection to the Civil War probably influences how we approach this history. Meanwhile, the victims of the Holocaust (although they are now rapidly disappearing from living memory) continue to play a role in the shaping of our collective memory about this tragic event. Perhaps our distance from World War II and the Holocaust is still too short and too fragile to interpret it in a way that runs the risk of offending its victims. The same concerns could apply to U.S. sites of suffering in recent memory like the 9/11 Memorial and the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
The other circumstance lies in economics. Towns like Gettysburg in the United States that have never completely recovered from the loss of manufacturing jobs in the late twentieth century have necessarily turned to history to provide jobs and profits for its local residents, so much so that local history becomes a form of glorified boosterism and “heritage” promotion. It seems to me, then, that we cannot divorce public history practices from the economic contexts in which such practices are put into play.
These thoughts are all very tentative at the moment and I don’t propose to make any claims about the rightness or wrongness of any one interpretive approach. I’d like to hear what readers have to say about the need for hands-on activities and “engagement” at public history sites where tough history is the focus of interpretation.
I got back to the States a couple days ago after spending a week taking in the sights and sounds of Berlin, Germany. It was an incredible experience and I enjoyed every minute of it with the exception of my United airlines flight from Chicago to St. Louis being delayed for six hours as I made my way back home. Nevertheless I’ll always remember this adventure for the amazing places and people I got to meet throughout.
Here are all the different places I visited:
- Kaiser Wilhelm I Memorial Church
- Berlin Victory Column
- The Bismarck Monument
- Reichstag Building
- Brandenburg Gate
- Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Holocaust Memorial)
- Neue Wache Memorial (“Mother With her Dead Son” by Käthe Kollwitz)
- Berlin Cathedral
- Weltzeituhr (Worldtime Clock) at Alexanderplatz
- Soviet War Memorial (Treptower Park)
- Otto Weidt’s Workshop for the Blind
- St. George’s English Bookshop
- Dussmann das KulturKaufhaus (English Bookshop)
And here are some photos from the trip. Some were taken with my iPhone, but most were taken with my Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70. Click on any photo within the gallery for descriptions, context, and full-size images. Enjoy!
Tomorrow morning I’ll be leaving St. Louis en route to Berlin, Germany, for a one-week vacation. My good friend Nicholas K. Johnson has been studying in Berlin for the past year and has graciously invited me to visit and stay with him during my trip. This will be my first time in Europe and I am ecstatic about visiting a new part of the world. Between my work-related travels (Grand Canyon and Nashville) and now Berlin I’ve been very fortunate to take in many great sights this year.
While in Berlin I’ll be paying quite a bit of attention to the uses (and perhaps abuses) of public history through museums, historical markers, oral histories, etc. and do a bit of comparing and contrasting with public history here in the United States (I can’t help it – I’m a history nerd no matter where I am in the world). I’ll be “off the grid” while over there, but I look forward to sharing pictures and extended thoughts here at Exploring the Past when I return. Stay tuned.
This weekend marked the end of the New York Times Civil War blog, Disunion. For the past four years historians, writers, and other scholars have submitted literally hundreds of blog posts about the Civil War covering a wide range of topics related to politics, culture, memory, military operations, Indian wars, global responses to the war, and so much more. I was a regular reader of the blog and know a few college professors who assigned posts from the site for classroom readings. I didn’t agree with every post that was published, but the discussions I observed on and offline with friends and colleagues demonstrate to me the success of the blog in challenging readers to check their prior assumptions about the war. Based on the amount of online comments each article garnered it seems like the blog was very popular, and it reinforces to me that blogging (and social media more broadly) is an effective tool for communicating the stuff of history to public audiences. I am going to miss Disunion.
I’m sure the blog is ending in order to coincide with the end of the Civil War sesquicentennial this month, but I actually think now is as important a time as ever to have a space with a large readership like the New York Times for discussing the challenges and consequences of the war’s aftermath during the Reconstruction era. While the blog’s conclusion makes sense from a chronological viewpoint, I can’t help but feel like some juicy learning opportunities will be sacrificed because of it. Al Mackey of Student of the Civil War suggests that a new blog called Reunion could succeed Disunion and focus on the effort to reconcile a fractured nation after the war. I think that’s a wonderful idea, although I doubt anyone at the Times is thinking about such an effort.
Thanks to the writers and editors for the great content and let’s keep focused on ways to talk about Reconstruction as we hit the sesquicentennial of this important and largely misunderstood period in U.S. history.
Many cultural institutions rely on mission statements to communicate the purpose, philosophy, and vision of their organization. Within the context of museums the American Alliance of Museums explains that “a mission statement is the beating heart of a museum . . . [it] drives everything the museum does; vision, policy-making, planning and operation.” All decision-making at museums, parks, libraries, and other related sites flows outward from the mission statement, which acts as a foundational nucleus for those decisions.
I suppose that the philosophy underlying mission statements is all well and good, but I’ve become increasingly skeptical of their purpose. My employer sent me to a wonderful week-long training session about two months ago on facilitated dialogue practices, and one of the training leaders made a very good point about mission statements being too limiting in terms of what counts as a “successful experience” at a cultural site. Paulette Wallace highlights this issue in Living Landscape Observer when she suggests that national parks in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand generally do a poor job of promoting what she describes as “social value.” These parks emphasize intellectual and emotional connections to natural and cultural resources in their mission statements, but they are less successful in highlighting the contributions and values of the stakeholders, interest groups, and audiences who patronize these sites. Natural and Cultural resources are valued in mission statements at the expense of the most important resource: the visitor.
But there’s an even bigger issue behind mission statements. Allow me to first quote a few mission statements from cultural institutions throughout the United States.
[Site 1] advances the understanding and exploration of [a medium sized-city in the U.S.’s] history, culture, and architecture.
We increase knowledge and inspire learning about nature and culture through outstanding research, collections, exhibitions, and education, in support of a sustainable future.
[Site 3] seeks to deepen the understanding of past choices, present circumstances, and future possibilities; strengthen the bonds of the community; and facilitate solutions to common problems.
Through its collections, exhibits, and programs, [Site 4] is dedicated to preserving and promoting knowledge of the world’s cultures, past and present.
These mission statements (and many others I came across online) are bland and uninspiring. If these statements were the first thing you saw upon visiting a cultural site, would you still be inspired to walk through the front door? These statements suck because they’ve been written to please the Boards of Directors for their respective institutions rather than the people who actually visit these sites. They communicate what the site does, but they don’t communicate why this work is important and meaningful. Who cares? Why is this work worth supporting?
In their 2007 book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath argue that making ideas “sticky” and emotionally resonant means making people care about your message. The Heaths argue that you can effectively make people care by using associations (like connecting history to present-day political problems) or appeals to self-interest and identity, but “the Curse of Knowledge” can act as a barrier in communicating your ideas.
The Heaths use the mission statement of a Duo Piano foundation to make this point. The foundation’s leaders stated in a conference that “we exist to protect, preserve, and promote the music of duo piano.” When asked by Chip Heath why it was important to preserve this form of music, the leaders responded that “we want to keep it from dying out.” After hearing this response another confused conference-goer finally asked, “I don’t want to be rude, but why would the world be a less rich place if duo piano music disappeared completely?” Only then did the Duo Piano leaders finally explain that
the piano is [a] magnificent instrument. It was created to put the entire range and tonal quality of the whole orchestra under the control of one performer . . . and when you put two of these magnificent instruments together, and the performers can respond to each other and build on each other, it’s like having the sound of the orchestra but the intimacy of chamber music.
After being asked “why?” repeatedly, the foundation leaders finally got to their main point – that the sound provided by two pianos in harmony offers a unique and special way of hearing music.
The Curse of Knowledge prevented the Duo Piano foundation leaders from effectively communicating the importance of duo piano music to a lay audience because explaining what the foundation did was a good enough answer for them. They didn’t need to be told why duo piano music was important because their knowledge and passion for the music was already there. But the audiences and patrons who might support the duo piano mission may not have the same level of knowledge or enthusiasm as the foundation leaders. They need to be told why this mission is important and how it benefits society.
Those of us who work in cultural institutions and public history sites don’t need to be told why our work is important, but the people who visit (and don’t visit!) our sites may be a little more skeptical. That’s why we should replace our Mission Statements with “Why Should I Care?” statements.
Why is history important? How does an individual and collective possession of historical knowledge make the world a better place? These are the sorts of questions we need to formulate answers for and then communicate to our many publics.
New York Times Columnist Charles M. Blow published a piece today on Memorial Day that I found simultaneously interesting yet slightly mistaken. He does correctly argue that a large majority of U.S. Congress members and Presidential candidates come from non-military backgrounds. Whereas 80 percent of lawmakers in 1977 had prior military service, only 18 percent have that same experience today. This discrepancy in turn raises questions about who does and who does not serve in today’s military: some families have generations of family members who serve their career in the military while the rich elites (including our elected leaders) avoid military service. “The public in general and the elected officials who have sanctioned and sustained our wars,” argues Blow, “have a diminishing personal stake on the battlefields.”
I think these points are valid, but I believe the problems in Blow’s op-ed are twofold. Both emerge with his assertion that “we [today] are drifting away from this tradition of honoring sacrifice [on Memorial Day].”
One issue with this claim is that Blow doesn’t tell us how Americans are drifting away from this supposed tradition of honoring our war dead on Memorial Day. If that claim is made simply because a small percentage of the population has served in the military, then I find that argument unconvincing. Surely one does not need to serve in the military to understand death and loss through military service. Just ask a non-military friend or family member of someone who’s died in the line of service over the past fifty years for perspective.
Secondly, arguing that there was a time in U.S. history–indeed, a tradition–in which Memorial Day was observed in a pure form without politics and wholly in the interest of honoring the war dead is naive and ahistorical. Memorial Day has always been a politically charged holiday subject to abuse by veterans and non-veterans alike who use the dead to promote their own agendas. Countless speakers have historically used Memorial Day and the war dead to advocate for anything from increased military spending to public education funding to Indy Car racing to baseball games to the ubiquitous “Memorial Day Weekend” sale of everything in between. Hell, even the political parties who are most responsible for our involvement in so many deadly conflicts exploit the war dead to sell cheap apparel to the party faithful at a discounted price during Memorial Day weekend.
The Gospel of Consumerism provides the fuel for the capitalist engine that gives life to Memorial Day weekend, and it has always been that way. Blow’s concerns today are not new: not long after General John Logan and the Grand Army of the Republic called for the decoration of Union solider graves throughout the U.S., Civil War veterans begin complaining about businesses looking to exploit the day for sport, vice, and capital. Indiana Civil War veteran and GAR member Ivan Walker complained in 1891 that the rest of society was already forgetting about its Civil War dead. “When Memorial Day was instituted by the Grand Army of the Republic it was not intended that it should be made a day of feasting, festivals, and fairs, nor that it should be given over to base ball and other sports, but it was set apart as a day sacred to the memory of our heroic dead.” Another Hoosier veteran, George W. Grubbs, asserted in 1904 that “The increasing perversion of Memorial Day in many places to mere pleasure, amusement, and frivolity, is a national shame. The apathy which countenances it is a sign of the decline of national gratitude and conscience. The time and hour is now to resolve that Memorial Day shall be held sacred to the high purpose of its institutions.”
These veterans would be sorely disappointed when the Indianapolis 500 began taking place on an annual basis on Memorial Day starting in 1911. Meanwhile, newspapers like the Indianapolis Star praised the 500 as a patriotic expression of gratitude to the Civil War dead while celebrating their own technologically advanced society and the blessings of “progress.” Memorial Day in Indianapolis and the rest of the country by the turn of the 20th century no longer focused on the past so much as it looked forward to the potential benefits of a Memorial Day marked by robust commercial activity.
It seems to me, then, that while the low number of Americans who actually serve in our U.S. military certainly contributes to a general apathy about the meaning of Memorial Day, I’d suggest that much of that apathy lies in our desire to turn history into a commodity for profit and progress – a happy story that opens up our wallets. As Robert Penn Warren argued in 1961 about the meaning of the Civil War in popular memory, “We are right to see power, prestige, and confidence as conditioned by the Civil War. But it is a very easy step to regard the War, therefore, as a jolly piece of luck only slightly disguised, part of our divinely instituted success story, and to think, in some shadowy corner of the mind, of the dead at Gettysburg as a small price to pay for the development of a really satisfactory and cheap compact car with decent pick-up and roading capability” (49). Warren’s concerns are applicable to our views towards Memorial Day today.
Who do we honor and what do we prioritize on Memorial Day?