A Brief History of U.S. Grant’s Hardscrabble Log Cabin

We at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis are often asked about a log cabin that Grant built on his in-laws White Haven estate while living on the property from 1854-1859. The log cabin attracts much curiosity from visitors partly because it still stands today, but it has been moved several times and is not located on the remaining ten acres the National Park Service preserves at White Haven today. It is currently located across the street from ULSG at Grant’s Farm, an animal park attraction run by Anheuser-Busch InBev on property now owned by the Busch family. But how did it get there?

When Ulysses and Julia Grant married in 1848, Julia’s father, Frederick Dent, gave the newlywed couple roughly 80 acres of property on the northern boundary of his 850 acre White Haven estate. (St. Paul Churchyard now sits on this part of the original property and in 1946 the Daughters of The American Revolution placed a marker commemorating Grant’s presence there). When Grant resigned from the U.S. Army in 1854 and moved to the White Haven property to be with his wife and kids, he began farming fruit and vegetable crops on this land. The next year he also began constructing a log cabin for his family that would eventually turn into a four-room home. Julia Grant later recalled this experience in her Personal Memoirs:

[Ulysses] thought of a frame house, but my father most aggravatingly urged a log house, saying it would be warmer. So the great trees were felled and lay stripped of their boughs; then came the hewing which required much time and labor; then came the house-raising and a great luncheon. A neat frame house, I am sure, could have been put up in half the time and at less expense. We went to this house before it was finished and lived in it scarcely three months. It was so crude and so homely I did not like it at all, but I did not say so. I got out all my pretty covers, baskets, books, etc., and tried to make it look home-like and comfortable, but this was hard to do. The little house looked so unattractive that we facetiously decided to call it Hardscrabble. [78-79]

This short-lived experience at Hardscrabble ended when Julia’s mother Ellen died in January 1857 and Frederick Dent asked the Grants to move back into White Haven, the main home on the property.

Hardscrabble remained on the White Haven property for a number of years after the Grants had lived there, but it was eventually moved to the nearby town of Webster Groves, where a real estate company conducted its business out of the home. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, Hardscrabble had fallen into disrepair. Cyrus F. Blanke, a coffee salesman eager to save the home and attract interest in his business, purchased Hardscrabble for $8,000 and moved it piece-by-piece to Forest Park in downtown St. Louis in preparation for the 1904 World’s Fair. They placed the home just east of where the St. Louis Art Museum is located today, and there the Blanke Coffee Company sold coffee to fair-goers and proudly celebrated Grant’s connection to the place.

The Hardscrabble Log Cabin circa 1890. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The Hardscrabble Log Cabin circa 1890. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Following the World’s Fair questions once again emerged about the log cabin’s future as the Blankes expressed no interest in maintaining or moving the home. For several years it remained in Forest Park until the Busch family purchased it in 1907 and moved it to its current location at the aforementioned Grant’s Farm animal park. The roughly 250 acres of land where the animal park is located was originally part of the White Haven estate when the Dents and Grants owned it, but the Busch family had purchased it from a later owner in 1903, four years before adding Hardscrabble to the property. This Busch property initially functioned as a vacation home and hunting ground for the family, but in 1954 “Auggie” Busch opened the property to the public to showcase his exotic animals, offer free Budweiser beer, and give tours of Grant’s Hardscrabble cabin. That operation continues today, but unfortunately the site stopped offering tours of Hardscrabble about twenty-five years ago, so it remains quietly on display near the intersection of Grant and Gravois roads.

The Hardscrabble Log Cabin as seen today at Grant's Farm. Photo Credit: National Park Service, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

The Hardscrabble Log Cabin as seen today at Grant’s Farm. Photo Credit: National Park Service, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

Major changes now appear to be coming to Grant’s Farm, however. Six of Auggie Busch’s children collectively own the property, and it was announced last week that four of the children have agreed to sell the property to the St. Louis Zoo. The zoo proposes to continue the current operation but also add a breeding ground for endangered species, a night zoo for nocturnal animals, rope courses and zip lines, and upgraded facilities. This plan is contingent upon taxpayer support of Grant’s Farm (which is currently funded through A-B InBev) and a judge’s order backing the four Busch children seeking to release the land from the family’s trust. But the situation is even more complex because one of the sons, Billy Busch, wants to keep the land in family hands and build a Kräftig Beer Brewery on the site, a plan his brother Adolphus supports. What happens next will have to be determined in court in early 2016.

Lost in all of this current conversation, however, is what might happen to U.S. Grant’s Hardscrabble log cabin. Neither the zoo or Billy Busch have commented on what they’d do with the home. Will it stay in its current location? Could it be open for interpretive tours again? Is there a chance it could be transferred to the National Park Service and moved across the street to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site? I have no idea what might happen, but it will be interesting to see what develops from here. I would love to see the house opened again for tours, whether that be at its current site or moved over to ULSG.


When Fun and Entertainment Overshadow Understanding at Historical Sites

The McLean House at Oak Ridge, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

The McLean House at Oak Ridge, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

I believe there are three basic ingredients for doing good public history work:

  1. A deep knowledge of historical content and methods
  2. An ability to effectively communicate the stuff of history to diverse audiences
  3. An understanding of visitor motivations – why they visit historical sites in the first place, how they construct knowledge, and what they bring with them and take away from these sites.

If we think of public history as a three-legged stool, we can see that missing any one leg will lead to the whole stool falling apart. I have recently discussed in several posts the potential consequences of leaving any one “stool leg” out of a given interpretive program. In a post about the future of historical reenacting I suggested that programs that are heavy on historical content but offer no opportunity for visitors to contribute their own meanings and perspectives to the experience run the risk of alienating future audiences from reenactments. Conversely, I pointed out in a different post this past June that programs that are light on historical content but heavy on gimmicky activities run the risk of excessively valuing fun and entertainment over understanding and respect for the past. This lesson hit me particularly hard while visiting a number of historical sites during a recent vacation to Germany, where things like historical reenactments seem unconscionable and inappropriate at most sites. And as I suggested in a paper I wrote for a panel at the National Council on Public History’s 2015 meeting, many interpretive programs have no evaluative mechanisms to allow for future program improvements or visitor feedback.

While browsing Twitter yesterday I came across an article from the team at “Museum Hack” about recent efforts to overhaul the interpretive program focus at the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area. I have followed Museum Hack for a while and like some of their ideas, but unfortunately their program ideas for HCWHA represent what I see as the consequences of embracing excessively gimmicky activities at the expense of historical thinking and understanding.

There are two different programs under discussion here. One covers interpretation on Civil War Battlefields, while the other discusses a historic weapons exhibit within a museum setting. The underlying premise of these revised programs is that “Millennial audiences [don’t] seem to appreciate the historical significance of America’s Civil War as much as previous generations did.” They also note that HCWHA bans historical reenacting at its site. To address these problems for the first program, the Museum Hack team devised a dance routine that mimics troop movements during the battle. A video of that dance is posted on the aforementioned Museum Hack article.

The second program at the historic weapons exhibit conceives Civil War weapons as tools to be used in helping visitors “survive the Zombie Apocalypse.” Here the idea is that social media and pop culture can be utilized to attract younger audiences to Civil War history by challenging them to learn about historic weapons and then choosing one to help them fight zombies in a fashion similar to the show “The Walking Dead.”

I think there are a lot of problems with these interpretive approaches. For one, there are some unfortunate assumptions about so-called “millennials” based on bad research about the way they think about and process information. Most notably these programs assume that interpretation must be super-dooper fun and entertaining in order for young people to be interested in them, and that the old, stuffy way of doing history will not be of any interest to them. “Let’s face it, you ARE competing with Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter,” the team argues. This dichotomy, however, sells millennials short by underestimating their intelligence, emotion, and passion for learning about the world around them, and how technology simultaneously enhances and hinders that effort. Does a millennial need an interpretive dance on a battlefield–a place where somebody’s father, son, brother, or friend died–to understand the deathly carnage and political consequences of the Civil War? Does it not come off as a bit trivializing to talk about Civil War weapons in the context of zombie apocalypses when these weapons were designed for and contributed to the deadliest war in American history? Does a millennial need Walking Dead references and hungry zombies to get into historic weapons? And where’s any discussion of slavery or race in all of this?

To be sure, I’m all for experimenting with a range of interpretive methods. I’ve always argued that public history can’t be done with a one-size-fits-all method, and perhaps someone will get something out of these ideas. But we are living in a world that is slowly but surely being shaped by an emerging millennial generation. It is an age of Black Lives Matter protests, Confederate flags being lowered, intense violence at home and endless war abroad, and harried debates about popular government, citizenship, and belonging in the United States today. The American Civil War has much relevance to these topics and the millennials who are now making their own history. We should let that story shine through in our interpretive programs, but in these particular cases I think that story gets lost in interpretive gimmicks.


Elizabeth Keckley On Slavery and Sectional Reconciliation

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907) was a talented seamstress, dressmaker, and businesswoman who became the personal dressmaker and close friend of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln during the Civil War. The story of Keckley’s rise to such a prominent position is remarkable. Born a slave in Virginia, she experienced the worst horrors of the institution during her formative years. Her earliest recollection of slavery was witnessing a seven-year-old boy being stripped from his mother’s arms and put into a slave auction to be sold away for profit. Her father was also sold away during her childhood, and Keckley herself was subject to whippings and sexual abuse during her childhood. While living in North Carolina she was the victim of a rape that produced her only child, a boy only referred to by Keckley as “Garland’s George.” While living in St. Louis in the 1850s Keckley managed to earn enough money through her seaming and dressmaking to purchase her freedom in 1855, and shortly thereafter she made her way to Washington, D.C. to start a very profitable dressmaking business before being hired by Mrs. Lincoln at the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

In 1868 Keckley published a memoir of her life entitled Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. The book is part autobiography and part analysis of the Lincoln White House. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination Mary Lincoln had run into financial difficulties and a poor reputation among the public. Keckley hoped to raise money for Mrs. Lincoln and counter criticisms against her by publishing details of the Lincolns’ inner family life, but circumstances took a sad turn following the book’s release. Behind the Scenes was roundly criticized as the public disapproved of Keckley’s publishing of Mary Lincoln’s private letters, and Keckley’s clients for her dressmaking business quickly ended their patronage. She closed her business, became destitute, and in later life lived in a home for the poor.

Readers of Behind the Scenes–both then and now–often focus on Keckley’s recollections of the Lincoln White House, and several theatrical plays about the Lincoln-Keckley relationship have been written in recent years. But her life trajectory from enslavement to prominent free person of color by the outbreak of the Civil War is gripping literature, and it is this story that I want to briefly focus on with this post. Historians, biographers, and other scholars, of course must proceed with caution when analyzing the words and themes embedded in a person’s autobiography or memoir. Statements that may at first come off as factual and self-evident are in many cases subject to uncertainty and interpretation by scholars assessing a person’s life story. Any reasoned interpretation requires a scholar to put a writer’s words into context and to understand the world in which that person inhabited, lest they turn themselves into armchair psychologists. I will try to avoid that here.

“How warm is the attachment between master and slave”

Keckley’s description of life as a slave in Behind the Scenes is simultaneously riveting and complex. In the book’s preface she takes pains to warm readers that “if I have portrayed the dark side of slavery, I have also painted the bright side. The good that I have said of human servitude should be thrown into the scales with the evil that I have said of it.” She casts blame for slavery’s continuation and expansion in the United States not on the South, but on “the God of nature” (which is never clearly defined) and the Founding Fathers. In a later chapter Keckley recalls a conversation she had with a Northerner after the Civil War who expressed disbelief in the idea that she would be interested in the welfare of her former enslavers. Keckley responds that “you do not know the Southern people as well as I do–how warm is the attachment between master and slave.”

These are curious statements to make. Throughout the book the only “goods” of enslavement that she alludes to are her sense of industry and the relationship she maintained with her mother, two things she could have obtained in freedom. Certainly the relationship between master and slave wasn’t warm enough to prevent Keckley from working to purchase her freedom in 1855, nor would she have consented to reestablishing this relationship at any point after obtaining her freedom. After all, she herself paradoxically argues in the aforementioned preface that “a wrong was inflicted upon me; a cruel custom deprived me of my liberty, and since I was robbed of my dearest right, I would not have been human had I not rebelled against the robbery.” Indeed, who wouldn’t detest a system that sells your father away for cash and makes your body susceptible to rape and sexual assault without consequence to the aggressor?

Mercy for Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy

Keckley had been briefly employed by Varina Davis, wife of future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, prior to being hired by First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Davis had attempted to bring her South as the Davis family prepared for the secession crisis, but Keckley rejected this offer, stating that her allegiances were with the United States. Nevertheless Keckley speaks very highly of the Davis family and calls for Northerners to bestow mercy on Jefferson Davis, who was still imprisoned by U.S. forces when Behind the Scenes was published: “The years have brought many changes; and in view of these terrible changes even I, who was once a slave, who have been punished with the cruel lash, who have experienced the heart and soul tortures of a slave’s life, can say to Mr. Jefferson Davis, ‘Peace! you have suffered! Go in peace’.” What these “terrible changes” are that Keckley refers to remain a mystery to readers. Yet again a reader today can easily find these statements quite odd coming from a free woman of color who had been enslaved for the first thirty years of her life.

In a later passage Keckley recalls Abraham Lincoln saying on the day that he was assassinated that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was “a noble, noble brave man.” According to Keckley, “Mr. Lincoln was generous by nature, and though his whole heart was in the war, he could not but respect the valor of those opposed to him. His soul was too great for the narrow, selfish view of partisanship. Brave by nature himself, he honored bravery in others, even his foes.”

An important theme in Behind the Scenes

As the aforementioned quotes suggest, one of the driving themes of Elizabeth Keckley’s memoirs that might be overlooked sometimes is her argument in favor of sectional reconciliation between North and South, which in turn is informed by her identification as a proud Southerner. While Keckley strives to assure readers that she suffered under slavery and that she values her freedom, her hesitance to lay any sort of blame for the continuance and growth of slavery on pro-slavery Southern politicians or the South more generally reflects a desire to avoid what she describes as a “sweeping condemnation” of the entire region, a region that she calls home. While Keckley is not convincing in her efforts to point out “the bright side” of slavery, it is clear that she is anxious to demonstrate to readers that she refuses to play the role of victim, no matter how heinous the crimes committed against her during the days of slavery. And by pleading mercy for Jefferson Davis and portraying Abraham Lincoln as an admirer of Robert E. Lee and the valorous conduct of the Confederacy, Keckley suggests to her reading audience that sectional reconciliation is the correct path towards future prosperity for the United States. It was the path paved by Lincoln before his death, and it was the correct path going forward in Keckley’s eyes.

These are just a few observations I made after reading Elizabeth Keckley’s memoirs, which are truly fascinating. Any nineteenth century historian would benefit from reading them.


“Will Teach 4 Food”: Museum Education and the Politics of Labor

Imagine that you are an emerging museum educator about to finish a museum studies or public history degree. You have closely studied historical methods, historiography, education theory, and visitor studies. You probably worked at least one unpaid internship while taking out thousands in loans to finish your degree. Now you’re about to start applying for jobs.

You start browsing job openings online and find one that sounds almost perfect to you: K-12 Museum Educator. There is much appeal in this job. You get to work with a diverse range of students teaching them the importance of history in our daily lives. You get to teach them about the ways history is viewed through multiple perspectives and help them better understand local and national history. You get regular training and professional development as a part of your job. And you don’t have to grade papers at the end of the day!

The qualification requirements suggest that you’re probably in good shape. The museum asks that you posses at least two years of college, but a BA is preferred. You’ve got that. But then you look at the fine print, and your overpriced Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte falls to the floor: you will be paid only $9 an hour and limited to working 15-25 hours a week if you get hired for this job.

You may have just drank your last Pumpkin Spice latte.

Fortunately this sort of frustrating situation never occurred during my own search for a public history job last year, but this job posting is real and comes to you courtesy of the Missouri History Museum. And, sadly, I am sure there are many other desperate people out there who are probably going to apply for this job because they have no leverage and no other options save for abandoning the museum/public history field for other employment.

It’s a shame that so many talented and educated people are forced to live on a teenager’s wages if they hope to have a chance of breaking into this field. True, there are many small museums and institutions that are working on shoestring budgets, and perhaps–perhaps–they can be excused for relying on volunteers, unpaid interns, and/or part-time employees to keep the boat above water. But a popular, well-endowed institution like MOHIST paying its educators barely above minimum wage is simply inexcusable.

The taxpayers of St. Louis city and county give the Missouri History Museum ten million dollars a year for operating costs. The museum’s former President, Robert Archibald, ran the institution for twenty-five years and was making an annual salary of $515,000 by 2012. But then Mr. Archibald ran into trouble when an audit revealed that he and another museum board trustee spent $875,000 of the museum’s money, without an appraisal, on a tract of land that was valued by the city of St. Louis for only $232,000. A lot of taxpayers were angered when they heard that news, and eventually local politicians and the museum board forced Archibald to retire. Luckily for Mr. Archibald, however, upon retirement he cashed in his vacation days and sent in a bill for a six-month consulting project he had recently participated in, and the same museum board that called for his retirement compensated him with a cool $820,000 payout. This action also led to a lot of taxpayer head-scratching, and in order to save face the museum board announced that they would not use any taxpayer dollars for Mr. Archibald’s payout. Instead the money would unexpectedly come through private donations from people like Marian and Ethel Herr, twin sisters who regularly volunteered and collectively left $900,000 to the museum after Marian died in 2010. But museum educators? Nine bucks an hour for you! We’ll even tweet the job opening using the hashtags #museumjobs and #STLjobs to make it seem like this is a really important and highly valued position within our institution.

Whether you’re interested in teaching in a classroom, a museum, or anywhere else, you learn quickly that the closer you are to students and/or the public on a daily basis, the less money you make compared to the administrators who almost never interact with the same students or public audience. Society pays a lot of lip service to the importance of education in enriching children’s lives, but they don’t pay much money to actually do that work. The museum world is particularly guilty because they want to have their cake and eat it too. There are a record number of museum studies and public history undergrad and graduate programs in the United States today, and the opportunity to get a good education in these fields has never been easier. But with the increase in programs comes an increase in educated candidates looking for gainful employment. Credential creep occurs as more and more overqualified candidates fight for a limited number of available jobs that have not kept pace with the number of graduates on the market. Similar jobs to the one posted by MOHIST, as Kelly Gannon of Emory University pointed out to me, often provide no career track or hope of a future promotion. Wages get driven down and future museum educators find themselves fighting for crumbs. This “Yoga Instructor Economy” works great for the museum industry as a whole, but it absolutely sucks for its workers, including those interested in education.

To be sure, I actually love the Missouri History Museum. I enjoy many of their exhibits, and their work in helping to heal the St. Louis community in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting last year should be commended. I am going for a visit within the next few days and will continue to be a regular visitor as long as I live in the St. Louis area. I also wouldn’t take away a single penny from the museum’s ten million dollars in tax revenue. But I am not just a patron of this industry – I am a worker too, and people like me who have been encouraged to dedicate our lives to history, museums, and informal education ought to be compensated in a way that allows us to put food on the table, gas in our cars, and money towards our mortgages. I am lucky to be in a good financial position with my current job, but I know so many people who are unemployed or underemployed, and I hate seeing it.


Confederate Secession Was Not a Moment of “Insanity”

The historian Sean Wilentz wrote an op-ed for the New York Times a while back asking if the United States Constitution recognized slavery in national law prior to the Civil War. Wilentz answers “No,” and other academic historians have responded with a flurry of blog posts, articles, and tweets. There are too many to link here, but thankfully Al Mackey has already done the work of collecting most of the worthy responses on his website. The latest response to Wilentz comes from Daniel W. Crofts at the History News Network, and Dr. Crofts’ response now provokes a response from me.

Crofts focuses his essay on a second contention from Wilentz: that disagreements over the meaning of the Constitution were “the rock that split the Union in 1860-61.” Crofts counters this argument by asserting that constitutional disagreements between Northerners and Southerners only played a small role in explaining the outbreak of Civil War. Instead, he contends, the very act of Confederate secession itself was responsible for the start of the war. Most Unionists who actively supported a forceful response to secession did so not because of their anti-slavery convictions (if they had any), but because they viewed the idea of a state or states unilaterally leaving the country because their preferred candidate lost an election was a direct affront to the principles of popular government and republican rule of law. Secession set a bad precedent and imperiled the future of the United States, and these concerns largely explain the motivations underlying Unionists’ military response to the Confederacy following the firing of Fort Sumter.

While I think there’s a certain risk in arguing that secession was responsible for the war’s outbreak without also understanding how political disagreements over slavery and the constitution made secession a viable option to future Confederates in 1860-61, I believe Crofts is correct in this argument. It also lines up nicely with similar arguments made by Gary Gallagher in his book The Union War, a book I consider to be one of the finest works of scholarship published during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

I believe Crofts takes his thesis too far, however, by embracing a common argument about secession–most recently made elsewhere by Jon Grinspan–that I call the Confederate Insanity Plea. To wit:

Blind to abundant historical evidence that war had the potential to disrupt slavery, secessionists sleepwalked heedlessly into catastrophe. The Republican Party posed no danger to slavery. But war did. Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, observed retrospectively that white Southerners had fallen victim to collective “insanity.” Had they stayed in the Union, they might have kept slavery “for many years to come.” No party or public feeling in the North “could ever have hoped” to touch it.

This conclusion strikes me as odd – just as odd as Wilentz’s assertion that the majority of Unionists enlisted in the U.S. military to defend an antislavery interpretation of the Constitution. Of course the Republican party posted a danger to slavery. How else do you explain the coming of Confederate secession in the first place?

Although Crofts apparently also takes issue with James Oakes‘ explanation for the coming of war, I agree with Oakes. The leading Southern advocates for disunion considered secession a better option for protecting their slave property than living under a Republican government opposed to the further westward expansion of slavery. It made no difference to them that Lincoln had never advocated the complete and immediate abolition of slavery or embraced the support of radical abolitionists during his candidacy. It made no difference to them that Republicans took pains to disavow any intentions of abolishing slavery where it already existed. And it made no difference that Republicans had previously expressed their wish to maintain their Union with slaveholders. To the Fire Eaters these distinctions were meaningless because the Republicans, by preventing the westward expansion of slavery, had hoped to establish a “Cordon of Freedom” that would limit slavery’s growth and, in due time, hasten its eventual demise. Whether a Northerner proclaimed himself a Republican or an abolitionist was meaningless to secession advocates because the end goal for both was the same: the eventual end of slavery in the United States.

Although his scholarship in now dated, Allan Nevins succinctly captured one fundamental issue for secessionists about the Republicans: “Was the Negro to be allowed, as a result of the shift of power signalized by Lincoln’s election, to take the first step toward an ultimate position of general economic, political, and social equality with the white man? Or was he to be held immobile in a degraded, servile position?” (470-471)

The first state to secede following the 1860 election was South Carolina, and their Declaration of Secession clearly views the Republican party as a threat to slavery:

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.

This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory, that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States.

The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

To simply attribute the concerns of leading secessionists to the machinations of “insanity” is flawed. The insanity argument is an exercise in excuse-making that denies agency to leading Confederates in the choice for disunion, and it minimizes the importance of their own words in Declarations of Secession such as the one above. Secession was not the result of insane reasoning but deliberate, calculated thinking that matured over years of sectional conflict over slavery and the nature of the Union. Actions occur only when you first perceive that action is necessary, and whether or not secessionist perceptions of the Republican party were truly accurate is not so important as understanding that those perceptions led to calculated actions with deadly consequences.

Finally, while scholars today looking back in hindsight can agree with Crofts by seeing secession’s failure as hastening slavery’s destruction, we might choose to qualify that statement by stressing that few people at the outbreak of the war could have predicted that such an outcome would enact so much change in four years. Secession did not automatically guarantee slavery’s demise because the end results of secession could have played out in any number of ways. A successful Confederate effort would have perpetuated slavery indefinitely, and even an unsuccessful effort could have maintained slavery; had George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign of 1862 succeeded in ending the rebellion, slavery could have arguably continued where it already existed and been protected under the Lincoln administration (see Glenn David Brasher’s recent work on African Americans and the Peninsula Campaign for further discussion). Changing circumstances on the battlefield and the ever-evolving views of the Republican party towards slavery, however, contributed to the institution’s destruction. That the Lincoln administration eventually embraced emancipation as a war aim and passed the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery, both with the popular support of loyal Unionists, must also be considered as crucial factors in the end of slavery in addition to the act of secession itself.

So, to recap, repeat, and TL,DR: Crofts is correct in asserting that the act of secession motivated Unionists to enlist in the U.S. military in 1861 more so than any sort of antislavery conviction or constitutional interpretation, but I think he errs in dismissing Confederate secession as an act of insanity and asserting that the Republican party posed no threat to slavery because they had promised to protect it where it had already existed.


Fall at White Haven

One of the benefits of my job at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site that I really cherish is the scenery that surrounds me. My “office” is beautiful, and it’s easy to see why Julia Dent Grant wrote so glowingly of her childhood here in her Personal Memoirs. Since a big part of my job consists of giving tours of the historic White Haven home, I am not confined to a cubicle or computer screens for eight hours, and there’s a fair amount of moving around throughout my day, especially when the park is busy. On really busy days I’d estimate that I walk as much as four or five miles in a day. I like that.

Fall is my favorite time at work. Our attendance numbers take a dip compared to the summertime, but the visitors who come at this time of the year are genuinely interested in the history we interpret, and the smaller tours allow for more personalized experiences and meaningful interactions with visitors. Fall is also a great time at White Haven because the leaves on the more than 500 trees at the park start to turn.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been taking pictures on my Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70, attempting to capture the beauty of the site. What follows below are a few of my favorite shots. Click on any picture to view the slideshow gallery and view pictures at full size. Enjoy!


Wanted in America: Good U.S. History Teachers

The Atlantic has posted an essay by Alia Wong on U.S. history textbooks in K-12 classes that is worth reading. The essay focuses on a recent discovery of a ridiculous claim in a history textbook published by McGraw Hill suggesting that African slaves brought to the American colonies from the 1600s to the 1800s were “immigrants” to this land who somehow came here on their own free will. You would think that twenty years after the “textbook wars” of the 1990s and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong was published to critical acclaim that textbook companies like McGraw Hill would be more careful about the claims they make in these textbooks, but I suppose that is asking too much when a group like the Texas Board of Education wields so much power in determining what gets into history textbooks around the country. You often hear George Santayana’s abused quote about people who don’t remember the past being doomed to repeat it, but it seems that there are times when people who do remember the past and in some cases actively participate in that past are actually more doomed to repeat it.

There is a bigger problem than bad history textbooks in U.S. classrooms, however, and that is bad history teachers. To wit:

Compared to their counterparts in other subjects, high-school history teachers are, at least in terms of academic credentials, among the least qualified. A report by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences on public high-school educators in 11 subjects found that in the 2011-12 school year, more than a third—34 percent—of those teaching history classes as a primary assignment had neither majored nor been certified in the subject; only about a fourth of them had both credentials. (At least half of the teachers in each of the other 10 categories had both majored and been certified in their assigned subjects.)

In fact, of the 11 subjects—which include the arts, several foreign languages, and natural science—history has seen the largest decline in the percentage of teachers with postsecondary degrees between 2004 and 2012. And it seems that much of the problem has little to do with money: The federal government has already dedicated more than $1 billion over the last decade to developing quality U.S.-history teachers, the largest influx of funding ever, with limited overall results. That’s in part because preparation and licensing policies for teachers vary so much from state to state.

A recent report from the National History Education Clearinghouse revealed a patchwork of training and certification requirements across the country: Only 17 or so states make college course hours in history a criterion for certification, and no state requires history-teacher candidates to have a major or minor in history in order to teach it.

“Many [history teachers] aren’t even interested in American history,” said Loewen, who’s conducted workshops with thousands of history educators across the country, often taking informal polls of their background and competence in the subject. “They just happen to be assigned to it.”

A bad history textbook in the hands of a good teacher can be turned into a useful instrument for teaching students about the construction of historical narratives, the differences between history and memory, and, of course, the factually correct historical content. A bad history teacher can lead students towards a lifetime hatred of history, regardless of how factually correct their textbook is.

I did not know that 34 percent of history teachers were not majors or certified in history, nor did I know that only 17 states have required qualifications for someone to teach history in a classroom, but I can safely say that Loewen’s observations about people being “assigned” to teach history are true. They often have “coach” in their title.

I do not mean to suggest that all coaches are bad teachers or lack historical knowledge. My initial inspiration for studying history in college was sparked in large part by a Western Civilization teacher during my senior year of high school who also happened to coach football and basketball. But that was the thing; every student viewed him as a teacher who also happened to coach, rather than as a coach who also happened to teach history. And unfortunately there were several coaches at my high school who were simply unfit to teach history.

Is there a lack of qualified history teachers in the United States for our K-12 schools, or does the problem lie in a lack of opportunities for qualified history teachers to find gainful employment in K-12 schools?


Addendum: If you’re a teacher who is frustrated with the quality of your history textbook, I highly recommend that you take advantage of The American Yawp, a free online history textbook that is collaboratively written by some of the best and brightest historians in the country. It is designed for a college classroom but I have no doubt that high school students, especially those in AP classes, could use it to their advantage.

Taking a Balanced Approach to Lecturing and Student-Centered Learning


Over the past few weeks the New York Times has rekindled a longstanding debate among scholars and educators over the role of lecturing in the college classroom. Back in September Annie Murphy Paul suggested that college lectures are “a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first generation college students. This is not a matter of instructor bias; it is the lecture format itself . . . that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.” This month Molly Worthen responded with a defense of the traditional lecture, arguing that “lectures are essential for teaching the humanities most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.”

Both essays make good points that I agree with. Since I adhere to the idea that knowledge is constructed and that people rely on prior knowledge when making connections to new intellectual content, I can see Paul’s argument that poor and minority students who attended inferior schools during their youth can be at a disadvantage in a lecture-based college classroom. Conversely, I can also agree with Worthen that lectures expose students to content experts who have a platform to share their knowledge beyond the confines of a TV soundbite or YouTube video. I also agree with her that lectures can challenge students to synthesize information and take good notes.

I do not approach this conversation as an experienced college professor, but as a certified social studies teacher who had a cup of coffee in the middle/high school teaching world a few years ago and as a current interpreter for the National Park Service, where a parallel discussion is taking place about whether interpreters should play the role of “sage on the stage” or “guide by the side” during visitor interactions. These jobs have allowed me to participate in and facilitate learning experiences through a wide range of mediums. These experiences inform my opinion that lectures can be an effective tool for generating effective learning experiences, but only if they are used within reason, at appropriate times. Furthermore, it’s not productive to look at lectures and active learning as either/or propositions. Educators should be well-versed in a range of teaching methods, and I believe most critics of the lecture format are asking professors to expand their pedagogical vocabulary rather than asking them to fully abolish the traditional lecture course, as Worthen suggests.

Before I advance my arguments further, we should pause and ask what, exactly, constitutes a lecture. Derek Bruff of Vanderbilt University offers a useful distinction between educators who incorporate discussion and interaction throughout their lectures and others who engage in what he calls “continuous exposition,” which is completely devoid of any student interaction and is really just a monologue. The “continuous exposition” was a staple of my undergraduate education, and it was a real drag most of the time. I had a number of professors that lectured for the entire period and then, with five minutes left, would ask if anyone had questions. In my five years in undergrad I don’t think a single student ever asked a question during those five-minute windows, largely because most students wanted to get out of class by that point and understood that any sort of real, substantive Q&A with the professor would require much more than five minutes. A more active approach to lecturing–or a wholly different approach altogether–would have yielded more feedback from students if these professors truly cared about that feedback.

Another consideration is how much emphasis is given to the lecture in evaluating a student’s performance in a given class. In a continuous exposition lecture, the student’s grade is tied almost exclusively to his or her ability to recite in written form what the professor says during the lecture. This too is a problem in my mind because it places too much emphasis on rote memorization and recitation of content at the expense of training students to think about interpretation, analysis, and the process of drawing informed conclusions. I like Andrew Joseph Pegoda’s “high stakes quizzing” approach which places much more emphasis on assigned readings outside the classroom, frequent quizzes that challenge students to draw conclusions about their readings, and classroom discussions about those readings that are guided–but not exclusively directed–by the professor. This approach invites thoughtful student interaction while also allowing the professor the option to step back or jump into the discussion as necessary.

Yet another consideration in this discussion is reconciling the underlying tension between disciplinary knowledge and educational theory in educating future teachers. Most of my history professors were primarily focused on teaching content and used the continuous exposition model to convey that content, but my education professors stressed that we could only lecture for ten minutes to our future students and that we would have to utilize other active learning methods for the bulk of our classroom experiences (these education professors, ironically enough, often had a tendency to lecture for more than an hour to us). Historian and educator Fritz Fischer, writing in the June 2011 issue of Historically Speaking, explains that:

My students and I struggle with trying to connect the world of academic history with the world of pedagogical training. On the one hand, they were told by the educational theorists to create a “student centered” classroom and to rely on clever and fun classroom activities such as jigsaws and Socratic debates. These activities were often intellectually vapid, devoid of historical content or an understanding of historical context. On the other hand, they sat in their introductory history courses and listened to lectures about THE story of the past. Some of the lectures might have been engaging, interesting, and powerful, but were they really reflective of what historians do, and could they be at all helpful in a K-12 history classroom? How were my students to reconcile these worlds? (15)

The best way to reconcile these worlds, in my opinion, is to embrace a balanced approach to teaching that values lecturing not as the ultimate means for obtaining knowledge but as a tool within a larger arsenal that includes the use of other methods such as classroom discussions, group projects, classroom websites and blogs, and assignments that challenge students to develop and communicate arguments through written and oral form.

The challenge, of course, is designing these student-centered activities in ways that incorporate both content and disciplinary process. Bruce A. Lesh offers some great examples of implementing a balanced teaching approach in the middle/high school history classroom in his book “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12. In one case he challenges students to envision themselves as public historians who are tasked with documenting historical events through the creation of a historical marker. Students work on a given topic and are tasked with doing historical research, writing the text for this historical marker, and then explaining their methods and interpretations in both written form and during classroom discussion. This is a perfect example of an intellectually rigorous but student-centered approach to teaching historical thinking and content. It allows students a platform to contribute their own knowledge to the learning process, but it also allows the teacher to facilitate conversation and act as a content expert when necessary. Furthermore, it’s an activity that can be catered to students of all ages, whether they’re in elementary school or college.

So, while I don’t think educators need to fully discard the lecture, I think they should take the time to ensure they use it with proper care and with students’ learning journeys in mind.


P.S. I meant to, but forgot to include a link to Josh Eyler’s post “Active Learning in Not Our Enemy,” which is very good and worth reading. I owe a debt to Josh for sparking some of my own thoughts in this essay.

Is TripAdvisor an Effective Tool for Evaluating Public History Sites?


Not too long ago I engaged in a discussion with a number of colleagues about the merits of the popular website TripAdvisor. The site is well-known for its user-created ratings and reviews of hotels and restaurants, but it’s also considered a reputable resource for organizing and choosing destinations to visit during a vacation. There are many public history sites–including the park I work for–that are listed on the website, and the crux of our conversation revolved around how much stock we should put into the TripAdvisor reviews about our own site. We all agreed that we should care about these reviews in the sense that many people consult them before visiting St. Louis, and that some prospective visitors would definitely be reading what users have to say about us. From there, however, I think our views went in different directions. One person, after reading a reviewer’s complaint that there “was nothing for kids to do” at our site, started walking around the visitor center wondering what signage needed to change in order to make our Junior Ranger kids program more prominent. I, on the other hand, thought that changing a site’s operating procedures based on one anonymous reviewer’s opinions (especially in the wake of hundreds of other anonymous opinions on the same website that don’t mention this particular issue) was a bit overkill.

I admit that I am sensitive to some of the TripAdvisor criticisms of our site, but it’s mostly because I resent what I consider to be petty, unfair opinions that don’t accurately reflect the hard work we do to make the site interesting and relevant. We have been knocked for doing “politically correct” history, which is essentially code for saying that we mention slavery as a central topic of disagreement in political discussions leading up to the outbreak of the American Civil War, and that we acknowledge the lives of the enslaved African Americans who once labored at the home we now preserve. We have been knocked for “dumbing down history,” which is an arrogant assertion given that we are tasked to work with people of all ages and expertise levels and to give them a concise history of Ulysses and Julia Grant, slavery, and antebellum politics in a ten-minute interpretive talk. We have been criticized for having “no furniture in the house,” as if the existence 19th century furniture is the most important element of a historic house tour (we actually have a few period pieces in the home, but we do not have any original Grant furniture because it was all destroyed in a storage fire at another home during Grant’s presidency. I suppose I can’t blame visitors too much for being disappointed at the lack of historic furniture given how much it’s emphasized at other sites). And of course we’d bend over backwards to make a kid leave the park with a smile on their face, contrary to what anyone says about us offering nothing for kids.

While I can’t go as far as Alex Proud and say that TripAdvisor is “democracy for the stupid,” I do think Suzanne Moore is correct when she asserts that not all opinions are created equally:

Trust is the issue here. Why do I listen to certain people telling me about a film or an exhibition? Because I know they know much more than me. I respect their experience, no matter how much marketing may seek to critic-proof some duff product. So yes, we are all critics now but some are more equal than others. A quick trip to TripAdvisor soon demonstrates that not everyone tells you the things you actually want to know. In this never-ending review of everything, credibility is still hard to fake.

Within the context of public history sites I’ve come to the conclusion that TripAdvisor is much more useful for visitors looking for destinations to occupy their time than for institutions looking to learn about visitor experiences or the meanings people ascribe to the sites they visit. The platform is too open-ended and the opinions are too wide-ranging and subjective for most sites to do anything with them. That goes for positive reviews as much as bad ones. Someone who gives a site five stars and says “I loved this site!” offers enough information for another TripAdvisor user to potentially include a visit to that site during their next trip, but it doesn’t really do anything to help the leadership of that site besides prompting a congratulatory pat on the back.

I do not mean to suggest that all opinions expressed on Tripadvisor can or should be roundly dismissed by public historians, but I would like to suggest that we proceed with caution when assessing the merits of any user’s opinions about our sites. One way to counterbalance TripAdvisor reviews would involve creating formal evaluations that address specific questions a site or institution is looking to have answered, such as how visitors are responding to a new exhibit, what visitors would tell their friends about a site they visited, or what motivates people to visit historical sites in the first place. The sort of evaluative work I envision, however, requires the assistance of trained professionals that would work either as independent consultants or as fully dedicated staff members at these particular sites. And at least in my part of the National Park Service world, I have not seen anything suggesting that such an effort will be undertaken anytime soon, unfortunately, but that’s a topic for another day.

Do you use TripAdvisor when planning your visit to a public history site? Have you ever written a review? What do you make of my concerns? I welcome your comments below.


That Moment When Someone Completely Misreads Your Arguments

Earlier this month I wrote an essay discussing a controversial statue in Louisiana that is dedicated to “The Good Darkys” of the Civil War, those enslaved African Americans who stayed home–allegedly through their own free will–to protect the white women and children on their plantations while their white masters went off to fight for the Confederacy. I proceeded to explain the history of this statue’s dedication, the controversies it set off during the Civil Rights Movement, and its subsequent move to the Rural Life Museum at Louisiana State University, where it remains today in a place of honor and devoid of historical context. My goals in writing this essay were two-fold in that I hoped to provide an explanation for how and why this statue was erected in 1927 while at the same time questioning whether we should continue to keep this statue in a place of honor today. I made no firm conclusion on that last point because I don’t really know what the best answer is. That’s why we’re engaging in these sorts of discussions in the first place.

Unfortunately my post rubbed someone the wrong way, and the comments section dovetailed into a litany of personal attacks, mischaracterizations of my arguments, accusations of me being “biased,” and a host of red herring fallacies that are really just historical inaccuracies that have nothing to do with the discussion at hand. And Al Mackey of Student of the Civil War, a friend of this blog and a friend in real life, was accused of being a hateful bigot, which is completely uncalled for.

Mr. George Purvis of the Southern Heritage Advancement Preservation and Education (SHAPE) took it upon himself to continue this fractious discussion by responding to me with his own post entitled “Fighting White Supremacy — –,” [sic] and unfortunately he manages to completely misread the post, quote me out of context, and make claims without any sort of historical evidence to back them up.

Mr. Purvis screws things up within the second sentence of his post by stating that the “Uncle Jack” statue depicts a person “who was never a slave and was born after the war. His image is used to honor those slaves and freemen loyal to his loyal to the Confederacy [sic] during the War For Southern Independence.” Seeing as though this statue was intended to honor the “the Good Darkys” of Louisiana who stayed at their enslavers’ plantations during the Civil War, I’m not sure how Mr. Purvis can claim that the statue depicts someone who was born after the war and was never enslaved. Calling the Civil War “The War For Southern Independence” also tells us something about Mr. Purvis, although it is more accurate to call it a war for Confederate independence, if you must, since the Confederacy and the South are not one in the same. I also note that Mr. Purvis consistently refers to African Americans as “Negroes” as if we’re living in 1955 and not 2015.

To him the Uncle Jack figure “tips his hat and is just a nice polite guy. Where I was born , [sic] men still tip their hats and open doors for women. What is wrong with that?” I guess Mr. Purvis believes that I argued against the general practice of politeness and kindness to others (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) when in reality I was just challenging readers to think about the symbolism of a black man in the South submissively tipping his hat to white society and how a certain social code of manners and etiquette dictated the day-to-day interactions of blacks and whites in Jim Crow America, and how a violation of that code could possibly leave black people bruised, bleeding, and possibly hanging from a tree.

And then Mr. Purvis states:

Well gee Nick I remember when 18 year olds could not vote, but could carry a gun, there was a time when white women couldn’t vote and for the most part men and women’s restrooms are still separated. So what??? In ten years all of this may change.

Umm, okay?

I state in my essay that while some enslaved people may have stayed home out of a genuine sense of loyalty to their enslavers, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people ran away to Union-run contraband camps and roughly 180,000 African American men served in United States Colored Troops Regiments. Mr. Purvis seems to accept this basic and uncontroversial premise, but asks me to cite how many people died in contraband camps and how many African Americas were “forced” to join the USCT regiments, as if any of that is relevant to the discussion at hand (the point, of course, is that enslaved people ran away in the first place). He demands that I also cite an exact number of how many “loyal” slaves stayed at their enslavers’ plantations during the war, as if a precise number actually exists in the historical record and I’m just ignoring the “facts.” Such a number, of course, doesn’t exist, which is why I don’t offer one. Who at the time would have even collected this figure? I’d rather not speculate other than to say that it certainly happened from time to time because a qualified statement admitting the uncertainty of the question is what a responsible scholar would do in the absence of hard numbers.

Mr. Purvis assumes that I mention the Emancipation Proclamation in this discussion to argue that all slaves were freed by the document, when in reality I mentioned the proclamation only as it related to offering a path for free and enslaved blacks to enlist in the United States military. The Proclamation, of course, only applied to the status of slaves in the Confederate states that were still in active rebellion against the U.S. government in 1863. That doesn’t mean that all enslaved people in rebel territory, upon hearing news of the Proclamation, decided to stay home. Again, Mr. Purvis acknowledges this basic fact when agreeing with me that hundreds of thousands of enslaved people ran away for contraband camps (which occurred throughout the duration of the war) and the USCT regiments after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Mr. Purvis finally concludes by quoting me out of context and getting to his real conclusion – that the “loyal” slaves who chose to stay home did so because they actually supported the Confederacy. That claim assumes, without documentary evidence, that these enslaved people in all cases voluntarily chose to stay home because they agreed with the political goals of the new Confederate nation. Mr. Purvis, as stated earlier, demands that I document how many black men were allegedly “forced” to join the USCT regiments, but then doesn’t bother to acknowledge that many (if not most) of the enslaved people who stayed home did so because they were forced to do so by their enslavers! The idea that enslaved people faced a number of tough and unfavorable choices during the war–that the path to freedom or even the meaning of freedom itself was not self-evident, that enslaved people often stayed back not out of an ideological conviction in support of the Confederacy but because they often had no other choice (especially when the U.S. military had no presence in the area), and that the choice to run away towards a potentially dangerous and uncertain future was one that some enslaved people declined to make for a myriad of reasons–completely escapes the mind of Mr. Purvis.

It appears to me that Mr. Purvis chooses to bend the historical record to suit his own agenda. He doesn’t think the “Uncle Jack” statue is controversial and that it merely depicts a polite black man with good manners. That other people besides himself–black and white–understand the historical context of this statue and find it controversial and offensive is wholly irrelevant to him. That public historians and other scholars would question whether this statue should be in a place of honor and whether there are other ways to interpret it is an affront to his sensitivities and a threat to his preferred narrative of Civil War history. And by trying to redirect this conversation towards alleged misdeeds against freedpeople in contraband camps and “forced” enlistments in United States Colored Troops Regiments instead of dealing squarely with my arguments or acknowledging that enslaved people who stayed home often did so not out of loyalty to their enslavers or the Confederacy, Mr. Purvis almost suggests in a subtle way that maybe slavery wasn’t so bad in comparison to the evils black people faced in a post-emancipation world.

I respect the fact that folks will sometimes disagree with me and I welcome dissenting opinions on this blog, contrary to Mr. Purvis’s earlier claims that I am trying to “ban” him from this website for his opinions (I have approved all of his comments up to this point in time). But I don’t think it’s too much of me to ask that people actually read what I have to say and engage with the arguments I make rather than trying to divert the conversation towards wholly irrelevant topics that have nothing to do with what I am trying to discuss. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but not all opinions are entitled to respect, especially if they don’t have evidence to back them up.

I wish Mr. Purvis good luck with own pursuits and interests in life, but it’s time to move on to something else. Thanks for reading.



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