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?
The meaning of citizenship in the United States has undergone significant changes throughout its history, and recent debates about who is and who isn’t a citizen and what rights citizens are entitled to demonstrate how citizenship remains contested today. Some of the most profound changes in U.S. citizenship took place in the years immediately before and after the American Civil War. For a long time my understanding of these changes was marked by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case and subsequent actions after the war by Congress through the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that overturned the Dred Scott decision.
Dred Scott was a St. Louis slave whose master, Dr. John Emerson, had taken him into free soil for four years while serving as a U.S. Army doctor. Upon returning to St. Louis in 1843 and attempting to buy his freedom without success, Scott sued for his freedom in 1846. The case had many twists, turns, and appeals on its way to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that Scott was not entitled to his freedom and that “colored men,” whether free or slave, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” People of color were not citizens of the United States and had no right to use the courts for legal recourse, according to Taney. The Civil Rights Act of 1866 departed from Taney’s premise by stating that all people born in the United States were entitled to be citizens “without regard to race, color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude” and that all citizens were entitled to equal protection of all laws. The text from the citizenship clause of the Civil Rights Act was later copied into the 14th Amendment before its passage in 1868.
These changes in U.S. citizenship during the Civil War era are important and worth noting, but after reading William A. Blair’s With Malice Toward Some: Treason and Loyalty in the Civil War Era a few weeks ago I learned about another significant document published in 1862 on the question of citizenship: Attorney General Edward Bates’s legal opinion on citizenship.
A conservative Missourian who helped write the state’s pro-slavery Constitution in 1821 and served as a state legislator and U.S. Congressman during a lengthy career in politics, Bates unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for President in 1860. President-elect Abraham Lincoln appointed Bates as Attorney General shortly after that year’s election, however, giving Bates immense power to write legal opinions on American law and governance as the Civil War broke out in 1861. One such issue arose in 1862 when a ship run by David M. Selsey, a free African American who served as master of the Elizabeth & Margaret, was detained off a New Jersey coast for a routine inspection for contraband goods. U.S. law at the time stipulated that ship masters must be U.S. citizens, but whether or not Selsey was considered a U.S. citizen as a free person of color was open for legal debate. U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase requested that Bates write a legal opinion in response to the question, “are colored men Citizens of the United States?” Bates’s response provides us a unique opportunity to study how a leading legal thinker grappled with the ambiguities of the U.S. constitution on the question of citizenship prior to the passage of the 14th amendment in 1868.
Bates began his opinion by pointing out that there existed no clear definition of citizenship in the United States:
Who is a citizen? What constitutes a citizen of the United States? I have often been pained by the fruitless search in our law books and the records of our courts for a clear and satisfactory definition of the phrase citizen of the United States. I find no such definition, no authoritative establishment of the meaning of the phrase, neither by a course of judicial decision in our courts nor by the continued and consentaneous action of the different branches of our political government. For aught I see to the contrary, the subject is now as little understood in its details and elements, and the question as open to argument and to speculative criticism, as it was at the beginning of the government. Eighty years of practical enjoyment of citizenship, under the Constitution, have not sufficed to teach us either the exact meaning of the word or the constituent elements of the thing we prize so highly.
Further complicating these efforts in the eyes of Bates were legal experts at the time who focused on the characteristics of who was entitled to citizenship without sufficiently exploring what rights constituted U.S. citizenship. Bates believed the constitution defined citizenship simply as an individual who was a part of the body politic. As a member of the body politic, citizens were obligated to pledge allegiance to the state in return for the state’s protection of the citizen’s well-being. Allegiance and protection: nothing more, nothing less. Moreover, Bates argued that citizenship did not guarantee voting rights, which were determined on a state-by-state basis prior to the war. Children, women, poor whites, and criminals in states throughout the country did not posses voting rights but were still considered citizens by the U.S. government. “Once a citizen, always a citizen,” argued Bates, “unless changed by the volition and act of the individual. Neither infancy nor madness nor crime can take away from the subject the quality of a citizen.” And although voting rights were determined on the state level, Bates proclaimed that citizenship rights were national. Citizens in one state could not suddenly lose their citizenship while in another one.
Bates did have opinions about who was entitled to citizenship, however. Citing Ancient, British, and French law in a partial rebuttal of Chief Justice Taney’s opinion in the Dred Scott case, Bates asserted that “whatever may have been said in the opinions of judges and lawyers, and in State statues about negroes, mulattoes, and persons of color, the Constitution is wholly silent upon that subject. The Constitution does not make the citizens (it is, in fact, made by them). It only intends and recognizes such of them as are natural [born citizens].” In other words, people born in the United States–regardless of their status in life–were automatically citizens who had earned the right to state protection according to the Constitution.
Although Bates contradicted himself by refraining from defining whether or not slaves could be considered U.S. citizens, he again criticized Justice Taney for assuming that free people could be considered as having no citizenship simply because of their skin color. To wit:
It is strenuously insisted by some that ‘persons of color,’ though born in the country, are not capable of being citizens of the United States. As far as the Constitution is concerned, this is a naked assumption; for the Constitution contains not one word upon the subject. The exclusion, if it exists, must then rest upon some fundamental fact which, in the reason and nature of things, is so inconsistent with citizenship that the two cannot coexist in the same person. Is mere color such a fact? Let those who assert it prove that it is so. It has never been so understood nor put into practice in the nation from which we derive our language, laws, and institutions, and our very morals and modes of thought; and, as far as I know, there is not a single nation in Christendom which does not regard the new-found idea with incredulity, if not disgust. What can there be in the mere color of a man . . . to disqualify him for bearing true and faithful allegiance to his native country, and for demanding the protection of that country? And these two, allegiance and protection, constitute the sum of the duties and rights of a ‘natural born citizen of the United States.’
In concluding his opinion on citizenship, Bates dismissed all judicial authority of the Dred Scott case. Since the defendant in the case made an abatement plea (an objection to a plaintiff’s claims because of a procedural error, in this case the error being that Dred Scott was not a citizen and therefore unable to file suit in court), the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction in the case and Taney’s opinion had no legal standing. Therefore, although Bates hesitated to comment on whether slaves had citizenship rights, he believed he had the legal standing to comment on the citizenship status of David Selsey and, by extension, free blacks. Having assessed legal precedents from past Western governments and the Constitution itself, Bates believed Selsey deserved state protection: “I give it as my opinion that the free man of color…if born in the United States, is a citizen of the United States, and, if otherwise qualified, is competent, according to the acts of Congress, to be master of a vessel engaged in the coasting trade.” Free blacks were citizens of the United States according to Bates.
In our post-Civil War world birthright citizenship rights are often taken for granted and assumed to have existed since the Constitution’s creation in 1787. But the nature of citizenship was ill-defined by the Constitution before the Civil War, so much so that the nation’s Attorney General could not rely solely on his nation’s founding document and law books to guide his interpretation of citizenship. Edward Bates’s legal opinion provides important context and insight for understanding the evolving nature of debates about citizenship throughout American history.
A few weeks ago St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay suggested that the time had come for St. Louisians to reappraise the merits of a monument to the Confederacy in Forest Park that was originally dedicated by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1914. I shared my own mixed feelings about the Mayor’s announcement in this post. Since then the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has provided space for letters to the editor and opinion writers to share their thoughts on the monument. Former Georgia U.S. Congressman and current Virginia resident Ben Jones fears that altering or removing the Confederate monument will lead the United States towards a “slippery slope of historical revisionism,” while Bridget McDermott Flood, a St. Louisian and Executive Director of a local non-profit organization, suggests that providing more context for interpreting the monument would positively reflect the sensibilities of a “healthy, confident community” ready to confront its past.
Both op-eds make points that elicit agreement in some areas and disagreement in others. I have my own thoughts on those arguments, but I am putting those views aside and instead focusing on one method both writers use to claim authority in this discussion: ancestry.
Flood’s use of ancestry is more subtle than Jones’s, but it’s the first thing she wants you to know about her role in this discussion. “Many of us have a personal connection to the Civil War. My ancestor Frank Nouss was a Union corporal.”
For Jones, the possibility of altering this monument represents no less than a full-frontal assault against the honor of his family. To wit:
As one who has spent a lifetime fighting for civil rights and racial reconciliation, it is also my civil right to raise my voice in memory of my many Confederate ancestors, who deserve to be fully understood in the context of their times and to be honored for their efforts to repair the nation in the years after Appomattox.
It is estimated that there are as many as 70 million Americans whose forefathers fought for the South 150 years ago. The current effort to demonize our ancestors and to simplify the complexities of America’s crucible event is antithetical to the goals of bridge building and brotherhood that the Civil Rights Movement emphasized. It is a shortsighted campaign that is guaranteed to divide people of good will.
You see, to many millions of Americans, these men are family. Their pictures are on our walls, their names are in our Bibles and in our cemeteries, and their stories have been passed down through our families for generations. We will stand in their defense until our last breath.
I could be looking at these arguments from too cynical a viewpoint, but to me they are both essentially saying, “my opinion matters and has sufficient authority to shape this debate because I have ancestors who fought in the Civil War. My ownership of this history is stronger than yours.” Moreover, these arguments imply that U.S. residents who don’t have Civil War ancestors ought to put a deferment on their opinions about the ways the Civil War is commemorated today. Why else would ancestry need to be mentioned within this context?
I believe ancestry claims are ultimately false claims of historical authority, ones that represent my own ambivalence towards the genealogical side of the historical enterprise.
Make no mistake about it: I think exploring one’s family history can be a useful endeavor. Psychologist Marshall Duke argues that children with a high degree of knowledge about their family history generally have higher levels of self-esteem and self-control than children with little knowledge of their family’s past. Finding one’s roots can help us find our own place in the world and give us perspective when looking at our successes and failures today. If anything, family history shows us that in most cases our ancestors had to deal with a lot of crappy situations and struggles during their lives.
Too often, however, genealogy is tactically deployed in a selfish exercise of social privilege, a way to boast about ourselves as if an accidental familial connection to a long-dead ancestor says something truly significant about the content of one’s character today. As François Weil argues in Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America, the acquisition of genealogical knowledge in the nineteenth century was an overtly political act aimed at justifying the preservation of an “Anglo-Saxon” cultural elite amid the end of slavery and a wave of “less genetically desirable” Southern and Eastern European immigrants arriving on American shores after the Civil War. These efforts were intensified during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s when eugenicists employed genealogy and race science to call for the sterilization of people with undesirable genetic traits. Few people undertake genealogical research for those purposes today, but that desire to use family history to reinforce social hierarchies still remains in many cases. Ben Jones’s vocal use of his Civil War ancestors to dominate public discussion about the St. Louis Confederate monument provides a particularly good example of genealogical privilege in action.
Which gets us back to the use of Civil War ancestry to shape debates about Civil War memory. Most of my ancestors on both sides of my family immigrated to the U.S. from Southern Italy in the 1880s and 1890s. They came in part because of the economic opportunities, but they also came because they believed in democratic principles of governance that were drenched in the blood of United States troops who died in the Civil War. Those ancestors carved an existence for themselves and became Americans, but maybe none of that would have happened had the events of the antebellum and Civil War years turned out differently. Is my perspective on a Confederate monument today less valid because my ancestors did not fight in the Civil War like Ben Jones’s? If we agree that the Civil War should have meaning and significance to all Americans today, then the answer should be a resounding no, and the use of family history to claim authority in Civil War memory debates should be dismissed or at least taken with a grain of salt.
We can be proud of our family heritage, but we are not bound by it. We should take pride in the achievements of our ancestors but also acknowledge and accept their failures, provided that one has the privilege of accessing available historical records to help uncover these mysteries in the first place. And if we engage in genealogical research for the purpose of learning more about ourselves, we would benefit even more by striving to go beyond ourselves towards an understanding of the complex worlds in which our ancestors lived.
Historical fiction is a widely-read and popular literary genre. Some readers, no doubt, rely exclusively on historical fiction for understanding the past. I personally think there are a lot of problems with historical fiction and rarely take the time to read it, but I believe that every time someone reads such a book a potential opportunity to make new intellectual connections with the past emerges.
We have been talking a lot about historical fiction at work lately. The novelist Jennifer Chiaverini recently published a work of historical fiction about Julia Dent Grant and her slave Julia entitled Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule. The books seems to have been well received. Amazon reviewers (however much stock you want to put into their reviews) seem to look at the book favorably. The St. Louis County Library purchased 122 copies of the book and according to my friend and colleague Bob Pollock, it took several weeks for his book reservation to be completed. And now there’s a second work of historical fiction about Julia Grant entitled Julia’s Spirit that aims to explore Julia and her family’s experiences in Galena, Illinois. This book was written by Mary Timpe Robsman, a retired teacher and tour guide at Ulysses S. Grant’s Galena home (the one local residents built for his family at the end of the Civil War, not the one he lived in prior to the war). You can’t find Julia’s Spirit online, but you can buy it at the local Piggly Wiggly in Galena if you find yourself there.
Bob read Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule and came away unimpressed. He made three points about the book and historical fiction in general. One is that the available evidence for documenting both Julia Dent Grant and Madame Jule’s lives is extremely thin. Julia Grant’s personal memoirs and a few scattered letters are all we have of her records, and the evidence for Madame Julia’s life exists in a few spare passages in Julia’s memoirs. Given this lack of evidence, historians have struggled to completely understand these stories and much remains open for interpretation. Making up stories to fill in the blanks runs the risk of further confusing readers about the actual historical record.
Bob also criticized Chiaverini for placing a disclaimer about her research in the back of the book instead of the front, which I completely agree with. That disclaimer reads as follows:
Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule is a work of fiction inspired by history. Many events and people appearing in the historical record have been omitted from this book for the sake of the narrative. Although the lives of Ulysses S. Grant and Julia Grant are well documented, almost nothing exists about Jule beyond a few brief mentions in Julia Grant’s memoirs. Thus her life as depicted in this story is almost entirely imagined.
As already mentioned, Chiaverini’s claims about the Grants’ lives being “well documented” isn’t quite right, and that goes for Ulysses too. The documentation for Ulysses’s life before the Civil War is extremely limited.
This placement of the disclaimer at the end of the book leads to Bob’s third criticism, which is that readers will leave the book unsure about what was true and what was invented by Chiaverini. If we again place stock in the words of Amazon reviewers, his criticism is valid. Various reviewers remarked that “I learned a lot about the Civil War and people’s attitudes”; “This book is full of history about the Civil War”; “I found the history element fascinating as I live in Australia and wasn’t aware of all the facts”; “This book gave me a whole new view of the life of General Ulysses S. Grant and his family life”; and “[I] love historical fiction, especially when you get to see a different side of the person we all think we knew.”
For all of these issues with historical fiction, however, something remarkable has happened. Since the release of Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule in March we at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site have met and interacted with several visitors who wanted to visit the site precisely because they had read that book. Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule inspired these people to visit Julia’s childhood home and learn about her life and the lives of the enslaved people at White Haven. And a couple years ago when Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln came out (a book that I’d put somewhere between fiction and history) I met at least fifteen people who visited the site because they had read about Ulysses S. Grant in that book. I can’t think of any works by professional historians that have elicited as much interest in visiting the site as these two books.
I am often asked by visitors to make recommendations on good scholarship about the Grant family and nineteenth century U.S. history. I would never recommend a work of historical fiction simply because it’s tough enough to get to the truth through the available evidence we already have. But if historical fiction inspires people to visit public history sites, purchase well-researched historical scholarship, and engage on their own intellectual inquiry into the past, then who am I to wag my finger at someone for enjoying historical fiction? For all my concerns, I believe the genre offers a path for connecting with the past in a meaningful way. If it pushes people to seek “what actually happened” and critically interact with primary source evidence, that makes it even better in my book.
The act of defining historical time periods and eras is an arbitrary process. Historians search for major turning points and then use those points (and the benefit of hindsight) to separate the past into digestible time chunks. Thus we have, for example, a commonly accepted time period for the “Reconstruction Era” of United States history that begins in 1863 and ends in 1877.
The point in which one era ends and another begins, however, is subject to debate and revision. The end of Reconstruction is a case in point. Historians have generally agreed that Reconstruction ended in 1877 because of a political compromise that year that gave Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency in return for the removal of all federal troops from the former Confederate states. As federal troops left the South, state governments run by white southern Democrats continued their efforts to terrorize black southerners through political violence and disenfranchisement without the military to stop them. And as white southern Democrats “redeemed” their governments from African Americans and white Republicans, black southerners who had the means to do so left the South for the hope of new opportunities in the North and West.
This narrative can be challenged. The Civil Rights Act of 1875–a remarkable piece of legislation that outlawed racial discrimination and segregation in public accommodations, transit, education, and jury service–remained in effect until 1883, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional due to the belief that the federal government could not regulate private acts of discrimination. Is 1883 a more appropriate end point for Reconstruction? What about the failed Lodge Bill of 1890, which would have authorized the federal government to send election officials to any district in which citizens alleged corruption and disenfranchisement in federal elections? Does the writing of this bill mark a continuation of the Reconstruction ideal and its eventual rejection a symbol of Reconstruction’s failure in 1890? Or perhaps we can go even farther and adopt the idea that Reconstruction has never really ended, with subsequent constitutional amendments enfranchising women, abolishing poll taxes, and making 18 the legal voting age all representing further clarifications of citizenship rights since the end of the Civil War. The point is not to make a declaration for any one interpretation, but rather to show that our traditional understanding of Reconstruction’s end in 1877 is subjective.
We are now experiencing new debates about the true “end” of the Civil War with the 150th anniversary of the Appomattox surrender this past month and various other commemorations marking the end of hostilities in 1865. University of Virginia history professor Elizabeth Varon’s recent book on Appomattox suggests that Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War, but argues that the meaning of the surrender was hotly debated throughout the country. Rather than acting as a moment of national healing untainted by ideologies and politics, Appomattox meant different things to different people. As the title of Varon’s Disunion essay suggests, “Lee surrendered, but his lieutenants kept fighting.”
NYU history professor Gregory Downs goes even farther by arguing in the New York Times that “not only did fighting continue in pockets for weeks, but in other ways the United States extended the war for more than five years after Appomattox. Using its war powers to create freedom and civil rights in the South, the federal government fought against a white Southern insurgency that relied on murder and intimidation to undo gains of the war.” In other words, “the war” continued well after Appomattox and into Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency in the 1870s. Although he doesn’t come out and explicitly say it, one gets the impression that Downs believes the legacy of Appomattox is overstated. He even argues that the “Appomattox myth . . . drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation.”
There is a lot to agree with in this line of thinking. The meaning and legacy of Appomattox certainly was and continues to be contested. I also think the Ken Burns interpretation of Appomattox–a picturesque sunset in the background as Unionists and Confederates shake hands and agree to play nice with each other and be Americans again–is a myth. Furthermore, I think Downs makes a good point when he criticizes Americans who “wish that wars, like sports, had carefully organized rules that would steer them to a satisfying end.”
All that said, what are the implications of Downs’ argument to our understanding of the end of the Civil War? When exactly does the Civil War end if it doesn’t end in May 1865? I don’t really know.
There are two factors I think we need to keep in mind when going down this path. One is that the majority of people at the time understood that the nature of hostilities had changed after May 1865. Some politicians took war-like activities (such as the lynching of Black Union war veterans by former Confederates) seriously after Appomattox, but the question as to whether or not the South was still in rebellion was hotly debated for years. Was Congress’s passage of Enforcement bills in 1867 and 1871 reflective of an ongoing war with recalcitrant rebels, or were they reflective of something else? When Radical Republicans in Congress “waved the bloody shirt” and warned against electing Democrats who had fought for or were sympathetic to the Confederacy into positions of power, they often did so not because they believed the rebellion was continuing, but because they believed “the fruits of Union victory” could vanish and a state of rebellion restarted if these prewar political elites returned to power. Take, for example, these words from Radical Michigan Senator Jacob M. Howard in 1866:
It is true the war has ceased to drench the earth with blood; the rebels have laid down their arms; they are conquered, but with a supercilious sneer at their conquerors, kindly and condescendingly assure them that they “accept the situation,” that southern independence is a failure, and that they are willing and ready again to be represented in Congress; but we all know that at heart they hate and detest the Government they have betrayed four years ago, and which now holds them in the iron grip of conquest. (Quoted in Blair, 254-255).
That leads us to the second factor: How do we define what a war is and is not? Maybe Downs clarifies this question in his new book, After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War, but he doesn’t tell us in that NYT essay. I think that essay is very good, but it seems like we need to have a clearer definition of war before determining when the Civil War truly ended.
The past is all around us. It shapes the places we live and visit, the people we interact with on a daily basis, and how we personally view the world. The significance we give to places like “Alabama,” “Massachusetts,” “Ireland,” and “Russia” is partly shaped by our understanding of the history of those places and, in some cases, our own past experiences there. Sometimes we stay in and maintain toxic relationships for no other reason than the mental comfort we feel when reflecting on a past time when the relationship seemed perfect.
The past is a part of us, but we cannot live in the past. We can give new meaning to the past by reassessing commonly accepted narratives and adding new layers of history through our own words and actions in the present, but we cannot go back to the way things were in 1850. We are participants in the present and observers of the past, and our participation in the present does much to shape our understanding of the past, much as we’d like to understand the worlds of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, or Martin Luther King, Jr, from their own vantage point.
As participants in the present who experience the world in ways that can be strikingly different from our ancestors, we run the risk of abusing the past by saying things about it that are more reflective of our own perspective than the way things may have actually been. On one side you have the perspective of someone like Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who infamously equated the NFL’s labor practices to “modern-day slavery” in 2011. Peterson attempted to criticize the way he and other professional football players were being treated by NFL owners, and some may say that he has a valid complaint. But in finding a vocabulary to express his displeasure, Peterson relied on a poor comparison to chattel slavery that minimizes the actual horrors of slavery, both past and present. On the other side, the recent riots in Ferguson and Baltimore in response to the killing of unarmed black men by local police forces has elicited a wave of white racism that invokes the myth of “Irish slaves” in the New World to argue that chattel slavery–and more specifically the enslavement of millions of Africans in the Transatlantic world for hundreds of years–wasn’t so bad. And because chattel slavery wasn’t so bad, blacks should “get over” this history and stop using it “as [an] excuse for crap life.” (Liam Hogan of the University of Limerick has a paper on the myth of “Irish slaves” that can be viewed here).
One perspective argues that slavery exists all around us and limits our freedom to live the way we want to and earn a fair wage for our talents, even if we make millions of dollars. The other perspective argues that we must get over slavery (and, by extension, all oppression) because it is long gone and irrelevant to the present. Both perspectives reflect a shoddy understanding of history and a lazy attempt to make historical comparisons across time and space. And both perspectives rely on an irrational hierarchy of oppression that foolishly attempts to rank groups of people by how much they’ve suffered from hardship and oppression, whether that be Irish laborers, African slaves, or NFL players.
Lines like “my suffering is as bad as a slave’s” and “my ancestors were slaves before yours were and my life is great now. Get over it!” are tactically used by these people to shut down debate and invalidate the perspectives of others whose experiences differ from their own. I believe we can acknowledge the tragic victims of oppression–whether that be serfdom, chattel slavery, the Holocaust, or anything else–on their own merits without assessing who’s suffering was the worst. But such comparisons are made anyway because the one making those comparisons believes that he or she’s own suffering is unique and unacknowledged. And going beyond yourself to acknowledge others’ suffering means that one must come to terms with his or her own power and social status today. Not everyone is ready to reckon with that privilege and the implications of its potential loss.
Forest Park in St. Louis, Missouri, is a favorite spot of mine in the downtown area. The park is more than 1,300 acres and houses some of the city’s most popular destinations, including the St. Louis Art Museum, the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri History Museum, and the annual Loufest music festival. It also happens to house three statues dedicated to Missouri Unionists Frank Blair, Franz Sigel, and Edward Bates, and one monument dedicated to the Confederacy and the men who fought for it. Few St. Louisians are aware of these markers, but a couple days ago St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay brought attention to the Confederate monument when he suggested on his blog that “it’s time for a reappraisal” to determine whether or not Forest Park is the most appropriate location for this monument. He has called on a “centennial reappraisal committee” (the monument was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1914) to consider the merits of the monument. Another suggestion he makes that has not been picked up in local media is whether or not the drive leading up to the monument–“Confederate Drive”–should be renamed with something along the lines of “Freedom Drive” or “Justice Drive.”
I have mixed feelings about this effort, although I think the monument does a fine job of whitewashing the context surrounding the Confederacy’s origins and how the Confederates actually lost the Civil War:
“With sublime self-sacrifice, [Confederates] battled to preserve the independence of the States which was won from Great Britain and to perpetuate the constitutional government which was established by the fathers. Actuated by the purest patriotism, they performed deeds of prowess such as thrill the heart of mankind with admiration. ‘Full in the front of war they stood’ and displayed a courage so superb that they gave a new and brighter luster to the annals of valor. History contains no chronicle more illustrious than the story of their achievements; and although worn out by ceaseless conflict and overwhelmed by numbers, they were finally forced to yield their glory.”
It seems to me that if Mayor Slay considered the Confederate monument that big of an issue, he’d take the lead in calling for its removal without asking a committee of already busy people and institutions to get involved. Perhaps he’s trying to avoid coming off as heavy-handed by sparking discussion about the monument through a blog post and asking a committee to participate in the process. But what do you do with this monument if you remove it from Forest Park? Where will it go and how much money is it going to cost taxpayers to move it? Would the monument be appropriate in a museum setting? Removing the monument from Forest Park doesn’t change the fact that Missouri was a slave state with some Confederate supporters and a star on the Confederate flag. How do we talk about and interpret Missouri’s role in the Civil War and how might those interpretations change if we remove this monument? Do we run the risk of “forgetting” this part of our history?
Something else we need to consider here is that the Confederate Monument–and all monuments in general–tells us about the time in which it was constructed as much as it tells us about the period it wishes to commemorate. Why did the UDC want to include Forest Park within its vast commemorative landscape, and why did St. Louisians in 1914 embrace those memories as authentic and worthy of special commemoration? By understanding how monuments transcend any one particular moment in time, we can actually use this Confederate monument to discuss not just St. Louis in 1844 or 1864 but also 1914 and even 2014.
Renaming “Confederate Drive” might be easier from a financial perspective, but I don’t think you can change the street name unless you also do something about the monument. Renaming the street “Freedom Street” while leaving the Confederate monument in place would probably please Confederate apologists today, but it would send an odd message to the rest of St. Louis and visitors from all over the world who visit Forest Park. We all proclaim ourselves as advocates of “Freedom,” of course, but we oftentimes do not mean the same thing when we use that term.
What do you think?
This year’s Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History marked my first time as a conference attendee and participant of the meeting (I was there last year in Monterey, California, but as an NCPH employee. I spent almost all of my time at the front desk). As mentioned in my last post, I had an opportunity to participate on a panel about the intersection of theory and practice in public history. I also mentored two public history students throughout the meeting and emceed the Speed Networking session, which I helped organize through my membership in the NCPH Professional Development Committee. Based on the feedback I’ve received I think all went well on my end.
Nashville is a cool city with lots of great music and food. Each night I had a chance to take in the sights and sounds of the city while visiting with many friends, but looking back I think I should have made more of an effort to get out and learn about Nashville’s history. It’s difficult to take much in with such a jammed-packed itinerary of sessions to attend, but by Friday and Saturday I was starting to feel locked inside the conference hotel. Next year I think I’ll take a walking or bus tour of some sort if I’m able to make it out to Baltimore for NCPH 2016.
As for the conference itself, I learned a lot and thought it was great (A collection of post-conference materials can be viewed here). The sessions I attended focused on “comfort narratives” and marginalized histories at cultural sites; communicating history to lay audiences through journalism, video, podcast, and other media; interpreting local history and the Black Power Movement in Civil Rights museums; social activism in public history scholarship and practice; workplace challenges of early career public historians; and doing public history work for the federal government.
My big takeaways from the conference can be summed up in two tweets from other conference attendees:
— Hope Shannon (@HistorianHope) April 16, 2015
— elizabeth catte (@elizabethcatte) April 18, 2015
In my world of interpreting nineteenth century history the “edgiest” history I discuss on a regular basis revolves around discussions about slavery, racism, and segregation. These topics were rather taboo at many cultural sites through the 1990s, and they probably remain so in some places presently. Just today I chatted with a volunteer at a historic home in the St. Louis area who stated that the home’s interpreters never used the word “slavery” well into the early 2000s because “visitors didn’t want to hear about it.” With those sorts of comments from visitors it’s easy to see how even a generic acknowledgement of something like slavery runs the risk of offending a visitor’s sensibilities. There are times when people visit cultural sites simply because they want to have all their prior beliefs about history and contemporary society confirmed and be told that everything will be okay. So it goes.
Interpreters, of course, must do their best to honestly portray history in a way that doesn’t offend visitors. But it seems to me that we must also do our best to honestly portray history in a way that doesn’t offend the sensibilities of those whose ancestors’ experiences were shaped by slavery, racism, segregation, or any other form of oppression. The two groups are sometimes one and the same, but more often than not I share these stories solely with people who look like me and come from backgrounds like my own; white, middle-class, suburban, “comfortable.” I talk about oppressed people at work, but less often do I actually talk with oppressed people at work. I think that’s the case at a lot of cultural sites in the United States, for better or worse. It’s far easier to cautiously look over the edge of history from a distance than to walk towards the edge to see what you might find on the other side.
I failed to mention it on the blog earlier this week, but I was in Nashville, Tennessee, from April 15 to April 18 for the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting. I’ll have more to share about the conference in a future post, but it will suffice for now to say that it was a very enjoyable experience. I saw a lot of old friends, made some new ones, and learned a lot in the process.
During the conference I participated in a session with public historians Julie Davis (UNC-Chapel Hill), Lara Kelland, and Catherine Fosl (both University of Louisville) entitled “Theory and Practice: Towards a Praxis of Public History.” (Check out the #PHPraxis hashtag for a collection of tweets from the session). I initially approached this session thinking about some of the ideas I shared in this post about theory and practice in public history, but it soon became apparent that I needed to think beyond that post and re-organize my thoughts to account for new theoretical challenges I’ve faced since leaving the academy for the work force. I did NOT read from a paper when presenting at the conference, but I wanted to write one to help provide focus to my ideas and prepare myself for the session.
I’ve decided to make that paper freely downloadable for readers. If you’d like to have a copy of this paper for yourself, please feel free to download it here. In sharing this paper, I hope readers will find it useful for the select theories I use to inform my own practices as a public historian and for the collection of resources I compiled at the end of the paper. My thanks also go to Andrew Joseph Pegoda and Kelby Dolan, both friends and scholars who reviewed the paper and gave me critical feedback on it. As always, please feel free to leave a comment on this website or contact me via email or Twitter if you have questions, criticisms, or other remarks to share with me about the paper.
The turn of Spring is always an exciting time at work. The weather starts improving, the nearby bike trail teems with runners, walkers, and bikers, and our attendance numbers go way up. It’s a great time of the year for interpreters to roll out new ideas and programs while helping visitors make meaningful connections about history, nature, and themselves. Most folks I interact with during our busy season usually say nice things to me and come away with a positive experience, but there are occasional moments when visitors take a more critical perspective about their experiences. One such moment occurred this weekend.
A visitor came to the park and browsed our museum for about ten minutes. The visitor returned to the visitor’s center desk and asked about the last time the museum had been “updated.” The museum is still relatively new, having been completed in 2007, so another ranger and I said that it had not been updated for that reason. The visitor then responded by saying, “your museum’s content is inflammatory. It says that racism and sexism are still prevalent today and I find that pretty provocative. I grew up during a time when those things were actually prevalent, and it’s not the same today! You have visitors from other countries who visit this park. Is that what you want to be telling them about our country?”
The visitor did not yell these things at us, but they were said in a manner that was very aggressive. It’s the sort of moment when your stomach turns during an uncomfortable situation and you are unsure of how to ease the tension in the room.
I responded in the best way I could while also proceeding with a great deal of caution. I stated that our museum is an interpretive one – a museum where arguments are made about the past and connections are made to present-day issues. Not everyone who visits this sort of museum will agree with the exhibit text, the content on display, or the arguments made within its walls. And, in an effort to acknowledge this visitor’s comments and show that I was taking them seriously, I added that there was probably room to revise the text in a way that was more cautious about contemporary issues. That seemed to do the job; the visitor went on a tour, said nothing else about the museum, and thanked us for a nice visit.
(For the record, I’ve walked through and read the text in our museum probably hundreds of times. As far as I know there is no exhibit that makes the claim that “racism and sexism are still prevalent,” although the museum does show visitors the virulent racism and sexism of Ulysses S. Grant’s time and it challenges them to think about our own shortcomings with these issues today. I think that is a completely appropriate and necessary position for the museum to take).
There are a couple takeaways I got from this interaction. One is that for all of the talk I hear about avoiding politics when talking about history at work, it is an undeniable fact that any museum exhibit that connects historic issues to contemporary society is inherently political. That doesn’t mean the content under discussion is necessarily “liberal,” “conservative,” or what have you, but public historians and museum practitioners should not be surprised when our interpretations provoke critical feedback that questions the arguments we’ve made. There’s a fine line between what we consider the past and what we consider the present. And there’s a fine line between “connecting history to the present” and “using history to make a political argument about the present.” The precise moment in which history crosses into advocacy is a matter of interpretation, and visitors to cultural sites will make those interpretations whether or not the content on display was intended to be political or not.
I think acknowledging that museums are political is a good thing, however. Obviously I would like for visitor critiques to be conveyed in a constructive and polite manner, but it’s good to see and hear visitors being provoked and talking about the issues a cultural site discusses. One can hope that this person went home and decided to read more about racism and sexism in society today. Who knows. If I could go back in time I might have tried to facilitate a short dialogue and challenged that visitor to further explain why they took the position they did and what they think we could do to improve the exhibit they took issue with.
Another challenge with this interaction is envisioning what history museums today would look like if they took out all connections to the present or if they tried arguing that racism and sexism are things of the past. I just don’t think that sort of interpretation is honest or accurate. Maybe we shouldn’t argue to international audiences that racism and sexism are prevalent in the United States, but isn’t it just as bad to say that we all love and get along with each other? Who’s really going to believe that? And with regards to racism in the U.S., what would it say about a museum like ours–a mere thirty minutes away from the now-infamous Ferguson, Missouri–to make arguments along these lines? Nowadays we might have fewer people who engage in blatant acts of individual racism, but that doesn’t mean that we have solved systematic racism today (or individual racism, of course).
In this era of 24-hour news cycles, partisan clickbait, and social media’s role in perpetuating confirmation bias, I believe museums offer an alternative space to check our prior assumptions and participate in meaningful reflection and dialogue. I’m not sure how to measure the “success” of this visitor’s particular experience and whether our museum achieved the goals of reflection and dialogue, but it was certainly an interesting moment for my own personal reflection as a public historian.