How History and Memory Converge to Make Sense of The Past

Photo Credit: https://sites.google.com/a/worth.org.uk/worth-school-activities/history-society

History is the process by which individuals and societies make sense of the past. Although they are often used interchangeably, the terms “History” and “The Past” are not mutually exclusive. “The Past” is the verified, factual information we know about past events in human history. We know, for example, that the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776. “History,” however, is the process by which we document, contextualize, and interpret the meaning of a particular event. Why was the Declaration of Independence written? Who wrote it? What was going on in the world at the time of its writing? What social, economic, religious, and political forces inspired the document’s author? What were the consequences of its publication? These are the types of questions historians ask when researching and interpreting “The Past” to make an informed historical argument about something like the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

Memory plays a necessary and crucial role in creating history. “Memory” is the process by which individuals and societies choose to remember (and forget) their pasts. Memories are created after an event has taken place and take the form of oral recollection, art, public iconography, and many other expressions of personal reflection. How did Thomas Jefferson remember his role in writing the Declaration years later? What did members of the Continental Congress think of the event? How did citizens of the colonies remember hearing about the Declaration of Independence? What monuments, statues, markers, and plaques were created to commemorate the event? What messages did these icons attempt to convey to viewers about the Declaration? How is the Declaration remembered by society today? These are the types of questions historians and memory scholars ask when researching how present-day conditions simultaneously shape and are shaped by past events. History and memory intersect to tell us what happened in the past, and what it means for us today.

What are the distinctions between history and memory? Is there a distinction between the two? Scholars disagree on this question, but I think there are distinctions, albeit very subtle.

Take the case of the veteran’s recollection of a wartime experience twenty years after a significant battle. The truthfulness of that soldier’s recollection may not be fully verifiable based on the evidence that was created from the time in which the battle originally took place. His or her recollection may contradict the official battle report created at the time (“The Past”), or it may include details that were previously omitted. Sometimes the recollection may even unintentionally confuse or invent crucial details with the passage of time. Nevertheless the veteran’s memory exists as a “personal truth” for him or herself; an individual process by which the soldier copes with, comprehends, and understands their experiences in that battle. The tricky task for the historian is to determine whether the veteran’s recollection should be incorporated into the body of evidence being used to interpret the history of that battle. Is the recollection reliable? Does it help advance the story? Does it help or hinder the historian’s effort to make sense of The Past?

Historian Jonathan Hansen argues that history advances through hypothesis while memory evolves over time but never really advances. I like that description because memories of a given event will change over time (a new personal reflection or the erection of a new monument, for example) but those memories may not be verifiable in the same way a historical fact can be through a hypothesis.

Much of what we understand about The Past is based on memory, which simultaneously informs and muddles the historical process. As such, the concept of “Truth” does exist within the historical process, but it takes multiple forms. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience defines four different forms of “Truth”: forensic truth (The factual, verifiable past), personal truth (a personal memory), social truth (a collectively held truth as expressed through art, public iconography, political speechs, etc.) and healing truth (a collective process of historical reckoning such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission).

The above description is how I understand the distinctions between The Past, history, and memory.  These three phenomenons constantly interact and shape each other, leading to the creation of individual and collective understandings of past events that in many cases contain multiple truths for us to learn from.

Cheers

Advertisements

Two New Essays on Reconstruction Era Politics

Two essays of mine went live this week.

My latest essay for Muster analyzes the political evolution of Alabama Congressman Charles Hays and his support for the Civil Rights Act of 1875. You can read it here.

I reviewed Allen C. Guelzo’s new book Reconstruction: A Concise History for H-SHGAPE (Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era) that can be read and downloaded here.

Cheers

News and Notes: September 13, 2018

Beaufort, South Carolina. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

Here’s an update on some upcoming projects and life in general:

1. I received a promotion at work earlier this summer and have moved up from a “Park Guide” to a “Park Ranger” at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. The promotion has been great so far. I’ve picked up more administrative duties but am now essentially the park’s education coordinator and historian. We’ve been doing some great programming initiatives over the past couple years and I’m excited to see where things go from here as I take on an increased leadership role at the park.

2. I was in Beaufort, South Carolina, a few weeks ago to visit Reconstruction Era National Monument and tour the area’s historic sites. I had served as the site’s social media manager from April 2017 to April 2018 (which you can read about here) in addition to my regular duties at the Grant site, but I had never been to South Carolina before. It was great to meet the staff at REER and get a better grasp of the local context in which Reconstruction played out within the South Carolina lowcountry.

3. I wrote an essay about Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs and how they’ve shaped my interpretation of his life while working as a Park Ranger and educator. The essay will appear as a chapter in an upcoming book on the American Civil War in popular culture that is being edited by Chris Mackowski of Emerging Civil War and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in early 2019. It will be the first essay of mine to show up in a book and I’m thrilled to see how the final product will turn out.

4. I have another book chapter that will be appearing in an upcoming anthology about St. Louis culture and history through Belt Publishing. This one is slated for release in Summer 2019. I went a little outside my usual research interests for this piece, which explores the Italian American community in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th Century and examines a case of race and class conflict within that community. There’s also a little family history in the essay; during research I did some genealogy and discovered that my Great-Great Grandfather Julio Sacco had immigrated to St. Louis from Sicily around 1890. He makes a short appearance in the essay. In any case, there’s an amazing lineup of essayists from St. Louis who’ve contributed essays to this anthology and if you’re interested in all things St. Louis you’ll want to get a copy of this book.

5. My journal article manuscript on Missouri Congressman John Richard Barret was slated for publication last year, but due to circumstances beyond my control the manuscript’s publication was delayed. Thankfully I can now say that the article will be published in the November 2018 issue of The Confluence, a scholarly journal published by my Alma mater, Lindenwood University.

6. I have another manuscript on Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery before the Civil War that has been accepted for publication by a top Civil War journal, but I have numerous revisions that still need to be made. More details on this article in the future.

7. My next essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s “Muster” blog will go live on Tuesday the 18th. I’ll examine Alabama Congressman Charles Hays and his support for the Civil Rights Act of 1875.

8. I have a pretty substantial book review essay on Allen Guelzo’s Reconstruction: A Concise History that will be published with H-Net most likely within the next week.

9. I will be moderating a panel on Civil War politics in Illinois on October 5th for the Conference on Illinois History at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

10. I have two upcoming talks in St. Louis about U.S. Grant and slavery before the Civil War and the Missouri-Kansas Border War on October 13th and October 16th.

11. Finally, I will soon start working on an essay for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association about Grant’s Personal Memoirs that should be published either late this year or early next year.

I think that’s it for now!

Cheers

Hannah Simpson Grant’s Influence on Ulysses S. Grant

I fielded an interesting question the other day about Ulysses S. Grant and the people who influenced him throughout his life. The visitor asked me where and how General Grant developed the cool, calm, and steely demeanor that has long been a part of his popular lore. How was Grant able to handle the horrific bloodshed and danger of war in such a collected manner, never getting too high or too low about the state of affairs during his generalship and presidency?

It’s a fascinating, complex question with multiple answers that are suitable, but I think the visitor was surprised when I suggested that Hannah Simpson Grant may have played a role in her son’s overall disposition.

Historians don’t know a lot about Hannah Grant, and few primary source documents exist that are from her perspective (here’s an 1879 newspaper interview with her that is interesting yet ambiguous). What is know about Hannah and how she carried herself is very similar to that of her oldest son. Consider the below passage from Brooks Simpson’s book Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 (2000):

Hannah Grant went about her chores and responsibilities quietly, so much so that one must search carefully for her traces. [Ulysses Grant’s friend] Dan Ammen recalled that she was “a cheerful woman, always kind and gracious to children.” But affection–or at least open displays of it–were rare in the Grant household. Ulysses told Ammen that he never saw his mother cry. Nor did Hannah brag as was her husband’s custom: she was modest, retiring, and restrained. Unlike [Grant’s father] Jesse, she “thought nothing you could do would entitle you to praise,” as one observer recalled.” (7)

Insert “Ulysses” where “Hannah” is mentioned and the similarities are pretty clear.

Cheers

Every Social Media Manager a Historian: Reflections on Interpreting History Through NPS Social Media

My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog, “Muster,” is now live. I wrote about my experiences running the Facebook and Twitter accounts for Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort, South Carolina, from April 2017 to April 2018. I discuss a few strategies I learned for crafting effective social media posts during that time and the importance of historical sites making a dedicated effort to interpret the past on social media.

Being the social media manager for REER was a high honor and something I take great pride in as a public historian. The chance to participate in the formative stages of a new National Park Service unit’s overall development is rare; that REER is the first NPS unit to make Reconstruction a central interpreting focus of the site is all the more significant. So it was pretty exciting when I got a call from folks in the NPS Southeast Region seeing if I’d be interested in helping to promote the site online. The reason I got that call, I should add, is because of my social media presence on Twitter and my writings on this blog. Someone noticed my historical scholarship and my passion for Reconstruction, and that in turn opened this door for me.

I can’t stress enough to readers how time-consuming it can be to create a good social media post. In addition to having a strong knowledge of a given historical topic, one must work to write and re-write drafts of their posts so that they are clear, concise, and interesting. They also need to find compelling images and make sure those images are copyright-free. For REER I had to come up with an idea, conduct research, write a draft, have that draft reviewed by historians at the NPS Southeast Region, make any necessary changes, and then schedule the post for publication on Facebook and Twitter.

I was in a unique situation with REER because I am based in St. Louis and have never been to South Carolina before. I have a good general knowledge of the Reconstruction era but needed to read up on South Carolina’s particular circumstances during that period (Thomas Holt, Willie Lee Rose, Richard Zuczek, Stephen Wise, and Lawrence S. Rowland helped me a lot). Since the site is currently closed to the public, there were few events going on and I wasn’t part of the daily, on-the-ground experiences at the site. I therefore focused largely on historical content–both nationally and relative to Beaufort–and the historiography of Reconstruction studies. As I mention in the essay, REER had more than 1,100 Facebook followers and 700 Twitter followers by the time I finished. Not bad! It was sometimes challenging to find enough time to consistently update and keep an eye of REER’s social media accounts, but overall I’m proud of the work I did and I hope I can keep helping the site in some capacity moving forward.

Cheers

How Historians and Musicians Receive Similar Training in College

Yours Truly Performing at Off Broadway in St. Louis. Photo Credit: Rick Miller Photography

Over the years numerous friends and family, knowing that I studied history in college and now work as a public historian for a living, have come to me with a range of questions about people and events from the past. I think more often than not I have failed to give them a satisfactory answer to their questions. That’s because in most cases they’ve asked questions about time periods in which I have only a basic and limited understanding. As fascinating as I find the Roman Empire, the Medieval Era, the Great Depression and the New Deal, and other periods in history, I just don’t have the specialized knowledge to give an accurate, informative answer in most cases. And yet oftentimes these questions are prefaced with a comment like, “you’re a historian, so you should be able to help me…”

The reality is that most professional historians specialize in a particular time period, and that time period can be quite small in scope depending on the individual historian’s interests. I think non-historians sometimes assume that the primary goal of studying history is the accumulation of facts. As historian David McKenzie pointed out on Twitter, historical knowledge for many is “simply cramming facts into one’s head to be spit out at a moment’s notice.” While learning facts and establishing historical accuracy are certainly important facets of any history degree program, there are many other elements of good historical practice. This includes (but is not limited to) the ability to search for and interpret the larger context surrounding a particular event, the need to understand change over time, the importance of crafting solid research questions, the talent to be a good reader, writer, and speaker, and the training needed to become well-versed in both primary and secondary source material of a particular, specialized historical era.

When I struggle to answer my friends’ and family’s questions, I point out that historians are in some ways similar to musicians. My area of expertise is nineteenth century U.S. history–particularly the Civil War Era–and that is my “musical instrument,” so to speak. You wouldn’t say “oh, you’re a musician! Go over and play that guitar” without first asking that musician what instrument they play and if they could play guitar. And just because a musician can play guitar doesn’t mean they can play tuba or do a freestyle rap on the spot. The situation is similar with historians. I can talk about the Battle of Shiloh or the Civil Rights Act of 1866, but I’d have a more difficult time giving a detailed answer about, say, the Battle of D-Day or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As much as I’d love to give detailed answers and remarkable facts about every event in human history, the limits of human intelligence require a more specific and concentrated focus.

Music education students in college are required to learn how to play a string instrument, a brass/woodwind instrument, and sing in a choir regardless of their prior expertise. They also learn music theory and develop an ability to read sheet music whether it’s in treble clef or bass clef (or alto clef!). As future teachers of band, orchestra, and choir in a k-12 setting, this training prepares them to help students learn how to play an instrument, read sheet music, and perform together in an organized creation of musical sound. History students at the undergrad level receive a similar curriculum in that they take courses in U.S., European, and World history during their training. They receive a broad instruction that enables them to educate younger students about a wide swath of human history. But like the musician with a specific instrument that they specialize in and perform with in concerts, the historian finds a time period to specialize in and contribute to through public talks, the creation of scholarship, and, in my case as a public historian, by interpreting history to a wide range of publics.

Cheers

 

Upcoming Presentation on U.S. Grant at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum

…Happening this Thursday! When I visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum as a high schooler just a few months after its grand opening in 2005, never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I’d ever give a presentation there someday. If you’re in the area, come on out for what will hopefully be an interesting and informative talk about Ulysses S. Grant’s life and how Americans have remembered him since his death in 1885. We’ll be on the library side of the Presidential Library and Museum.

Cheers