Sunlight and Shadows: Slavery at Ulysses S. Grant’s White Haven

The Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis recently created a video about slavery at White Haven, a historic home being protected by the National Park Service today. Grant lived at White Haven with his wife Julia and their growing family from 1854-1859 before moving to Galena, Illinois, right before the outbreak of the Civil War. Although the video is titled “Slavery at Ulysses S. Grant’s White Haven,” the house and adjoining property was owned by Grant’s father-in-law Frederick F. Dent while Grant lived there (Grant later bought the property after war). Between White Haven and another property in downtown St. Louis, Frederick Dent owned roughly thirty slaves at the peak of his prosperity. While living in St. Louis, Grant owned one slave named William Jones, who he freed in 1859 (also look here for further discussion on Grant’s views on slavery).

Here’s the video below. I think it was nicely done, especially the commentary from Chiffontae Ross. Chiffontae is an excellent interpreter and several visitors mentioned to me when I worked at the site that she was the best park ranger they had ever worked with. The National Park Service is privileged to have her in their ranks.

What do you think of the video? If you’ve ever been to ULSG, what did you think of your experience?


Reflections on the National World War I Museum

National World War One Museum EntranceDuring the past weekend I had a wonderful opportunity to visit the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. I was in town to visit my sister, who now lives in the area and works as an engineer (she’s the math/science person, I’m the artsy fartsy one). Several friends in the public history program at IUPUI recommended that we visit the museum, so it was great to have three or four hours to explore the site (which was nowhere enough time to check out everything).

Growing up, I was pretty apathetic about studying World War I and the Progressive Era. This apathy has changed over the past year, and it actually stemmed from my research on the Grand Army of the Republic in Indiana. It may seem odd to some of us today, but there were still a fair number of Civil War veterans who were alive when hostilities broke out in Europe in 1914 (there were 171,335 GAR members still alive nationwide, 9,729 of which came from Indiana). Additionally, some GAR historians have made a great mistake (in my opinion) by cutting off their studies of the fraternal organization at the year 1900, which ignores the complex interplay between the GAR and various political issues that dominated Progressive Era discourse in the 1910s. One example lies in a speech made by GAR National Commander Clarendon E. Adams at the Indiana GAR’s state encampment in Elkhart in 1919, the year after World War I ended:

I believe I am voicing the sentiments of every person in this room when I say tonight that the upper most propositions in your minds is ‘America – one Country, one Language, one Flag’. (Applause) I believe that I am voicing another sentiment of the people of the State of Indiana as well as the United States when I say that the red flag of anarchy must not prevail on American soil (Applause)… I have no sympathy whatsoever for any parleying with Germany. She is entitled to none… This war will be worth all that it costs. We are going to demand in the settlement of this war; in all the transactions that are made, we will demand that it must be done with the full direction of American freedom and justice.

Anyway, there were a couple of aspects that I loved about the museum. I think they did a great job of interpreting the causes of the war, delving into a wide range of issues (imperialism, nationalism, entangling alliances, etc.) in a clear and cogent manner without sacrificing complexity. I also liked how the interpretive focus of the museum included women, children, minorities, and local Kansas City history (via the use of posters, newspapers, and stories of KC during the war) within the larger narrative. Finally, I appreciated how the museum deftly weaved America’s role in the war within the broader conflict between European nations. This museum is not a shrine to American exceptionalism, nor does it attempt to argue that American’s entrance into the war in 1917 was the sole reason for eventual allied victory over the Central Powers. Indeed, the museum is split into two sections–1914-1917 and 1917-1919–and the former makes almost no mention of the United States at all. I believe this approach challenges museum visitors to consider the United States and its status among the various nations of Europe before its rise as a dominant global superpower following World War II. I also think it helps to highlight the skepticism many Americans felt at the time about getting involved in a war “over there,” a hesitancy we still encounter when forced to decide how to best address foreign policy issues today.

The view of downtown Kansas City from the Liberty Memorial (built in 1926), which is on the same premises as the National World War One Museum. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
The view of downtown Kansas City from the Liberty Memorial (built in 1926), which is on the same premises as the National World War One Museum. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

As I made my way through the museum, I felt a profound sense of sadness and empathy for those who endured the horrors of the Great War. Far too many soldiers and civilians died in this terrible conflict, one in which many were sold a load of propaganda and rhetorical lines about nationalism, duty, sacrifice, and their country’s superiority over their enemies. Seeing various military leaders’ uniforms and the lavish insignia that accompanied them made my sadness more acute as I contemplated what it might have been like to be a solider in a conflict with no clear answers, understandings or ending.

Being able to share this important experience with my sister made my visit even better. I highly recommend that visitors to Kansas City check out the National World War I Museum, and I hope to go back and study the museum and its collections further if the opportunity arises again the future.


World War I Tower 2

News and Notes, Classroom Edition

It’s been a crazy semester so far, full of school projects, work, and much thesis writing still left to do. I’ll also be doing a bit of traveling this weekend. I’ve been following a lot of ongoing discussions within the world of education, and it’s been a while since I blogged about these discussions. Let’s take a look at some noteworthy articles that have been circulating the news as late:

  • Diane Ravitch–an Education historian, NYU Professor, former aide to President George W. Bush, and former supporter of charter schools and education privatization–has now come out swinging against charter schools, calling them “scams.” She disagrees with the notion that public schools (and teachers unions) are failing students and that more “competition” in public education leads to better outcomes for students. She argues that schools are relying too much on testing and that socio-economic factors like segregation and poverty are bigger issues than test scores. This article is an important read, and I highly recommend it.
  • Former Congressman Ron Paul has a new book on education coming out called The School Revolution: A New Answer for Our Broken Education System. The book advocates for home schooling (which is not really a new answer) and “free market” schooling options. In an argument completely antithetical to the one made by Ravitch, Paul argues on page 12 that “[Modern Educators] want control over the thinking of children, and they want to reduce the influence of parents. They are thoroughly convinced that there are better ways to educate a child than the traditional way (home schooling), and they are determined to be placed in authority over the education of every nation’s children. It is now a matter of political power, and the professional educators have succeeded in gaining a near-monopolistic control over the structure and content of education during the first dozen years of school.”
  • Karen Young writes a thoughtful piece on Hybrid Pedagogy, the need to foster more interdisciplinary studies in schools, and actively questions the current system of testing, which reflects learning theories that consider students as “subjects” who are empty vessels of knowledge, not active learners who construct their own meanings from education content.
  • What would a school with no grades look like? I’m not sure, but I like the ideas posed here.
  • Far too often we Americans underestimate the value of a good teacher.
  • Jay Saper was kicked out of Teach for America for what apparently looks like…teaching.
  • An adjunct professor of French at Duquesne University died of a heart attack at the age of 83. She had taught at the university for 25 years, yet she died without a severance package, retirement benefits, or health insurance. A sad story that tells us much about the value we put on those who work in our higher education institutions in this country.

Ideas for Keeping the Tent Big

A brief addendum to my post yesterday on crowdsourcing and DHThis:

  • Ernesto Priego of City University London left a thoughtful comment on this blog that provoked new questions about DHThis and the nature of inclusiveness in dh. He correctly clarified that the “yes/no” binary that I described is actually an “up/down” vote and that the content of an essay, article, video, etc. is not submitted to DHThis. Rather, it is the link to that content that is submitted by users. He also suggested that this formula complicates the voting system because “it’s not only the content being judged, but the participation via submission.” What motivates these people to submit links for voting to the site? Is it to endorse that content, or is like a Retweet on Twitter that doesn’t necessarily function as an endorsement? What if someone votes down a fellow colleague’s work?
  • Ernesto also pointed out that I had made no mention of DHNow, another website that functions as a repository for showcasing notable work in the dh community. I was vaguely aware of DHNow’s existence prior to writing my post, and I knew little about the site. Furthermore, much of the discussion I had observed on Twitter and blogs had revolved around concerns brought up by the Journal of Digital Humanities, so it never occurred to me that making no mention of the site or its similarities to DHThis was a mistake on my part.
  • Jesse Stommel of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and I exchanged a few tweets about ideas for DHThis to consider for their voting system. We agreed that the yes/no/up/down voting system put less emphasis on discussion of content. Jesse suggested that a system for tagging similar posts be implemented, to which I responded that such a system could open the possibility for a “similar” or “recommended” reading section to be added under each post on the site. If a popular post is featured on the front page, clicking on it would lead to similar content that has less votes, but may be worthy of reading. Such a system wouldn’t completely remove the “popularity contest” aspect, but I think it would allow for less popular scholarship to be considered for featured status on the site. Adeline Koh of Stockton College (and one of the creators of DHThis) agreed that such a system may enhance the “discoverability” of content on the site.
  • Jesse and I agreed that keeping the yes/up vote option and removing the no/down vote option should be considered by the organizers of DHThis.

I enjoyed the exchanges that took place yesterday and I thank Ernesto, Jesse, and Adeline for engaging in discussion with me when they really didn’t have to. I hope that readers didn’t perceive my last post as full of negativity. It is an exciting time to be involved with the Digital Humanities, as many traditional notions for creating, reviewing, and disseminating humanities scholarship are being challenged by the promises and perils of digital technology. The fact that three remarkably talented scholars and a Hoosier graduate student spread over two continents can exchange so many questions and arguments in a day’s time reinforces the sheer astonishment I have about the changing nature of communication in the digital age. Such an exchange would have never happened five or ten years ago, and I think that’s a cause for celebration, even if many of us still have a limited understanding as to what the “digital humanities” we so frequently talk about actually is.


On Crowdsourcing

I need to temporarily interrupt my regularly scheduled programming to address some remarkable changes and vigorous debates within the field of digital humanities. The following thoughts must be taken with a grain of salt, as I do not profess to be an expert on dh or computing as a whole. However, as a graduate student who is learning more about dh and anxious to see the field progress in a positive manner, I feel it necessary to speak out. I will try my best to address the heart of the matter and cogently summarize my concerns.

Not too long ago, an open access digital publication called The Journal of Digital Humanities was created in an effort to promote “a comprehensive, peer-reviewed, open access journal that features the best scholarship, tools, and conversations produced by the digital humanities community in the previous semester.” However, concerns were raised about inconsistent publishing standards for peer reviewed work and a lack of transparency about the review process. In response to these concerns, a group of scholars has established a new website called DHThis, which aims to cultivate and promote dh content based on the opinions of its membership. More specifically, users will have the power to vote “yes” or “no” as to what content they want to have published on the website’s front page. As Michael Widner explains, DHThis has embraced a belief that “openness and the wisdom of the crowd [within boundaries]” trumps the traditional peer review process for selecting good scholarship. While acknowledging that the peer review process has its problems (especially when the process is ostensibly “blind,” yet the content under review is “post-publication,” aka freely available online), I strongly disagree with the notion of crowdsourcing online content in the form of a yes/no binary.

Jeff Howe, a writer for Wired magazine and one of the first people to coin the term “crowdsourcing” in 2006, defines it as such:

Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.

Wikipedia may constitute the most popular and successful crowdsourcing operation in human history, but there are many other online projects that also exemplify what I think is the true essence of crowdsourcing. In 2011, the New York Public Library created a project called “What’s On the Menu?” Through this initiative, NYPL made a call for help in transcribing upwards of 45,000 historic restaurant menus, some dating as far back as the 1840s. 45,000 menus is obviously a lot of transcribing to do for a small staff, but not impossible for a group composed of thousands of internet users who want to help out with an ambitious project that could help historians, chefs, and food lovers ask new questions about the history of food. Around the same time, Nicole Saylor of the University of Iowa Libraries embarked on a crowdsourcing project to transcribe Civil War diaries which led to upwards of 70,000 hits a day from interested visitors anxious to help transcribe these important documents.

With each of these projects, crowdsourcing led to several important achievements. For one, previously inaccessible historic documents are now accessible and readable to anyone looking to conduct research or learn more about a given topic. Equally important–if not more important–these projects allow users to take a sense of ownership in these cultural heritage institutions by giving them an opportunity to engage in meaningful work that advances the goals of the institution while also instilling a sense of satisfaction within the user. “At its best,” argues Trevor Owens, “crowdsourcing is not about getting someone to do work for you, it is about offering your users the opportunity to participate in public memory.”

However, it seems to me that the yes/no voting system DHThis has embraced for selecting good dh content represents the kind of crowdsourcing that has the potential to be quite loathsome. I generally avoid Reddit and dislike its yes/no voting system for selecting content, largely because it has perpetuated what Natalia Cecire describes as a “terrifying cesspool of misogyny, racism, and assholery.” I do not believe that DHThis will promote or encourage any sort of behavior like that, nor do I think “the people” are incapable of choosing good content, but there are other problems that a yes/no voting system brings to the table, in my opinion:

Yes/No Crowdsourcing is essentially a popularity contest: It seems to me that those already closely involved with dh (those deep inside the “big tent”) and have a strong digital presence are going to be the ones shaping the content of DHThis (and perhaps even dh as a whole) for the foreseeable future. They are the ones with thousands of Twitter followers, personal blogs that get lots of views, and posts that will get selected for voting in DHThis. Maybe this is the way things should be, but it seems like we should be asking if there are better ways for incorporating new and younger voices into the dh discussion. Who might be left out by leaving curatorial duties soely to the DHThis membership?

Not everything can be whittled down to a yes/no binary: News sites all around the world have gone to the yes/no binary to help determine the most popular comments on a news article, often through programs like Discqus. Thus, a September 11 Washington Times article on the “Million Muslim March/Two Million Bikers to DC” controversy that yielded 5,800 comments had the following as its most popular comment, with more than 2,700 thumbs up votes: “Someone should have set up catering trucks serving pulled pork and BLT sandwiches.” And as mentioned, other sites like Reddit rely on yes/no votes with commentary that is also lacking. As a scholar, historian, and writer, I think I deserve more for my efforts at public writing than crowdsourced yes or not votes. Facebook is actually quite genius if you think about it. There is no ‘dislike’ button on the site, and there will never be such a button. If I post a picture of myself on Facebook having fun or comment on the passing of a loved one, the last thing I want is to have people ‘dislike’ my actions. Similarly, I would hope that if someone doesn’t like my writing, they make an effort to provide transparent and constructive criticism, not an anonymous “no” vote.

Serious thoughts and arguments deserve better than a yes/no choice. If I were to submit an article for DHThis or if it were scooped up for voting, I would feel quite uncomfortable by the idea of someone dismissing my entire argument by simply voting “no,” especially considering the fact that it takes a great deal of courage to even write for a public audience in the first place. A yes/no environment makes me feel unwelcome, plain and simple. I realize that DHThis is an experiement, and I want it and others doing dh projects to succeed. For now, however, I’ll think continue to observe these discussions from afar and attempt to learn more about digital technology in my free time.


Paul H. Buck’s Road to Reunion

In 1937, the historian Paul Herman Buck wrote The Road to Reunion, 1865-1900, one of the first books to analyze and interpret the actions of Union and Confederate veterans in the years after the Civil War. Buck–a Harvard University Professor who later became dean of Faculty from 1942-1953 and Director of the prestigious Widener Library from 1955-1964–would later win a Pulitzer Prize for this work, and it would influence future works on the Grand Army of the Republic by historians such as Mary Dearing and Wallace Davies in the 1950s.

The central question Buck attempts to ask is how Northerners and Southerners were able to reconcile their past disagreements to create a new, unified “national life.” This research question is particularly interesting when put into the context of what was happening in 1937, when a terrible recession prolonged the Great Depression, eventually lengthening it well into World War II. Perhaps Buck aimed to use his book to argue that past crises had proved that Americans persevered through tough times, and that the Great Depression could be eventually conquered.

To start off the book, Buck argues that antebellum Northerners and Southerners established what he describes as “divergent nationalisms.” With the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 these competing societies engaged in a “race for supremacy” as to which side would have the power to determine what it meant to be an “American,” since both sides essentially argued that their respective causes embodied the true values and principles of American patriotism. In assessing the Confederacy’s eventual loss, Buck blames the “not inhumane institution of slavery,” which “both made and destroyed the hope of Southern nationalism” (ix). In using a double negative (a no-no in history writing) to assess slavery’s role in the conflict, Buck tips us off on what he thinks about slavery and what (or, more appropriately, who) will be the root cause of many problems during Reconstruction.

Buck asserts that in the war’s aftermath, “the North was arrogant in victory and inclined to be assertive in the realization of newly found power.” Meanwhile, “the South lay spent and exhausted yet ready to offer stolid resistance to the unfriendly gestures of its assailant” (vii). How was the North arrogant in victory? According to Buck, much of the blame lied with the Republican party and their efforts to enfranchise newly-freed male slaves after the war. One of the major questions of Reconstruction, argues Buck, was whether African Americans would “be the ward of the South or the Nation,” suggesting that blacks were passive actors with no agency for determining their own course of action during Reconstruction. Republican efforts to build the party in the South through Black votes was too much for the South, who “had in fact suffered so much” (69) thanks to the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which established citizenship rights for all person born in America and voting rights for all men, regardless of color.

Today, many historians would argue that Reconstruction was a failure (even “an unfinished revolution“) because the promise of freedom for people of all colors was compromised through the eventual passage of Jim Crow laws, the disenfranchisement of blacks in the South, lynchings and other horrible acts of violence against blacks, and the eventual legalization of segregation. Buck, however, interpreted the end of Reconstruction in 1877 as a victory for American nationalism, as did many other historians at the time. The end of Reconstruction signaled that African Americans would become “the ward of the South,” to be taken care of by Southern Whites: “No longer would the black man figure as ‘a ward of the nation’ to be singled out for special guardianship or peculiar treatment” [i.e. Civil Rights legislation or Constitutional Amendments] (283-284).

Thus, the “road to reunion” between North and South could be paved now that blacks were out of the body politic and no longer a “national” issue, according to Buck. By the 1880s and 1890s, the GAR and UCV gained in popularity, and reconciliationist sentiments among all Americans would be fostered by Civil War Veterans, the ones “who first forgave” at the end of the Civil War in 1865 (236).

Buck points out that GAR members asserted that they were right and that Confederates were wrong, a position they never retreated from. However, it is clear that Buck believes that GAR and UCV veterans were largely on good terms with each other. The GAR had “readily admitted the bravery and sincerity of [their] opponent in the field,” and there was no room for “irreconcilables” in the organization (240). Buck continues:

The spirit of good will [at the turn of the twentieth century] received a more striking exemplification in the fraternizing of men in Blue and Gray. Reunions of the veterans of a particular locality or section, or of an army unit, had not been uncommon in the seventies. With increasing age and retirement from active life, it was only natural that the war generation should live more than ever in the memories of past experiences. Reunions became a common occurrence, and of these there developed a type hitherto unknown in history. The veterans of both armies met in mutual celebration, giving a convincing object lesson of the truth of those who fought most honorably in war are the first to forgive in peace (256-257).

In sum, Buck argues that “the spirit of good will” between GAR veterans UCV veterans inspired non-veterans in the North and South to reconcile their differences in the interest of American nationalism. Additionally–without explicitly saying so–Buck suggests that the eradication of black rights in the 1890s could also be attributed to Civil War veterans, who eschewed any talk of slavery, emancipation, or the defense of black rights. Instead, they focused on promoting Union and patriotism.

Have future historians agreed with Buck’s arguments? Did GAR and UCV veterans really get along that well? We’ll attempt to address these questions with my next post.


The “Nationalist Tradition” and Civil War History

In my last post, I briefly analyzed a Memorial Day speech at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis given by Leo Rassieur, the Grand Army of the Republic’s National Commander for a one year term in 1900-1901. I argued that Rassieur engaged in a great deal of reckoning in his Memorial Day speech. As did many other orators in the years after the war, Rassieur didn’t recall what actually happened during and after the Civil War. Instead, he focused on what he believed to be the true meaning of the war and what he thought was important for his audience to learn/understand about the war, which can be summarized as such:

  • Former Confederates did not engage in treason. In fact, they were “fellow citizens” who had merely demonstrated excessive pride in their section before the war. Once the war concluded, Union veterans happily accepted their former adversaries back into the American body politic to reap the benefits of citizenship.
  • True citizenship was demonstrated through duty, honor, and sacrifice to nation.
  • Slavery and Emancipation were not worth discussing. To Rassieur, it was far more important to forgive former Confederates and look towards the future rather than dwell on past conflicts (or even those who had died as a result of those conflicts).

Interestingly enough, many of Rassieur’s comments reflected the ideas and sentiments of academic historians who were writing about the Civil War at that time. Whether or not Rassieur read books of history about the war is impossible to know, but the similarities are nevertheless fascinating. Reading Thomas J. Pressly’s 1954 work Americans Interpret Their Civil War over the past few days has given me new insights into how people interpreted the war at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

One important moment in the “history of history” was in 1884, when the American Historical Association was formed. During this period, the field of history became professionalized as universities began creating history departments and training young students for work in academia. Some of the early Civil War historians that emerged from this class professionalized historians included future President Woodrow Wilson, Fredrick Jackson Turner, Albert Bushnell Hart, and Edward Channing.

According to Pressly, academic historians attempted to establish professional standards for engaging in “good history.” Students were taught that history was best conducted through “impartial, objective, and scientific” methods that were completely free of bias. History was composed of set facts and knowledge outside the minds of historians, and it was their duty to collect these facts and deliver them as “definitive” accounts of the Civil War. In fact, “by the turn of the [twentieth] century the trained historians considered sectional bias ‘unscientific’ and a threat to their professional aims and standards,” according to Pressly (184). Therefore, showing any sort of bias or favoritism towards one side or the other when analyzing the Civil War was a representation of bad history and perhaps even a sign of mental weakness. Both sides were to be treated fairly and impartially so the “facts” would eventually come out.

Each of the aforementioned historians fell into what Pressly describes as the “Nationalist Tradition” (221). Each wrote from a perspective of promoting sectional reconciliation between North and South, and each was devoutly nationalist. They viewed themselves as members of a unified community in a nation-state ruled by a central government, not as members of a decentralized union of sovereign states (or members of no community at all). This distinction is crucial because it demonstrates that while objectivity was encouraged in historical study, the actual result of many works during this period was subjective satisfaction with the results of the war, most notably the fact that the Union was preserved intact. Likewise, any commentary on slavery was usually critical of the institution, but that criticism stemmed from a belief that slavery had caused a destructive chasm between North and South, not necessarily because it was a moral wrong.

Nevertheless, the first batch of professional historians made strenuous efforts to demonstrate an “objective” analysis for understanding what the Confederacy fought for. Woodrow Wilson essentially argued in his 1893 history of the Civil War–Division and Reunionthat both sides were “right” in their own way. Supporters of the Confederacy, according to Wilson, were right for interpreting the U.S. Constitution as supporting the “compact theory” of government (that the union was composed of sovereign states). Supporters of the Union, however, were also right in that they understood the Constitution as “a living organism” that changed over time and that the “compact theory” of governance was no longer in play by the time of the Civil War (211). Additionally, both sides had fought heroically and neither side could be blamed for starting the war. Wilson and Frederick Jackson Turner, rather than blaming the war on one side based on the actions of an “evil” individual (as did writers in the 1860s and 1870s like Edward Pollard in The Lost Cause), used their professional training to analyze economic, social, and geographical factors that contributed to the war. This in turn played a role in interpreting the war as a blameless conflict, at least with regards to political leaders at the time of the war’s breakout in 1861.

In perhaps one of the most ridiculous statements of the time, Emerson D. Fite, writing a book on the 1860 Presidential Election in 1911, boldly proclaimed that “both sides were right! Neither could have given in and have remained true to itself.” (195-196)

The fact that these historians were nationalists and professionally trained partially explains why they were so vocal about sectional reconciliation, but another crucial factor was also in play. None of these historians experienced the Civil War firsthand, and they had little to no interaction with the prewar antebellum society that had failed to resolve its problems peacefully (each of the aforementioned historians was born in 1856, 1861, 1854, 1856, and 1874 respectively). They were not participants of the war but rather the first generation of observers to study it from afar. This fact is particularly important when one realizes that these men had little to no experience with the institution of slavery, and perhaps this is why they did not consider it as an important factor in reinforcing their nationalist sentiments.

None of these historians analyzed the Grand Army of the Republic or what veterans were doing after the war, and part of this is because GAR Encampment records were secret at the time. However, it is nonetheless important to analyze the “Nationalist Tradition” school of thought because their interpretations of the Civil War were popular with many historians well into the 1950s. Historians that began writing about the GAR in the 1930s and onward were heavily influenced by the “Nationalist Tradition,” and these feelings of nationalism and sectional reconciliation would seep into their analyses of Civil War veterans in the twentieth century. It is this period to which we will turn to next as I analyze one historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his book on Civil War veterans in 1937.


[Note: the original draft of this essay mistakenly stated that the year of this historian’s book was 1936. My apologies].

GAR Veterans Remember the Civil War

Children at the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument on Memorial Day, 1901. I took this poor-quality image from a microfilm reader at the Indiana State Library.
Children at the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on Memorial Day, 1901. I took this image from a microfilm reader.

Leo Rassieur woke up early on the morning of May 30, 1901. It was Memorial Day and the Missouri native had a train to catch. While he had frequently stayed in Missouri for Memorial Day commemorations, this year would be different. Rassieur would soon be leaving from Union Station in St. Louis to attend this year’s Memorial Day services in Indianapolis.

Forty years ago, Rassieur had enlisted for service as a Second Sergeant with the Union Army in the 1st Regiment, U.S. Reserve Corps, Missouri Infantry, in St. Louis. After the regiment’s one year term concluded, Rassieur returned to St. Louis and reenlisted with the 30th Regiment of the Missouri Infantry, which fought in the Trans-Mississippi theater of the war, including the battle of Chickasaw Bayou, the Siege of Vicksburg, and the assault and capture of Fort Blakely. Rassieur was a Captain by the time the 30th was mustered out of service on August 31, 1865.

In the years after the Civil War, Rassieur became an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Missouri. When the National Encampment of the GAR came to St. Louis in 1887, Rassieur was elected as a representative of the Department of Missouri and selected by Department Commander Nelson Cole to join a committee that was instructed “to take charge of and arrange everything that will be necessary for the proper care of the National Encampment.” In 1900, Rassieur was elected to a one year term as the Grand Army of the Republic’s National Commander-in-Chief. As Commander-in-Chief, Rassieur traveled around the country attending state Encampments, meeting with GAR members, and encouraging Union veterans who had not already joined the GAR to do so. In anticipation of Memorial Day, the Indiana GAR arranged to have Rassieur make the keynote speech for Memorial Day services at Crown Hill Cemetery, the third largest non-government cemetery in the United States today.

The Indianapolis News took great interest in Rassieur’s arrival and provided a detailed description of the day’s events in an article entitled “In Memory of the Dead” in an evening edition of that day’s paper. Rassieur arrived at Indianapolis Union Station at 8:30AM and was greeted by Indiana GAR leadership. Rassieur and company made their way to the nearly-completed Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (the formal dedication ceremonies took place in May 1902), where children in local schools throughout Indianapolis were decorating the monument with flowers. To instill a sense of patriotism within these students, the Superintendent of public schools had called off school for the day, and the News estimated that roughly 1,500 children were present to lead the parade from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument to Crown Hill Cemetery.

Once the group arrived at Crown Hill, Rassieur addressed his audience. Similar to the thousands of Memorial Day addresses given by the GAR veterans all across the country, Rassieur attempted to use his memories of the Civil War to educate his audience (especially those who were not alive at the time of the conflict) about the meaning of the war, what the Union soldiers had died for, and why remembrance was essential to good citizenship and patriotism. Rassieur also reflected on the life of Indiana GAR member and former U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, who had recently passed away. While Rassieur’s entire speech is too long for this post, a few select quotes can convey the central ideas of his speech:

The Union volunteer soldier and sailor, though serving in an [sic] humble capacity, was no ordinary citizen of the republic… His conception of duty… was grand and noble. It was a holy and pure patriotism that led him to tender his service to his imperiled country. He fully appreciated that the service involved a bloody contest with his fellow-citizens of the South. He had learned of their preparation for that contest. He knew how terribly in earnest was their desire for a separation and how strongly they believed in their imagined superiority over their brothers of the North and West… Our solider and sailor was not only great in the performance of every duty, and in the overcoming of every obstacle, he was also great in guarding himself against the perpetuating of such wrongs as are frequently indulged in by victorious armies… those that survived the struggle returned to their civic occupations with increased need for the upbuilding of our reunited country, and with an unbounded veneration for the civil laws of the land, which has been manifested by them on every occasion.

Rassuieur continued:

Not only did they make exemplary citizens as far as their own conduct was concerned, but in the furtherance of the best interest of our entire country these victorious soldiers and sailors of the republic forgave their opponents, the vanquished armies of the South, and unhesitatingly urged them to renew their allegiance to a reunited country and invited them to a free and equal participation in all the rights of American citizenship, the greatest of all earthly boons.

On the face of it, Rassuieur’s speech may not seem all that remarkable. However, we must remember that the process of remembering involves a subjective creation of memories. What is mentioned in a speech and what is left out can say a lot about how a person feels not only about the past but about the present as well, and Rassuier tells us a few things about his conception of the past and the present in these excerpts. Several notable points stuck out to me as I read this speech for the first time:

  • Rassieur rejects the idea that Confederates were engaging in treason when he refers to them as “fellow-citizens.” Forgiveness and reconciliation with former Confederates are central to Rassieur’s speech.
  • He believes Southerners were mistaken in their attempt to leave the Union. However, Union soldiers–through their voluntary service in the military–had demonstrated what Rassieur believed to be the most noble qualities of citizenship: dedication to duty, honor, and sacrifice to the nation. As exemplars of good citizenship, Union soldiers had allegedly “forgiven” their former enemies, returned to their “civic occupations” (without any issues, ostensibly), and followed the laws of the land. Even better, Union veterans had gladly invited their former adversaries to return to the Union and enjoy the greatest gift a people could ever receive: American Citizenship.
  • Rassieur hardly ever mentions the Union Dead (even though the Union Dead were the reason why Memorial Day was established), nor is there any mention of slavery or emancipation.

Were these sentiments shared by other veterans? How did other Union veterans feel about their former enemies? Did any Union veterans believe that former Confederates had engaged in treason, and were they deserving of American citizenship after the war? What about slavery and emancipation? Did white Union veterans ignore the legacy of emancipation in the years after the war?

These questions and many more in regards to Civil War Memory fascinate me, and historians–especially within the past twenty years–have begun to go through primary source documents like Rassieur’s speech to see how people remembered the Civil War in the years after the conflict. My thesis addresses some of these memory questions, but the focus of my thesis is centered on events in Indiana, so I haven’t really had the chance to explore the Union/Confederate dynamic very much. Over the next few weeks, I will analyze how Indiana GAR soldiers remembered the Civil War and how they viewed former Confederates. We’ll also look at how different historians have interpreted GAR veterans and Civil War Memory over time.

Have a great Labor Day. Thanks for reading.