Patrick Young, a lawyer and historian who keeps a vigorous presence online, has a nice review of Elizabeth Leonard’s new book on the life of General and Congressman Benjamin Butler that I found interesting.
Young points out that Civil War historians and enthusiasts alike are quick to denounce President Lincoln for appointing politicians with no prior military experience to generalships when the war first broke out. After all, why would Lincoln risk the well-being of his armies by placing inexperienced men into such powerful positions?
The standard reasoning behind Lincoln’s decision is that he sought to curry favor with respected politicians, especially those from the Democrat party, who may have been on the fence about Lincoln’s policies and approach to the war. In other words, the “political generals” were appointed because of . . . politics.
Young does a nice job of asking readings to re-examine the situation on the ground in April 1861 and to also look for international examples of politicians commanding soldiers.
Young points out that there simply weren’t enough qualified military officials who were prepared to take command of large forces when the Civil War began. Not least of which was because many regular U.S. army officers joined the Confederacy. “If there were mature, experienced, West Pointers in 1861 to fill all of the top posts in the Union army, I am guessing Lincoln would have appointed them,” Young argues. Seen in this light, it is logical to presume that politicians with experience in leadership and public service could be relied upon to offer their services to the military, not simply from a practical standpoint but a moral one as well. If a politician supports a war, they ought to be willing to fight it too.
Continuing, Young argues that “part of the problem in these discussions is the ignorance of many Americans of revolutions, civil wars, secessions, and other internal conflicts in countries other than the United States. Looking at the Chinese or Russian revolutions, the Spanish Civil War, the Vietnamese armed decolonization struggle against France, or the various 19th Century Latin American independence movements, we see that many non-professional soldiers wound up in command of large numbers of troops. Even a quick look at the American Revolution tells us that the revolutionary movement had to promote non-professionals to command. America’s Civil War was no exception to this rule.”
These two explanations do much to help me understand the situation Lincoln faced in April 1861. A deficit of good military leadership in a rapidly growing volunteer army forced him to look outside of the regular pre-Civil War army for leadership, a precedent set by many previous military conflicts at home and abroad.
I thought Young’s review was very good and I look forward to eventually getting around to reading Leonard’s new book on Benjamin Butler.
Throughout the 1850s, the abolitionist William Still played a crucial role in assisting hundreds of enslaved people seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, Still was unique among Underground Railroad conductors in that he actively took notes on the enslaved freedom seekers who sought refuge with him. The act of note-taking was a very risky move given that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act mandated that all Northerners living in non-slave states were required to assist the federal government in returning freedom seekers to their enslavers.
In any case, Still compiled his notes and published a book in 1872, The Underground Railroad, to demonstrate the heroism of the freedom seekers who sought refuge with him.
A new biography of Still by William C. Kashatus was published was published just last year with Notre Dame University Press, William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia. Included this book was a very comprehensive appendix with information on nearly 1,000 freedom seekers who sought refuge with Still. This appendix was organized by the late James McGowan and Kashatus. After some personal contemplation, I decided that I wanted to create a downloadable dataset featuring Still’s Underground Railroad in order to make this information more readily available. Using a combination of the McGowan/Kashatus information along with some of my own research, I produced that dataset and recently made it available to the public.
Although I wrote this essay about Ulysses S. Grant and public monuments two years ago, I recently received an interesting comment in response to that essay. The comment asked about the usefulness of monuments and statues as tools to promote civil religion and whether I felt they could still serve that purpose. I wanted to share the original comment and my response here.
First, I understand we don’t need statues to document accurate history and that instead monuments are about popular memory. But do you think monuments of heroes meant to inspire veneration as part of America’s civil religion — which helps a diverse society cohere around a shared story — are not necessary or helpful?
Second, as to Grant specifically, do you feel that critics (today, it’s racial justice activists; in the past, it was Lost Causers) are missing a sense of proportion and context? If we weigh:
a) In his personal life, Grant’s benefitted directly from one enslaved person of his own for about a year and indirectly from 30 enslaved held by the Dent family over a couple decades, against
b) In his public life, Grant won the Civil War that permanently ended 250 years of slavery in our part of North America and enabled 4 million people and their descendants to enjoy freedom (imperfect though it be)
Does a fair sense of proportion help us re-orient the discussion towards Grant’s real significance to American and world history?
Here is how I responded:
To your first question, I do admit that I take a skeptical view of the use of statues and monuments within the context of civil religion. My primary concerns are that they promote the worship of false idols and overly simplify the complexities of history. Put differently, I get worried about histories that are flattened in the name of unquestioned patriotism, nationalism, and the glorification of the nation-state. While I think there are many admirable people from the past that we can learn from, I think the language of “heroes” and “veneration” runs the risk of creating division within the diverse groups you speak of. After all, veneration is quite literally the act of honoring a saint. Therefore, within the context of civil religion, if certain individuals or groups do not properly “venerate” historical figures deemed as important to society through monumentation, they are considered unpatriotic, not real Americans, politically radical, etc. etc. So yes, I question the very premise that statues can help diverse societies cohere around a shared understanding of the past.
I am personally interested in Jurgen Habermas’s ideas around “constitutional patriotism,” or the notion that societies work to develop a respect and appreciation for civic ideals central to a republican form of government: freedom, liberty, civil rights, democracy, checks and balances, and the rule of law, etc. rather than the veneration of specific individuals from history. Individuals can help students of history appreciate these civic ideals in action, but I think there are more appropriate methods for achieving these ends, most notably the use of primary sources and facilitated dialogue between historians, educators, and students.
To your second question, I don’t know if I have a great answer to offer. I would begin by saying that it is definitely important for us to study individuals personal lives so that we can see what factors shaped their future actions and beliefs. It is very significant to Ulysses S. Grant’s story to understand the context of his interactions with slavery in the 1850s. At the same time, it is obviously true that those actions alone cannot define Grant’s entire legacy. In fact, those connections to slavery actually help us better appreciate how far he evolved in supporting civil rights as president in the 1870s. All of these factors live together in tension when studying Grant’s life, and professional historians are far from unified in their interpretations of Grant’s “real significance” to history. So it’s no surprise to me that society at large has a very conflicted attitude towards Grant’s significance. As a historian, all I can hope for is that all people make a genuine effort to appreciate context, complexity, and nuance when studying the past.
To briefly expand my original response, I wasn’t really sure how to address the “racial justice activists vs. Lost Causers” dichotomy. For one, there are plenty of Lost Causers still around today – they have not been removed to the dustbin of history and you only need to get onto social media for about five minutes to see Lost Cause-ism in action. One of the challenges in ascribing a motive for tearing down Grant’s statue in San Francisco is that we still don’t know who did it or what the motivation was for doing it. Was it taken down for racial justice? Was it because of Grant’s slaveholding past or his Indian policies or something else entirely? Do all that many people outside of history even know that Grant enslaved a man? I don’t really know. Within the context of the summer of 2020, I think Grant simply became a symbol of governmental power that was targeted because of that symbolism and not necessarily because of his legacy or “real significance” to American history. That no other statues or monuments of Grant have come down since then suggests it really was about the politics of 2020.
A friend shared the following quote from the late author Michael Crichton in his book Prey. It’s been rattling around in my head since I saw it.
“We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. We never seem to acknowledge that we have been wrong in the past, and so might be wrong in the future. Instead, each generation writes off earlier errors as a result of bad thinking by less able minds—and then confidently embarks on fresh errors of its own.”
I have mixed feelings about this sentiment.
Of course, without having read the book I don’t know the context in which Crichton uses the term “we.” Putting that aside, I think the quote speaks to the value of studying history while at the same time going too far in trying to make history a tool to solve future social problems.
On the one hand, Crichton argues that societies fail to acknowledge mistakes from the past, but then follows by saying that each generation does acknowledge past mistakes but is too quick to dismiss those mistakes as “bad thinking by less able minds.” It would be very easy to find examples of both in action. All too often, the way history is taught to young people in a formal education setting is a form of what the late James Loewen described as “chronological ethnocentrism.” Put simply, the past is left in the past. Chronological ethnocentrism “lets [history textbook authors] sequester bad things, from racism and robber barons, in the distant past,” Loewen argues. “Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all ‘know’ everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now.”
Another point not always acknowledged is that it isn’t so much that people from the past were less intelligent than people in the present. It’s that they did not have access to the same tools, technology, and information that people in the present have.
On the other hand, Crichton seems to imply that each generation ends up making “fresh errors” because of historical ignorance, and that by extension a strong sense of historical literacy will help those generations avoid making the same or new mistakes in the future. In other words, it’s a return to the old quote from George Santayana about those being ignorant of the past being doomed to repeat it.
To me, this part of Crichton’s point oversells the value of history.
The reality is that new mistakes will be made regardless of an individual or society’s collective historical knowledge. There will always be new mistakes because unprecedented circumstances, contingencies, and surprises will emerge that history cannot provide an answer for. A specific outcome from a particular historical event does not mean that the same outcome will emerge in a similar future event. To cite but one example, the 1918 influenza pandemic did not prevent another pandemic from emerging a little over 100 years, nor did it provide a solution for reducing sickness and death in this current plague. History alone cannot save us.
Growing up, I got into history for two different reasons. One is that history is simply interesting to me on its own terms. Regardless of what artifacts, documents, or books might have to say about the present, they hold a power in their own right for what they can say about the time period in which they were created. Secondly, I was interested in understanding how present day society arrived at its current social, political, and economic situation. But I don’t know if I ever got into history because I believed it provided a blueprint for the future. I don’t think it can.
There’s a lot of value in studying past case studies to see what worked and what didn’t; to be inspired by good acts while being aware of bad ones; to do our best to avoid the mistakes of the past. But when it comes to predicting the future . . . I’ll leave that to the meteorologists, social scientists, and data analysists.
In 2019, the American Historical Association published a fascinating study titled “History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey.” Broken up into ten different chapters, this study saw thousands of people respond to a 40-question survey about their relationship to history. Among other things, the study asked respondents to define what history means to them, what their experiences were like in history classes growing up, and what aspects of history they wanted to learn more about. One of the most fascinating chapters of the study asks respondents to explain what mediums they use to better understand history.
The first thought that came to my mind when seeing this chapter was that the internet had to be the number one source for obtaining information about history. Historians and lay audiences often spend a lot of time online, after all, and scholars of all different disciplines have been pre-occupied with promoting media literacy in recent years given the preponderance of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories online.
Much to my surprise, however, only 59 percent of respondents stated that they relied on a “non-Wikipedia” source online to learn about history and only 46 percent relied on Wikipedia as a source. In other words, only about six in ten people use the internet as a source for obtaining information history.
Instead, the survey found that the top three sources relied on by respondents were documentary films/TV series (69%), fictional movies/TV series (66%), and TV News (62% – yikes). As the study itself noted, “the top three choices were all video format . . . of note is that such sources are readily available, usually take minimal effort to engage, and may ask for little imagination on the part of the viewer.” For a variety of reasons, televised historical content does the best at reaching people where they are and meeting them on their own terms. Moreover, these results give the impression that casual viewers are more interested in watching content in a visual format rather than reading that content in a digital or print paper form.
I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the implications of this study, but my own TV watching habits led me to an unlikely source of enlightenment: Tony Soprano.
Tony Soprano is a history enthusiast. He cares greatly about his family’s history, his neighborhood’s history, and the history of the United States more broadly. He likes talking about history at the dinner table. He likes to watch old black-and-white movies and History Channel documentaries, particularly about World War II, in his free time. Very perceptively, Tony also distinguishes between history and nostalgia, arguing in one of my favorite lines of the series that “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” Tony’s life is full of chaos, but those rare moments at the TV set provide watching the History Channel provide some sense of normalcy.
Importantly, other sources of information about history—the internet, history books (popular history or academic history), lectures, museums, historic sites, or a formal classroom–do not figure into Tony’s life. After all, he’s a busy guy in a face-to-face industry. There’s been a lot of change with the internet between 2007 and 2022, but I suspect that many people, particular baby boomers and older, still don’t spend a great deal of time online.
I think the point of my thoughts here is that while I am someone who prefers to read historical content with an academic flavor, I am constantly reminded that the vast majority of history enthusiasts do not consume history the same way I do. Public history, as I have said time and time again, is about meeting people where they are. In this case of Tony Soprano, that means working to ensure that historical documentaries convey good information to their audiences. After all, some people who watch these documentaries might “graduate” to learning more online, visiting a historic site, or reading a book, but many viewers like Tony Soprano might never go beyond watching that documentary. I totally get it. I love watching National Geographic documentaries about nature, but I don’t have many books about science in my library. My interest in science is to a large extent centered around the television and an occasional science museum visit. It’s not that I don’t care about science so much as that we all have busy lives that require us to choose what we want to be experts in.
Moving forward, I’m going to try and work on taking more time to study history documentaries and to think more critically about their format and content delivery. I found Brooks Simpson’s review of the History Channel’s 2020 documentary, Grant, to be quite enlightening on this front. I also applaud the work of my colleagues in the history department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who have designed an innovative course on documentary filmmaking for public history graduate students that teaches them the basics of historical interpretation, script writing, and video editing in Adobe Premiere Pro. Such a course could be valuable for public historians wanting to pursue their passion for history through film and television.
I have been interested in the concept of colorized historical photos for several years. This interest was initially sparked by artist Marina Amaral’s wonderful colorizations that she frequently shared on Twitter. I found myself drawn to the artistry of her use of colors to breathe a new life into old photos and often found myself pausing on my timeline to admire her work. She eventually published many of her colorizations in a book, The Color of Time, that now sits on my coffee table at home. I have also drawn much inspiration from museum historian Mark Loerher’s wonderful colorizations of St. Louis on his Instagram page, Arch City History. I have dabbled with photography for many years and have been drawn to 19th century history partly because so much of it has been documented through photographs.
A few months ago I decided that I wanted to get in on the fun. I was anxious to blend my passions for history and photography to see what I could produce with a new hobby. I downloaded GIMP, a free open-source photo editing software, and began watching video tutorials on how the use the software. I’ve colorized around 15 photos since December and have also been teaching myself how to restore badly damaged photos. Learning these new skills has been a lot of fun and has helped me get through a very cold winter. I’ve also created my own Instagram page, History Beyond Black and White, to showcase my own colorization projects.
It is safe to say, however, that I have been ambivalent about joining the colorization world partly because the historian in me recognizes several genuine criticisms to be made about their usefulness as historical documents. For one, colorizations are difficult to get right from an aesthetic viewpoint and I have seen many poor examples online, or at least examples that do not line up with my own imagination. One might also think about Ted Turner’s colorizations of classic movies, which are hard to watch and don’t hit the right way emotionally. There is also a risk of overly romanticizing colorized photos–which are ultimately interpretations of historical photos–at the expense of appreciating the artistry and historical value of original black and white photos.
A few historian colleagues have expressed skepticism about colorizations since I’ve started this new hobby. In what follows below I will try to outline my own views as to whether colorized photos can help people better understand the past.
How do you know what colors to use for colorizations? The answer, simply put, is that most of the time I don’t know what colors to use because there’s no documentation to confirm such details. The above colorization of Bob Wilkinson serves as a useful example. The colors of his suit jacket, vest, pocket watch, and skin tone are entirely my interpretation of what I envision Wilkinson’s appearance might have been on the day he had this photograph taken. Someone else could make his vest gold and his suit jacket black. Someone else could go with purple and green. The only thing that can be confirmed factually is the gold casing around the image.
In situations like the above image, it is important to stress that most colorizations are ultimately subjective, interpretive, and a form of art. The above work is not a scientific recreation of Wilkinson’s exact appearance with regards to colors, which is impossible to determine given the lack of documentation. It is merely an attempt to give an impression of what colors may have existed in this very specific moment in time. In this sense I would have a hard time saying that colorizations are a form of history. But I do think colorizations allow for us to think about history in new ways, however you may want to define that term. Perhaps most importantly, colorizations allow people to creatively use their imagination to envision how dynamic the past would have appeared at a given time.
To be sure, there are times when specific colors can be confirmed. For example, a Civil War soldier’s military records would have included a description of height, weight, hair color, and skin color, all of which could allow the artist a more approximate view of how a person would have appeared (although the number of skin tones within the terms “black,” “brown,” “white,” and other racial definers is infinite, making the choice of skin tone perhaps the most difficult part of colorizing historic photos). At other times the artist can rely on diaries, newspaper articles, obituaries, or other primary source documents to help confirm colors.
A good example is a somewhat famous picture of an unidentified United States Colored Troops soldier who was stationed at Benton Barracks in St. Louis for part of the Civil War. Enoch Long, an area photographer who took many pictures at Benton Barracks during the war, commissioned the painting of several colorful backdrops that were used to provide an extra visual appeal to his photographs. Thankfully, we have knowledge of the colors contained in the backdrop Long used in the below photo. Combined with my knowledge of Civil War uniforms, I was able to create a colorization that is pretty close to the actual colors that may have been used in the original photograph, I think.
Colorized photos are similar to cover songs. As a musician, I sometimes enjoy hearing cover songs and have played in several cover bands over the years. Some artists attempt to use cover songs to recreate original songs in their exact form, but in reality a wide canvas exists for musicians to create new meanings to original songs through different instrumentation, time signatures, key changes, tones, and dynamics. Sometimes covers can be just as inspiring as originals. John Mayer’s cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” on acoustic guitar is a beautiful remake of a classic that pushes the song into a new dimension not previously considered. More recently, the artist Roosevelt’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” uses synthesizers, electronic beats, and a key change from the original to create a catchy remake of a classic song. I can’t stop listening to it.
Cover songs, remixes, and mash-ups are an artistic form of expression that can be imaginative and inspiring. They can challenge people to think of original songs in new ways. I think the same kind of thinking towards colorized photos is helpful.
Black and white photos have their own inaccuracies. Black and white photos are accurate representations of the past in that they capture a moment in time and depict important qualities that help people understand how things appeared during that moment. These photos can accurately depict shape such as a person’s face, a billboard sign, a farm animal or an automobile. They can capture people, places, and objects in their materiality. The images captured by those cameras reflect the capabilities of the machine technology within the camera at the time the photo was produced. Black and white photographs therefore offer a representation of the past that can be relied upon as being accurate. At the same time, all would acknowledge that these photos are an accurate representation of the past only to a certain extent given the wide range of colors that were not captured by these cameras.
Critics of colorizations are quick to point out the subjective nature of coloring an image with colors that may not have been in the original image, which is a fair point. But it’s worth remembering that the world has never just been black and white. While colorizations are works of art that can rarely be elevated to the level of historical scholarship, colorized photos do hold the potential to convey a more accurate historical reality by depicting the dynamic color palettes of people, places, and objects from the past. They also hold the potential of exposing fine details not normally seen in a black and white photo. In other words, we may consider the idea of a black and white photo and its colorized counterpart as being two different interpretations of a moment in time, acknowledging that both versions have their own unique shortcomings.
Colorized photos can help students better connect with the past. I read an article several years ago–the author escapes me now–who argued that it was important for students to see Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders in color. The author warned that the black and white tones of many photos from this time run the risk of acting as a veil. She argued that it was important to stress to students that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is recent history that remains a lived memory for many people still living today. By seeing people from this time in color, it helped humanize their stories and reinforced the idea that these were real people with meaningful experiences worth studying. These arguments were fascinating to me, and it would be an interesting experiment to see how children react to colorized images compared to their black and white counterparts.
It’s not that black and white photos aren’t important. They very much are. But the experience of seeing history in color can be powerful, meaningful, and inspiring. In my short time colorizing historic photos I’ve already seen and interacted with people who were moved by the art I was able to create. That alone inspires me to keep learning new techniques and to hopefully be in a position to help people who’d want to have their own family photos colorized someday. While colorizations are most certainly an art, I do consider them to be a tool I can use as a public historian to help people connect with the past.
For many years, public historians have called for an updated version of David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig’s 1998 book The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. That book summarized the results of a phone survey of 1,453 Americans from a range of backgrounds who reflected on their relationship with history. Participants in that study were asked how they define history, what value they put on it, and what sources they relied on to generate their understandings of the past.
The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) have recently formed a partnership called “Reframing History.” This partnership is working with FrameWorks to conduct research and update our collective understandings of how people define their relationship with history. This work should be applauded. I was excited to read their recently published report, “Making History Work: From Abstract Truth to Critical Engagement,” when it was published earlier this week. According to the report’s research methods paper, 54 people were interviewed via Zoom and nearly 5,000 people filled out an online survey, tripling the number of respondents who participated in Thelen and Rosenzweig’s 1998 study.
What follows here is a summarization of four recommendations the report makes and some comments I have on these recommendations. Overall I think this report is a useful tool that public history sites should keep on file and discuss among staff that interacts with the public. I certainly look forward to chatting about it with my colleagues. However, I question a number of arguments and assumptions made in the report.
The report argues that history communicators should strive to frame history as an ongoing process of developing critical thinking skills. These skills will help people better participate in contemporary society and promote a better future. The authors suggest that there are popular misconceptions about the purpose of history and the methods historians use to better understand the past. Somewhat controversially (to me, at least), the authors assert that “the reality is that people think of history as a hobby for enthusiasts rather than as something they should be concerned about.”
I disagree strongly with this latter assertion. History is of great interest to many people who are not professionals or don’t consider themselves professionals. The Barnes & Noble history section always gets a lot of traffic, history documentaries get high ratings, and people turn to a wide rage of sources to obtain information about the past. People who consume history often describe themselves as enthusiasts and are certainly concerned about history and the way it is taught. The challenge, to me, is not that people don’t care about history. It’s that new academic historical scholarship is not taken seriously or viewed with suspicion by many of the same enthusiasts who readily consume content on the History Channel or a David McCullough book. Public historians who challenge conventional understandings of the past or attempt to broaden narratives to include new racial, gender, or sexuality perspectives often face potential backlash for their efforts.
Another note with the introduction. One thing that immediately stuck out to me is that this report uses the term “communicators” as opposed to “public historians” or even “history communicators.” I’m sure this term was used in an effort to be inclusive given that not everyone who discusses history with public audiences identifies as a public historian. Fair enough. But as someone who personally identifies as a public historian, I find the term “communicator” awkward. What are we communicating about? We are communicating the stuff of history to public audiences from all different types of backgrounds. Regardless of whether one personally identifies as a historian, that person is a “history communicator” when they work within the realm of public history. Somewhat relatedly, while the list of authors and advisory board members of this report come from impressive backgrounds–including National Park Service sites and history museums–I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these scholars currently communicate with the public on a regular basis about history as a part of their daily work beyond the scope of this report.
The report argues that lay audiences consider the study of history to be an effort by scholars to find one universal, factual “truth” about the past. This truth, once it has been obtained, is definite and unchanging. Anyone who challenges historical “truth” is therefore criticized as being biased, subject, or a “revisionist.” To remedy this popular perception, the authors argue that history communicators should focus on skills-building rather than finding the “truth.” They should avoid talking about “historical truth” and instead help people formulate a “deeper understanding of our society and how it came to be.” Moreover, history communicators should stress the importance of using a variety of methods to study diverse perspectives and forms of evidence. The authors even go so far as to suggest that rather than saying “by studying history, we make sense of the past by collecting, analyzing, and interpreting [historical] stories,” history communicators should say “by studying history, we build critical thinking skills that apply to all aspects of our lives.”
While it is certainly important to stress the methodological benefits of studying history, the teaching of critical thinking skills should not be prioritized at the expense of answering difficult questions people may have about the accuracy of a given historical event. Rather than avoiding discussions about the meaning of “truth,” I would rather expand the idea of “truth” to suggest that multiple truths can coexist simultaneously. By extension, multiple plausible interpretations of a given event can coexist simultaneously. To this point, I think there is real value in what the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience describes as the “four truths of history.” These truths–forensic truth, personal truth, social truth, and healing truth–do a nice job of highlighting the intersection of memory and history in understanding the past. A person may have a memory about the past that they consider the truth. A society may have an understanding of the past that they consider the truth (as expressed through monuments, memorials, and other public iconography). And yet individuals and societies may hold individual and collective truths that don’t fully align with the historical record, which leads to the creation of myths and misinformation about the past. An important part of public history is helping people navigate the intersection of memory, history, and The Past. Avoiding discussions about the meaning of truth seems counterintuitive for any effort to discuss the meaning of history.
The report argues that people view historians as objective journalists who are asked to simply “report the facts.” With this view of history, the historian-journalist dutifully reports past events exactly as they happened. Eyewitness accounts are prioritized as the final word on what happened in the past; efforts by historians to critically analyze, contextualize, or interpret these eyewitness accounts is seen as a potential road to a biased understanding of the past. “The belief that the past can be easily and straightforwardly documented and reported on is connected to the public’s belief that ‘one truth’ about the past is out there waiting to be found,” according to the authors. The best way to work through these misconceptions is to use the metaphor of detective work to describe the historical process (but not the term “detective,” which the authors believe could lead to negative associations with police). The report argues that the detective metaphor is preferred to the journalism metaphor because it better demonstrates the use of sources and methods to provide new understandings of a past event.
The detective metaphor is not a new innovation. Nikki Madel and Bobbie Malone’s 2008 guidebook for k-12 history teachers effectively used the detective metaphor to help teachers explain the purpose of history to their students. Nevertheless I do think it is a useful metaphor and I have used it myself to explain the purpose of history to audiences (although I admit that I don’t see how the term “detective work” does not convey images of law enforcement while the term “detective” does). But it’s worth asking whether the terms “journalist” and “detective” are as opposite as the authors make them out to be. Doesn’t detective work also rely on eyewitnesses? Don’t journalists try to rely on a wide range of sources when conducting research and not simply eyewitness testimony? At the end of the day, aren’t journalists and detectives trying their best to find “one truth about the past . . . out there waiting to be found?”
A different metaphor mentioned in the methods report would be the advancement of medical knowledge. Simply put, nobody wants to receive medical care today using medical knowledge and tools from 1850 or 1950. That doesn’t mean that medical knowledge from 1850 or 1950 isn’t useful. On the contrary, we could learn a lot about what worked and didn’t work by studying medical history from those periods. But ultimately our understanding of medicine is updated as new insights are made and new technological advancements are made. The medicine metaphor is as useful if not more useful than the detective metaphor.
The report argues that non-historians recognize the importance of learning from past mistakes, oftentimes repeating the overly-simplistic Santayana quote about those not knowing history being doomed to repeat it. The authors argue that this knowledge suggests that many people recognize the importance of studying history. However, the authors correctly acknowledge that what it means to reckon with and “move forward” from the past greatly varies from person to person. They suggest that history communicators speak to universal ideals of progress and justice when explaining the significance of history, although they stress that communicators do not need to use these terms explicitly. With this view of history, the authors suggest that history communicators should not simply explain how we’ve gotten to the present, but that an emphasis should be made to highlight how history can create a more just future. The authors argue that framing history as essential to a better world “builds support for dedicating more resources” towards history education in schools, museums, and elsewhere.
In a world where every word is seemingly politicized and even bland terms like “social justice” and “progress” are viewed with scorn in certain quarters, I am skeptical of the pivot towards the future rather than what’s happening here and now. While I certainly believe history can help create a more just future, I am doubtful that such claims will lead to increased resources for history education.
More philosophically, I do not believe history automatically provides a roadmap for a more just world or helps us predict what is going to happen next. Without being overly pessimistic, it seems obvious to me that history proves that the arc of the moral universe does not automatically bend towards justice. I am reminded of what historian Robert Greene III argued on Twitter several years ago. While I don’t have his exact tweets on hand, Greene essentially argued that there will always be new mistakes to be made, unprecedented problems that can’t be solved by studying history, and new challenges that history alone can’t solve. Moreover, those who have a strong knowledge of history (see history and law student Vladimir Putin, for example), are often just as susceptible to making grave, tragic mistakes that negatively harm the world.
Am I opposed to promoting justice and progress? Of course not. But I do feel that the work of public history should be rooted in appreciating the ways history shapes our world today. How we move forward from history and what will happen in the future are questions that cannot be resolved by historians alone.
The report calls for history communicators to use specific, concrete examples to build support for inclusive history. Harkening back to a crucial insight from The Presence of the Past, the authors call for history communicators to emphasize local history when discussing inclusive narratives. This method shows how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) made a difference in local communities and will “help ward off abstract worries about the ‘liberal agenda’ of distant elites being imposed at home.”
I thought this recommendation was the strongest of the report and I don’t have many thoughts to add to it.
Discussion of “Critical Race Theory”
The report argues that:
“The recent backlash against ‘critical race theory’ (that is, teaching about systemic racism in schools and universities) is grounded in the assumption that when it comes to history, what matters and counts is the history of white people.”
This is a shortsighted, overly simplistic explanation of “critical race theory” criticisms that does little to advance the conversation forward.
While I have no doubt that racism does play a role for some CRT critics, I would argue that a great number of them are not opposed to having people of color in the history curriculum. They want discussions of Martin Luther King, Jr., but they want a non-controversial version of MLK who expressed his love for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and not the version of MLK who questioned capitalism, criticized the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, and criticized white moderates for their indifference to racial justice. They want Frederick Douglass as a loyal Republican party member, but not the Douglass who eloquently explained why African Americans did not view the 4th of July as “their” holiday or who believed Abraham Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” They want examples of minority success that reaffirm notions of American exceptionalism. They want stories that highlight the idea of individual success because any examination of systematic, structural racism (such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, the reservation system, or immigration restrictions based on race and ethnicity) is deemed “critical race theory” in the service of socialism, Marxism, or some other boogyman “ism” that is declared to be at war with American values. In other words, critics of so-called “critical race theory” ground their position not in wanting an all-white history, but in the assumption that what matters and counts are positive individual stories that promote patriotism, nationalism, and loyalty to the United States.
The failure to probe the relationship between participants’ views towards history and their views towards the nation is disappointing given the long history of “patriotic education” in the United States. Since the late 19th century, a central aim of history education has focused on promoting love of country and a belief that America was the shining example of democracy for the rest of the world. In this sense history education was seen as a “practical” study that prepared students to be ready to defend the country in times of need. Much of the anxiety surrounding CRT is rooted in the fact that history education in recent years has aimed to highlight stories of struggle, marginalization, and violence that do not automatically conform to the “patriotic education” model. Therefore critics fear that students are being taught to “hate” their country, when in reality the aim of many history teachers (and public historians) has been to demonstrate how concepts such as freedom, liberty, and democracy have been contested throughout U.S. history, and that this work continues today.
(You can read and download an article I wrote about “patriotic education” below).
In conclusion, I think the spirit of reframing history is much needed, and I think this report will be useful for future public historians. But I was surprised by how often I found myself at odds with some of the central conclusions of the report. I hope future studies can be conducted that take a deeper look at how people conceive of history’s purposes within the context of how they view the purpose of patriotism, nationalism, and the nation-state.
I’ve kicked off 2022 by reading historian Karen Cox’s new book No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice. Although I have been pretty invested in the Confederate monuments debate for a while, Cox’s scholarship has been very enlightening for me. In particular, she clearly demonstrates that mass protest against Confederate monuments in public places is nothing new, particularly among Black Southerners who were often left out of the decision-making process to install these icons in public spaces in the first place. This is a particularly important point given the popular impulse to assume that this particular debate only started in 2015 with the horrific massacre of the Charleston Nine, when in reality that tragic event accelerated an already long-standing debate over the appropriateness of Confederate monuments, statues, and flags in public places.
One particularly noteworthy aspect of No Common Ground that I appreciate lies in how Cox clearly describes the ways Confederate monuments have always been inherently political. I was particularly struck by reading about the dedication of a Confederate monument in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1898. Former state governor and Confederate veteran Thomas Jones stated during the monument’s dedication that “our duty is not ended with the building of this monument,” which served as a means to “stimulate youths to admire and to . . . emulate” their ancestors. For Jones, those ancestors had not fought to preserve slavery but states’ rights, which in his mind was the true underlying message of Confederate iconography. President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of the Navy, Hilary Herbert, also a Confederate veteran, followed Jones and remarked that “we build monuments to heroes so that future generations may imitate their example.”
In summarizing the significance of this rhetoric and the erection of Confederate monuments more broadly, Cox argues that “the most enduring monument to the Confederacy was a population of white southerners educated to defend both the memory and the principles for which [the Confederacy] stood” (51). In other words, the notion that Confederate monuments can only be narrowly viewed as reminders of the past completely devoid of politics is simply untrue. Confederate veterans, Lost Cause apologists, and other supporters of Confederate monuments viewed them at the time of their erection and dedication as political tools within a larger struggle over the memory of the Civil War. As Jones implied, the monuments were but one step towards a larger goal of instilling pride in the Confederacy and support for Jim Crow governance in the present. He hoped the erection of monuments would eventually translate into written histories, school textbooks, patriotic rituals (such as Confederate Memorial Days), and a political culture in which a shared historical memory of the Confederacy served as a binding agent to promote social unity and cohesion among white southerners.
Confederate monuments were never just about honoring the soldiers or just about history, then or now.
I have written before that monuments are often a poor communicator when it comes to promoting a nuanced understanding of history. Rather, they often promote unquestioned hero-worship of false idols and a simplistic understanding of history that is really more about the present than the past. No Common Ground only reinforces my position on this topic.
When historians work to determine the scope of their research projects, they inevitably run into a Catch-22 of sorts. The issue is particularly acute when the central focus of this research is an individual or a group of individuals. For someone studying the American Civil War, they can choose to look at the words of a large group of soldiers on either side of the conflict. They can study letters, diary entries, and post-war recollections from thousands of soldiers to make broad generalizations about what soldiers told friends and loved ones about the war, how they experienced it firsthand, and how they felt about the political crisis that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades and Peter Carmichael’s more recent The War for the Common Soldier are great examples of a “macro” approach to understanding the Civil War.
Conversely, the historian can choose to focus on one individual soldier’s story. This approach has the advantage of possibly creating a strong sense of empathy and compassion within the reader as they follow the individual’s experiences during the war.
Both approaches have their disadvantages, however. Given the fact that millions of soldiers fought in the Civil War and had something to say about it, any particular viewpoint the historian wishes to highlight could ostensibly be justified through the source material. Union soldiers felt very strongly about making the Civil War a war to end slavery . . . or they were outraged about the Lincoln administration’s efforts to make the war’s aims anything besides the preservation of the Union. Civil War soldiers regularly read their Bibles and viewed the war in strongly religious terms . . . or they didn’t. Civil War veterans were anxious for political reunion and sectional reunion with their adversaries . . . or they weren’t. You get the point. For an analysis of individual stories, the challenge is being able to see the meaning of the Civil War beyond the individual soldier’s eyes. In other words, the causes, context, and consequences of the war are sometimes hard to find with an individualized approach.
Steve Procko’s Rebel Correspondenttries to thread the needle with a delightful read about Private Arba F. Shaw, a Confederate solider who wrote more than 40,000 words about his experiences with the 4th Georgia Cavalry during the American Civil War. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Shaw put pen to paper and wrote regular columns for the Walker County Messenger about his experiences during the war. Like other such recollections that are archived in newspapers, Shaw’s words were restricted to microfilm records prior to the publication of this book. Procko faithfully copies Shaw’s words and attempts to provide as much context as possible by fitting Shaw’s recollections within the context of the 4th Georgia Cavalry’s experiences during the war. In this sense the book isn’t merely a biography of Shaw but a regimental history that nicely captures the hopes, fears, and tragedies that Shaw and his comrades experienced during the war.
One of my favorite recollections from Shaw is the first one he published on December 12, 1901. In it, he recalled that:
I will say that it was a hard task for me to leave a pleasant home where peace and abundant comfort were taken [and] in exchange a miserable out door life where I was liable to be killed any day, but it was a task that for the same of honor I could not shirk from and now I am glad I performed it . . . What lamentation when husbands were called from their dear wives and little ones at home, in thousands of instances parted to meet at the fireside no more, and the young man thinking of his aspirations that were blasted and so many that went away to come no more and many that did return were so injured that their elastic steps was gone [sic] and they were maimed for life, some losing an arm, a leg, an eye, or both or many other things.
Private Arba F. Shaw, December 12, 1901
Shaw nicely summarizes how jolting the war must have been for young men who had anything but war on their minds. We are apt to think that every American was glued to their daily newspaper during the secession crisis and that they knew the war was inevitable. For Shaw, one gets the impression that he enjoyed a comfortable life with few concerns and lots of dreams when the war broke out. He does not appear to have been concerned about secession, slavery, or civil war at the time the conflict began in 1861. But eventually the force of events caught up to him and many other men in a similar situation, forcing them to make a choice about their future. For hundreds of thousands of men, that choice had life changing or deadly consequences.
I admit that I tend to gravitate towards Civil War studies from academic publications and, when reading biographies, I find myself reading more about political leaders rather than common soldiers who experienced the war firsthand. However, I think most Civil War enthusiasts are probably the opposite of me in that they love reading firsthand accounts. In this sense, Procko’s book should receive a wide readership, especially from locals in Georgia who want to learn about Shaw and the 4th Georgia Cavalry.
Because of my usual reading interests, I found myself wanting a more substantial discussion of the context in which Shaw was writing. I mean to use the word “context” in several respects. For one, Shaw himself does not discuss ideology in his writings, either his own or the Confederate government that he chose to fight for. With the preponderance of the Lost Cause and popular beliefs that the war had little to do with slavery, a discussion of the ways people chose to remember the Civil War–and how soldiers like Shaw may have shaped these discussions, even if they chose not to write about politics in their own recollections–could have been beneficial. Secondly, it would have been nice to read more about the reasons why veterans like Shaw–particularly soldiers like him who never made it past the rank of private–were anxious to tell their stories to a younger generation that had not experienced the war firsthand. I would have liked Procko to situate his study within the context of other studies on Civil War veteran culture by historians such as Keith Harris, Caroline Janney, David Blight, James Marten, Brian Matthew Jordan, and others. There were also times when I struggled to keep track of all the names and dates there were published in the book.
Having said all of this, I did enjoy reading Rebel Correspondent and hope it receives a wide readership from Civil War enthusiasts of all types. Procko is an expert on his subject and this book is very well-researched. Other scholars who are anxious to uncover stories about the American Civil War in their local community would do well to study Procko’s research methods and take note of the ways he weaves Shaw’s recollections within a larger story of the 4th Georgia Cavalry during the Civil War.
Robert E. Lee has had a rough couple years on the commemorative landscape front. His statue in New Orleans was removed in 2017, his statue in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol was removed last year, and his statue in Richmond, Virginia was removed a few days ago. While Lee’s legacy is still celebrated by a large number of Americans, it is clear that his presence within the nation’s public commemoration of the American Civil War through monuments, memorials, and statues is changing. A majority of residents within these local communities have expressed their values through activism and voting and have declared that Lee is no longer worthy of the public commemoration that he has enjoyed for more than 100 years. As our understanding of the past is constantly revised as new evidence comes to life and new interpretations are offered by historians, so too are public icons revised as new understandings of the past emerge.
There are plenty of debates to be had about the merits of Lee’s statues on historical and aesthetic grounds and the process by which these three icons were ordered to be removed through government orders. I am not interested in rehashing those debates here, but the above tweet from David Reaboi of the Claremont Institute did raise my eyebrows for what it had to say about who could participate in debates about Confederate iconography. As can be seen, Reaboi is perplexed by people who have taken a strong view of Confederate iconography but whose families have no direct connection to the Civil War since their families immigrated to the United States after the war. Reaboi labels these people (of which I’m assuming he means people opposed to Lee’s statues) as “self-righteous” and the entire idea of their participation in these debates “gross.”
I find these comments to be troubling, possibly nativist, and “gross” for a number of reasons.
On the most basic level, these comments fly in the face of inclusive commentaries about the place of immigrants and their progeny in American society. Lofty rhetoric about the United States as “A Nation of Immigrants” and legal protections in the 14th Amendment guaranteeing birthright and naturalized citizenship aim to abolish legal and cultural hierarchies between native and foreign-born citizens. In other words, once you are a citizen of the United States, it no longer matters whether you are a lifelong citizen or a citizen who became naturalized today. All citizens have the same legal protections to participate freely in American society and a right to help shape the country’s future. That would also mean the right to participate in what history is commemorated in the public square in the future, contrary to what Reaboi states.
One might also point out that a deep ancestral connection to the United States should not be fetishized. After all, there are plenty of native-born Americans with a very poor understanding of U.S. history and many foreign-born people with a strong understanding of U.S. history. It’s worth remembering, of course, that U.S. history plays an important role in the country’s naturalization test, a test that many native-born citizens would struggle with! Moreover, just because a person is descended from Robert E. Lee does not make them an expert on the American Civil War, nor does it give them an elevated voice on what should be done about Lee’s statue today. An understanding of history does not develop from genetics or through osmosis, but by use of historical methods, research, and interpretation. To say one U.S. citizen’s opinion on the Lee statue is more valid than another’s because of their ancestral origins is preposterous. What difference does it make if my ancestors came to the United States in 1826, 1866, or 2016 if I’ve studied the Civil War and have views about its history?
It is also worth mentioning that Reaboi fails to grapple with the idea that people whose descendants were here long before the American Civil War might also have a negative opinion of Confederate iconography. After all, some of the most vocal opponents of Lee’s statues are the descendants of African Americans, Native Americans, White Americans, and others who have a long ancestral history of living in the United States. The notion that the loudest “self-righteous” critics of Lee’s statues have no familial connections to the Civil War is therefore a strawman in no way rooted in the reality of the situation.
All of this is to say that NO, you do not have to have an ancestor who experienced the American Civil War firsthand in order to form an opinion on Robert E. Lee’s statue. In the end, it’s about the quality of the arguments being made and the evidence used to support those arguments. If you have a compelling argument to make, your ancestral background shouldn’t matter. Focus on the game, not the players.
Finally, I should also mention that Reaboi continued his opinions in another tweet by criticizing “our modern desire to see history as a simple morality play between forces of Progress and Evil.” The irony of this view is that public iconography is often guilty of doing this very thing by reducing complex history to a narrative of national progress and unquestioned hero worship through statuary. And since many Civil War monuments and statues were erected in the late 19th century and early 20th century, we can see that the desire to turn history into a simple morality play of progress and evil is not modern at all. These monuments and statues are actually reflective of a longstanding tradition of using history to promote nationalism, patriotism, and a “consensus” view of history. Many critics of public iconography like Robert E. Lee’s statues have grounded their criticisms on the idea that society needs to ask serious questions not just about history, but how and why we honor certain historical figures and events through public icons. Seen in this light, these critics are actually asking society to take history more seriously.
P.S… Just in case anyone is wondering about my own family connections to American history, I do have a Civil War ancestor. My great-great uncle Charles Brady served in the 49th Missouri Infantry Regiment (Union) during the war.