Reflections on Memorial Day and American Nationalism

Union and Confederate soldiers at the 50th anniversary reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. Photo credit: U.S. Army Center of Military History,
A Union and Confederate soldier at the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. Photo credit: U.S. Army Center of Military History,

The question of when, exactly, the United States became a truly unified nation has dominated the discussions of scholars seeking to explain the origins of American nationalism. Robert Penn Warren famously argued in 1961 that the United States could not be considered a nation until the blood-spilling of the American Civil War ended in 1865. The American Revolution, according to Warren, “did not create a nation except on paper . . . [The United States] became a nation, only with the Civil War.” Others argue, however, that a nation did in fact exist before the Civil War. Hans Kohn points out that pre-war tariff policies that favored the development of American commercial interests over European ones along with a national thirst for westward expansion demonstrate that the roots of American nationhood were established well before the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

Regardless of when the United States became a unified country, almost everyone agrees that the Civil War altered Americans’ relationship to their nation, both politically and culturally. Even though bloody civil wars don’t necessarily bring about a stronger sense of nationalism in their aftermath, popular depictions of the Civil War in American history and memory have framed the deaths of 750,000 Americans as a necessary sacrifice for bringing together a young, fractious nation. The philosopher William James in 1910 argued that few Americans would change their nation’s history if given the opportunity: “Ask all our millions, north and south, whether they would vote now . . . to have our war for the Union expunged from history, and the record of a peaceful transition to the present substituted for that of its marches and battles, and probably hardly a handful of eccentrics would say yes.” Some contemporary historians define the nature of Civil War death in mythical terms. Charles P. Roland’s popular An American Iliad connects the American Civil War to the Greco-Trojan war of Greek mythology: “More than a century ago the American people engaged in a great sectional conflict that reenacted all of the heroism and sacrifice, all of the cruelty and horror, of the Greco-Trojan War. The Union victory . . . forever changed the course of American history and thereby of world history.”

These comments reflect a particular way of viewing the United States that conceives military action as the defining characteristic of American nationalism. Warfare, more than any other political, economic, social, or cultural factor, brings Americans together into an “imagined community” whose citizens are willing to die in battle to defend the rights and freedoms of fellow citizens thousands of miles away from their own homes.

The shocking death toll of the American Civil War demanded reflection, interpretation, and explanation from those who survived the war. To address these pressing demands of memory, Americans created new rituals they believed would maintain and strengthen the relationship between living and dead, what Union General John A. Logan described as a “solemn trust.” Although the practice of decorating graves has disputed origins, the call of Union veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) in 1868 for all communities to decorate the graves of their local Civil War dead marked the official beginning of Memorial Day in the United States.

Memorial Day ritualizes the living’s “solemn trust” with the dead by annually reserving time on the American calendar for remembering and reflecting upon the memories of those who have died to preserve the United States and its freedoms. These rituals and observances are as much for us the living as they are for the dead. Each year we take time to justify to ourselves our belief that the dead did not die in vain and that we are a better nation because of their death. We also remind ourselves of the obligations we have to our fallen friends and loved ones and use Memorial Day to speak on behalf of those people. Indeed, the dead don’t have the chance to speak on Memorial Day; we speak for the dead and mold them to fit our own visions and beliefs.

The GAR played their own role in defining society’s memory of the war by annually reminding their audiences in Memorial Day speeches of the righteousness of preserving the Union (and in some speeches the righteousness of destroying slavery). For example, Indiana veteran George W. Spahr argued in his 1893 Memorial Day speech that all Americans should be “consoled by the fact that we are no longer a doubtful confederation of States; that we are no longer a compact of colonies existing at the will and pleasure of the parties to the combine.” Above all, Spahr believed this unified nationalist spirit was born through the efforts of men whose “self-sacrifice” provided a tangible example of patriotism and love of country.

Our nation’s dead deserve a place in our collective memory and a debt of thanks that will never be fully paid. Memorial Day helps us pay a part of that debt back and reminds us of our fellow citizens who are willing to die so that we may continue to live in comfort. But lurking under our “thank the servicemen and women” sentiments lie difficult questions that this nation must continually address about the nature of military action and nationalism.

According to the historian Susan-Mary Grant:

Americans . . . have been unwilling to concede that violence rather than voluntarism played a central role in their national development. Consequently, as far as the creation of the American nation is concerned, the subject of war is approached obliquely. The American way of war, in short, is almost always presented in quasi-mystical terms that support the national idea of freedom and equality for all . . . [and] downplay the extent and the implications of violence within the nation (189, 191).

In sum, Memorial Day is often framed as a day for remembering death, but less often is it a day for remembering the act of killing. George Spahr focused on the “self-sacrifice” of Union soldiers in his Memorial Day speech, but he omitted the fact that the federal government resorted to a forceful military draft in 1863 to maintain the Union war effort. He and countless veterans were also forced to deal with the memories of wartime killing on a daily basis. As historian Reid Mitchell points out, Julia Ward Howe’s song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” includes the lyric “let us die to make men free,” not “let us kill to make men free,” a convenient side stepping of what soldiers are actually tasked to do in the military. Any reflection on the nation’s dead requires us to analyze the nature of war itself and ask why our elected leaders sometimes choose to rely on warfare to ostensibly preserve and even enhance our American democracy.

We should do our absolute best to avoid warfare in the future. Memorial Day should be a day for reflection, thanks, and critical discussion about the state our nation, but not a day for unquestioningly glorifying the military. Mississippi Senator John Sharp Williams said as much to a group of Confederate veterans in his 1904 Memorial Day speech:

No matter how bright the uniform, how loud ‘the shouting of captains,’ how splendid the deeds of valor, how inspiring the clangor of fife and drums, there is nothing more disgusting, nothing more detestable, and nothing more in the history of the world has been so dangerous and destructive as the puerile thirst for military fame and the schoolboy love for ‘glory’ and a strenuous life.

Given our questionable military interventions since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and our seeming inability to care for veterans once they return home, let us hope that this nation’s future is not dominated by constant warfare and the deaths of our best and brightest citizens. We owe it to ourselves and those who have died in service of the United States to promote peace at all times.


Notes on Graduation and Upcoming Publications

We’ve reached finals week here at IUPUI, and my pursuit of a Master’s degree in history with a concentration in public history is coming to a rapid conclusion. Graduation is next Sunday, May 11, and I’ve got family from Wisconsin, Missouri, and Alabama coming for the festivities. I am excited about finishing this degree, but I don’t think the finality of everything has hit me quite yet. I still have a few projects I need to finish and I’ll still be working for the National Council on Public History through the end of the month, so there is still work to be done. After May, however, it looks like some big changes are coming for me professionally and personally. Not everything is set in stone at this point, but I’ll be sharing more information with readers in the very near future.

Meanwhile, here is a list of my upcoming publications.

  • My Master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, is complete. The title is “Kindling the Fires of Patriotism: The Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, 1866-1949” and will soon be freely available as a pdf through IUPUIScholarworks, the University Library’s digital open access portal for theses, dissertations, and doctoral papers. Theses and dissertations are often branded by people in and out of the academy as unreadable works of jargon written without any consideration of the needs of potential readers. I’ve done my absolute best to write this study with clear, readable prose, and I look forward to sharing my scholarship with readers once the thesis is uploaded to Scholarworks.
  • Throughout this Spring semester I’ve been working on turning chapter two of my thesis into a journal article. This chapter analyzes the changing nature of Memorial Day in Indiana and discusses the Indiana GAR’s struggle to preserve the holiday’s meaning in the years after the Civil War. GAR veterans established the holiday as a day for grave decorating and remembrance of the Union dead, but veterans soon found themselves fighting against the desires of a new generation of Hoosiers who wanted to use the holiday for more leisurely or commercial purposes. I don’t know where this proposed article will land right now, but I am hopeful that it will be published in a scholarly journal soon.
  • I have a magazine article about the conflict between Union and Confederate veterans in the naming of the American Civil War around the turn of the twentieth century that is slated for release this summer. History is Now–a new history website and publishing venture out of London, UK–will be publishing the article.
  • I wrote an essay about the state of international public history that is currently being reviewed by the editorial team at History@Work, the National Council on Public History’s official blog. I’ve always felt that public historians should work to learn about public history practices in Canada, Europe, and other parts of the world, and I offer suggestions and questions for encouraging the growth of public history outside the United States.
  • My first professional book review is included in the newest issue of Southern Historian(Volume XXXV, Spring 2014, pages 128-129), which is published by the University of Alabama. I reviewed Bruce E. Baker and Brian Kelly’s edited collection After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South, which was published by the University Press of Florida last year. Long review short, I really enjoyed this book and loved its unique focus on labor policies at the state and local levels during the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) and beyond (a couple essays go up to 1900).

There’s a lot to be excited about these days.


Reconsidering the Reconsideration of Civil War Death

Professor Nicholas Marshall (Marist College) recently wrote a thought-provoking essay on the New York Times Disunion” blog, a favorite website of mine for reading some of the newest scholarship in the field of American Civil War studies. Marshall comes out swinging in his essay “The Civil War Death Toll, Reconsidered,” which aims to offer a revisionist corrective to our understanding of American society’s collective mindset towards death during the Civil War.

Marshall criticizes Civil War scholars such as James McPherson, Eric Foner, and Drew Gilpin Faust for using the Civil War death toll-which is now estimated to be around 750,000-“to drive home a characterization of the war based on the scale of death.” These historians often convert this Civil War death statistic to present-day numbers (which would equate to seven million deaths today) in order to convey the influence of wartime death on the lives of Americans at the time. Marshall laments the use of the Civil War death toll in this manner, arguing that “while factually correct, the statistics work to exaggerate the impact of the war. At its essence, the use of these statistics is designed to provide perspective, a laudatory goal. It is supposed to allow those of us looking back on the war to get a clear sense of the emotional texture of the time. The problem is that doing so violates one of the central codes of historical analysis: avoid presentism.”

I agree with Marshall in this regard. By translating Civil War death totals to present-day equivalents, we impose our own perspective of death into our interpretations of the past rather than considering the perspectives of those who lived through the conflict. Indeed, the thought of such a destructive contemporary war provokes more thoughts about who within our circle of friends and loved ones today would be a part of the seven million hypothetical deaths in this hypothetical war rather than thoughts about the 750,000 soldiers who actually died in combat 150 years ago. Marshall correctly reminds us that numbers and statistics are meaningless until we construct meanings for them. To truly understand the culture of Civil War death, we must go beyond the numbers themselves or statistical conversions that translate the past on our terms without understanding historical context.

Marshall continues by suggesting that prewar, wartime, and postwar conceptions of sickness and life expectancy actually accounted for the “everyday existence” of disease and the possibility of unexpected death within society. When looking at antebellum disease:

It is important to keep in mind that death rates were tremendously variable in the period, even within relatively stable locales, because of the unpredictable nature of contagious disease. Some areas reported rates that varied from below 2 percent up to 6 percent. A conservative estimate of a 2 percent death rate for 1860 would have meant about 629,000 deaths that year for the nation as a whole, while a 3 percent rate would have resulted in 943,000 deaths (today’s rate is consistently below 0.8 percent). The additional battlefield deaths in the war would thus represent an increase of between 7 and 10 percent over the normal rates. Significant, but hardly catastrophic.

The threat of disease continued into the early twentieth century, according to Marshall:

During the global flu epidemic at the end of the World War I as many as 100 million worldwide, including 600,000 in the United States (roughly five times the number of American casualties in World War I and approaching the total number of deaths in the Civil War), perished over the course of just a few months. In addition, this was an unusual strain of influenza that killed mainly the healthiest cohort of the population (those in their 20s and 30s) through a violent immune response. If any event should have triggered re-evaluation of the nation’s approach to death (based solely on changes in incidence and scale, as Civil War historians often calculate), this would be it. Yet one historian’s book on the subject is titled “America’s Forgotten Pandemic,” and he spends a significant portion of the book trying to explain why the epidemic seemed to disappear from public consciousness so soon after it waned. The answer, in part, is that well into the 20th century Americans viewed disease — and the death that came with it — as a constant, as something that had to be dealt with as part of everyday existence.

In sum, Marshall asserts that the since two-thirds of Civil War deaths were due to sickness and not battlefield combat, death during the war was not as influential on the mindset of Americans during the war as historians traditionally suggest. “The war added to an existing demographic and cultural problem rather than creating an entirely new one,” according to Marshall, and for this reason historians should re-evaluate the relationship between disease, death, and culture during the Civil War.

Marshall had me largely convinced with his arguments at first, and there is certainly much to agree with here. But after reading this essay a second and third time, a fatally flawed statement (pun intended) exposed itself to me, weakening the structural foundation of this entire essay. To wit:

If we work from an assumption that deaths from disease were not viewed at the time as war casualties, but rather as a continuation of prewar circumstances, instead of 750,000 casualties faced by Civil War-era Americans, we are left with 250,000.

The problem with this statement is that people at the time did view the loss of loved ones as war casualties, regardless of whether they died by disease or by gunfire. Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War–which Marshall is quick to criticize in the beginning of his essay–shows us in precise terms how Civil War fatalities transformed the culture of death in the United States. True, the war itself did not necessarily present an unprecedented amount of death from contagious disease in American society. What was shocking to many people at the time was where these people died and what happened to their bodies after battle. Faust argues that prewar loss of life revolved around the notion of the “Good Death.” According to Faust, “dying was an art” in antebellum American, and the Good Death revolved around the idea that people died on their deathbed with friends and loved ones by their side. “Family was central to the [Good Death], for kin performed its essential rituals. Victorian ideals of domesticity further reinforced these assumptions about death’s appropriate familial setting . . family members needed to witness a death in order to assess the state of the dying person’s soul, for these critical last moments of life would epitomize his or her spiritual condition” (6-10).

Civil War death shocked Americans because of its disregard for the Good Death. Soldiers died on battlefields, far away from home and family. They were sometimes buried in unmarked and/or mass graves, provoking complaints from loved ones at home that their remains were being treated no better than the remains of dead animals. If possible, parents, wives, and children sometimes traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to exhume the bodies of dead soldiers and take them home for a “proper” burial. Others paid thousands of dollars for professionals experienced in the new fields of embalming and refrigeration to find and preserve the bodies of loved ones to be sent home. Still others lacked any financial means to bring their dead soldiers home.

These facts represent the culture of shock and death that contemporaries understood to be unprecedented in American history. They did not view these deaths as a continuation of prewar circumstances, which partly explains why they did not forget about these deaths like Americans forgot about the flu epidemic in the wake of World War I. Indeed, those who lived through the war grappled with the memories of their dead through the creation of veterans’ fraternal organizations, monuments, memorials, Memorial Day commemorations, and the everyday experience of life after war. To suggest that contemporaries did not view these death as war casualties simply misses the mark, in my opinion.


“This Will Be Our History and Our Glory”

I am presenting a paper about the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, and their memories of the Civil War at the 34th Annual Meeting of the Indiana Association of Historians on Saturday, March 8. The paper is titled “‘This Will Be Our History and Our Glory:’ Civil War Memories and the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana.” I will share some of my arguments from the paper in future blog posts. Below is my paper abstract:

In the only scholarly study of the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, historian James H. Madison* declared in 2003 that Hoosier Civil War veterans remembered the conflict in a way that “created silences that denied the central essence of the war.” These veterans, argues Madison, reflected the racial attitudes of late nineteenth century Indiana, where racism, segregation, and violence against African Americans occurred on an all too frequent basis. As products of this racist society, the collective memories of Indiana GAR veterans by the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913 allegedly reflected an active “forgetting” of the role of slavery, race, and emancipation in the nation’s deadliest war. More recent scholarship from Barbara A. Gannon and Caroline E. Janney challenges the notion of GAR veterans “forgetting” about these divisive issues, but both of these studies look at the Grand Army of the Republic on a national scale, raising questions about the applicability of these scholars’ theories to the local context of Indiana.

How did Indiana GAR members remember the Civil War? This study analyzes speeches, newspaper articles from the Indianapolis veteran-published American Tribune, and actions of Indiana’s Civil War veterans from 1880-1918 to argue that the members of the Indiana GAR remembered their role in destroying slavery, often intertwining the goals of Union and emancipation together in their interpretations of the conflict. Nevertheless, Hoosier veterans remained largely silent about the imposition of Jim Crow laws and legalized segregation throughout the country. This paper is part of a larger Master’s thesis and is a compilation of original research and scholarly synthesis.

*James H. Madison, “Civil War Memories and ‘Pardnership Forgittin’,” 1865-1913, Indiana Magazine of History 99, no. 3 (September 2003): 198-230.

Building a Fortress for My Thesis Defense

The Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors Monument in 1898. Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors Monument in 1898. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

I am feeling on top of the world at this very moment. This morning I submitted a draft of my master’s thesis to my committee in anticipation of my formal thesis defense on Tuesday, March 11. I still have a long way to go in the entire process, but I feel like a huge load of researching, writing, and editing has been lifted off my shoulders. The draft is longer than I anticipated–141 pages, which is almost double the minimum requirement for a history master’s thesis at IUPUI–but I honestly believe that every question I ask and every interpretation I provide has an important purpose within the study (of which I’ll have more information in future posts). I’ve been very fortunate to have a committee of professors who have taken an active interest in my topic and who have already read rough drafts of all my chapters multiple times. Having three different perspectives throughout the process has allowed for a wide range of questions and comments on revising my work, and their prompt attention to my research has given me ample time to craft what I hope will be an important addition to the study of Civil War memory in Indiana and the entire Grand Army of the Republic.

When I first started graduate school in August 2012 I hadn’t put much thought into my thesis topic. Indianapolis was a new city for me, and I didn’t know a whole lot about the history of the state, although I knew that I wanted to do something Civil War-related. Within days of moving to the city I visited the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in downtown Indianapolis, and this visit prompted within me questions about the nature of Civil War memory in the Hoosier state. What really struck me about the monument at the time was its location. The very definition of Indianapolis’s cardinal directions has been shaped by the monument’s location in the geographical center of the city. Everything west of the monument is western Indianapolis, everything east is eastern Indianapolis, so on and so forth. City designer Alexander Ralston platted a circle in the middle of the city in 1821 with the intention of placing the Governor’s mansion in this circle (the mansion was built poorly, however, and no governor ever lived there, ironically enough). My interpretation of this design is that Ralston aimed to place Indiana’s chief executive in the center of the capitol city as a way of reinforcing notions of good governance, “progress,” westward expansion, and American patriotism in the Hoosier state.

With the end of the Civil War, however, calls were made to turn the circle into a commemorative monument to Indiana’s Civil War dead, and in 1887 the Grand Army of the Republic finally persuaded the Indiana General Assembly to appropriate $200,000 to build the monument. By placing the monument in the geographic center of the capitol city, Indiana now defined itself as a state whose very foundations were built on its collective remembrance of the past. Future legislation banning the construction of any buildings within the circle that were taller than the monument reinforced this idea by ensuring that future commercial developments would never overshadow the state’s memories of its past and its war dead.

Even though my thesis did not have enough space to address the construction of the Indiana Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, this August visit to the monument sparked my interest in looking at the Indiana veterans who were so adamant about constructing a monument that reflected their memories of war.

Following this visit, I outlined my plan for researching, writing, and editing:

September 2012 – April 2013: In September I decided that the Indiana GAR was going to be my topic. For the next seven months I dedicated myself to doing research and developing research questions for the thesis. I also presented a few rough drafts of ideas I had at conferences at Ohio University and the University of Indianapolis, which gave me the opportunity to get some feedback from professors outside of IUPUI. Finally, I started blogging a bit about my research here at Exploring the Past (which is under the “Grand Army of the Republic” category to the right).

May 2013 – December 2013: Early in the process I made a vow to have all three chapters written by the end of 2013. In May I had a formal prospectus defense in which I outlined my ideas for each chapter and compiled a list of primary and secondary sources I intended to use throughout the study. This prospectus defense was successful, and I began writing shortly thereafter. Over the summer I wrote two chapters and continued to conduct research for my third chapter, which will be looking at the relationship between the Indiana GAR’s desire for “patriotic instruction” for young children and the rise of public education in the state during the 1890s and 1900s. I wrote the third chapter in my free time during the Fall semester and completed it in December.

January 2014 – Present: Since the turn of the new year I have focused on writing an introduction and conclusion while also making extensive edits to the entire document. Now that I’ve turned in a draft of the whole product, I will now focus on making edits, tying up loose ends, and preparing for my thesis defense. I am also presenting a paper about the Indiana GAR at the Indiana Association of Historians conference at Anderson University on March 8th. At some point in March or April I will have the thesis reviewed by an editor at the IUPUI graduate office, followed by the eventual publication of the study into book form. Thanks to IUPUI’s commitment to open access policies, my master’s thesis will also be available online to the whole world through the university library’s ScholarWorks Repository. Hopefully others will read it besides my family 🙂

What do you think about the process of writing a master’s thesis? Any recommendations for those looking to get a head start on their own studies? Be sure to leave a comment if you have ideas.


The Grand Army of the Republic, the American Legion, and Armistice Day

Confederate Civil War Veterans in 1929. Photo Credit: Stones River National Battlefield,
Confederate Civil War Veterans in 1929. Photo Credit: Stones River National Battlefield,

This morning I came across an interesting post from Elizabeth Goetsch of History and Interpretation on Veterans Day. She talks about National Park sites and social media for a while before showing a Facebook update from Stones River National Battlefield, a National Park that posted a picture of former Confederates reuniting in 1929 on Veterans day. Underneath the photo a caption reads “we join the rest of the country in paying, ‘appropriate homage to the veterans of all its wars who have contributed so much to the preservation of this Nation’.” Such a caption puzzles me considering the fact that Confederates fought for a cause distinctly at odds with the idea of “preserving the Nation.” Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s post got me thinking about Civil War veterans and their symbolic relationship with Veterans Day.

In my research of Indiana’s Civil War veterans who joined the Grand Army of the Republic, I discovered that tensions existed between the GAR and the American Legion, a fraternal organization composed of World War I veterans which formed in 1919 and still exists today (and is now also open to women). I don’t want to give away too much information because I address several questions about these tensions in my yet-to-be-published Master’s thesis, but I think part of the these disagreements emerged thanks to the GAR’s membership standards. From its inception in 1866, GAR veterans vowed that their organization would die with the last living Union veteran. Confederate veterans were of course banned from membership, but equally significant was the notion that future members of the United States military–those who would later fight in defense of the country in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Great War–were also banned from membership. As an 1880 GAR almanac asserts (pages 26-30), the fight to defend to the Union and abolish slavery was the GAR’s legacy, a legacy that was jealously guarded by its members. Even if future soldiers went to off to battle in defense of the country, there was only one group of veterans that saved the union and brought about emancipation.

This brief history of Veterans Day cites President Woodrow Wilson, who proclaimed in November 1919 that “to us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.” This statement begs a question: why did the end of World War I bring about the creation of a new holiday for veterans when the nation already had Memorial Day, a day for those who died in combat? If November 11 was to be a day for solemn pride for those who died in the country’s service, then what future role would Memorial Day play in America’s commemorative landscape? Was it now necessary to have two days dedicated to the American dead? I have little evidence to back this claim, but I wonder if Veterans Day (called Armistice Day at the time) was a concerted effort by World War I veterans and political leaders of postwar America to assert their own distinct form of remembrance within America’s commemorative landscape, away from the GAR.

When GAR members began holding Memorial Day commemorations in 1868, veterans took ownership of May 30 and called it “their holiday.” Did American Legion veterans speak the same of Armistice Day on November 11? I don’t know, but I’d like to see a future historical study analyze the relationship between the GAR and the American Legion in the early twentieth century. Such a study may present new questions about the various ways in which veterans of different wars make sense of their past and choose to commemorate their time in battle.

Cheers and have a great Veteran’s Day

News and Notes: October 24, 2013

Interesting reads from the interwebs…

Musings on culture and technology

  • An addendum to my last post on sports and identity: I had never heard of David Cain before, but this essay on contemporary lifestyles is excellent. Cain argues that the 40 hour workweek is unnecessary in today’s world, but that this form of scheduling continues to be deliberately utilized so that we use what little free time we have to gratify ourselves and spend money. “Western economies, particularly that of the United States, have been built in a very calculated manner on gratification, addiction, and unnecessary spending. We spend to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to celebrate, to fix problems, to elevate our status, and to alleviate boredom.” In a strange way, I think this may partially account for our collective attachment to sports. This is not to say that sports are trivial or a waste of time. Rather, it seems to me that sports are a meaningful way to keep ourselves occupied with something entertaining and exciting when we’re not working. This is an intriguing article and I’ll be sure to read more of David Cain in the future.
  • Speaking of loneliness and boredom: Here’s a thoughtful essay on a recent rant from the comedian Louis CK on smartphones. L.M. Sacasas argues that Louis CK has a good point in arguing that smartphones are often used to mask boredom, loneliness, sadness, and a myriad of other emotions. When there’s downtime (waiting in line at the coffee shop or at a restaurant, waiting at a stoplight, a commercial on TV, etc.), our first impulse is to go to the phone screen. I’ve certainly been guilty of doing this. Louis CK suggests that these behaviors in children have serious consequences: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty—forever empty. That knowledge that it’s all for nothing and that you’re alone. It’s down there.” Sacasas, however, points out that smashing our smartphones is not the solution. I am reminded of the movie Happy Gilmore, in which a large man is wearing an orange shirt that says “Guns don’t kill people: I kill people.” Sacasas argues for the same sort of understanding when it comes to smartphones. We have to think critically about the ways technology shapes and changes our emotions. Digital technology is here to stay, so there’s no need to be a Luddite. Smartphones don’t make people sad; the way some people use them makes them sad.
  • An interview with Douglas Rushkoff on “Present Shock” and the loss of narrative storytelling.

Public History: Remembering, Forgetting, and Shutdowns

  • Forgetting: In St. Louis, the Bernard F. Dickman bridge (popularly called the Poplar Street Bridge) was renamed the William L. Clay, Sr. Bridge. Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch shares a few thoughts on the short memory of St. Louis and what it means when a city renames its public streets.
  • Shutdowns: Cathy Bell writes during the Government Shutdown and argues that National Parks don’t run themselves (and that much of the protesting going on against the parks was really a faux civil disobedience movement). The Washington Post asks why the national parks closed in the first place, while University of North Carolina professor Anne Whisnant calls for a “Mission 16” movement in the National Park Service that was similar to the “Mission 66” movement fifty years ago.

Open Access

  • I sometimes write about open access here at Exploring the Past. Here’s an excellent 8 minute video that outlines what the open access movement represents and why many of us are so passionate about it:

And Finally…

  • The creators of Digital Sandbox–three fellow IUPUI public history students and myself–recently submitted a poster for the National Council on Public History’s annual conference in Monterey, California, in March 2014. We found out yesterday that our poster was accepted for the conference and that all of us will most likely be there to present our poster at the conference’s poster session on Thursday, March 20. I was already going to be at the conference thanks to my current employment with NCPH, but I am glad that my cohorts will now have the opportunity to attend as well. It’s going to be a great conference and I look forward to my first trip to the western United States.


Reflections on Sports and Identity

Picture Credit:
Picture Credit:

For better or worse, many historical topics are discussed here at Exploring the Past. Some blogs have a fairly strict boundaries for what gets discussed, but I’ve always wanted to create a blog with a broad theme, one that has many different topics and strands of discussion. I’d like to broaden that theme a bit further and explore some thoughts that have been rolling around in my head lately about sports and identity. There are several reasons why this particular topic interests me: 1. I’m an unabashed sports fan (St. Louis sports, to be exact), 2. I’ve lived in two cities with two almost completely different “sports cultures” (St. Louis and Indianapolis), and 3. I think sports can tell us a lot about a particular city and its residents.

Both Indianapolis and St. Louis became centers for sporting events during the Gilded Age. Advancements in industrialization provided money, free time, and leisurely opportunities for America’s middle and upper classes, who frequently resorted to sporting events for entertainment. The St. Louis Brown Stockings began playing baseball in 1882 (later joining the National League in 1892 and becoming the “Cardinals” in 1900). Indianapolis has hosted a baseball team since 1887, and in 1902 the Indianapolis Indians–now a triple A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates–were formed, making them one of the oldest existing minor league baseball teams.

In Indianapolis, however, the real turning point in sports history was the creation of the Indianapolis 500 race. Track founders Carl G. Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler had originally conceived the racetrack in 1909 as hosting a series of races over Labor Day weekend. Following the races on Labor Day weekend in 1910, however, Fisher announced that there would be one 500 mile race hosted on Memorial Day in 1911. Historians of the racetrack such as D. Bruce Scott and Ralph Kramer and Carl Fisher’s biographer Mark S. Foster have all failed to explain why Memorial Day was selected as the race day, but this decision requires serious inquiry and explanation. Since 1868, Civil War veterans, religious groups, and many other residents in Indianapolis had utilized Memorial Day as a day of remembrance and commemoration for Indiana soldiers who had lost their lives in the Civil War. Fisher’s decision to switch the race to Memorial Day received strong condemnation from veterans and religious groups, but by the start of World War I, the race was annually attended by more than 100,000 spectators from all parts of the United States.  Fisher and other business leaders in Indianapolis celebrated the race as a demonstration of American ingenuity and Indiana’s strong automobile industry. By hosting the race on Memorial Day, the holiday’s meaning transformed itself in Indianapolis.

What is interesting about this transformation is the changing rhetoric of patriotism that attached itself to the race. An editorial from the Indianapolis Star on May 31, 1913 captures the idea perfectly. Memorial Day, according to the Star, should still be a day of commemoration for Indiana’s Civil War dead, even though the race was being held on the same day. However, “the men and women [who attend the race] are of the twentieth century; they are looking forward, not back as it is the nature of each generation to do.” Additionally, “at the Speedway they celebrate the triumph of invention and industry that of itself was made possible by the services of the veterans.” By looking forward–rather than the past–Hoosiers were allegedly expressing patriotic sentiments and thanking their veterans by attending this annual sporting event.

In 1957, an annual parade around Indianapolis the day before the race was inaugurated (the date of the parade now varies). According to the Parade’s website, “the committee [in charge of organizing the parade] felt the project should be a civic-oriented, annual activity keyed to the 500-Mile Race.” John Bodnar argues in Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century that this annual parade “emphasized not commemoration [of the soldier dead] but fantasy and escape rather than the serious matter of life” (91). Entertainment was (and still remains) an important part of these parades. For example, parade organizers of the bicentennial celebration of 1976 arranged patriotic floats that included an infant with an Uncle Sam hat and a colonial soldier playing flute with a bear that strummed a guitar (93). Nevertheless, there were messages of American patriotism and civic pride in Indianapolis that attempted to portray the city as a center of “uncontested patriotism” thanks to its annual race.

In St. Louis, Cardinals baseball has dominated the sporting landscape. When the Cardinals win, the city’s residents (and those like myself who support the team from afar) feel good about themselves. We often assert ownership in our teams and our city (“that’s my team!”, “Our city is the best sports city in America!”, etc.) and frame these victories as a reflection of the good people who live in that area. Yet this recent month of Cardinals playoff baseball has me asking why such expressions are made. None of the Cardinals players or coaches except for David Freese were either born, raised, and/or trained for their professional careers in St. Louis. Team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. was born and raised in St. Louis, but moved away from the area long ago and now resides in Ohio (the same questions should be asked of the Indy 500, which is now dominated by racers born outside the U.S.). Sure, the people of St. Louis buy tickets and support the team through thick and thin (I think), but the success of the team on the field really has little to do with anything local St. Louisians have done.

Furthermore, while it’s perfectly normal to take civic pride in a local team through its successes on the field, such success does little in actually assessing the health of a city, as St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan argues. Detroit has had relatively decent sports teams for years, but their city is bankrupt. What does that say about the priorities of the city’s leadership, team owners, and citizenry?

I’m no sports historian, but it’s clear to me that the creation of individual and civic identity and the popularity of sports are intertwined in ways that demonstrate that sports are far more than just games or races. In 1983, Benedict Anderson famously asked in Imagined Communities“What makes people love and die for nations?” The more I think about and understand the power of sports in popular culture, I find myself asking, “What makes people love and die with sports teams?”


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

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.