My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog, Muster, was published earlier this week. I explore a few speeches from members of the Grand Army of the Republic in protest of the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation and argue that not all white Union Civil War veterans were ready for reconciliation with former Confederates, even when they were in the seventies and eighties.
Let me know what you think!
Last week I had the honor of being invited to speak via the BlueJeans app to Dr. Thomas Cauvin’s history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments and historical interpretation. I found the discussion fascinating. The students had a lot of good questions, and some of them were really tough to answer cogently. It’s one thing to write out an idea while in deep contemplation and without a time limit, but a whole other challenge to answer a tough question on the spot. I am not a fan of watching or hearing myself after a recording, but if you want to see our discussion and learn a little about Dr. Cauvin’s class on historical monuments, follow this link. Hopefully I sound like I have a basic idea of what I’m talking about. Enjoy!
When historians collect primary source documents during research, they must determine which of these sources can be relied upon when crafting an accurate interpretation of the past. This challenge is harder than it might seem at first blush. Most historians would agree that finding primary sources that are contemporary to the historic event or person being researched is more ideal than something produced years later. For example, an official report, letter, or diary entry created during the Battle of Gettysburg is most likely a more reliable source for understanding what occurred during the battle than an interview conducted fifty years later with an aged veteran.
There are some benefits to hindsight, of course, and mistakes in recollection can be made at any time during the event itself. Knowing how the Battle of Gettysburg turned out and having a general understanding of that battle’s consequences has its benefits. Hindsight offers time for personal reflection and can help inform one’s understanding of their role in a historic event. But memories are fickle and finite. Fine details and particulars of an event fade with time and can be overwhelmed by the creation of new memories during subsequent moments of importance. A veteran’s recollections of Gettysburg fifty years after the fact straddle the line between history and memory, and between a reliable source and an unreliable one. They must be used with caution and taken with a grain of salt.
I think about this challenge all the time within the scope of my work interpreting the life of Ulysses S. Grant. While there is an abundance of primary source documentation from Grant himself and others chronicling his experiences as a Civil War general and Reconstruction era president, hardly any documentation exists about Grant’s life before the Civil War that was created at that time. The number of letters in Grant’s hand from his five years in St. Louis at the White Haven plantation (1854-1859) numbers around a dozen. The number of documents created by other family members around Grant at that time is close to zero. And nothing from the perspective of the enslaved people owned by Grant’s father-in-law was created during that time. How can a reliable interpretation of these experiences be crafted with such a paucity of documentation?
The imperfect solution offered by historians, Grant biographers, and public historians alike has been to look at Grant’s actions in the absence of his words. More imperfectly, they also look at the words of people who claimed to know Grant at the time and reflected on his life forty or fifty years after the fact. With regards to the latter there are a number of resources to rely on: Grant’s 1885 Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant barely discussed his St. Louis experiences, but his wife Julia Dent Grant wrote her own Personal Memoirs in the 1890s and dedicated a good portion of her book to the family’s experiences at White Haven; likewise, writers Hamlin Garland and William Conant Church both conducted interviews with people who claimed to know Grant and wrote biographies of him based on those interviews in 1898 and 1899, respectively. In the absence of primary source documents from the 1850s, these latter documents are frequently used by contemporary historians to provide insights into Grant’s life before the Civil War. These sources, however, sometimes contradict each other and are frequently ambiguous or outright wrong.
One such example of an ambiguous document is an interview with Mary Robinson, an African American woman in St. Louis who was enslaved at White Haven by Grant’s Father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent, at the time that the Grant family lived there. The interview was conducted by the St. Louis Republican on July 24, 1885, the day after Grant died of throat cancer. In it, Robinson recalls her interactions with Grant and makes the following claim about his views on slavery:
Grant was a very kind man to those who worked for him, and he always said that he wanted to give his wife’s slaves their freedom as soon as he was able.
This line has been used more than once by historians to argue that Grant opposed slavery before the war. As I pointed out in this essay, Julia Dent Grant did not actually have legal title to any of the enslaved people at White Haven, but her father did loan her four slaves to attend to her needs while at White Haven. One historian in particular has recently claimed, on the basis of the Robinson interview, that the reason Julia did not have legal title to those enslaved people was because her father feared that Grant would free them. Is that a reliable interpretation to make?
What little we have of the record from the 1850s is far more complex. Grant himself never espoused antislavery views in his letters before the Civil War. He made the decision to move to a slave plantation in 1854 and at one point even owned a slave of his own, William Jones, that he later freed in 1859 (see the above link for more info). Furthermore, when Grant made his views on slavery publicly know in an August 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War, he argued that “early in the rebellion” he had come around to believe that slavery had to be abolished, but that “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery” before the Civil War.
An important factor in determining the reliability of Robinson’s recollection is the context in which it was produced. Grant had died the day before. The white interviewer had no interest in learning about Robinson’s own experiences in slavery and probably edited her comments to paint Grant in a positive light. Would the article really be edited to point out that Grant had been a slaveholder? I doubt it. If one were to read this interview and know nothing else about Grant’s life in St. Louis, they’d have no idea that he owned William Jones. Can it be trusted as a reliable source in uncovering Grant’s views on slavery before the war? Many historians have cited it, but I’m not so sure.
The point here is not to determine whether Grant was truly antislavery or proslavery before the war. As we can see, the evidence is mixed, and in any case I think it’s far safer to argue that there was an evolution in Grant’s thinking over time. The bigger challenge here and in so many other instances during historical research is that the absence of definitive primary source documentation from the time in which an event took place makes the task of painting an accurate portrait of the past all the more difficult. When historians are faced with interpreting the recollections of people long after the fact, they must exercise caution and sharp judgement in determining that source’s reliability.
There have been a number of prominent Civil War historians who’ve stepped into the Confederate monument debate over the past month. A roundtable in Civil War Times offers some interesting commentaries from some of the heavy hitters, including William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher, and Lesley J. Gordon. Historian Caroline E. Janney also jumped into the discussion with an op-ed in the Washington Post. She argues that empty pedestals are “void of meaning all together” (a dubious claim that Kevin Levin questioned here) and that removing Confederate monuments erases and does a disservice to the past. American society needs Confederate monuments because “they force us to remember the worst parts of our history.”
To be sure, Janney is a wonderful historian whose work shows up in my own scholarship on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. But I think her perspective on the need to preserve all Confederate monuments regardless of context is mistaken. The assumption in this piece is that American society has forgotten (or runs the risk of forgetting) the history of the Civil War if these monuments are removed. This too is a dubious claim. Historians must be careful when they discuss a society’s “collective memory” of the past and think critically about whose voices they privilege as representing that collective when they propose to speak about it.
In the case of Confederate monuments, arguing that these icons “force us to remember the worst parts of our history” necessary requires us to ask: who in society has engaged in forgetting? Who needs a reminder about the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War? What specifically do these monuments force us to remember about the past? Why have some people failed to remember the history of the Civil War despite the presence of these monuments for 100 years? What are we to do with monuments like the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that deliberately distort what happened in the past?
I thought about some of these questions during a recent visit to the Missouri History Museum to see a new exhibit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis. At one point in the exhibit there is a large board with three questions and a table with pens and sticky notes. Visitors are encouraged to answer these questions and place their sticky note on the wall:
I love these feedback walls in museum spaces, and I like the questions posed by the exhibit here. But that first question on the left–“Why has so much of St. Louis’s civil rights history been overlooked?”–contains an implicit bias when it assumes that the city’s residents have in fact overlooked this history. In reading a few comments it became evident that many responders questioned this assumption. Of all the times I’ve been to the Missouri History Museum, this exhibit was the first one in which a majority of museum-goers were African American. And the ones leaving comments strongly asserted that they hadn’t forgotten that history. We were there. We are still fighting for our rights. We can’t forget what happened to our loved ones. We can’t forget history that so explicitly speaks to the core challenge of our lives and experiences as African Americans in this country. These comments were perhaps the most educational aspect of the whole exhibit.
So it bears repeating: who in society has forgotten the history of the Confederacy and the causes, context, and consequences of its short existence? The answer might be uncomfortable for those bent on defending all Confederate monuments regardless of context.
To be clear: my position on this topic has been consistent in that I disagree with a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing Confederate or any other type of public iconography, and I think some icons will inevitably stay while others will go. Read recent essays I’ve written here and here for more of my thoughts on these discussions.
The folks at the Journal of the Civil War Era gave me another opportunity earlier this week to write on their blog, Muster. In this essay I briefly discuss the political life of Missouri politician and general Frank Blair, Jr., and his statue in St. Louis’s Forest Park. It’s a statue I’ve seen numerous times and one that, frankly, has a textual inscription that ignores Blair’s blatant racism and support for colonization of African Americans. My thinking on public iconography of late has centered on the inadequacy of the medium in actually conveying accurate historical content to viewers. As I state in the essay, more and more I feel like the work of educating people about historical events and people must start in the classroom and museum, not the public square.
Stay tuned for more essays on this blog in the near future. I have made a point of trying to get more of my essays published to larger platforms beyond this blog over the past year, but I still have a lot on my mind about history and memory that will find a home here in the future 🙂
The National Council on Public History published an essay of mine about monument removals at National Statuary Hall on their History@Work blog earlier this week. Regular readers will see familiar arguments that I’ve been making about the role of historical iconography for quite a while on this blog, but in the essay I wanted to focus specifically on what I think is a great example of a dynamic, ever-changing commemorative landscape that has been modified quite often. By exploring changes at National Statuary Hall, I hope to complicate the idea that monument removal automatically constitutes “erasing history.” I also hope to demonstrate that Americans have been removing monuments ever since their country’s founding, and that such removals are actually a natural byproduct of a society’s changing values and evolving understanding of its history.
Please give the essay a read if you get the chance. Although I have written a lot on this particular topic, I believe this is probably the strongest, most definitive argument on where I stand on this issue. So far I’ve gotten largely positive feedback and even the popular historian and blogger John Fea featured it on his website.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to Christopher Graham and Nicholas K. Johnson for reading a draft of the essay before it went online. Thank you!
The local NPR station in St. Louis, St. Louis Public Radio, has jumped into the discussion about the city’s Confederate monument with a recent “Pro & Con” feature about the monument’s future. One of the people the station interviewed was William Stage, a writer and photographer who took the “Pro” position in support of keeping up the monument. He stated, in part, that “erasing history” is bad. “It’s all of our history and maybe it’s good that it’s there for both the people who are offended by it and the people who enjoy it because it gives us something to talk about. It could be a springboard for dialogue.”
The problem I see with this argument is that no historical organization in St. Louis has ever taken steps to lead that dialogue, nor is there anyone who’s indicated a willingness to do it in this heated political moment. What would that dialogue look like? What steps would be taken after the dialogue to promote unity and reconciliation in the community? What cultural organization would be willing to take on the long-term expense, time, and effort necessary to interpret this monument after the dialogue has finished? What if a majority of St. Louisians aren’t interested in a dialogue or a history lesson?
The only answer is I have right now is that I don’t know.
More than two years after former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay announced that the time had come for a “reappraisal” of the Confederate Monument that sits in Forest Park in downtown St. Louis, current Mayor Lyda Krewson has announced that the monument will be coming down within three weeks. The last I had heard about the monument’s status was in December 2015 when Mayor Slay’s “St. Louis Confederate Monument Reappraisal Committee” was unable to find a cultural institution in the area willing to accept the monument and the Missouri Civil War Museum’s lone bid was deemed inadequate by the committee. The monument’s fate was not discussed much further in 2016 and it fell off my radar, but with New Orleans taking recent action to remove four Confederate/Reconstruction monuments and new protests boiling at the St. Louis Confederate monument, Mayor Krewson is taking steps to expedite the process.
As a native-born and current resident of St. Louis, I find myself still unsure what the best path forward for this monument is. The protests of the monument are becoming a political liability for the city government. Leaving the monument as is does not seem to be a practical situation moving forward, especially since I’d imagine that most of the city’s majority African American population is opposed to the monument. I have doubts about the effectiveness of writing a wayside marker to “add context” to the monument, although the current monument text is historically inaccurate Lost Cause nonsense that should be removed. I have also been disappointed with the lack of public discussion about the monument’s future, which is a great contrast to more democratic processes taking place in Baltimore, New Orleans, and numerous cities in Virginia on their Confederate monuments. To my knowledge there have been no votes taken by city residents or the Board of Alderman, no public meetings for local residents to share their perspectives, and no effort to educate the city’s residents on the monument’s history by any cultural institutions, including those of us at National Park Service sites in the area. Mayors Slay and Krewson have basically taken matters into their own hands, for better or worse.
As I have previously stated, local communities should be empowered to determine what sorts of public iconography they want to recognize and commemorate in their public spaces. The people and events these icons represent should be reflective of that community’s values and be considered something worthy of honor. If a majority in the community don’t consider that icon worthy of honor or reflective of their values, then there are sufficient grounds for the community to discuss that icon’s future, whether that be remaining in the same spot, being moved to a cultural institution like a museum for added context, removed and obliterated, or some other solution. I personally am fine with removing the monument from Forest Park and am tired of the argument that removing any public historical icon is “erasing history,” especially when the history being removed is inaccurate. My preference would be for a cultural institution in the city to take on the responsibility of interpreting this Confederate monument in a respectful way that educates residents about our city’s rich Civil War history. But for now it seems like we’ll be saying goodbye to the St. Louis Confederate Monument as it heads to a warehouse somewhere.