Commemorating a “Loyal Slave” In Georgia

St. Simons Island, Georgia. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Civic leaders in Glynn County, Georgia, are proposing a sculpture trail to commemorate that county’s history and promote tourism to the area. One of the sculptures being proposed highlights Neptune Small, an enslaved man on the Retreat Plantation. When the Civil War broke out Small’s enslaver, Henry King, brought Small with him to Confederate military lines. When King died on the battlefield, Small picked up King’s body and eventually brought it back home. The Sculptor, Kevin Pullen, explained that “What I tell people is it’s a love story. Because these two grew up together. They were love buds when they were little people. The whole slavery and Civil War piece was the backdrop for their lives. They lived on the same property, and they grew up in the same place.”

Historian James De Wolfe Perry pointed out that “As an enslaved person, [Small] had incentives other than loyalty or devotion” for returning King’s body. Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory added that “This is an interpretive weakness of the entire Lost Cause narrative that it makes little attempt to engage former slaves as to motivation and how they viewed their participation in the war.” He followed up with a blog post, commenting that “The basic outline of Pullen’s account accords with the available evidence, but to depict Small in his role as the loyal slave feeds into an insidious myth that has long been used to justify legal segregation, white supremacy, and the Lost Cause narrative of the war.”

I tend to agree with these sentiments. My initial response to this proposed sculpture is great discomfort. To me it seems to romanticize slavery and the master-slave relationship, which in Pullen’s telling of Small and King’s relationship is a “love story.” It also downplays the fact that the “loyal” Neptune Small and enslaved camp servants like him were not there voluntarily in service to the Confederate military, but due to impressment. In reality, we don’t know what Small’s motivations were for returning King’s body to Georgia. It is not a stretch to suggest, for example, that perhaps Small returned King to his old plantation in the hopes of gaining his freedom for this action. And as the article points out, the Kings did give Small an 8-acre tract of land for returning his enslaver’s body. The murky details of this story make me skeptical about the wisdom of commemorating it through a sculpture.

Cheers

Advertisements

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Historical Memory and Gift Shops at Civil War Historic Sites

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

My latest essay for the Journal of the Civil War Era’s blog went live last week. I wrote about gift shops at Civil War historic sites and the urgent need for memory scholars to analyze the ways these spaces shape visitor experiences at historic sites. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback so far and I hope the essay will lead to a more sustained and substantial dialogue on how gift shops can better serve the mission of a given public history site.

I have a lot of other exciting writing projects and upcoming presentations going on at the moment and I’ll let you know about those initiatives in a future post. For now, enjoy the above essay and let me know what you think in the comments section.

Cheers

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Becomes Gateway Arch National Park

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

There was a bit of minor news made in the public history world last week when Congress passed and President Trump signed a bill changing the name of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis to Gateway Arch National Park. Within my circle of public history and National Park Service colleagues the name change has been greeted with mixed reviews. And, of course, there had to be at least one disgruntled St. Louis Post-Dispatch reader who wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the actions of “politically correct” politicians who allegedly changed the name simply because they wanted to “avoid honoring those who brought white privilege to the Plains.” I guess we shouldn’t bring up slavery, Sally Hemings, or anything mildly critical of Jefferson around this guy, or else we’ll have to face claims of hating history and America.

In any case, my opinion is that the name change is half good and half bad. “Gateway Arch” is good, “National Park” . . . not so much. Here are a few thoughts on the name change:

The name for the site came before the Gateway Arch existed: The U.S. government began looking for a suitable monument to Thomas Jefferson in the 1930s. Civic boosters in St. Louis advocated for the memorial to be placed there to symbolize Jefferson’s role in the Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion, but also to revitalize a decaying downtown riverfront infrastructure. The Gateway Arch structure designed by Eero Saarinen was not created until 1947 and not completed until 1965. Whether intentional or not, the Gateway Arch complements Thomas Jefferson’s legacy but has also superseded it as a symbol of the site. People don’t visit the site because it’s associated with Thomas Jefferson – they visit because they want to see the Arch.

Nobody calls it “Jefferson National Expansion Memorial”: The vast majority of people who visit the site don’t call it by its official name, which, again, was established before the symbolic centerpiece of the site was established thirty years later.

Thomas Jefferson’s legacy is important, but it is not the sole theme for site interpretation: Thomas Jefferson never lived in nor visited St. Louis or the state of Missouri. His home in Virginia–Monticello–is a national shrine, as are national significantly places where he lived and worked, including Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. While his role in advancing westward expansion is no doubt significant, he is not the only person who had an important role in encouraging white westward expansion, especially within the context of Missouri. It could be argued that “Lewis and Clark National Expansion Memorial” would be an equally relevant name for the site, especially since they had a direct connection to the area.

Equally important, the site interprets other stories connected to westward expansion that go beyond the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Old Courthouse, located across the street from the Arch and a part of park’s holdings, was the site where Dred Scott sued for his freedom in 1846. In this sense the site also interprets the antebellum politics of slavery’s westward expansion, manifest destiny, Indian removal, and the coming of the American Civil War. Additionally, the historical scholarship that informed the decision to name the site after Thomas Jefferson in the 1930s has admittedly evolved and been revised. Western history has become more complex and critical of territorial expansion and its negative consequences for the Native American Indian tribes that bore the brunt of this expansive vision. A simple interpretation of the expansion of freedom and American liberty to the west in the 19th century is no longer sustainable.

Naming the site after the Gateway Arch–a symbol of westward expansion and the title that visitors already give for the site–is a positive move that offers a more inclusive interpretation of the history of westward expansion. Jefferson’s vision of a westward “Empire of Liberty” won’t be erased by this name change. He’ll still be interpreted by park rangers and have a prominent place inside the park’s museum. But perhaps Jefferson’s political views will occupy a new interpretive space that sits in tension with other conceptions of westward expansion and its consequences, giving visitors a range of perspectives to contemplate during their experience at the park. From an educational standpoint this development is a positive one and will not, as the disgruntled letter to the editor writer suggests, lead to a simple interpretation of Jefferson bringing “white privilege to the plains.”

Calling the site a “National Park” is a mistake: The National Park Service includes more than 400 units throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Pacific Islands. 59 of these sites are designated as “National Parks.” The Gateway Arch is the 60th such site, and it is nothing like the others. It’s located in an urban center, has only 91 acres in size, and has a remarkably different interpretive mission than the other National Park sites in terms of content. It sticks out like a sore thumb among the other NPS units designated as “National Parks.” Missouri’s Congressional delegation pushed to have the site named a “National Park,” however, because the other 59 sites are the crown jewels of the agency and its most popularly visited sites. In other words, calling the Gateway Arch a “National Park” is motivated by tourism and money.

There are more than fourteen different park designations used by the NPS. This designation system, in my opinion, is overly cumbersome and confusing for visitors. Any sort of semblance these designations offer is made all the more confusing by designating a place like the Gateway Arch as a “National Park.” If I were in charge of things I would consolidate the park designation system to make it more user friendly, and I would have implemented the name “Gateway Arch National Monument” instead of Gateway Arch National Park for this particular site.

Cheers

Outrageous Inaccuracies: The Grand Army of the Republic Protests The Birth of a Nation

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!

Cheers

Speaking to Students About Public Monuments

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!

Cheers

The Importance of Using Caution When Interpreting Personal Recollections of Historic Events

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.

Cheers

“He Was a Man of His Time”

From journalist Adam Serwer’s two essays (here and here) on the now-removed statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans:

[Robert E.] Lee was a man of his time. So was George Henry Thomas, a son of Virginia who chose to fight for the Union over fighting for slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a man of his time, as was Frederick Douglass. Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln were men of their time. Wesley Norris, whom Lee had tortured for escaping his plantation, was a man of his time. The hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Union, including the black soldiers murdered and humiliated by Lee’s lieutenants, were men of their time. We do not, in the main, build statues to people about whom the best that can be said is that they were of their time. We build them to people who rise above their times, and like many other men of his time, as a farmer, a general, a statesman, and an educator, Lee failed this test in every respect.

Food for thought.

Cheers