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.
President Donald Trump went out of his way yesterday to honor the 250th birthday of Andrew Jackson in Tennessee, which in turn has amplified continued online conversation about who in American history is deserving of honor through public ceremony and monumentation. Writer Shaun King was quick to declare that “no President who ever owned human beings should be honored” and that “slavery was a monstrous system. Everybody who participated in it was evil for having done so. Period. No exceptions.”
Some of the most difficult work in public history right now, in my opinion, centers around the nature of public commemoration and understanding how societies choose to remember their past. These are difficult conversations to have and the boundary lines between “good” and “bad” are arbitrary and poorly defined. King’s argument is provocative and worth considering. Generally speaking, I agree that owning slaves was a choice and that participating in the institution of slavery is inexcusable. But once you read the story of Ulysses S. Grant, our last President to be a slaveholder, you might conclude that King’s argument is simplistic and not a very satisfying resolution to the question of who and who isn’t worthy of public honor.
Now, I make my living educating people about General Grant’s life and times, so it could be easy for a reader to claim that I am “biased” or that I am a Grant apologist. I would reject that claim. All I can say is that I have my views about Grant but that those views have been developed through years of vigorous study of the man based on the best historical scholarship around. I don’t approach my job with the intention of portraying Grant as a hero or a sinner to visitors, but rather seek to humanize his experiences and increase understanding of his beliefs, motivations, and actions within the context of 19th century history.
Ulysses S. Grant lived in St. Louis from 1854 to 1859. For most of that time he worked as a farmer and lived with his family at White Haven, his In-Laws slave plantation in South St. Louis county. During this time Grant somehow obtained one slave, William Jones (see here for a more detailed essay I wrote about Grant’s relationship to slavery). We don’t know how or why he obtained Jones, nor do we know for how long he owned him. We do know, however, that he freed Jones in March 1859 before leaving St. Louis, something many other slaveholding Presidents never did with their enslaved people. That was the extent of Grant’s personal experiences in slaveholding. Unfortunately for historians, Grant didn’t leave any letters before the war stating one way or the other how he felt about the institution as a whole. It appears that Grant never challenged slavery’s presence in America or considered the politics and philosophy of slavery in writing before the war.
Something changed in Grant’s mind during the Civil War, however. He embraced emancipation as a war aim and welcomed black troops into his ranks. By the end of the war, one out of seven troops in his ranks were black. During the initial phases of Reconstruction, Grant came to believe that President Andrew Johnson’s policies towards the South were too lenient and that the freedpeople deserved more protection against violence, black codes, and overt discrimination by whites. After the Memphis Massacre in 1866 Grant called upon the federal government to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators who killed 46 African Americans, which never happened. When Grant was elected President in 1868, he immediately called upon Congress and the states to ratify the 15th Amendment preventing states from banning men from voting based on their race. On March 30, 1870, he delivered a message to Congress in which he declared that the 15th Amendment was the most significant act in U.S. history and a repudiation of the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision:
It is unusual to notify the two Houses of Congress by message of the promulgation, by proclamation of the Secretary of State, of the ratification of a constitutional amendment. In view, however, of the vast importance of the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, this day declared a part of that revered instrument, I deem a departure from the usual custom justifiable. A measure which makes at once 4,000,000 people voters who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so (with the assertion that “at the time of the Declaration of Independence the opinion was fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race, regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, that black men had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”), is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day.
In 1871 Grant responded to the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan by using the KKK Act to shut down the group. That year he also used his Third Annual State of the Union Address to call upon Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to abolish slavery. He repeated the theme in his Fourth Address, stating that the Spanish Empire’s continuation of slavery in Cuba was “A terrible wrong [that] is the natural cause of a terrible evil. The abolition of slavery and the introduction of other reforms in the administration of government in Cuba could not fail to advance the restoration of peace and order. It is greatly to be hoped that the present liberal Government of Spain will voluntarily adopt this view.” In future addresses he spoke out against other White supremacist groups in the South like the White League and Red Shirts who continued to commit acts of violence and sometimes outright massacres against African Americans in the South. And during his Post-Presidency world tour, Grant stated to Otto von Bismarck about the Civil War that “As soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.”
Frederick Douglass spoke often about Grant and was a dedicated supporter of his Presidency. At one point he stated that “Ulysses S. Grant, the most illustrious warrior and statesman of modern times, the captain whose invincible sword saved the republic from dismemberment, made liberty the law of the land. A man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him, the negro found a protector . . .” and recalled in his 1881 book Life and Times of Frederick Douglass that:
My confidence in General Grant was not entirely due to the brilliant military successes achieved by him, but there was a moral as well as military basis for my faith in him. He had shown his single-mindedness and superiority to popular prejudice by his prompt cooperation with President Lincoln in his policy of employing colored troops, and his order commanding his soldiers to treat such troops with due respect. In this way he proved himself to be not only a wise general, but a great man, one who could adjust himself to new conditions, and adopt the lessons taught by the events of the hour. This quality in General Grant was and is made all the more conspicuous and striking in contrast with his West Point education and his former political associations; for neither West Point nor the Democratic party have been good schools in which to learn justice and fair play to the Negro (433-435).
Is Grant someone who should never be honored, as Shaun King suggests?
My biggest issue with King’s argument is that it assumes that people in the past never changed their thinking over time and that a former slaveholder like Ulysses S. Grant could never come to realize that holding humans in bondage was wrong. Grant was far from a saint: his ownership of William Jones was inexcusable, his General Orders No. 11 during the war expelling Jews from his lines was inexcusable, and his Indian policy during his Presidency was well-intentioned but flawed. But are there not actions he took in his life that were commendable and worth honoring?
One of the bigger problems I see with this whole discussion is that we as a society should really focus on understanding before honoring. I would rather see President Trump read a book about Andrew Jackson than stage a big ceremony honoring the man (who, to be sure, has a horrid record as a slaveholder, racist, and Indian fighter, and is someone I wouldn’t be comfortable honoring). I would like for Americans to go to historic sites with the intention of understanding the life and times of historic figures. I would like for people to appreciate complexity, nuance, and the basic idea that people–then and now–often hold evolving and contradictory views towards politics.
I suppose my historical training has soured me on the idea of “heroes” as a general approach to appreciating history. I admire the words of the Declaration of Independence, but I haven’t forgotten that the author of those words raped Sally Hemmings. I admire Washington’s words about entangling alliances and the importance of Union, but I haven’t forgotten that he too was a slaveholder. I think Jackson was right on the South Carolina Nullification Crisis, but I won’t forgive him for the Trail of Tears or his violent slaveholding. I think Grant was wrong for being a slaveholder, but I appreciate the efforts he undertook as President to protect the rights of all, and I appreciate that he came around to believe that slavery was an evil wrong. I appreciate moments in history when right triumphed over wrong and people in the past took principled stands for positions that protected the rights of all Americans, but I never forget that people in the past were humans, not Gods, and that even the best humans have their flaws. And I never forget that American freedom was first established in this country on a co-existence with and acceptance of slavery.
Earlier this month I was in northwest Arkansas for a conference and had an opportunity to visit a number of history museums while there. Those site visits included the Daisy Air Gun Museum, the Rogers Historical Museum, and the Walmart Museum (yes, they have one). I found each site charming and the people who work at these sites extremely friendly. Everyone made me feel welcomed and were glad to have me as a visitor. On the whole I enjoyed my experiences at these places.
I am a critical viewer of museum exhibits, however, much in the same way that a musician is a critical viewer of other musicians or a filmmaker critically views rival cinema. My training in museum and historical methods ensures that I can never go back to looking at museums and public history sites as objective storehouses of artifacts and disinterested facts. I view every aspect from aesthetics to text markers to guided tours in an effort to see what larger interpretive messages these places hope to convey to their viewers. Although each site covers a wide time period that in some cases goes back to the late nineteenth century, they all had a similar interpretive centerpiece at the heart of their expererince: nostalgia for the 1950s.
Nostalgia is an inherently conservative emotion in my view. It smooths over the rough edges of history’s complexities and often focuses inward on our idealized personal memories of life experiences. Nobody looks back at a bad life memory in a nostalgic way. Nostalgia doesn’t convey how things were but how we wish they were and how we wish them to be. It tries to recreate an image of a past world that can never be recreated in the present, and the inability to bring this past world alive in the present intensifies our desire to bring it back against all odds. And above all else, we use nostalgia to reclaim our innocence – to return to a time when fear and insecurity didn’t exist and when things were simpler (at least in our minds). As Alan Jay Levinovitz argues in Aeon, “it is crucial to distinguish between wistful memories of grandma’s kitchen and belief in a prior state of cultural perfection.” Nostalgia is wistful thinking about a state of perfection that never existed. And it often sells within the context of museums.
The 1950s are a particularly unique time period shrouded in more nostalgia than any other era in recent history. Each museum I visited covered different aspects of this nostalgia. Men worked hard and had jobs to support the family; women stayed home and tended to the domestic sphere; children went to school and behaved like good little boys and girls; local law enforcement always had residents’ best interests at hand; everyone went to church and prayed to the same Christian God; racial, labor, or any other form of social strife was non-existent; everyone knew their place in society and happily accepted that place without reservation. We might call this interpretive phenomenon “Andy Griffith History.”
At one of the aforementioned sites I overheard a woman ask a museum employee why there were no exhibits on the contributions of African Americans or any other minority group to the life of the people in northwest Arkansas. The employee said that “well, we don’t have any exhibits on that topic unfortunately and the town of Rogers was a Sundown town in the 1950s.” A person visiting these sites without any sort of background in the history of the Civil Rights Movement would not realize that Walmart’s growth as a company occurred as Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus supported racial segregation of public schools and the Little Rock Nine crisis occurred. Nor would many people without prior knowledge look at the Walmart museum and learn that labor conflicts have occurred frequently throughout the company’s history. The pull of nostalgia only allows for a innocent view of the period devoid of any social conflict.
I suspect that 1950s nostalgia draws people to these places because the period has been so mythologized in popular culture and many (white) people alive today remember the era in fond terms. I do wonder, however, if this approach will continue to work over the next twenty or thirty years and if places that rely on nostalgia this way will have staying power in the long run. Again, I found a certain charm in these museums, and there were certainly good aspects of the 1950s that we should remember and celebrate. We should always heed Levinovitz’s advice, however, and avoid believing that any past era was perfect. That sort of thinking is bad for history and probably bad for determining contemporary policy too.