Can I Have an Opinion on the Civil War if My Ancestors Immigrated to the United States After the War’s End?

Robert E. Lee has had a rough couple years on the commemorative landscape front. His statue in New Orleans was removed in 2017, his statue in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol was removed last year, and his statue in Richmond, Virginia was removed a few days ago. While Lee’s legacy is still celebrated by a large number of Americans, it is clear that his presence within the nation’s public commemoration of the American Civil War through monuments, memorials, and statues is changing. A majority of residents within these local communities have expressed their values through activism and voting and have declared that Lee is no longer worthy of the public commemoration that he has enjoyed for more than 100 years. As our understanding of the past is constantly revised as new evidence comes to life and new interpretations are offered by historians, so too are public icons revised as new understandings of the past emerge.

There are plenty of debates to be had about the merits of Lee’s statues on historical and aesthetic grounds and the process by which these three icons were ordered to be removed through government orders. I am not interested in rehashing those debates here, but the above tweet from David Reaboi of the Claremont Institute did raise my eyebrows for what it had to say about who could participate in debates about Confederate iconography. As can be seen, Reaboi is perplexed by people who have taken a strong view of Confederate iconography but whose families have no direct connection to the Civil War since their families immigrated to the United States after the war. Reaboi labels these people (of which I’m assuming he means people opposed to Lee’s statues) as “self-righteous” and the entire idea of their participation in these debates “gross.”

I find these comments to be troubling, possibly nativist, and “gross” for a number of reasons.

On the most basic level, these comments fly in the face of inclusive commentaries about the place of immigrants and their progeny in American society. Lofty rhetoric about the United States as “A Nation of Immigrants” and legal protections in the 14th Amendment guaranteeing birthright and naturalized citizenship aim to abolish legal and cultural hierarchies between native and foreign-born citizens. In other words, once you are a citizen of the United States, it no longer matters whether you are a lifelong citizen or a citizen who became naturalized today. All citizens have the same legal protections to participate freely in American society and a right to help shape the country’s future. That would also mean the right to participate in what history is commemorated in the public square in the future, contrary to what Reaboi states.

One might also point out that a deep ancestral connection to the United States should not be fetishized. After all, there are plenty of native-born Americans with a very poor understanding of U.S. history and many foreign-born people with a strong understanding of U.S. history. It’s worth remembering, of course, that U.S. history plays an important role in the country’s naturalization test, a test that many native-born citizens would struggle with! Moreover, just because a person is descended from Robert E. Lee does not make them an expert on the American Civil War, nor does it give them an elevated voice on what should be done about Lee’s statue today. An understanding of history does not develop from genetics or through osmosis, but by use of historical methods, research, and interpretation. To say one U.S. citizen’s opinion on the Lee statue is more valid than another’s because of their ancestral origins is preposterous. What difference does it make if my ancestors came to the United States in 1826, 1866, or 2016 if I’ve studied the Civil War and have views about its history?

It is also worth mentioning that Reaboi fails to grapple with the idea that people whose descendants were here long before the American Civil War might also have a negative opinion of Confederate iconography. After all, some of the most vocal opponents of Lee’s statues are the descendants of African Americans, Native Americans, White Americans, and others who have a long ancestral history of living in the United States. The notion that the loudest “self-righteous” critics of Lee’s statues have no familial connections to the Civil War is therefore a strawman in no way rooted in the reality of the situation.

All of this is to say that NO, you do not have to have an ancestor who experienced the American Civil War firsthand in order to form an opinion on Robert E. Lee’s statue. In the end, it’s about the quality of the arguments being made and the evidence used to support those arguments. If you have a compelling argument to make, your ancestral background shouldn’t matter. Focus on the game, not the players.

Finally, I should also mention that Reaboi continued his opinions in another tweet by criticizing “our modern desire to see history as a simple morality play between forces of Progress and Evil.” The irony of this view is that public iconography is often guilty of doing this very thing by reducing complex history to a narrative of national progress and unquestioned hero worship through statuary. And since many Civil War monuments and statues were erected in the late 19th century and early 20th century, we can see that the desire to turn history into a simple morality play of progress and evil is not modern at all. These monuments and statues are actually reflective of a longstanding tradition of using history to promote nationalism, patriotism, and a “consensus” view of history. Many critics of public iconography like Robert E. Lee’s statues have grounded their criticisms on the idea that society needs to ask serious questions not just about history, but how and why we honor certain historical figures and events through public icons. Seen in this light, these critics are actually asking society to take history more seriously.

P.S… Just in case anyone is wondering about my own family connections to American history, I do have a Civil War ancestor. My great-great uncle Charles Brady served in the 49th Missouri Infantry Regiment (Union) during the war.

The enlistment paper for Charles Brady, who joined the 49th Missouri Regiment in September 1864 from St. Charles, Missouri.

When Did Jule Achieve Her Freedom?

Julia Dent Grant after the Civil War.

Former First Lady Julia Dent Grant was very forthright about her relationship with slavery in The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant. Having grown up at the 850-acre White Haven plantation in the St. Louis countryside with upwards of thirty enslaved African Americans at one point, Julia was taught from a very young age that slavery was a “positive good” that established a stable, appropriate relationship between Black and White Southerners. Slavery was central to her own privileged upbringing by ensuring that she had no chores to do at home and that time could be spent enjoying the niceties of friends, family, entertainment, and a formal education while the enslaved did the work of making this ideal upbringing possible. Julia Grant sincerely believed that “our people were very happy” with this lifestyle and even went so far as to lament that “the comforts of slavery passed away forever” with the coming of emancipation during the American Civil War (34).

As I previously wrote several years ago, the evidence suggests that Julia Grant never legally owned any enslaved African Americans. She was, however, informally “gifted” four enslaved people from her father, Frederick F. Dent, that served at her pleasure. In fact, Dan, Eliza, Julia, and John actually served Ulysses and Julia Grant and their entire family while they lived at White Haven from 1854 to 1859 and during their brief stay in downtown St. Louis from 1859 to early 1860. According to Julia, when the Grants decided to move to Galena, Illinois, “we rented our pretty little home [in St. Louis] and hired out our four servants to persons whom we knew and who promised to be kind to them” (82). An additional letter from Ulysses S. Grant on May 10, 1861 confirms that when Dan, Eliza, Julia, and John were hired out, the income generated from the arrangement went to Frederick F. Dent, not Julia, pointing to him as the legal owner of these people.

For the purposes of this post I’m interested in exploring how the enslaved woman Julia, sometimes referred to as “Jule,” achieved her freedom. In November 1861, Julia Grant came back to St. Louis from Galena, Illinois, to visit her father at White Haven. While there, Julia somehow regained possession of Jule and took her away from White Haven. “When I visited the General during the war, I nearly always had Julia with me as nurse,” Julia Grant recalled (83). Remarkably, Julia maintained possession of Jule for a little over two years until January 1864, one year after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

During this time, Julia Grant discovered that her eldest son, Frederick D. Grant, was deathly ill back in St. Louis. Anxious to get back to him, Julia prepared her things and took Jule with her to St. Louis, until this moment happened during the trip:

“At Louisville [Kentucky], my nurse (a girl raised at my home) left me, as I suppose she feared losing her freedom if she returned to Missouri. I regretted this as she was a favorite of mine.”

The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, p. 126

The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to Missouri, so at first glance it does not make much sense why Jule would be concerned about losing her freedom if she didn’t have it in the first place. A closer look, however, indicates that Julia Grant and Jule were at General Grant’s headquarters at Holly Springs, Mississippi, on January 1, 1863. Technically speaking, the Emancipation Proclamation would have made Jule a free woman since she was in Confederate territory at that time. Therefore, when Julia Grant made plans to return to a state where slavery still existed in 1864, Jule decided to flee when the opportunity arose.

This story raises some interesting questions about the meaning of “freedom.” Even if Jule was legally freed through the Emancipation Proclamation, did she truly acquire any new rights that day? Did she now possess a right to leave Julia Grant’s “employ” at will? Did she begin to earn wages for her labors, or did she continue to toil in much the same way as she always had in slavery? If Jule was now free, was she truly free so long as she remained alongside Julia Grant?

The wording of Julia’s recollections suggests that Jule considered herself a free person in January 1864 and that returning to Missouri threatened her freedom. Conversely, the passage also suggests that Julia Grant still viewed Jule as “hers.” The sight of an African American woman raised at White Haven leaving her was a moment of profound sadness for Julia Grant, something that remained on her mind more than thirty years later. In any case, the question of whether Jule was freed in 1863 or 1864 should not distract us from the fact that ultimately she took matters into her own hands and seized freedom on her own terms by leaving Julia Grant in 1864.

Cheers

Where Did All the Bloggers Go? A Few Thoughts on Historians and Blogging

When the horrible pandemic of 2020 required me to telework from home for three months and halted some of my favorite hobbies outside the home, there was a part of me that wanted to renew my presence on this blog. Why not take some of my newfound free time to write more essays about my historical interests? Instead, I didn’t write a single post between February and September. Equally important, I can’t help but notice that since maybe 2017 or 2018 there has been a significant decline in blogging by historians more broadly. Al Mackey’s still chugging away at Student of the Civil War and Pat Young’s doing his thing at The Reconstruction Era Blog, but many other noteworthy names have moved on. What gives?

With regards to the pandemic, one could argue that we are all burnt out by Zoom meetings, emails, and the constant isolation of working from home, therefore the idea of spending a few more hours each day writing on a blog is unappealing. And yet, plenty of historians (myself included) spent plenty of unnecessary time on Twitter talking and tweeting about history during this time.

I would suggest that the rise of the Twitter thread is one reason that blogging has changed. For those not on Twitter, a thread enables users to connect a series of tweets together to form a more coherent stream of thoughts. Some have taken to calling this medium “microblogging” since each tweet is, at most, 280 characters long. To cite but one example, Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse has gained international fame for his threads on 20th century history, particularly the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these threads were started by Kruse’s attempts to debunk bad history being peddled by known psuedo-historian Dinesh D’Souza and others like him on Twitter. There has been vigorous debate about the effectiveness of these threads and the usefulness of debating people who are not invested in having a fair discussion about history. I personally don’t care to see a bunch of people wasting too much time on a single tweet or getting into condescending arguments (“Historian here…”) with pundits, celebrities, and politicians. Nevertheless I do think Twitter threads, when done well, can be really informative. And there’s something to be said about engaging in debates about history not because D’Souza will change his mind, but that other open-minded people might be exposed to your arguments and be compelled to learn more about a given subject.

Other factors play into the decline of blogging. Podcasts have become a popular medium for historians, although they can be much more time consuming than a blog. Conversely, writing tweets is easier than blogging and allows for short thoughts to be quickly thrown into the social media mix. Additionally, Twitter’s algorithm now privileges popular tweets and threads more broadly rather than a chronological timeline, meaning that someone could log in eight hours after a thread was written and still see it on their personal timeline. Meanwhile, at the academic level, blogging has been largely dismissed as an effective tool of scholarship and is viewed by many historians not on social media as pointless. Perhaps the best example of this line of thinking is Princeton historian Allen Guelzo’s remark that blogging is a “pernicious waste of scholarly time” (I guess he has not talked with Kevin Kruse about social media at a department meeting yet). It appears that any sort of blogging done by emerging scholars does not figure into their employment prospects, nor does it figure into a tenure application. Why waste your time on something that doesn’t advance your career?

In sum, a multitude of factors have made history blogging less appealing, including changes to Twitter’s platform, the appeal of writing twitter threads that could gain a wide audience (and more attention for the historian), the rise of podcasts, scholarly dismissals of blogging, and a crippling pandemic that has changed our lives. Speaking personally, I am at a different chapter in my life compared to when I was a graduate student who was single and living, eating, and breathing history 24/7 with little time for much else. Furthermore, @theglamacademic also makes a good point in suggesting that “the continuous disruption caused by new social media tools is also something to note,” by which she means that social media communities have always been in flux, whether the platform is AOL Instant Messenger, MySpace, WordPress, or TikTok.

I still believe in blogging, however.

The most important argument I can make is that a blog is an easily accessible record of YOU. While a Twitter thread may be more accessible within a moment of hot discussion or controversy, it becomes very, very difficult to find that thread on Twitter long after the discussion has ended. Moreover, many people who are enthusiastic about history are not on Twitter, which can do much to limit exposure to your content. With blogging, the use of tags, metadata, algorithms, and search engines makes your content more accessible in the long term in a way that can’t be achieved by using Twitter. Nobody has to log in to view your content on a blog. Finally, I would argue that in comparison to tweets, blogs allow for more extended thoughts to be expressed in a more nuanced manner (although this argument is somewhat ironic since much academic resistance to blogging originally argued that blogs were too short and cut out important context that could be included in a 30-page journal article).

I came of age as a blogger, writer, and historian in the early 2010s, when we were living in what could be described as a “golden age” of blogging by historians. Those blogs were really crucial in helping me learn more about public history, 19th century U.S. history, and current debates about both fields taking place among sharp minds. At one point I was writing upwards of 15 to 20 posts on a month on this very website. I don’t know if (I) or (we) will ever get back to that point ever again, but I still love blogging about history and will continue to write in this space when time permits.

Cheers

A Review of “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States”

The Broken Heart of AmericaThis is not the history of St. Louis that your parents learned about!

That was the first thought that ran through my head as I began reading Walter Johnson’s new book, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States (2020). Whereas James Neal Primm’s history of St. Louis (1981) often celebrated the city’s capitalist growth, industrial might, and institutional popularity (the St. Louis Cardinals, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and the Gateway Arch, for example), Johnson’s transparently Marxist interpretation asks readers to pull back the fancy curtains to take a more critical look at the growth of the Gateway to the West. Readers are challenged with considering larger questions about the relationship between capital and labor, the use of racist legislation to not just segregate but literally remove Black and Brown people from the city, and to consider whether or not capitalism can ensure a more just future in the United States.

Johnson contends that the history of St. Louis has meaning and relevance to all Americans. From the city’s 1764 founding to the Ferguson unrest of more recent days, St. Louis has served as a flashpoint of the nation’s most pressing political debates throughout U.S. history. As Johnson puts it, “St. Louis has been the crucible of American history . . . much of American history has unfolded from the junction of empire and anti-Blackness . . . [it] rose as the morning star of US imperialism. It was from St. Louis, itself a city built on stolen land, that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark departed on the journey to survey the commercial potential of the vast Louisiana Purchase Territory, the homeland of dozens of nations that had not been party to the bargain” (5).

Spanning outward from Lewis and Clark, Johnson shows how numerous treaties ceding millions of acres–often signed by the leaders of various Indian nations under threats of violence from the U.S. military–were signed in St. Louis. He highlights how Jefferson Barracks was not just the country’s largest military post in the 1840s but the vanguard of westward military strength. The violence of slavery is highlighted as an important part of the St. Louis economy’s growth before the Civil War. Meanwhile, a growing antislavery sentiment in the city during the 1850s led by Frank Blair and Benjamin Gratz Brown called for the state’s enslaved population to not only be emancipated, but to then be colonized to another country so that white laborers could settle in new western territories without having to compete with enslaved labor. In this sense, St. Louis’s political leadership before the Civil War was not divided over slavery because of its morality or the way the institution harmed enslaved African Americans, but because this political leadership was divided as to whether or not slavery helped advance the interests of White laborers. 

Johnson’s treatment continues into the Civil War, Reconstruction, and early 20th century. Of particular interest in this section is the General Strike of 1877, a nationwide strike that had much of its roots in the grievances of the laboring class in St. Louis. Johnson contends that the significance of the Reconstruction era cannot be based only on the story of expanding civil and political rights for African American men, but on the ways labor fought for better working conditions, fair pay, and limited work hours. Whereas the pre-Civil War Republican party argued that the interests of capital and labor were in harmony, Johnson argues that industrialization during the last half of the nineteenth century exposed how the two interests were in conflict with each other. The brutal crushing of the 1877 General Strike was, in Johnson’s terms, a “counterrevolution of property” against labor’s resistance to the forces of industrial capitalism. Johnson attempts to prove the point further by using future chapters to highlight the exploitive nature of the 1904 World’s Fair and the 1917 East St. Louis riots, which were really a racial massacre against the city’s Black laborers. 

While I am not a scholar of twentieth century U.S. history and even less of an expert on today’s politics, I found Johnson’s treatment of St. Louis during this time to be enlightening. In sum, St. Louis is the 6th most segregated city in the United States today because of deliberate policy decisions. St. Louis in the 20th century is marked by numerous efforts to remove and relocate Black St. Louisians in the interest of removing blighted housing areas and promoting urban renewal. Johnson gives special attention to the story of Mill Creek Valley, a Black neighborhood of nearly 20,000 residents that began to be demolished on orders of the city’s white leadership in 1959 to promote urban renewal. Civil Rights leader Ivory Perry described the demolition of Mill Creek and subsequent forced removal of its Black residents as “Black removal by White approval.”

Elsewhere, Johnson discusses the failure of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, the destruction of the city’s downtown core to make way for the construction of the Gateway Arch, attempts to enforce racial zoning codes (U.S. v. Black Jack, Missouri, 1974), efforts to keep a Black doctor from settling in Creve Coeur by turning the property he wanted to purchase into a public park, the destruction of Meachum Park, a Black neighborhood in Kirkwood, the construction of four interstate highways through downtown St. Louis (the only city in the U.S. to have four separate interstate highways connected to it) to facilitate suburban growth out after World War II, and the use of Tax-Increment Financing to promote business growth at the expense of necessary tax revenue. As an example of the latter, Johnson points out that Michael Brown’s Normandy School District, struggling and unaccredited, is located next to Emerson Electric, an immensely wealthy company with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profits. 

There are numerous mistakes and omissions throughout the narrative, and I did not always agree with Johnson’s conclusions. On the more minor side of things, Johnson misdates the Emancipation Proclamation to March 1863, mistakenly names Confederate General Daniel Frost as “David” Frost, describes Ulysses S. Grant as “an indifferent farmer” while living in St. Louis (not sure what that is supposed to mean), and incorrectly states that the 1820 Missouri Compromise extended the 36-30 line dividing slavery to the Pacific Ocean. This was an impossibility given that the line only applied to lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, and that what is today the Western United States was still owned by Spain at this time. 

More serious are omissions of key moments in St. Louis history that could have further enhanced the narrative. For example, for all the early discussion of Indian removal that took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there is no discussion of the Treaty of Fort Clark (1808), which formally ceded St. Louis and most of present-day Missouri from the Little and Great Osage nations, or the Treaty of St. Louis (1824), which saw the Sac and Fox tribes cede northeastern Missouri and other lands to the U.S. government. Moving to Reconstruction, the focus on the 1877 General Strike leads to the omitting of noteworthy Black St. Louisians such as James Milton Turner, Moses Dickson, and Charleston Tandy from the narrative. Whereas Black civil rights leaders in St. Louis during the 20th century are named and discussed in-depth, the same treatment is not given for exploring Black life immediately after the Civil War. Another noteworthy omission is the Populist Party convention that was held in St. Louis in 1892. Through this convention we can see the intersection of labor advocacy with settler colonialism and the abandonment of Black rights by a major political party. I would also add that with the exception of German immigrants, there is scant attention paid to other immigrant groups who came to St. Louis. How did these groups interact with the racial politics of St. Louis? If St. Louis is truly the “Broken Heart of America,” then why have so many other people from the world over considered this broken heart the answer to their own broken dreams? 

Finally, a note on agency. Agency is, broadly defined, the ability of an individual or group to shape a course of events. Johnson is famously skeptical of the concept as it relates to slavery. In a 2003 essay he argued that historians excessively rely on agency arguments to demonstrate the “humanity” of the enslaved. Johnson responded that all people, whether enslaved or enslavers, demonstrate humanity by their mere existence. Fighting in favor of slavery was as much a part of “humanity” as fighting against slavery. More to the point, he questioned how slavery could have existed as a powerful force in American life for so long if the enslaved were able to truly demonstrate agency on a mass scale. By overplaying the role of agency in resistance to slavery, Johnson argued that historians ran the risk of “practicing therapy rather than politics[.] We are using our work to make ourselves feel better and more righteous rather than to make the world better or more righteous.” 

These are fair points and historians must keep them in mind when trying to place the experiences of Black and Brown people within the context of 18th and 19th United States history. But I do think there is a danger, particularly with regards to students learning about U.S. history, with focusing on the nature of white supremacy without accounting for the ways enslaved people and people forcibly removed from their homelands resisted this world order, both in large and small ways. This tension explains my frustration with the lack of attention paid to Black resistance to white supremacy during the Reconstruction era in The Broken Heart of America. If students read about the overwhelming reach of white supremacy and conclude that “it’s been like this for 200 years, I won’t be able to do anything about it today,” I fear that the force of history could act as a barrier to meaningful reform rather than an inspiration to make the world anew in the future. 

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed The Broken Heart of America. While disagreements about the Marxist interpretation of history will emerge from readers of this book, Johnson convincingly shows that capitalism, as it has been practiced in St. Louis, has a less than spectacular history of promoting justice for all. A system built to promote white prosperity and racial supremacy through slavery and Indian removal continues to have ramifications for policy today. How to promote a just and fair society in the United States will always be a point fierce debate, but one thing is true: readers will never look at St. Louis the same way again after reading The Broken Heart of America

Cheers

What Public Historians Can Learn from Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares”

Gordon Ramsay smiling with woman in yellow suit singing in background.
The smirk on Gordon’s Ramsay’s face when he sees something dumb.

I have been a fan of Chef Gordon Ramsay for a long time, but at the start of this pandemic my wife and I decided to start watching every episode of the American version of “Kitchen Nightmares,” the popular show in which Ramsay takes a week to help a struggling restaurant on the brink of collapse. (The British version is better, but I’ve already seen all of those episodes!). In watching around 60 or 70 of these episodes over the past few months I’ve noticed certain explanations–excuses, perhaps–used by the owners of these failing restaurants that often make me think of the way we talk about struggling public history sites.

A consistent theme of Kitchen Nightmares is that many of the featured restaurants have been left in a time machine. A menu that hasn’t been updated in 30 years. Decor that is smelly and out of date. Disgusting walk-in refrigerators. Frozen food that’s lazily thrown in the microwave (sometimes defensively claimed to be FREEZER-FRESH FOOD). An ownership team that doesn’t communicate with staff, has lowered its standards of excellence, and is quick to cast blame on others. Oftentimes, when Chef Ramsay asks these confused owners why they think their restaurants are struggling, they argue that their food is a 10 out of 10 and that “this town doesn’t appreciate good food.” The old ways of doing things have been working just fine and we don’t want to alienate our loyal customers, they say.

Does any of this rhetoric sound familiar to those of us working in public history? Interpretive programs with content that is out of date and has nothing new to offer visitors. A historic house tour that is really just a glorified furniture tour and does little to tell visitors why history is important and gives no room for visitors to share their own perspectives during the experience. Museum exhibits that feature the same artifacts that were there twenty years ago. A hesitance to revise educational programming at the risk of alienating “loyal” visitors. An ownership team that does not communicate well and is unresponsive to staff needs. A Board of Directors that is out of touch with the struggles of frontline staff and does not respect the ideals of diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and equity. A culture that is anxious to point fingers and cast blame on others rather than taking an honest view inwards. “Young people just don’t respect history! They have to be on a phone all the time.” It’s not us, it’s them!

The term “revisionist” is sometimes used by critics of new approaches towards studying history. These are the people I envision as the disgruntled restaurant owners in Kitchen Nightmares who want everything to be the way it was in 1980. Medical scientists are rarely accused of being revisionists for trying to develop new medicines and cures for deadly diseases, but for a multitude of reasons there is a preference in some quarters for history to be told the same way it was thirty or fifty years ago. In reality, revisionism is fundamental to historical practice. Historians make new primary sources discoveries, revisit old interpretations, and constantly think anew about the many meanings the past may offer for today’s society. The same line of thinking should be embraced in public history as well.

Bruce Catton’s version of Civil War history from the 1950s and 1960s was readable, intriguing, and very popular. His writings influenced a generation of historians to study the American Civil War, and they influenced the way history was interpreted at Civil War battlefields like Gettysburg and Vicksburg for a very long time. I enjoy Catton as much as anyone. But those writings were a product of an earlier time and are now themselves a part of history. And those writings have their own shortcomings. Catton rarely, if ever, discussed the political issues of surrounding the conflict and most certainly avoided discussing slavery except as an issue on the periphery. His analysis of military strategy and tactics has been questioned by subsequent historians. Catton was a lovely author, but his interpretations need revision. Trying to write or interpret history at a public history site the way it was in 1965 is not going to work moving forward.

So . . . the big, broad lesson from Kitchen Nightmares is for public historians to stay up with the latest scholarship, regularly communicate with fellow staff members and colleagues in the field, and to never get too rooted in tradition or the idea that “this is the way we do things around here.” A very crappy 2020 should be the catalyst for change, not the excuse for doing more of the same. Otherwise you could very well find yourself in your own public history nightmare.

Cheers

“Out of Order”: The Pitfalls of Digital Technology in History Museums

This “Out of Order” sign is from a science museum, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen similar signs in history museums. Photo Credit: TripAdvisor

My colleagues and I have been discussing strategies for creating interesting museum exhibits. Our museum suffers from many of the same issues experienced at other historic sites: too much text, broken digital technology, outdated content, and a lot of head-scratching about the best path moving forward. During the discussion a suggestion was made to include more digital content in the form of interactive video and audio exhibits. While I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea, I raised a few concerns along the way:

Digital Technology Breaks Down Quickly: From a financial standpoint, digital technology can create new roadblocks for museums. Say what you want about textual exhibit panels, but it’s fair to point out that in most cases those text panels are going to last a long longer than the fancy interactive touchscreen video you just purchased for tens of thousands of dollars. How many times have you visited a museum and you saw a video screen that wasn’t working and an “out of order” sign in front of it? The catch-22 of digital technology is that despite its fanciness and potential for meaningful learning experiences, the technology will break down, oftentimes sooner than later. Any site that invests in this technology must also invest in ongoing maintenance and eventually replacement technology.

It’s also worth mentioning that despite the allure of digital technology, there’s no guarantee people are going to interact with it in a museum space, or that the people who interact with it will get something meaningful from the experience. One example that Andrea Jones pointed out on Twitter was that the use of videotaped oral histories in museums can be isolating and “anti-social.” Digital technology can separate groups as they visit a museum and could ultimately prove to be uninteresting to visitors who either lack the time or simply don’t know the purpose of the technology. In sum, museums have to really think about the intended audience and develop a meaningful strategy behind their digital content.

It’s Too Loud in Here! Our site’s museum, as it currently stands, has no audio descriptions or videos that produce loud noise. But let me tell you, have I ever been to some loud museums before! The role of acoustics in museum exhibit design is always a hot topic within the field, and I admit that some of my hesitation about new technology comes from the potential sound consequences that could adversely affect visitor experiences. I have been to a good number of museums that had things like background audio, videos being played in a loop, and touchscreen computers with loud noises. Sometimes there are exhibits with all three and more going on at the same time. One example is the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which I previously wrote about here. While I enjoyed the museum for the most part, many of the exhibits are way too busy with loud music, looping videos, and visual effects all going on at the same time. At times the noise around me was very disorienting and prevented me from focusing on the exhibit content. Hearing the same video ten times in a row in an exhibit does not make me want to stay in that space and learn more.

What’s Unique About Your Museum Space? I gladly admit that I am a reader. I try to read as much museum text as I can, and I like to spend a lot of time in each room/exhibit of a given museum (my wife usually has to keep me moving when we go to museums together). Not everyone feels the same, and I do believe museums should offer a variety of experiences within their spaces. But what makes museums memorable and unique as tourist destinations? It’s their collections. What will people remember from visiting a given museum? Is it the fancy technology or exhibit text they’ll remember the most, or will it be the unique artifacts and material culture that can’t be seen anywhere else? For many people, the answer will be the latter.

To be sure, I believe digital technology has a place in history museums. But I think technology has to be used in service to the museum’s most unique aspect, which is its historical artifacts. Everything has to point back to the unique content of the museum. When I do museum education programs with students, I don’t share videos or have them read a bunch of text. I have the students look at pictures and artifacts (and what I call “the big words” such as exhibit titles that help orient visitors to the museum content) as a foundation for facilitated dialogue and audience-centered education. Students can read or watch a video about history at home. But when they’re at the museum, they’re seeing content that can’t be seen anywhere else. I want to highlight the collections and use that as a guide for my education programs.

Cheers

P.S. Happy 15th Amendment Day! The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on this day 150 years ago.

Remembering Two Biographers of Ulysses S. Grant Who Died in 2019

Photo credit: Nick Sacco

2019 saw the deaths of two noteworthy scholars who wrote biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. Both biographies were popular best-sellers when they were released and both represent crucial landmarks within the Grant historiography. And yet both are what could be best described as a double-edge sword; they advance our knowledge of Grant and his times while still making crucial mistakes along the way that illuminate the difficulty of writing an accurate historical biography.

Jean Edward Smith died in September at the age of 86. The New York Times described Smith as “a political scientist and renowned biographer whose works helped restore luster to the tarnished reputations of underrated presidents.” That was certainly the case with his 2001 biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Smith specialized in 20th century presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower for most of his career. His study on Grant, however, is notable because it was one of the first major birth-to-death biographies that attempted to overturn some of the common stereotypes of Grant being a drunk butcher who oversaw a hopelessly failed and corrupt administration. While more recent popular narratives on Grant from biographers like H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have undoubtedly supplanted Smith on the best-seller list, I would actually place Smith’s study above all three of them. Grant is a readable page-turner that offers a sympathetic but also convincing interpretation of Ulysses S. Grant’s life. It was the first biography of Grant that I read while in college and inspired me to learn more about the American Civil War, so for that I will always be grateful to Jean Edward Smith.

Nevertheless there are shortcomings and mistakes that make me very conflicted about the biography. At times I believe the book is too defensive of Grant. To cite but one example, Smith portrays Grant’s Indian Peace Policy while president as progressive and forward-thinking. Grant certainly disagreed with the “removalist” school of thinking that wanted to eliminate all Native Americans through violent means (embodied most notably through General Philip Sheridan’s remark that “a good Indian is a dead Indian”). But Grant’s policies essentially called for forced confinement of native populations in poorly-supplied reservations and harsh assimilation policies that some scholars today would describe as cultural genocide. Grant’s views may have been moderate for the time, but they were most certainly not forward-thinking, in my opinion.

(Here’s a book review/essay I wrote about Grant’s Indian policies that you can read about on this topic).

An equally serious problem with Smith lies in at least one documented instance in which his writing veers dangerously close to plagiarism. Here’s the bit from Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf

From Jean Smith’s Grant, page 411, bottom paragraph:

The President’s casket, draped in black crepe, rested on a raised platform under a domed black canopy. President Johnson, the Supreme Court, members of the cabinet and the diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for the President’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln felt unable to attend. At the head of the catalfalque, standing alone throughout the ceremony, was Grant – the living symbol of the cause for which the President had given his life.

Correspondent Noah Brooks reported that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant later said he was grateful that Lincoln had spent most of his final days with him at City Point. “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”

From Grant Takes Command by Bruce Catton, 1969 ed., page 479, bottom paragraph:

Draped in crepe and black cloth, the President’s casket lay in the East Room under a domed canopy of black cloth. President Johnson, members of the Supreme
Court and the cabinet, the uniformed diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for members of Mr. Lincoln’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln feeling unable to attend. At the head of the catafalque, all through the service, stood General Grant, alone.

Correspondent Noah Brooks said that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant reflectively said he would always be glad that Lincoln had spent most of his final days in Grant’s company, and when he tried to sum up the man he could only say: “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”

Yikes.

William McFeely died just a few days ago at the age of 89. Like Smith, he received a New York Times obituary that describes him as an acclaimed biographer of Ulysses S. Grant and also Frederick Douglass. Contrary to Smith, McFeely was trained as a historian and specialized in African American history and the Civil War Era, particularly Reconstruction. His 1981 biography of Grant won a Pulitzer Prize and was the standard study on Grant for at least a generation. Also contrary to Smith, McFeely went the opposite direction and was a harsh critic of his subject. One quickly gets the impression from reading the book that McFeely simply didn’t like the guy.

On the one hand, McFeely’s book remains one of the best and most widely-researched studies within the genre. For example, while most biographers today consider Grant to have held anti-slavery beliefs throughout his life, I actually agreed with McFeely when he argued that Grant’s 1854 resignation from the Army and move to St. Louis to become a farmer was in part based on a desire to emulate his father-in-law’s luxurious plantation lifestyle. I appreciated McFeely’s attempts to contextualize Grant’s St. Louis experiences, and his interpretation on this subject makes an appearance in my Journal of the Civil War Era article on Grant’s relationship with slavery that was published this past September. On the other hand, McFeely made his own mistakes along the way. And his overall interpretation of a cold, heartless tactician who did not care about African Americans or Reconstruction more broadly led Brooks Simpson (who is, in my view, the preeminent scholar of Ulysses S. Grant over the past thirty years) to suggest that Grant would not recognize himself in McFeely’s biography.

The biggest problem with McFeely’s biography, in my opinion, is his excessive use of psychoanalysis to interpret Grant’s thoughts and personality. There are many examples to cite, but the most obvious one comes on pages 10 and 11. Here McFeely assesses Grant’s early boyhood in Ohio and how he communicated that upbringing in his Personal Memoirs. He cites this passage from the Memoirs:

A Mr. Ralston living within a few miles of the village . . . owned a colt which I very much wanted. My father had offered twenty dollars for it, but Ralston wanted twenty-five. I was so anxious to have the colt, that after the owner left, I begged to be allowed to take him at the price demanded. My father yielded, but said twenty dollars was all the horse was worth, and told me to offer that price; if it was not accepted I was to offer twenty-two and a half, and if that would not get to him, to give the twenty-five. I at once mounted a horse and went for the colt. When I got to Mr. Ralston’s house, I said to him: ‘Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won’t take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won’t take that, I am to give you twenty-five.’ It would not require a Connecticut man to guess the price finally agreed upon.

. . . this transaction caused me great heart-burning. The story got out among the boys of the village, and it was a long time before I heard the last of it. Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did, and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity. I kept the horse until he was four years old, when he went blind, and I sold him for twenty dollars.

McFeely argues that this “one boyhood experience haunted Grant all his life. He referred to it often, usually giving the appearance of laughing it off; but something that must be laughed off repeatedly cannot be dismissed.” McFeely continues:

In the Memoirs, Grant presented this incident as having provided a lesson well learned in his education as a maturing businessman, but actually it functioned in the opposite way. It reminded him every time he had business to do that he was not good at it, that he was still an embarassable boy. What was more, he had been humiliated and mocked not for being discovered secretly doing something nasty, but for being innocent and open; in effect, he had been told that grown-up things, business things, were the affairs of men who laughed at boys who were direct about what they wanted. The mockery came not from the horse, but from the boys in town who feigned sophistication, from the owner of the horse, and very probably his father, who without malice but with great ability to harm, may have laughed at the boy’s ingenuousness. If the story is seen as demonstrating a second point, Ulysses’ love of horses, the blinding of the animal sours the effect. ‘My colt’–that unspoiled beautiful moment–became a broken animal, and in the terrifyingly cruel end to which the creature had come Grant saw himself. The blinded beast walked nowhere in the ceaseless drudgery. Trivial though the story of the purchase of the horse may seem, Grant spent a lifetime not getting over the transaction with Mr. Ralston.

Really?

Is this a fair and reasonable interpretation of Grant? Does the blinded horse really symbolize how Grant viewed himself; a broken beast walking through ceaseless drudgery to nowhere? Did Grant include this story in his Personal Memoirs because he was traumatized by the event? Could it not be interpreted with equal credibility that Grant’s own explanation for telling the story–that it was an important lesson in the harsh realities of the business world and reflective of a small, rural town’s culture where everyone knows everyone’s business–is valid?

Historians and particularly biographers face a tough task when they attempt to interpret their subjects inner-most thoughts and personality. The subject offers the biographer pieces of the puzzle through letters, diary entries, written books like a Personal Memoir, and other related documents. The biographer must sift through those pieces and put together a picture that makes sense and an accurate portrait of a person’s life and times. Psychoanalysis may serve a purpose in that process, but sitting a historical subject down and becoming an armchair psychologist requires a great deal of caution. In my view McFeely too often throws caution to wind to craft interpretations that are too loosely based on personal speculation and innuendo.

By all accounts, however, McFeely was a generous scholar who advanced the fields of black studies, African American history, and Reconstruction. His biography on Frederick Douglass is still highly regarded, and from what other historians have said he was a thoughtful, caring person (as I’m sure Smith was as well).

Both biographers’ studies of Ulysses S. Grant represent important landmarks for understanding Grant and should be taken seriously by scholars. May they both rest in peace.

Cheers

A New Journal Article, Other Writings, and Personal News

Cover page of Nicholas W. Sacco's article about Ulysses S. Grant and slavery
The first page of my new journal article for The Journal of the Civil War Era. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

There’s a lot going on in my neck of the woods:

1. I am pleased to announce that my manuscript on Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery has been published with The Journal of the Civil War Era. I won’t spill all the beans here, but my central thesis is that most Grant biographers and Civil War historians have missed crucial details about Grant’s views towards slavery and experiences while living at his wife’s family plantation in St. Louis, White Haven, from 1854 to 1859. These oversights occurred in large part because scholars have relied too much on Grant’s Personal Memoirs and personal recollections from his St. Louis contemporaries that were conducted in the 1880s and 1890s, long after Grant had lived in St. Louis. By going back to the limited documentation we have from the 1850s and continuing into the first year of the Civil War, we can see how Grant wasn’t necessarily the strong, lifelong anti-slavery advocate he is often portrayed to be in popular scholarship.

If you are not a subscriber to the journal, here’s a direct link to the article for download and purchase if you’re interested in reading it.

2. I have been thinking a lot about visitation to historic sites, particularly the narratives that have emerged about an alleged lack of interest in Civil War historic sites. I interviewed several public historians who work at these sites and shared some of my own thoughts in a blog post for Muster that you can read here.

3. I have another blog post that I’m currently working on for the National Council on Public History’s History@Work blog about inclusive public history. I’m hoping this essay will be published within the next week or so.

4. I joined a group of scholars in proposing a panel for the NCPH 2020 Annual Meeting to be hosted in Atlanta, Georgia. We were interested in looking at public iconography beyond Confederate monuments and I was going to discuss St. Louis’s three monuments to Unionists Edward Bates, Franz Sigel, and Frank Blair that are located in Forest Park. Unfortunately the panel was rejected for the final program. No worries, however! I am changing course and looking into possibly presenting at the Society for Civil War Historians’ conference next summer to discuss my Grant and slavery article and/or blogging for The Journal of the Civil War Era. For the first time since 2014 I will not be attending NCPH’s annual meeting, but I feel like I have an opportunity to expand my professional network and connect with more Civil War scholars if I’m able to get to the SCWH conference. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my research on the three St. Louis Unionist monuments, but there’s definitely an interesting discussion to be had about them and I will keep working on this little side project in my free time.

5. Finally, I got married earlier this month to my best friend in the whole world. Mrs. Sacco and I met in early 2016 and I proposed to her about a year and a half ago. After lots of planning and several other unrelated life events that have kept us very busy we were finally able to tie the knot and enjoy a wonderful day with our loved ones and best friends. Life is good and we are very blessed!

Cheers

Distinguishing Between Discussions About Slavery and Discussions About Race

Photo Credit: Duke University

When it comes to discussing the origins of the Confederacy, it’s common to run across defensive assertions that “the North was also racist.” By portraying the majority of white Northerners as deeply prejudiced against blacks–both free and enslaved–it becomes easier for some to contend that the American Civil War had little to do with slavery and was more about abstract principles such as states rights and tariffs. This argument is misleading in several respects.

For one, no self-respecting Civil War historian has ever argued that racial prejudice didn’t exist in the North before the Civil War. It is well-known and acknowledged among historians that racial prejudice was strong in the North, and there have been books published on this subject. Arguing that the North was racist is therefore a strawman argument. Secondly, discussing the extent to which white Northerners held racial prejudices against African Americans does little to tell us why eleven Southern states chose to leave the Union in 1861. After all, none of the various state Declarations of Secession proclaimed that they were leaving the Union because white Northerners were racist. Thirdly, what we see at play here is a failure to distinguish between discussions about slavery and discussions about race in antebellum America.

To be sure, race and slavery were closely intertwined in U.S. slavery both in law and in practice. While slavery had already existed for thousands of years in many places all over the world, black chattel slavery in the United States took on its own unique form in three different ways: it was based on race, was inherited from one generation to the next (in most cases based on the status of the mother), and lasted an entire lifetime (as opposed to most cases of indentured servitude). What sometimes gets lost, however, is that just because someone held racist views towards blacks does not mean that they also supported slavery.

Abraham Lincoln serves as a useful example of the complexities of race and slavery. On the one hand, Lincoln at various points in his political career believed that “a perfect social and political equality” between the races was “an impossibility,” stated that “I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality,” and openly advocated for colonization schemes that would (voluntarily) send black Americans to permanently settle in Africa.

On the other hand, Lincoln hated slavery with a passion and believed that freedom was the natural state of humanity. No one, regardless of their background, should be held in chains and prevented from enjoying the fruits of their labor. And when it came to the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln asserted that all were entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Although the Declaration was a statement of principles and not codified law, those principles declared that “the inferior races are our equals.” Lincoln’s fifth debate with Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858 was an extended debate about the Declaration of Independence and whether or not the Declaration applied to only white men or to all men. By arguing that the Declaration applied to all men, Lincoln was branded by Douglas as a radical promoter of social equality between the races. Even though Lincoln disavowed such intentions, Douglas repeatedly hammered him and argued that the Declaration was created for and applied only to white men. In the end, Lincoln’s belief that all were entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was viewed by many white Southerners as such a grave threat to the institution of slavery that they were willing to tear apart the Union to protect what the state of Mississippi declared was “the greatest material interest in the world,” slavery. That Lincoln held prejudicial views towards blacks as a race was of far less importance to those secessionists then the fact that he hated slavery and hoped to someday see the institution ended in the United States.

Another interesting person to study when it comes to race and slavery is Congressman Frank Blair. Blair was a strong antislavery Unionist who played a pivotal role in keeping Missouri in the Union, but he was also an avowed racist who had his own colonization plan that received some support in the North in the late 1850s. I wrote about Blair’s racial views here.

Was the antebellum North a hostile place for free people of color? Yes. Did many white Northerners hold prejudicial views towards blacks? Yes. We should remember, however, that someone could simultaneously hold racist views while still opposing slavery. Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was feared by slaveholders not because of the racial views of its members, but because of their position on stopping slavery’s westward expansion.

Cheers

Don’t Forget About Local History

I recently toured a historic Catholic church in my local area. The church has all the ingredients of a fascinating visit; a historic structure dating back to 1821, loads of artifacts and church records that provide insights into Catholicism’s westward expansion (for better or worse), and an inspiring story of grassroots preservation when the Archdiocese of St. Louis planned to demolish the church in 1958. The local community at that time did not want to see the church demolished, and for the past sixty years it has been run by a private foundation that relies on donations to stay afloat. The lone paid employee mentioned, for example, that the entire church was recently re-plastered after an elderly woman who had visited the church insisted on paying for a professional to do the job. That’s how a lot of small, local sites like this one get by.

What struck me the most during my visit, however, was a comment the employee made about local support. She stated that she was in her sixties and that all of the volunteers who assist at the site are in their eighties and nineties. The resignation in her voice when she quite honestly wondered if the site would be able to continue operating  in the next ten or twenty years was palpable. Who would step up in the future to support this historic church and continue the mission of interpreting this history?

As noted in my last post, there’s been a lot of recent soul-searching, anxiety, and discussion among historians about visitation to historic sites throughout the United States. But for the most part this discussion has focused on large institutions with a national following such as Colonial Williamsburg or the Gettysburg Battlefield. By focusing too much on the big national sites, however, we run the risk of forgetting the thousands of small historical societies and sites like this Catholic church that face much more dire circumstances moving forward.

I don’t propose to have solutions for saving this particular church, but I do think a lot of the work must start on the local level. Generally speaking, small sites are not going to show up on the top of a TripAdvisor list and will not be on the radar of someone visiting from out of town. The financial support and patronizing of the site’s resources has to start at the local level with residents who care about the history. I suspect that the particular Catholic church I visited faces some unique challenges thanks to the ongoing struggles of the Catholic religion more broadly and a changing local population that is no longer majority-catholic. Those challenges will be hard to overcome moving forward. The larger point, however, is that just about every community in America can point to some sort of historic site in their area that is going through similar challenges.

To put it simply, I’m more concerned about the future of small local history sites than I am Colonial Williamsburg. We need to keep that mind as we continue this conversation.

Cheers