A couple weeks ago the Journal of the Civil War Era announced that they had overhauled the design of their blog, Muster. A couple days after that I received an email stating that the blog was looking for writers to contribute essays on a regular basis, and that I was invited to join the team. So…I’m very pleased to announce that I will now be a regular contributor to Muster. I will be writing roughly five or six essays a year and offering a particular focus on interpreting the Civil War era within a public history setting, although that will not be my only focus. I’ve written previously for Muster before becoming a regular contributor, with the most recent essay focusing on the Frank Blair statue at Forest Park in downtown St. Louis.
The team of regular correspondents now writing for Muster is truly outstanding, and I am greatly honored to have been asked to be a part of this exciting initiative. My first essay as a regular correspondent should be up next week – we’ll see what happens from here!
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.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a recent conversation I had with a visitor about morality and judgement in historical interpretation. The visitor was very adamant about the historian’s obligation to objectivity when interpreting the past, but his definition of objectivity was, in my opinion, far too rigid. “We have no right to judge the people of the past and the decisions they make,” he said. “At one point 97% of scientists believed the earth was flat! They were wrong, but how were they supposed to know?” The historians of today, in his view, are too emotional. They are too focused on picking winners and losers and distinguishing between good and bad. People get too worked up about the past.
There is a grain of validity in his statements. The concept of “historical thinking” emphasizes the importance of understanding historical events from the perspective of the people at the time in which the event happened rather than from our perspective today. To understand why most scientists believed the world was flat requires an understanding of the scientific community’s knowledge of astronomy at that time. Who were the leading thinkers? What works of scholarship were they reading and producing? What sorts of assumptions did they make about the universe and its inner workings? Where did these scientists receive their education, and who funded their scientific research? What was the social, political, religious, and economic climate at that time? What ideologies did these scientists embrace; in other words, how did politics shape their understanding of how the world should work? And, equally important, what developments within the scientific community and the larger world led to the evolving view that the world is round?
In my opinion, however, it does not follow that historical thinking must be devoid of all judgement of the past. The flat-earth scientists were objectively wrong, after all. Historians can still offer a fair analysis of flat-earth theory while working under the understanding that such a theory is mistaken. Likewise, historians of topics like slavery, Indian removal, and genocide can offer thoughtful interpretations while making a judgement that those things are wrong.
Choices have consequences, both negative and positive. Understanding when, how, and why those choices came about is fundamental to historical interpretation. I believe assessing the consequences and making judgements about those choices is also part of the equation. One doesn’t need to look any further than their own family history to see the cracks of this “non-judgement” theory. Your own life is shaped by the decisions your ancestors made, the decisions that were made for them by others in power, and the worlds they lived in, with all the limits and possibilities that existed at a given time. You are a product of past decisions, and as such it is rational for you to make judgements about the decisions of your ancestors and what those decisions mean for your life today, just as your posterity will make judgements about your choices in life.
To avoid making any judgements whatsoever about the past–both negative AND positive–is, above all else, boring historical interpretation. The best studies make arguments and challenge me to think anew about my prior understanding of a given topic. But non-judgement also strives for an idea of objectivity that doesn’t exist. Prefect neutrality is a fiction. Claims of “bias” are meaningless most of the time because everyone has biases shaped by perception, experience, and education. When we acknowledge that all historians have their own biases, we can focus on the arguments they make rather than debating about whether the scholar is biased or not. I believe “fairness” in historical interpretation is a far better ideal to strive for than objectivity. I have my views and own experiences that shape how I interpret the past, and they shape the educational programs I create. I don’t claim to be fully free of bias, but I always strive to be fair in my interpretation and utilize historical thinking throughout the process. I think that’s all one can ask for in any sort of scholarly study or educational initiative. If I’m wrong in my interpretations and scholarship, I expect to be called out for it. 🙂
As Reconstruction continued in the mid-1870s, white Democrats in states throughout the south became increasingly desperate and brazen in their efforts to overthrown the Republican Party from power. The Republicans–the party of which the vast majority of black voters aligned with–faced intimidation at the polls and armed paramilitary groups at political meetings. Sometimes outright violence occurred. In the contentious state elections of 1875 in Mississippi, the Democrats and various paramilitary groups created the “Mississippi Plan” to remove Republicans from office, by violence if necessary. President Ulysses S. Grant hesitated to offer aid to Republican Governor Adelbert Ames when asked for federal troops to restore order. Grant feared that the sight of federal troops meddling in a state election would hurt the Republicans in state elections in Ohio, a place where support for military rule of the South and Reconstruction as a whole was beginning to wane.
African American Congressman John Roy Lynch of Mississippi arranged a meeting with President Grant to discuss patronage matters and the President’s refusal to send troops to help Governor Ames. What follows is Lynch’s recollection of that meeting, which he included in his fascinating book The Facts of Reconstruction (1913). I think it is one of the clearest explanations Grant offered in discussing his understanding of Reconstruction’s goals and what the “fruits of victory” in the Civil War meant for the country’s future. We can also see that the end of Reconstruction came about partly because of white Northern indifference to violence and fraud at the polls during elections in the South. What follows is from pages 150-155.
“[I] informed the President that there was another matter about which I desired to have a short talk with him, that was the recent election in Mississippi. After calling his attention to the sanguinary struggle through which we had passed, and the great disadvantages under which we labored, I reminded him of the fact that the Governor, when he saw that he could not put down without the assistance of the National Administration what was practically an insurrection against the State Government, made application for assistance in the manner and form prescribed by the Constitution, with the confident belief that it would be forthcoming. But in this we were, for some reason, seriously disappointed and sadly surprised. The reason for this action, or rather non-action, was still an unexplained mystery to us. For my own satisfaction and information I should be pleased to have the President enlighten me on the subject.
The President said that he was glad I had asked him the question, and that he would take pleasure in giving me a frank reply. He said he had sent Governor Ames’ requisition to the War Department with his approval and with instructions to have the necessary assistance furnished without delay. He had also given instructions to the Attorney-General to use the marshals and the machinery of the Federal judiciary as far as possible in cooperation with the War Department in an effort to maintain order and to bring about a condition which would insure a peaceable and fair election. But before the orders were put into execution a committee of prominent Republicans from Ohio had called him. (Ohio was then an October State–that is, her elections took place in October instead of November.) An important election was then pending in that State. This committee, the President stated, protested against having the requisition of Governor Ames honored. The committee, the President said, informed him in a most emphatic way that if the requisition of Governor Ames were honored, the Democrats would not only carry Mississippi–a State which would be lost to the Republicans in any event–but that Democratic success in Ohio would be an assured fact. If the requisition were not honored it would make no change in the result in Mississippi, but that Ohio would be saved to the Republicans. The President assured me that it was with great reluctance that he yielded–against his own judgement and sense of official duty–to the arguments of this committee, and directed the withdrawal of the orders which been given to the Secretary of War and the Attorney-General in that matter.
This statement, I confess, surprised me very much.
‘Can it be possible,’ I asked, ‘that there is such a prevailing sentiment in any State in the North, East or West as renders it necessary for a Republican President to virtually give his sanction to what is equivalent to a suspension of the Constitution and laws of the land to unsure Republican success in such a State? I cannot believe this to be true, the opinion of the Republican committee from Ohio to the contrary notwithstanding. What surprises me more, Mr. President, is that you yielded and granted this remarkable request. That is not like you. It is the first time I have ever known you to show the white feather. Instead of granting the request of that committee, you should have rebuked the men–told them that is is your duty as chief magistrate of the country to enforce the Constitution and laws of the land, and the protect American citizens in the exercise and enjoyment of their rights, let the consequences be what they may; and that if by doing this Ohio should be lost to the Republicans it ought to be lost. In other words, no victory is worth having if it is to be brought about upon such conditions as these–if it is to be purchased at such a fearful cost as was paid in this case.’
‘Yes,’ said the President, ‘I admit that you are right. I should not have yielded. I believed at the time that I was making a grave mistake. But as present, it was duty on one side, and party obligation on the other. Between the two I hesitated, but finally yielded to what was believed to be party obligation. If a mistake was made, it was one of the head and not of the heart. That my heart was right and intentions good, no on who knows me will question. If I had believed that any effort on my part would have saved Mississippi I would have made it, even if I had been convinced that it would have resulted in the loss of Ohio to the Republicans. But I was satisfied then, as I am now, that Mississippi could not have been saved to the party in any event and I wanted to avoid the responsibility of the loss of Ohio, in addition. This was the turning-point in the case.’
‘And while on this subject,’ the President went on, ‘let us look more closely into the significance of this situation. I am very much concerned about the future of our country. When the War came to an end it was thought that four things had been brought about and effectually accomplished as a result thereof. They were: first, that slavery had been forever abolished; second, that the indissolubility of the Federal Union had been permanently established and universally recognized; third, that the absolute and independent sovereignty of the several States was a thing of the past; fourth, that a national sovereignty had been at last created and established, resulting in sufficient power being vested in the general government not only to guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican form of government, but to protect, when necessary, the individual citizen of the United States in the exercise and enjoyment of the rights and privileges to which he is entitled under the Constitution and laws of his country. In other words, that there had been created a National citizenship, resulting in a paramount allegiance to the United States–the general Government–having ample power to protect its own citizens against domestic and personal violence whenever the State in which he may live should fail, refuse, or neglect to do so. In other words, so far as citizens of the United States are concerned, the States in the future would only act as agents of the general Government in protecting the citizens of the United States in the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property.’
‘This has been my conception of the duties of the President, and until recently I have pursued that course. But there seems to be a number of leading and influential men in the Republican party who take a different view of these matters. These men have used and are still using their power and influence, not to strengthen but to cripple the President and this prevent him from enforcing the Constitution and laws along these lines. They have not only used their power and influence to prevent and defeat wise and necessary legislation for these purposes, but they have contributed, through the medium of public meetings and newspaper and magazine articles, to the creation of a public sentiment hostile to the policy of the administration. Whatever their motives may be, future mischief of a very serious nature is bout to be the result. It requires no prophet to foresee the that national government will soon be at a great disadvantage and that the results of the war of the rebellion will have been in a large measure lost. In other words, that the first two of the four propositions above stated will represent all that will have been accomplished as a result of the war, and even they, for the lack of power of enforcement in the general government, will be largely of a negative character. What you have just passed through in the State of Mississippi is only the beginning of what is sure to follow. I do not wish to create unnecessary alarm, nor to be looked upon as a prophet of evil, but it is impossible for me to close my eyes in the face of things that are as plain to me as the noonday sun.’
It is needless to say that I was deeply interested in the President’s eloquent and prophetic talk which subsequent events have more than fully verified.
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 🙂
My latest book review for The Civil War Monitor has gone live. I analyze a new work on Private Edwin Jemison, a young seventeen-year-old Confederate solider who was killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill. Jemison had a picture of himself taken while in New Orleans just as his 2nd Louisiana Regiment was preparing to be sent off to war, and this picture is now very famous among readers of Civil War history. Authors Alexandra Filipowski and Hugh T. Harrington undertook years of research to learn more about Jemison’s life, and the result is The Boy Solider.
I will reinforce here that I think the book is a worthwhile read particularly for high school students. Jemison is a relatable figure whose story is accessible to students. I would have liked to have seen more research into the social and political context of his Louisiana upbringing, but overall I think the book is a good read.
My passion for learning about Missouri’s complex role in the Civil War has been strong ever since I started studying the Civil War. At the beginning of this year I decided that the time had come to contribute to this historiography with a journal article of some sort, and I started hitting the books and the microfilm rolls really hard. In the course of my research I found an intriguing, untold story in Democratic Congressman John Richard Barret, a one-term legislator who happened to be sitting with the Thirty-Sixth Congress (1859-1861) as a representative from St. Louis when the first seven states seceded from the Union. Although Barret is tangentially mentioned by scholars like Louis Gerteis, Adam Arenson, and William Parrish in studies of Missouri’s response to the secession crisis, no historian has previously produced scholarship where he is the central character.
Although Barret has no existing diary entries or letters to study, I managed to find a treasure trove of fascinating speeches and op-eds through newspaper and legislative records. Last month I completed a 9,000 word manuscript, and earlier this week that draft was approved for publication as a journal article. I am now pleased to pass along the news that my article, “Searching for Compromise: Missouri Congressman John Richard Barret’s Fight to Save the Union,” will be published in The Confluence later this fall.
The Confluence is a scholarly magazine based out of Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. I went to Lindenwood as an undergrad and was enrolled as a student when the publication began in 2009. Since then it has developed a solid readership throughout Missouri and beyond. I believe this article could have been published with a number of reputable Civil War history journals in other parts of the country, but the chance to publish with a magazine rooted in the history of the St. Louis region was very appealing. The Confluence is also dedicated to presenting deeply researched history to a lay audience through accessibly-written articles and a slick graphic design that is visually appealing. Those were also big factors for me in choosing to publish with them.
I won’t give away much here, but a centerpiece of my article is a speech that Barret made to Congress on February 21, 1861, a few short weeks before Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential Inauguration. In that speech he makes a logical, determined argument in favor of compromise over the issue of slavery’s westward expansion. He criticizes extremists from both North and South and, in my opinion, clearly explains how and why most Missourians:
1. preferred a cautious approach to secession
2. supported the Union even after the first seven Southern states seceded
3. understood that leaving the Union would also mean giving up protections for slavery, and
4. believed a protracted civil war would ultimately lead to some of the bloodiest consequences being played out in border slave states like Missouri.
For those interested in obtaining a copy of this article, I will have more info in the fall. Stay tuned!
In between producing television shows about ice road truckers, swamp people, or whatever else the History Channel airs these days, the famously un-historic channel gained attention for recently claiming that pilots Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan survived their plane crash in the Marshall Islands and were subsequently captured by the Japanese military. For whatever reason, the History Channel’s social media feeds are playing up a dubious claim that somehow the federal government is actively suppressing the “truth” of Earhart’s story, even though the documents they found to support their theory of Earhart and Noonan’s disappearance came from…a government archive.
According to the official website of the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency possesses “approximately 10 billion pages of textual records; 12 million maps, charts, and architectural and engineering drawings; 25 million still photographs and graphics; 24 million aerial photographs; 300,000 reels of motion picture film; 400,000 video and sound recordings; and 133 terabytes of electronic data.” It should not be surprising that some of these documents get placed in storage and are sometimes forgotten about by researchers (or they simply don’t know the documents exist). That is not the same as saying the National Archives is deliberately withholding an unclassified document from researchers in the interest of hiding the government’s “secrets.”
By now I should realize that it’s all about the ratings when it comes to the History Channel. Support your local archivist and thank them for preserving history!
UPDATE: There’s a good chance the History Channel’s claims about Earhart are untrue. The power of history blogging!