Over the past thirty years, Ulysses S. Grant has seemingly become a topic of study for every pop historian and Civil War expert in the field. The heavy work of reassessing Grant started with historian Brooks Simpson, but now countless biographies of the man–several of them 700 to 1,000 pages long–have been published in recent years. Several noteworthy figures well-known beyond the academy such as H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have all taken their turn writing studies that can easily be found on the shelves of a local Barnes & Noble store. The accuracy and reliability of these Grant biographies vary. It is easy to look at every new major biography and wonder what else needs to be said that hasn’t already been said.
From my perspective on the ground level of public history, however, I can safely say that even though Grant’s reputation as a whole has improved considerably, the view of Grant’s presidency as hopelessly corrupt and failed still remains. Classrooms throughout the country still point to corruption claims as the one major fact to know about Grant’s presidency, and academic historians not intimately connected to the Grant studies phenomenon still frequently look upon his two terms negatively or not at all. Richard White’s magisterial new overview of Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, The Republic for Which it Stands, cites liberally from William McFeely’s problematic Grant biography and subsequently interprets Grant as a vain, publicity-starved executive who did not really care about the protection of black rights in the South. Eric Foner’s equally magisterial overview of Reconstruction barely mentions the Grant administration at all, even though its eight years in office occurred during that era. Kenneth Stampp’s now-dated study of Reconstruction conveys a sentiment still common among most Americans that Grant “contributed little but political ineptitude” during his presidency.
And so, within a crowded field of new Grant scholarship and still widely divergent understandings of Grant’s presidency among history enthusiasts of all levels, Charles Calhoun’s new study of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency manages to say something new about a greatly misunderstood time in American history. In assessing the Grant administration, Calhoun convincingly argues that Grant’s presidency “produced a record of considerable energy and success, tempered at times by frustration and blighted expectation” (7). Determined to face the new political challenges of Reconstruction in his own way, Grant faced enormous resistance from his critics even before taking office. Given the circumstances, one would be hard pressed to find anyone from the time who could have done any better.
Calhoun’s book works well on two levels. For those already familiar with the issues Grant faced during his presidency, Calhoun provides added depth. For those not familiar with those issues, the book’s clarity allows it to simultaneously function as a useful introduction.
Among the arguments Calhoun makes:
- Grant expressed great reluctance to run for President in 1868, but felt that it was his obligation to run. President Andrew Johnson had attempted to inaugurate a quick restoration of the Union on his own, without the help of Congress. He worked to re-enfranchise and pardon the mass of former Confederates who had recently engaged in active rebellion against the country. He also proclaimed that America should have a “white man’s government.” By essentially handing the keys of Reconstruction back to those most opposed to it while ignoring the black and white southern unionists who had fought to maintain the Union, Johnson unintentionally pushed Grant into the Republican Party. As Grant would state in his Eighth Annual Message to Congress, Reconstruction meant “whether the control of the Government should be thrown immediately into the hands of those who had so recently and persistently tried to destroy it, or whether the victors should continue to have an equal voice with them in this control,” with assistance from Congress. Grant sought political reunion and sectional reconciliation with former Confederates, but not at the expense of sacrificing the fruits of Union victory: Union, emancipation, and, in his mind, political equality irrespective of race, nativity, or sect.
- Senator Charles Sumner expressed skepticism about Grant’s dedication to the Republican Party and Reconstruction even before he ran for president. Even though many former Confederates bitterly resisted the Reconstruction process, a central theme of Calhoun’s book is that Sumner and his New England cohorts (Charles Francis Adams, Henry Adams, John Lothrop Motley, etc.) expressed their own vitriolic criticisms of Grant that arguably shaped future negative perceptions of his presidency more than the former group. Sumner believed his long service to the Republicans meant that he deserved the role of Secretary of State. When Grant went in a different direction and the New England cohort did not receive the plum government offices they believed they were entitled to, they actively resisted the administration and led the push to form the Anti-Grant Liberal Republican party. It was common to hear critics who called for “reform” and the end of the patronage system for filling government offices during Grant’s presidency, but with astonishing frequency these critics were often disgruntled office-seekers themselves.
- Calhoun dedicates a good chunk of the book to Grant’s foreign policy initiatives, including the Treaty of Washington, proclaiming neutrality amid growing tensions between Cuba and their Spanish colonizer, and his failed effort to annex Santo Domingo–the Dominican Republic today–to establish a military presence in the Caribbean and provide a black state for African Americans facing persecution in the south. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish’s able administration of the State Department is a central feature of Grant’s foreign policy.
- Another central focus lies in the reconstruction of the nation’s finances, which I’ve written about here. Grant and his first Treasury Secretary George Boutwell successfully lowered taxes, interest rates on government bonds, and the national debt. They desired a return to the gold standard in the wake of paper “greenbacks” being utilized during the Civil War to help fund the government, but were cautious not to return to the gold standard too quickly and subsequently deflate the country’s currency. They concocted a scheme to “grow up” greenbacks until they were of equal value to gold, upon which the government would return to the gold standard. Calhoun also assesses the 1869 “Black Friday” gold ring and the economic panic of 1873. Calhoun argues that Grant became increasingly conservative in his views towards financial matters by the time of the panic, and that this perspective complicated Grant’s and Congress’s efforts to alleviate the depression.
- Calhoun argues that Grant felt a sincere sympathy towards Native American Indians and argued that they had been “put upon” by whites. Rather than advocating for Indian extermination, which some Generals like William Sherman and Philip Sheridan supported, Grant sought peace through a new peace policy and a Board of Indian Commissioners that would clean up the country’s Indian trading posts. Grant, however, also advocated for white westward expansion and acknowledged that the two ideas were contradictory. Implicit in his policy was the belief that Indians would have to assimilate to white ways. This assimilation called for Indians to become Christianized farmers on reservations who would embrace “civilization” and be trained to eventually become American citizens. Some Indian tribes like the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Creek heartily supported Grant’s policies, which were strongly influenced by his friend and Seneca Indian Ely Parker. Other tribes, particularly those in the Plains region, realized that their lands and way of life were becoming extinct. The Peace Policy therefore led to some of the worst battles between Indian tribes and the U.S. Army, including the Battle of Little Bighorn. Calhoun offers a wonderful chapter on the Indian Peace Policy during Grant’s first term, but I would have liked more analysis of the negative effects of the policy during his second term as the violence increased.
- Grant tried his best to protect white and black unionists in the South and ensure that all would have a chance to enjoy citizenship and suffrage rights. Most notably, the Department of Justice was formed to prosecute white terrorists in groups like the Ku Kux Klan when states and localities refused to bring these groups to justice. This initiative was the first in which the federal government enforced and protected civil rights for Americans, but many white Americans, even those who were sympathetic to the Republican Party, were apprehensive about government overreach and the power of the federal government to intervene in local elections (even though many of these people heartily supported military intervention in Indian affairs). Grant himself even expressed more reluctance to get involved in Southern elections towards the end of his second term, no doubt influenced by a poor economy, growing northern indifference towards southern affairs, and a changing Congress (Democrats gained a majority of House seats in the 1874 midterms) that opposed his policies.
- Corruption did exist in the Grant administration, most notably through the Whiskey Ring Scandal of 1875 and Secretary of War William Belknap’s receiving of kickbacks from the sale of government jobs, but Calhoun offers a strong defense of Grant’s administration on this count. Some Cabinet members like Amos Akerman and Ely Parker were unfairly charged by political opponents with corruption charges. Disgruntled office-seekers called for civil service reform, and Grant expressed willingness to go along with these initiatives as long as Congress played a role in the process. When they continually slashed funds from a Civil Service Commission established in 1871, Grant concluded that civil service reform could not be effectively implemented. As with any claims of corruption today, one must always look at the agenda of the person making the claim. In a heated political climate with much resistance to Grant and Reconstruction more broadly, corruption claims were often used to delegitimize the President’s initiatives. Calhoun’s study, combined with Mark Summers’s Era of Good Stealings, convincingly shows that while government corruption as an issue was very important in the 1870s, actual corruption was not nearly as widespread as it was in the 1850s and 1860s.
I highly recommend Calhoun’s book.
My first post as a regular contributor for Muster is now up. With this essay I wanted to take a look at the question of whether or not erecting monuments to the “heroes” of Reconstruction would do anything to improve understanding of the era. I also discussed some of the work taking place at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site to educate teachers in the St. Louis area about Reconstruction. Enjoy!
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!
Whenever I study a particular time period in history, I find it very helpful to think about the sorts of questions people at the time would have been mulling over as they looked towards the future. It is easy to look at past events in hindsight and assume that everyone knew what would come next. Even trained historians can be guilty of minimizing the significance of a social, cultural, political, or economic change as “inevitable” when in reality it was anything but. I often wonder if assigning students papers in which they have to make a “thesis statement” is as effective as perhaps asking them to first think about one or more “guiding questions” to provide structure to their inquiry before formulating any sort of answer or argument when explaining a historical event.
In any case, the Reconstruction Era (generally defined as between 1863 to 1877) presents itself as one of the most misunderstood and ignored periods in American history, and the political complexities of the era do not lend themselves to easy explanation. Even after studying the period for a number of years I still find myself sometimes struggling to explain the significance of the era to visitors and students in a cogent manner. What follows are four questions that have helped me make sense of Reconstruction’s complexities:
- How would the United States restore and maintain a stronger union in the wake of a major secession crisis and the nation’s deadliest conflict?
- How would the country’s leaders find a balance between promoting liberty and establishing order?
- What economic labor system would replace slavery in the South, and to what extent would national, state, and local governments involve themselves in economic affairs?
- What would be the future status of African American freedpeople, former Confederate secessionists, and American Indian tribes? How would the government protect and expand the rights of African Americans, encourage former Confederates to become law-abiding citizens again, AND promote peace with American Indian tribes at the same time they promoted westward expansion?
(4a. What would be the correct size and scope of government to regulate society in a time of vast social, political, and economic changes?)
While the black freedom struggle has become a centerpiece of recent Reconstruction studies, we should always remember that for most whites in the North, the central question for them was how to restore the Union quickly and peacefully. African Americans served loyally in the Civil War and many believed they were entitled to protection, citizenship, and voting rights. Once white Northerners felt that the country had stabilized and that enough legislation had been passed to protect African Americans (most notably the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments), it did not take long for them to abandon Reconstruction and essentially state that blacks were on their own to face the future even though rampant racism, discrimination, and violence continued to exist.
What do you think? What essential questions do we need to consider when studying Reconstruction?
John C. Calhoun has become the latest casualty in an ongoing conversation about America’s commemorative landscape and who, exactly, is deserving of continued commemoration and a place of honor within that landscape. After the formation of a committee and much debate (noticeably without the voice of historian David Blight), Yale University has decided to remove Calhoun’s name from a residential college that was established in 1931. Journalist Geraldo Rivera, decrying “political correctness,” announced that he left a position at the university and, unsurprisingly, numerous thinkpieces have emerged making arguments for or against the change. Rivera is free to do what he pleases, although I find this episode a strange cause for which to give up a job. I also respect Yale’s position even though I can see compelling points on both sides of the argument.
One of the more thought-provoking essays I’ve come across since the announcement is Roger Kimball’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Kimball claims that the process by which Yale decided to remove Calhoun’s name was inconsistent and that, just like Rivera’s claim, the change was flawed since a “politically correct circus” of academic groupthink dominated the process. He rightly points out that Yale’s history as an educational institution is loaded with notable alumna and professors with controversial backgrounds, including Elihu Yale himself. In making this argument, however, Kimball downplays Calhoun’s historical legacy and never makes a compelling argument as to why Yale should have kept his name associated with the residential college. Equally important, he doesn’t make an effort to examine Yale’s reasoning for naming the college after Calhoun in the first place.
There are two major problems with Kimball’s thinking, in my view. The first is the way he characterizes Calhoun. Kimball acknowledges that he was a slaveholder and brilliant politician who argued that slavery was a “positive good.” But Calhoun wasn’t just a racist slaveholder; he was a political and intellectual leader of American proslavery thought whose words influenced a generation of proslavery thinkers.
Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who maintained an uneasy relationship with the institution. He called slavery a “moral depravity” and contrary to the laws of human nature. John Calhoun told slaveholders to not feel ashamed any longer; slavery was a law of nature and servitude to white enslavers was the correct station in life for black people. Proslavery religious leaders used Calhoun’s logic to argue that enslavement allowed for African souls to be Christianized. Scientific thinkers like Samuel Cartwright said African Americans were biologically inferior and went so far as to invent a new disease, “Drapetomania,” to explain why slaves tried to run away from their enslavers. Proslavery political leaders in the days of the early republic through the 1820 Missouri Compromise were willing to set aside some new U.S. territories from slavery’s expansion in the interest of sectional harmony and free state/slave state political balance. But those proslavery leaders were replaced by new leaders in the 1840s and 1850s who said that compromise on the slavery question was dishonor and that all new territories should be opened for slavery. John Calhoun, in his racism but also his intellectual brilliance that was in part cultivated by his Yale education, played an integral role in fostering these developments, which in turn led to the eventual breakout of the American Civil War, the deadliest war in this country’s history.
These truths are too much for Kimball, however. He states that “You might, like me, think that Calhoun was wrong about [slavery]. But if you are [Yale President] Peter Salovey, you have to disparage Calhoun as a “white supremacist” whose legacy—“racism and bigotry,” according to a university statement—was fundamentally ‘at odds’ with the noble aspirations of Yale University” . . . “Who among whites at the time was not [a white supremacist]? Take your time.”
Wendel Phillips; the Grimke sisters; the Tappan brothers; Theodore Weld; John Brown; Thomas Wentworth Higginson; Gerrit Smith…
Is Calhoun somehow not a racist or white supremacist? Did he not believe that blacks as a race were inferior and that the white race should be able to control the black race through whatever legal means it saw fit? What does it say about Kimball that he becomes infuriated with the words “white supremacist” to describe Calhoun?
The second problem with Kimball’s argument is his “whatabout-ism” in the essay. What about slave trader Elihu Yale or other slaveholders associated with Yale like Timothy Dwight, Benjamin Silliman, and Jonathan Edwards? Shouldn’t they also have their names removed, he asks? Certainly Yale was a more “objectionable” person than Calhoun, right? This line of thinking is a crucial element of Kimball’s argument because it intends to discredit Yale’s process for removing Calhoun’s name and ultimately paint the university’s administration as playing politics with the issue. This is a fair critique, but only to a point. Isn’t it a bit subjective and unproductive to debate whether Yale or Calhoun was “more objectionable” when both said and did despicable things? Aren’t we deflecting from the real conversation–whether or not John Calhoun as an individual, regardless of anyone else’s legacy, is deserving of a place of honor at Yale–by arguing that other people were bad too and that all white people were racist at the time?
Buildings all over the world are named after historical figures whose names were placed there because powerful cultural elites believed that person represented values that were important to contemporary society and were therefore deserving of honor and recognition. Some of these names will remain in their location forever. Some of these names change over time because new people make history and earn a spot within the commemorative landscape while older names are forgotten. And sometimes those names change because contemporary values–which are always a factor in selecting who gets to be a part of a commemorative landscape–change.
It is more than fair to ask whether or not the process of removing Calhoun’s name was legitimate, but it’s a separate question from whether or not Calhoun deserves his place of honor. If we wish to have a productive conversation about John C. Calhoun’s historical legacy, we must be willing to have an honest look at his life, his deeds, and his time. We must be willing to acknowledge that he was a white supremacist and a controversial figure in his time. And we must consider why Yale leaders felt the need to honor Calhoun with a college in his namesake in 1931 and why it was considered acceptable at that time to do so. From there we can begin to debate Calhoun’s individual legacy without resorting to tired “political correctness” arguments or childishly saying that other people were bad too. If Calhoun deserves a college in his name, make a compelling case to justify it based on his merits as a historical figure.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Christianity and political action within the context of both the Civil War Era and our own confused politics today. The Journal of the Civil War Era’s excellent civil war history blog, Muster, gave me a chance to write out some thoughts about these topics, and the final product was published earlier today. You can read it here. Please give it a read and let me know what you think.
A big thank you should be given to my friend and fellow public historian Christoper Graham, who proofread the essay and gave me some great suggestions for improving it.
Ulysses S. Grant has received much attention from historians and biographers over the past thirty years. So much attention, in fact, that an argument can be made that we might actually have an over-saturation of Grant studies on the market right now. During the first half of the twentieth century the most notable Grant biographers–William Hesseltine, William E. Woodward, Louis Coolidge, and Allan Nevins (whose study of Grant’s Secretary of State Hamilton Fish is in many ways a study of Grant and his presidency)–offered largely negative portrayals of Grant. The mid-1900s saw a dearth of Grant studies save for Lloyd Lewis and Bruce Catton’s biographical trilogy that went through General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. William McFeeley’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography brought renewed interest to Grant, but a combination of factors in the 1990s brought about a Grant renaissance that continues today, including a reevaluation of Grant’s generalship and presidency (and the Civil War era more broadly) within historical scholarship and at public history sites (Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary may have possibly influenced interest in Grant as well). Two years ago I wrote an essay on this website outlining my favorite and least-favorite Grant biographies that you can check out here.
With this post I aim to briefly analyze Grant biographies published since 2012 and update readers on what I know about upcoming biographies to be published in the future. I haven’t read all of these books yet but will provide additional commentary for the ones I have read. Off we go:
H.W. Brands – The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace (2013): In recent years Dr. Brands has devoted his scholarly endeavors to telling the story of American history through biography, which includes works on Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Ben Franklin, and Ronald Reagan. With this Grant biography Brands looked to portray the Civil War era and nineteenth century history more broadly through the eyes of Grant. The Man Who Saved the Union, however, lacks analytical depth and doesn’t really tell us anything new about Grant. The source material is heavily skewed towards secondary sources and repackaging what prior biographers have said about the man. Overall the book is very similar in style to Jean Edward Smith’s 2002 biography of Grant but not as well researched. Readers who are new to Ulysses S. Grant could benefit from starting with The Man Who Saved the Union, but others won’t find anything new here.
Geoffrey C. Ward – A Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States (2012): This book is actually a biography of Ferdinand Ward, the “Napoleon of Finance” of Gilded Age Wall Street and Grant’s business partner in the investment banking firm Grant & Ward. But the book is so well-written and engaging that I have to include it on this list. Geoffrey Ward–a partner with Ken Burns on their famous television documentaries and the Great-Grandson of Ferdinand Ward–includes a good analysis of the rise and fall of Grant & Ward and the Grant family’s response to the loss of their fortune. The book was a joy to read and I highly recommend it.
Chris Mackowski – Grant’s Last Battle: The Story Behind the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (2015): This little book is a real joy to read. Mackowski analyzes Grant’s fight against throat cancer and the race to finish his personal memoirs before his death in 1885. The overall argument is that Grant’s Memoirs aimed to cement his legacy and “secure the meaning of the Civil War.” Highly recommended.
William C. Davis – Crucible of Command: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee – The War They Fought, The Peace They Forged (2015): Davis is a well-renowned Civil War historian who has written a legendary number of books and articles about the war. In this well-researched dual biography of Grant and Lee, Davis relies mostly on primary sources and does a nice job interpreting both men’s lives. The most ambitious aspect of the book is the “peace they forged” part, which focuses on the relationship between the two men during Reconstruction and their reaction to political events during that time. Davis argues that Grant and Lee were, for the most part, on the same page when it came to creating a political blueprint for bringing former Confederate states back into the Union. My friend and colleague Bob Pollock wrote a blog post last year suggesting that the two did not see eye-to-eye as much as Davis suggests, but he nevertheless recommends reading Crucible of Command. I also recommend it.
G.L. Corum – Ulysses Underground: The Unexplored Roots of U.S. Grant and the Underground Railroad (2015): This book is well-researched but with an interpretation that is badly flawed. In the book description we are told that Grant held “a fierce commitment to slavery’s demise” bordering on abolitionism before the war that was born of his upbringing in the strongly abolitionist enclave of Southern Ohio, a central point on the Underground Railroad. The evidence for this claim, however, is supported not by anything in Grant’s own writings (he never stated anything against slavery in writing before the war) but by the contention that Grant’s surroundings in Ohio profoundly shaped his views towards slavery. The lack of reliable evidence to verify this claim undermines its validity. In fact, Grant’s moving to St. Louis in the 1850s to live on his in-laws slave plantation, his ownership of William Jones while in St. Louis, and an 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War all suggest something quite different. In that letter Grant stated that he “was never an abolitionest, [n]ot even what you would call anti slavery” before the Civil War, but that the contingencies of the war had changed his perspective. These inconvenient facts are glossed over in Ulysses Underground. Furthermore, her contention that previous Grant biographers have neglected to analyze Grant’s early childhood is undercut by the numerous biographies–most notably Lloyd Lewis’s Captain Sam Grant–that do just that. To be sure, Corum does a wonderful job of illuminating the history of Southern Ohio, and on that front she does an excellent job. But her efforts to incorporate an abolitionist-minded Grant into this narrative are in vain.
Edwina Campbell – Citizen of a Wider Commonwealth: Ulysses S. Grant’s Postpresidential Diplomacy (2016): Campbell, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, provides readers one of the first scholarly analyses of Grant’s two-and-a-half year world tour. I haven’t had the chance to read it yet but I’m very much looking forward to this one.
John F. Marszalek – The Best Writings of Ulysses S. Grant (2015): Marszalek, the current Executive Director of the U.S. Grant Association’s Presidential Library and an editor of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, compiles a sort of “greatest hits” of Grant’s letters throughout his lifetime. I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet but I anticipate that it’s a good, handy primer for those wanting to read Grant’s letters.
Frank Varney – General Grant and the Rewriting of History: How the Destruction of General William S. Rosecrans Influenced Our Understanding of the Civil War (2013): I haven’t read this book yet, but the title offers some obvious clues about the interpretive focus of the book. Varney argues that Grant–both intentionally and unintentionally–includes a number of mistakes about the Civil War in his Personal Memoirs that unfairly inflate his own accomplishments and downplay General Rosecrans’s role in the war. This review by Jason Frawley in The Civil War Monitor offers a mixed assessment.
Ronald C. White – American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant
Brooks Simpson‘s much-anticipated second volume of his Grant biography exploring Grant’s life from 1865-1885 is, I believe, on the path towards eventual publication, but at this point I’m not sure when that will actually happen.
Ron Chernow, yes, that Ron Chernow that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to write the hit Broadway show Hamilton, has intentions of writing a Grant biography.
Charles Calhoun of East Carolina University is working on a book about Grant’s presidency.
James Ramage of Northern Kentucky University is also working on a Grant biography. Ramage’s biography of Confederate guerilla John Singleton Mosby and the subsequent friendship of Mosby and Grant inspired Ramage to write a book on Grant and, according to a friend of his that I recently met, he hopes to analyze how Grant has been remembered by Americans since his death in 1885.
If I’ve missed any books along the way, please let me know.
Back in February I had the opportunity to travel to the University of Memphis to hear a talk from Dr. Andre E. Johnson and meet leaders at both the University of Memphis and the larger Memphis community to discuss efforts to commemorate the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The formal ceremony commemorating the event occurred in May. What follows is a brief essay I wrote following my trip to Memphis. At this point it is slated to be published in a future National Park Service Handbook on the Memphis Massacre, but I want to also share it with readers here on the blog.
My job with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) in St. Louis, Missouri, requires that I interpret difficult and contentious topics in nineteenth century American history, including slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction. The programs we offer at the park are reflective of a larger interpretive shift within the NPS over the past twenty years. This shift explicitly ties stories of emancipation and political debates over civil rights to the military aspects of the Civil War experience. By connecting political and military conflicts within a broader interpretive framework, the agency’s educational initiatives aim to demonstrate how the Civil War Era represented a prolonged and violent struggle over the meaning of American freedom. One such initiative is taking place at the University of Memphis, where NPS officials at ULSG recently began working with the university and other community members to raise awareness of one particularly harrowing event from the era: the Memphis Massacre of 1866.
One major takeaway from learning about the massacre and meeting community leaders in Memphis pushing for a public commemoration of this tragic event is that I’ve gained a better understanding of the evolving terminology scholars are currently using to describe racialized violence in American history. The words we use to describe historical events can say much about the ways we understand and remember the past, and they play a crucial role in providing context for describing historical events. Historically the May 1866 mass killing of African Americans in Memphis by white residents has been described by scholars and popular media as a “race riot.” This has also been the case with similar events in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), East St. Louis, Illinois (1917), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921). But the leaders of this commemorative effort in Memphis have boldly and correctly reframed this event as a “massacre.” I believe riots and massacres are distinct from each other in two different ways.
The first distinction lies in the use of violence. In a riot there are usually two groups of people engaging in violence. One group attacks property, other citizens, and/or a government authority, while the second group—typically the government authority—responds by using law enforcement to shut down the first group, often through their own use of violence. In a massacre, however, only one group uses violence, and that violence is often targeted towards powerless groups unable to defend themselves. Under this terminology we can clearly say that what happened in Memphis was indeed a massacre of innocent victims, not a riot. In fact, governmental authorities in Memphis actually encouraged the plundering of black lives and property in the area. General George Stoneman, in charge of black and white Army troops at nearby Fort Pickering, stated as much in later Congressional testimony about the violence.
The second distinction lies in emphasis. The language of riots places the interpretive focus on groups engaging in violent attacks. The language of massacres, however, places the interpretive focus on the victims of those violent attacks, forcing us to ask why these people were targeted for the destructive treatment they received from oppressive social groups and government entities. By rebranding the events in Memphis in 1866 as a massacre, the National Park Service, scholars at the University of Memphis, and other community members are leading an important effort to commemorate the lives of black Memphians who attempted to carve an existence for themselves as freedpeople in a newly reconstructed country, but whose hopes and dreams for the future were destroyed over three days of deadly racialized violence towards their community.
I want to give praise to blogging extraordinaire Al Mackey at Student of the Civil War for a nice essay he recently wrote in response to an absolutely dreadful op-ed in the Boston Globe about Confederate history, memory and iconography. The op-ed writer, Alex Beam, synthesizes the worst arguments in support of maintaining Confederate iconography in public and basically suggests that while historical revisionism is important, any effort to question the role of this iconography is akin to “simplifying history” and running away from who we are as a people. Beam never clarifies what sort of “historical revisionism” is appropriate in his mind, and he subtly assumes that the initial creation of these now-contested monuments, memorials, and statues wasn’t somehow a product of “simplifying history” at the time of their dedication. Only those today who would like to engage in a serious conversation about these expressions of public memory are guilty of simplifying the past.
There are many signs of fallacious thinking in Beam’s screed. A poor historical comparison (comparing “willy-nilly de-Confederatization” with de-Stalinization in the USSR or the destruction of ancient Middle Eastern history by ISIS and the Taliban), a misinterpretation of the motives behind these discussions (“simplifying history to accommodate a set agenda – North good, South bad,” according to Beam. Who the hell is actually making that argument? Name one serious historian whose scholarship can be simply whittled down to “North good, South bad.”), and a slippery slope argument (if we get rid of all these Confederate monuments then we may as well get rid of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln monuments! They were flawed people too!).
Al sees through this harried thinking, however, and gets to the heart of the matter:
Beam misses the entire point. The point is not to simplify history, to ignore history, or even to erase parts of history. The point is to decide whether certain people deserve to be honored. Does Roger B. Taney deserve a statue in his honor? Does Andrew Jackson deserve a dinner in his honor? Ditto for Thomas Jefferson? The debate should contain a full discussion of the history of these men, including the fact that Taney freed the slaves he had owned, but ultimately it comes down to whether or not these men deserve the honors they are being given. Introducing phony comparisons and long discredited interpretations isn’t helpful.
The title of Beam’s op-ed is “Confederate flag flap isn’t an invitiation to rewrite history.” In reality there is always an open invitation to rewrite history, because history is the process by which we structure, interpret, and communicate what actually happened in the past. Creating history also means crossing an intersection with memory and how people choose to remember the past, which is subject to its own faults and misrembering. “The past” is what actually happened and “history” is how we go about explaining what happened in the past. How we explain the past will always be subject to revision in both text and public iconography as circumstances change in our world today and historical evidence acquires new meaning. As Kenneth Foote argues in Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, the meanings we ascribe to historical places are always changing, and sometimes those changes necessitate alterations of the natural and man-made creations that dot a historical landscape. That also means, as Al argues, that we are in a position to sometimes question whether or not the people we choose to publicly commemorate are actually worthy of that recognition.
I believe that we shouldn’t take down any Confederate iconography simply for the sake of change, but it’s equally valid to say that we shouldn’t leave up all Confederate iconography simply for the sake of tradition. We have a right in 2015 to question the wisdom of maintaining a monument erected in 1915 just as much as the people of 2115 will have the right to question our ways of remembering the past in 2015. Countries like Germany, Italy, Hungary, France, Russia, South Africa, and Japan are not bound to publicly commemorate their difficult pasts in the same way their forefathers did, and neither are we in the United States.
As has been argued repeatedly by Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory, local communities throughout the country need to think seriously about the values they cherish and how they want to represent their history in a public setting. Some things may necessarily stay the same, some things may need to be contextualized, and some things may need to be removed. That’s the nature of historical revisionism. Let’s keep an open mind and have an honest conversation about public iconography rather than whining about having that conversation in the first place and equating any sort of change to the historical landscape to the work of ISIS.
I’m pleased to pass along to readers some good news on the writing/publishing front. Yesterday I received word from the folks at the Indiana Magazine of History that they have accepted an article manuscript I submitted to them last summer. It took years of research, writing, and seemingly endless edits and revisions to get to this point, but I feel great about the final product, which will be published in either late 2015 or early 2016.
The article analyzes the Grand Army of the Republic’s creation of Memorial Day after the Civil War and the ways the holiday’s meaning and purpose changed over time. More specifically I explore an untold story about the Indiana GAR and their vehement opposition to the annual Indianapolis 500 automobile race, which also took place on Memorial Day starting in 1911. I don’t want to give away much else at this point, but there are a lot of questions I raise about the relationship between Union veterans and the rest of civil society and whether or not younger generations have the right to mold and shape traditional commemorative holidays for their own purposes.
This article will be a fine conclusion of my studies on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana. I wrote a master’s thesis, presented several papers at conferences, and will now have two journal articles published about these guys. I’ve loved just about every minute of it, but it’s definitely time to start researching that next topic. I don’t have any concrete ideas for topics or a time table for getting the next project done, but I’m keeping my eyes peeled for new opportunities to contribute my perspective and scholarship.
Stay tuned for updates about this journal article later this year.