When historians collect primary source documents during research, they must determine which of these sources can be relied upon when crafting an accurate interpretation of the past. This challenge is harder than it might seem at first blush. Most historians would agree that finding primary sources that are contemporary to the historic event or person being researched is more ideal than something produced years later. For example, an official report, letter, or diary entry created during the Battle of Gettysburg is most likely a more reliable source for understanding what occurred during the battle than an interview conducted fifty years later with an aged veteran.
There are some benefits to hindsight, of course, and mistakes in recollection can be made at any time during the event itself. Knowing how the Battle of Gettysburg turned out and having a general understanding of that battle’s consequences has its benefits. Hindsight offers time for personal reflection and can help inform one’s understanding of their role in a historic event. But memories are fickle and finite. Fine details and particulars of an event fade with time and can be overwhelmed by the creation of new memories during subsequent moments of importance. A veteran’s recollections of Gettysburg fifty years after the fact straddle the line between history and memory, and between a reliable source and an unreliable one. They must be used with caution and taken with a grain of salt.
I think about this challenge all the time within the scope of my work interpreting the life of Ulysses S. Grant. While there is an abundance of primary source documentation from Grant himself and others chronicling his experiences as a Civil War general and Reconstruction era president, hardly any documentation exists about Grant’s life before the Civil War that was created at that time. The number of letters in Grant’s hand from his five years in St. Louis at the White Haven plantation (1854-1859) numbers around a dozen. The number of documents created by other family members around Grant at that time is close to zero. And nothing from the perspective of the enslaved people owned by Grant’s father-in-law was created during that time. How can a reliable interpretation of these experiences be crafted with such a paucity of documentation?
The imperfect solution offered by historians, Grant biographers, and public historians alike has been to look at Grant’s actions in the absence of his words. More imperfectly, they also look at the words of people who claimed to know Grant at the time and reflected on his life forty or fifty years after the fact. With regards to the latter there are a number of resources to rely on: Grant’s 1885 Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant barely discussed his St. Louis experiences, but his wife Julia Dent Grant wrote her own Personal Memoirs in the 1890s and dedicated a good portion of her book to the family’s experiences at White Haven; likewise, writers Hamlin Garland and William Conant Church both conducted interviews with people who claimed to know Grant and wrote biographies of him based on those interviews in 1898 and 1899, respectively. In the absence of primary source documents from the 1850s, these latter documents are frequently used by contemporary historians to provide insights into Grant’s life before the Civil War. These sources, however, sometimes contradict each other and are frequently ambiguous or outright wrong.
One such example of an ambiguous document is an interview with Mary Robinson, an African American woman in St. Louis who was enslaved at White Haven by Grant’s Father-in-law, Colonel Frederick Dent, at the time that the Grant family lived there. The interview was conducted by the St. Louis Republican on July 24, 1885, the day after Grant died of throat cancer. In it, Robinson recalls her interactions with Grant and makes the following claim about his views on slavery:
Grant was a very kind man to those who worked for him, and he always said that he wanted to give his wife’s slaves their freedom as soon as he was able.
This line has been used more than once by historians to argue that Grant opposed slavery before the war. As I pointed out in this essay, Julia Dent Grant did not actually have legal title to any of the enslaved people at White Haven, but her father did loan her four slaves to attend to her needs while at White Haven. One historian in particular has recently claimed, on the basis of the Robinson interview, that the reason Julia did not have legal title to those enslaved people was because her father feared that Grant would free them. Is that a reliable interpretation to make?
What little we have of the record from the 1850s is far more complex. Grant himself never espoused antislavery views in his letters before the Civil War. He made the decision to move to a slave plantation in 1854 and at one point even owned a slave of his own, William Jones, that he later freed in 1859 (see the above link for more info). Furthermore, when Grant made his views on slavery publicly know in an August 1863 letter to Congressman Elihu Washburne during the Civil War, he argued that “early in the rebellion” he had come around to believe that slavery had to be abolished, but that “I never was an abolitionist, not even what could be called anti-slavery” before the Civil War.
An important factor in determining the reliability of Robinson’s recollection is the context in which it was produced. Grant had died the day before. The white interviewer had no interest in learning about Robinson’s own experiences in slavery and probably edited her comments to paint Grant in a positive light. Would the article really be edited to point out that Grant had been a slaveholder? I doubt it. If one were to read this interview and know nothing else about Grant’s life in St. Louis, they’d have no idea that he owned William Jones. Can it be trusted as a reliable source in uncovering Grant’s views on slavery before the war? Many historians have cited it, but I’m not so sure.
The point here is not to determine whether Grant was truly antislavery or proslavery before the war. As we can see, the evidence is mixed, and in any case I think it’s far safer to argue that there was an evolution in Grant’s thinking over time. The bigger challenge here and in so many other instances during historical research is that the absence of definitive primary source documentation from the time in which an event took place makes the task of painting an accurate portrait of the past all the more difficult. When historians are faced with interpreting the recollections of people long after the fact, they must exercise caution and sharp judgement in determining that source’s reliability.
There have been a number of prominent Civil War historians who’ve stepped into the Confederate monument debate over the past month. A roundtable in Civil War Times offers some interesting commentaries from some of the heavy hitters, including William C. Davis, Gary Gallagher, and Lesley J. Gordon. Historian Caroline E. Janney also jumped into the discussion with an op-ed in the Washington Post. She argues that empty pedestals are “void of meaning all together” (a dubious claim that Kevin Levin questioned here) and that removing Confederate monuments erases and does a disservice to the past. American society needs Confederate monuments because “they force us to remember the worst parts of our history.”
To be sure, Janney is a wonderful historian whose work shows up in my own scholarship on the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic. But I think her perspective on the need to preserve all Confederate monuments regardless of context is mistaken. The assumption in this piece is that American society has forgotten (or runs the risk of forgetting) the history of the Civil War if these monuments are removed. This too is a dubious claim. Historians must be careful when they discuss a society’s “collective memory” of the past and think critically about whose voices they privilege as representing that collective when they propose to speak about it.
In the case of Confederate monuments, arguing that these icons “force us to remember the worst parts of our history” necessary requires us to ask: who in society has engaged in forgetting? Who needs a reminder about the Confederacy and the causes of the Civil War? What specifically do these monuments force us to remember about the past? Why have some people failed to remember the history of the Civil War despite the presence of these monuments for 100 years? What are we to do with monuments like the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans that deliberately distort what happened in the past?
I thought about some of these questions during a recent visit to the Missouri History Museum to see a new exhibit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis. At one point in the exhibit there is a large board with three questions and a table with pens and sticky notes. Visitors are encouraged to answer these questions and place their sticky note on the wall:
I love these feedback walls in museum spaces, and I like the questions posed by the exhibit here. But that first question on the left–“Why has so much of St. Louis’s civil rights history been overlooked?”–contains an implicit bias when it assumes that the city’s residents have in fact overlooked this history. In reading a few comments it became evident that many responders questioned this assumption. Of all the times I’ve been to the Missouri History Museum, this exhibit was the first one in which a majority of museum-goers were African American. And the ones leaving comments strongly asserted that they hadn’t forgotten that history. We were there. We are still fighting for our rights. We can’t forget what happened to our loved ones. We can’t forget history that so explicitly speaks to the core challenge of our lives and experiences as African Americans in this country. These comments were perhaps the most educational aspect of the whole exhibit.
So it bears repeating: who in society has forgotten the history of the Confederacy and the causes, context, and consequences of its short existence? The answer might be uncomfortable for those bent on defending all Confederate monuments regardless of context.
To be clear: my position on this topic has been consistent in that I disagree with a one-size-fits-all approach for addressing Confederate or any other type of public iconography, and I think some icons will inevitably stay while others will go. Read recent essays I’ve written here and here for more of my thoughts on these discussions.
The National Council on Public History published an essay of mine about monument removals at National Statuary Hall on their History@Work blog earlier this week. Regular readers will see familiar arguments that I’ve been making about the role of historical iconography for quite a while on this blog, but in the essay I wanted to focus specifically on what I think is a great example of a dynamic, ever-changing commemorative landscape that has been modified quite often. By exploring changes at National Statuary Hall, I hope to complicate the idea that monument removal automatically constitutes “erasing history.” I also hope to demonstrate that Americans have been removing monuments ever since their country’s founding, and that such removals are actually a natural byproduct of a society’s changing values and evolving understanding of its history.
Please give the essay a read if you get the chance. Although I have written a lot on this particular topic, I believe this is probably the strongest, most definitive argument on where I stand on this issue. So far I’ve gotten largely positive feedback and even the popular historian and blogger John Fea featured it on his website.
I also owe a debt of gratitude to Christopher Graham and Nicholas K. Johnson for reading a draft of the essay before it went online. Thank you!
President Donald Trump went out of his way yesterday to honor the 250th birthday of Andrew Jackson in Tennessee, which in turn has amplified continued online conversation about who in American history is deserving of honor through public ceremony and monumentation. Writer Shaun King was quick to declare that “no President who ever owned human beings should be honored” and that “slavery was a monstrous system. Everybody who participated in it was evil for having done so. Period. No exceptions.”
Some of the most difficult work in public history right now, in my opinion, centers around the nature of public commemoration and understanding how societies choose to remember their past. These are difficult conversations to have and the boundary lines between “good” and “bad” are arbitrary and poorly defined. King’s argument is provocative and worth considering. Generally speaking, I agree that owning slaves was a choice and that participating in the institution of slavery is inexcusable. But once you read the story of Ulysses S. Grant, our last President to be a slaveholder, you might conclude that King’s argument is simplistic and not a very satisfying resolution to the question of who and who isn’t worthy of public honor.
Now, I make my living educating people about General Grant’s life and times, so it could be easy for a reader to claim that I am “biased” or that I am a Grant apologist. I would reject that claim. All I can say is that I have my views about Grant but that those views have been developed through years of vigorous study of the man based on the best historical scholarship around. I don’t approach my job with the intention of portraying Grant as a hero or a sinner to visitors, but rather seek to humanize his experiences and increase understanding of his beliefs, motivations, and actions within the context of 19th century history.
Ulysses S. Grant lived in St. Louis from 1854 to 1859. For most of that time he worked as a farmer and lived with his family at White Haven, his In-Laws slave plantation in South St. Louis county. During this time Grant somehow obtained one slave, William Jones (see here for a more detailed essay I wrote about Grant’s relationship to slavery). We don’t know how or why he obtained Jones, nor do we know for how long he owned him. We do know, however, that he freed Jones in March 1859 before leaving St. Louis, something many other slaveholding Presidents never did with their enslaved people. That was the extent of Grant’s personal experiences in slaveholding. Unfortunately for historians, Grant didn’t leave any letters before the war stating one way or the other how he felt about the institution as a whole. It appears that Grant never challenged slavery’s presence in America or considered the politics and philosophy of slavery in writing before the war.
Something changed in Grant’s mind during the Civil War, however. He embraced emancipation as a war aim and welcomed black troops into his ranks. By the end of the war, one out of seven troops in his ranks were black. During the initial phases of Reconstruction, Grant came to believe that President Andrew Johnson’s policies towards the South were too lenient and that the freedpeople deserved more protection against violence, black codes, and overt discrimination by whites. After the Memphis Massacre in 1866 Grant called upon the federal government to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators who killed 46 African Americans, which never happened. When Grant was elected President in 1868, he immediately called upon Congress and the states to ratify the 15th Amendment preventing states from banning men from voting based on their race. On March 30, 1870, he delivered a message to Congress in which he declared that the 15th Amendment was the most significant act in U.S. history and a repudiation of the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision:
It is unusual to notify the two Houses of Congress by message of the promulgation, by proclamation of the Secretary of State, of the ratification of a constitutional amendment. In view, however, of the vast importance of the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution, this day declared a part of that revered instrument, I deem a departure from the usual custom justifiable. A measure which makes at once 4,000,000 people voters who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so (with the assertion that “at the time of the Declaration of Independence the opinion was fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race, regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, that black men had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”), is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free Government to the present day.
In 1871 Grant responded to the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan by using the KKK Act to shut down the group. That year he also used his Third Annual State of the Union Address to call upon Brazil, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to abolish slavery. He repeated the theme in his Fourth Address, stating that the Spanish Empire’s continuation of slavery in Cuba was “A terrible wrong [that] is the natural cause of a terrible evil. The abolition of slavery and the introduction of other reforms in the administration of government in Cuba could not fail to advance the restoration of peace and order. It is greatly to be hoped that the present liberal Government of Spain will voluntarily adopt this view.” In future addresses he spoke out against other White supremacist groups in the South like the White League and Red Shirts who continued to commit acts of violence and sometimes outright massacres against African Americans in the South. And during his Post-Presidency world tour, Grant stated to Otto von Bismarck about the Civil War that “As soon as slavery fired upon the flag it was felt, we all felt, even those who did not object to slaves, that slavery must be destroyed. We felt that it was a stain to the Union that men should be bought and sold like cattle.”
Frederick Douglass spoke often about Grant and was a dedicated supporter of his Presidency. At one point he stated that “Ulysses S. Grant, the most illustrious warrior and statesman of modern times, the captain whose invincible sword saved the republic from dismemberment, made liberty the law of the land. A man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him, the negro found a protector . . .” and recalled in his 1881 book Life and Times of Frederick Douglass that:
My confidence in General Grant was not entirely due to the brilliant military successes achieved by him, but there was a moral as well as military basis for my faith in him. He had shown his single-mindedness and superiority to popular prejudice by his prompt cooperation with President Lincoln in his policy of employing colored troops, and his order commanding his soldiers to treat such troops with due respect. In this way he proved himself to be not only a wise general, but a great man, one who could adjust himself to new conditions, and adopt the lessons taught by the events of the hour. This quality in General Grant was and is made all the more conspicuous and striking in contrast with his West Point education and his former political associations; for neither West Point nor the Democratic party have been good schools in which to learn justice and fair play to the Negro (433-435).
Is Grant someone who should never be honored, as Shaun King suggests?
My biggest issue with King’s argument is that it assumes that people in the past never changed their thinking over time and that a former slaveholder like Ulysses S. Grant could never come to realize that holding humans in bondage was wrong. Grant was far from a saint: his ownership of William Jones was inexcusable, his General Orders No. 11 during the war expelling Jews from his lines was inexcusable, and his Indian policy during his Presidency was well-intentioned but flawed. But are there not actions he took in his life that were commendable and worth honoring?
One of the bigger problems I see with this whole discussion is that we as a society should really focus on understanding before honoring. I would rather see President Trump read a book about Andrew Jackson than stage a big ceremony honoring the man (who, to be sure, has a horrid record as a slaveholder, racist, and Indian fighter, and is someone I wouldn’t be comfortable honoring). I would like for Americans to go to historic sites with the intention of understanding the life and times of historic figures. I would like for people to appreciate complexity, nuance, and the basic idea that people–then and now–often hold evolving and contradictory views towards politics.
I suppose my historical training has soured me on the idea of “heroes” as a general approach to appreciating history. I admire the words of the Declaration of Independence, but I haven’t forgotten that the author of those words raped Sally Hemmings. I admire Washington’s words about entangling alliances and the importance of Union, but I haven’t forgotten that he too was a slaveholder. I think Jackson was right on the South Carolina Nullification Crisis, but I won’t forgive him for the Trail of Tears or his violent slaveholding. I think Grant was wrong for being a slaveholder, but I appreciate the efforts he undertook as President to protect the rights of all, and I appreciate that he came around to believe that slavery was an evil wrong. I appreciate moments in history when right triumphed over wrong and people in the past took principled stands for positions that protected the rights of all Americans, but I never forget that people in the past were humans, not Gods, and that even the best humans have their flaws. And I never forget that American freedom was first established in this country on a co-existence with and acceptance of slavery.
A few weeks ago St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay suggested that the time had come for St. Louisians to reappraise the merits of a monument to the Confederacy in Forest Park that was originally dedicated by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1914. I shared my own mixed feelings about the Mayor’s announcement in this post. Since then the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has provided space for letters to the editor and opinion writers to share their thoughts on the monument. Former Georgia U.S. Congressman and current Virginia resident Ben Jones fears that altering or removing the Confederate monument will lead the United States towards a “slippery slope of historical revisionism,” while Bridget McDermott Flood, a St. Louisian and Executive Director of a local non-profit organization, suggests that providing more context for interpreting the monument would positively reflect the sensibilities of a “healthy, confident community” ready to confront its past.
Both op-eds make points that elicit agreement in some areas and disagreement in others. I have my own thoughts on those arguments, but I am putting those views aside and instead focusing on one method both writers use to claim authority in this discussion: ancestry.
Flood’s use of ancestry is more subtle than Jones’s, but it’s the first thing she wants you to know about her role in this discussion. “Many of us have a personal connection to the Civil War. My ancestor Frank Nouss was a Union corporal.”
For Jones, the possibility of altering this monument represents no less than a full-frontal assault against the honor of his family. To wit:
As one who has spent a lifetime fighting for civil rights and racial reconciliation, it is also my civil right to raise my voice in memory of my many Confederate ancestors, who deserve to be fully understood in the context of their times and to be honored for their efforts to repair the nation in the years after Appomattox.
It is estimated that there are as many as 70 million Americans whose forefathers fought for the South 150 years ago. The current effort to demonize our ancestors and to simplify the complexities of America’s crucible event is antithetical to the goals of bridge building and brotherhood that the Civil Rights Movement emphasized. It is a shortsighted campaign that is guaranteed to divide people of good will.
You see, to many millions of Americans, these men are family. Their pictures are on our walls, their names are in our Bibles and in our cemeteries, and their stories have been passed down through our families for generations. We will stand in their defense until our last breath.
I could be looking at these arguments from too cynical a viewpoint, but to me they are both essentially saying, “my opinion matters and has sufficient authority to shape this debate because I have ancestors who fought in the Civil War. My ownership of this history is stronger than yours.” Moreover, these arguments imply that U.S. residents who don’t have Civil War ancestors ought to put a deferment on their opinions about the ways the Civil War is commemorated today. Why else would ancestry need to be mentioned within this context?
I believe ancestry claims are ultimately false claims of historical authority, ones that represent my own ambivalence towards the genealogical side of the historical enterprise.
Make no mistake about it: I think exploring one’s family history can be a useful endeavor. Psychologist Marshall Duke argues that children with a high degree of knowledge about their family history generally have higher levels of self-esteem and self-control than children with little knowledge of their family’s past. Finding one’s roots can help us find our own place in the world and give us perspective when looking at our successes and failures today. If anything, family history shows us that in most cases our ancestors had to deal with a lot of crappy situations and struggles during their lives.
Too often, however, genealogy is tactically deployed in a selfish exercise of social privilege, a way to boast about ourselves as if an accidental familial connection to a long-dead ancestor says something truly significant about the content of one’s character today. As François Weil argues in Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America, the acquisition of genealogical knowledge in the nineteenth century was an overtly political act aimed at justifying the preservation of an “Anglo-Saxon” cultural elite amid the end of slavery and a wave of “less genetically desirable” Southern and Eastern European immigrants arriving on American shores after the Civil War. These efforts were intensified during the Progressive Era of the early 1900s when eugenicists employed genealogy and race science to call for the sterilization of people with undesirable genetic traits. Few people undertake genealogical research for those purposes today, but that desire to use family history to reinforce social hierarchies still remains in many cases. Ben Jones’s vocal use of his Civil War ancestors to dominate public discussion about the St. Louis Confederate monument provides a particularly good example of genealogical privilege in action.
Which gets us back to the use of Civil War ancestry to shape debates about Civil War memory. Most of my ancestors on both sides of my family immigrated to the U.S. from Southern Italy in the 1880s and 1890s. They came in part because of the economic opportunities, but they also came because they believed in democratic principles of governance that were drenched in the blood of United States troops who died in the Civil War. Those ancestors carved an existence for themselves and became Americans, but maybe none of that would have happened had the events of the antebellum and Civil War years turned out differently. Is my perspective on a Confederate monument today less valid because my ancestors did not fight in the Civil War like Ben Jones’s? If we agree that the Civil War should have meaning and significance to all Americans today, then the answer should be a resounding no, and the use of family history to claim authority in Civil War memory debates should be dismissed or at least taken with a grain of salt.
We can be proud of our family heritage, but we are not bound by it. We should take pride in the achievements of our ancestors but also acknowledge and accept their failures, provided that one has the privilege of accessing available historical records to help uncover these mysteries in the first place. And if we engage in genealogical research for the purpose of learning more about ourselves, we would benefit even more by striving to go beyond ourselves towards an understanding of the complex worlds in which our ancestors lived.