Can Colorized Photos Help People Better Understand the Past?

My colorization of Thomas Easterly’s photograph of Bob Wilkinson, a prominent barber and member of St. Louis’s free Black community before the Civil War. The original photo is courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

I have been interested in the concept of colorized historical photos for several years. This interest was initially sparked by artist Marina Amaral’s wonderful colorizations that she frequently shared on Twitter. I found myself drawn to the artistry of her use of colors to breathe a new life into old photos and often found myself pausing on my timeline to admire her work. She eventually published many of her colorizations in a book, The Color of Time, that now sits on my coffee table at home. I have also drawn much inspiration from museum historian Mark Loerher’s wonderful colorizations of St. Louis on his Instagram page, Arch City History. I have dabbled with photography for many years and have been drawn to 19th century history partly because so much of it has been documented through photographs.

A few months ago I decided that I wanted to get in on the fun. I was anxious to blend my passions for history and photography to see what I could produce with a new hobby. I downloaded GIMP, a free open-source photo editing software, and began watching video tutorials on how the use the software. I’ve colorized around 15 photos since December and have also been teaching myself how to restore badly damaged photos. Learning these new skills has been a lot of fun and has helped me get through a very cold winter. I’ve also created my own Instagram page, History Beyond Black and White, to showcase my own colorization projects.

It is safe to say, however, that I have been ambivalent about joining the colorization world partly because the historian in me recognizes several genuine criticisms to be made about their usefulness as historical documents. For one, colorizations are difficult to get right from an aesthetic viewpoint and I have seen many poor examples online, or at least examples that do not line up with my own imagination. One might also think about Ted Turner’s colorizations of classic movies, which are hard to watch and don’t hit the right way emotionally. There is also a risk of overly romanticizing colorized photos–which are ultimately interpretations of historical photos–at the expense of appreciating the artistry and historical value of original black and white photos.

A few historian colleagues have expressed skepticism about colorizations since I’ve started this new hobby. In what follows below I will try to outline my own views as to whether colorized photos can help people better understand the past.

How do you know what colors to use for colorizations? The answer, simply put, is that most of the time I don’t know what colors to use because there’s no documentation to confirm such details. The above colorization of Bob Wilkinson serves as a useful example. The colors of his suit jacket, vest, pocket watch, and skin tone are entirely my interpretation of what I envision Wilkinson’s appearance might have been on the day he had this photograph taken. Someone else could make his vest gold and his suit jacket black. Someone else could go with purple and green. The only thing that can be confirmed factually is the gold casing around the image.

In situations like the above image, it is important to stress that most colorizations are ultimately subjective, interpretive, and a form of art. The above work is not a scientific recreation of Wilkinson’s exact appearance with regards to colors, which is impossible to determine given the lack of documentation. It is merely an attempt to give an impression of what colors may have existed in this very specific moment in time. In this sense I would have a hard time saying that colorizations are a form of history. But I do think colorizations allow for us to think about history in new ways, however you may want to define that term. Perhaps most importantly, colorizations allow people to creatively use their imagination to envision how dynamic the past would have appeared at a given time.

To be sure, there are times when specific colors can be confirmed. For example, a Civil War soldier’s military records would have included a description of height, weight, hair color, and skin color, all of which could allow the artist a more approximate view of how a person would have appeared (although the number of skin tones within the terms “black,” “brown,” “white,” and other racial definers is infinite, making the choice of skin tone perhaps the most difficult part of colorizing historic photos). At other times the artist can rely on diaries, newspaper articles, obituaries, or other primary source documents to help confirm colors.

A good example is a somewhat famous picture of an unidentified United States Colored Troops soldier who was stationed at Benton Barracks in St. Louis for part of the Civil War. Enoch Long, an area photographer who took many pictures at Benton Barracks during the war, commissioned the painting of several colorful backdrops that were used to provide an extra visual appeal to his photographs. Thankfully, we have knowledge of the colors contained in the backdrop Long used in the below photo. Combined with my knowledge of Civil War uniforms, I was able to create a colorization that is pretty close to the actual colors that may have been used in the original photograph, I think.

My colorization of an unidentified USCT soldier stationed at Benton Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri. Original photo is courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Copy of Enoch Long’s backdrop used in many photos he took at Benton Barracks during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Hoffman, Wisconsin Historical Society.

Colorized photos are similar to cover songs. As a musician, I sometimes enjoy hearing cover songs and have played in several cover bands over the years. Some artists attempt to use cover songs to recreate original songs in their exact form, but in reality a wide canvas exists for musicians to create new meanings to original songs through different instrumentation, time signatures, key changes, tones, and dynamics. Sometimes covers can be just as inspiring as originals. John Mayer’s cover of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin'” on acoustic guitar is a beautiful remake of a classic that pushes the song into a new dimension not previously considered. More recently, the artist Roosevelt’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere” uses synthesizers, electronic beats, and a key change from the original to create a catchy remake of a classic song. I can’t stop listening to it.

Cover songs, remixes, and mash-ups are an artistic form of expression that can be imaginative and inspiring. They can challenge people to think of original songs in new ways. I think the same kind of thinking towards colorized photos is helpful.

Black and white photos have their own inaccuracies. Black and white photos are accurate representations of the past in that they capture a moment in time and depict important qualities that help people understand how things appeared during that moment. These photos can accurately depict shape such as a person’s face, a billboard sign, a farm animal or an automobile. They can capture people, places, and objects in their materiality. The images captured by those cameras reflect the capabilities of the machine technology within the camera at the time the photo was produced. Black and white photographs therefore offer a representation of the past that can be relied upon as being accurate. At the same time, all would acknowledge that these photos are an accurate representation of the past only to a certain extent given the wide range of colors that were not captured by these cameras.

Critics of colorizations are quick to point out the subjective nature of coloring an image with colors that may not have been in the original image, which is a fair point. But it’s worth remembering that the world has never just been black and white. While colorizations are works of art that can rarely be elevated to the level of historical scholarship, colorized photos do hold the potential to convey a more accurate historical reality by depicting the dynamic color palettes of people, places, and objects from the past. They also hold the potential of exposing fine details not normally seen in a black and white photo. In other words, we may consider the idea of a black and white photo and its colorized counterpart as being two different interpretations of a moment in time, acknowledging that both versions have their own unique shortcomings.

Colorized photos can help students better connect with the past. I read an article several years ago–the author escapes me now–who argued that it was important for students to see Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders in color. The author warned that the black and white tones of many photos from this time run the risk of acting as a veil. She argued that it was important to stress to students that the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s is recent history that remains a lived memory for many people still living today. By seeing people from this time in color, it helped humanize their stories and reinforced the idea that these were real people with meaningful experiences worth studying. These arguments were fascinating to me, and it would be an interesting experiment to see how children react to colorized images compared to their black and white counterparts.

It’s not that black and white photos aren’t important. They very much are. But the experience of seeing history in color can be powerful, meaningful, and inspiring. In my short time colorizing historic photos I’ve already seen and interacted with people who were moved by the art I was able to create. That alone inspires me to keep learning new techniques and to hopefully be in a position to help people who’d want to have their own family photos colorized someday. While colorizations are most certainly an art, I do consider them to be a tool I can use as a public historian to help people connect with the past.

Cheers

It was Never Just About History…Then or Now

I’ve kicked off 2022 by reading historian Karen Cox’s new book No Common Ground: Confederate Monuments and the Ongoing Fight for Racial Justice. Although I have been pretty invested in the Confederate monuments debate for a while, Cox’s scholarship has been very enlightening for me. In particular, she clearly demonstrates that mass protest against Confederate monuments in public places is nothing new, particularly among Black Southerners who were often left out of the decision-making process to install these icons in public spaces in the first place. This is a particularly important point given the popular impulse to assume that this particular debate only started in 2015 with the horrific massacre of the Charleston Nine, when in reality that tragic event accelerated an already long-standing debate over the appropriateness of Confederate monuments, statues, and flags in public places.

One particularly noteworthy aspect of No Common Ground that I appreciate lies in how Cox clearly describes the ways Confederate monuments have always been inherently political. I was particularly struck by reading about the dedication of a Confederate monument in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1898. Former state governor and Confederate veteran Thomas Jones stated during the monument’s dedication that “our duty is not ended with the building of this monument,” which served as a means to “stimulate youths to admire and to . . . emulate” their ancestors. For Jones, those ancestors had not fought to preserve slavery but states’ rights, which in his mind was the true underlying message of Confederate iconography. President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of the Navy, Hilary Herbert, also a Confederate veteran, followed Jones and remarked that “we build monuments to heroes so that future generations may imitate their example.”

In summarizing the significance of this rhetoric and the erection of Confederate monuments more broadly, Cox argues that “the most enduring monument to the Confederacy was a population of white southerners educated to defend both the memory and the principles for which [the Confederacy] stood” (51). In other words, the notion that Confederate monuments can only be narrowly viewed as reminders of the past completely devoid of politics is simply untrue. Confederate veterans, Lost Cause apologists, and other supporters of Confederate monuments viewed them at the time of their erection and dedication as political tools within a larger struggle over the memory of the Civil War. As Jones implied, the monuments were but one step towards a larger goal of instilling pride in the Confederacy and support for Jim Crow governance in the present. He hoped the erection of monuments would eventually translate into written histories, school textbooks, patriotic rituals (such as Confederate Memorial Days), and a political culture in which a shared historical memory of the Confederacy served as a binding agent to promote social unity and cohesion among white southerners.

Confederate monuments were never just about honoring the soldiers or just about history, then or now.

I have written before that monuments are often a poor communicator when it comes to promoting a nuanced understanding of history. Rather, they often promote unquestioned hero-worship of false idols and a simplistic understanding of history that is really more about the present than the past. No Common Ground only reinforces my position on this topic.

Cheers

A Review of “Rebel Correspondent” by Steve Procko

When historians work to determine the scope of their research projects, they inevitably run into a Catch-22 of sorts. The issue is particularly acute when the central focus of this research is an individual or a group of individuals. For someone studying the American Civil War, they can choose to look at the words of a large group of soldiers on either side of the conflict. They can study letters, diary entries, and post-war recollections from thousands of soldiers to make broad generalizations about what soldiers told friends and loved ones about the war, how they experienced it firsthand, and how they felt about the political crisis that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades and Peter Carmichael’s more recent The War for the Common Soldier are great examples of a “macro” approach to understanding the Civil War.

Conversely, the historian can choose to focus on one individual soldier’s story. This approach has the advantage of possibly creating a strong sense of empathy and compassion within the reader as they follow the individual’s experiences during the war.

Both approaches have their disadvantages, however. Given the fact that millions of soldiers fought in the Civil War and had something to say about it, any particular viewpoint the historian wishes to highlight could ostensibly be justified through the source material. Union soldiers felt very strongly about making the Civil War a war to end slavery . . . or they were outraged about the Lincoln administration’s efforts to make the war’s aims anything besides the preservation of the Union. Civil War soldiers regularly read their Bibles and viewed the war in strongly religious terms . . . or they didn’t. Civil War veterans were anxious for political reunion and sectional reunion with their adversaries . . . or they weren’t. You get the point. For an analysis of individual stories, the challenge is being able to see the meaning of the Civil War beyond the individual soldier’s eyes. In other words, the causes, context, and consequences of the war are sometimes hard to find with an individualized approach.

Steve Procko’s Rebel Correspondent tries to thread the needle with a delightful read about Private Arba F. Shaw, a Confederate solider who wrote more than 40,000 words about his experiences with the 4th Georgia Cavalry during the American Civil War. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, Shaw put pen to paper and wrote regular columns for the Walker County Messenger about his experiences during the war. Like other such recollections that are archived in newspapers, Shaw’s words were restricted to microfilm records prior to the publication of this book. Procko faithfully copies Shaw’s words and attempts to provide as much context as possible by fitting Shaw’s recollections within the context of the 4th Georgia Cavalry’s experiences during the war. In this sense the book isn’t merely a biography of Shaw but a regimental history that nicely captures the hopes, fears, and tragedies that Shaw and his comrades experienced during the war.

One of my favorite recollections from Shaw is the first one he published on December 12, 1901. In it, he recalled that:

I will say that it was a hard task for me to leave a pleasant home where peace and abundant comfort were taken [and] in exchange a miserable out door life where I was liable to be killed any day, but it was a task that for the same of honor I could not shirk from and now I am glad I performed it . . . What lamentation when husbands were called from their dear wives and little ones at home, in thousands of instances parted to meet at the fireside no more, and the young man thinking of his aspirations that were blasted and so many that went away to come no more and many that did return were so injured that their elastic steps was gone [sic] and they were maimed for life, some losing an arm, a leg, an eye, or both or many other things.

Private Arba F. Shaw, December 12, 1901

Shaw nicely summarizes how jolting the war must have been for young men who had anything but war on their minds. We are apt to think that every American was glued to their daily newspaper during the secession crisis and that they knew the war was inevitable. For Shaw, one gets the impression that he enjoyed a comfortable life with few concerns and lots of dreams when the war broke out. He does not appear to have been concerned about secession, slavery, or civil war at the time the conflict began in 1861. But eventually the force of events caught up to him and many other men in a similar situation, forcing them to make a choice about their future. For hundreds of thousands of men, that choice had life changing or deadly consequences.

I admit that I tend to gravitate towards Civil War studies from academic publications and, when reading biographies, I find myself reading more about political leaders rather than common soldiers who experienced the war firsthand. However, I think most Civil War enthusiasts are probably the opposite of me in that they love reading firsthand accounts. In this sense, Procko’s book should receive a wide readership, especially from locals in Georgia who want to learn about Shaw and the 4th Georgia Cavalry.

Because of my usual reading interests, I found myself wanting a more substantial discussion of the context in which Shaw was writing. I mean to use the word “context” in several respects. For one, Shaw himself does not discuss ideology in his writings, either his own or the Confederate government that he chose to fight for. With the preponderance of the Lost Cause and popular beliefs that the war had little to do with slavery, a discussion of the ways people chose to remember the Civil War–and how soldiers like Shaw may have shaped these discussions, even if they chose not to write about politics in their own recollections–could have been beneficial. Secondly, it would have been nice to read more about the reasons why veterans like Shaw–particularly soldiers like him who never made it past the rank of private–were anxious to tell their stories to a younger generation that had not experienced the war firsthand. I would have liked Procko to situate his study within the context of other studies on Civil War veteran culture by historians such as Keith Harris, Caroline Janney, David Blight, James Marten, Brian Matthew Jordan, and others. There were also times when I struggled to keep track of all the names and dates there were published in the book.

Having said all of this, I did enjoy reading Rebel Correspondent and hope it receives a wide readership from Civil War enthusiasts of all types. Procko is an expert on his subject and this book is very well-researched. Other scholars who are anxious to uncover stories about the American Civil War in their local community would do well to study Procko’s research methods and take note of the ways he weaves Shaw’s recollections within a larger story of the 4th Georgia Cavalry during the Civil War.

Cheers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Did Jule Achieve Her Freedom?

Julia Dent Grant after the Civil War.

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

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

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

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

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

The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, p. 126

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

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

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

Cheers

“‘I Don’t Like to See a Republican Beat the Party’: Ulysses S. Grant and Missouri Politics During the 1850s”

I recently gave a paper presentation at the Missouri Conference on History about the ways Ulysses S. Grant’s political views at the start of the American Civil War were shaped by his experiences living in Missouri from 1854-1859. Nate Provost and Frank Scaturro were co-panelists and offered some wonderful presentations on Grant’s political views on emancipation during the war and civil rights during his presidency.

You can download my paper at the link below.

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

Photo credit: Nick Sacco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really?

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

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

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

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

Cheers

Distinguishing Between Discussions About Slavery and Discussions About Race

Photo Credit: Duke University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers

The Times Are A Changin’

Two Civil War Veterans at the 1913 Veterans Reunion at Gettysburg. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been thinking about visitation to historic sites in recent weeks. I wrote a post for Muster last year about visitation trends at National Park Service Civil War historic sites, but the topic is back in the news with two articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico lamenting a supposed decline in visitation at both Civil War sites and historic sites more broadly. I’m currently working on a new piece for Muster about what we can do to keep making Civil War sites relevant in the future, but in the meantime I went back and reread John Coski’s opinion essay for The Civil War Monitor (Summer 2018) about the state of Civil War public history. Dr. Coski is an excellent scholar and public historian. He’s also the go-to expert on the history of the Confederate flag. Unfortunately, I disagreed with almost every argument he made in this piece.

Coski contends that public historians at Civil War historic sites have tried to “make the Civil War more attractive and more politically palatable for people who have not been interested in the subject as it was taught in schools and presented at historical sites until recent decades.” While he offers lukewarm support for this goal, he cautiously warns that these efforts can go overboard and potentially alienate people who have long-supported Civil War historic sites. If “traditional” audiences stop visiting and sites continue to struggle with recruiting new audiences, the future of Civil War public history could be in trouble as popular interest in the era continues to wane.

Coski’s argument is understandable and fair, but in making the argument I strongly disagreed with his characterization of public historians and their goals when working at Civil War historic sites.

A common talking point that Coski emphasizes is that “the rise of digital technology” has played a role in declining visitation trends. People can now learn about historic sites online without visiting them, and so they simply choose to stay home. The problem with this argument, however, is that there has been no comprehensive study undertaken to prove a correlation between increased digital technology usage and decreased visitation to historic sites. While both trends can be true independently, it is not at all clear to me that one trend explains the other. Plenty of other historic sites and museums have had no problem with declining visitation. For example, visitation to art museums has experienced a slight increase in recent years, and the popular National World War II Museum smashed its previous visitation record in 2018. In fact, some argue that digital technology actually boosts visitation to museums and historic sites because people see content online and become more motivated to visit in person. This data seems to suggest something besides digital technology as the cause behind sluggish visitation at Civil War sites.

Coski continues by arguing that public historians are trying to attract new audiences by “emphasizing non-military aspects of the conflict and repudiating the Confederate side of the story.” Here again, these claims are questionable. Have Civil War sites placed an increased emphasis on the political aspects of the Civil War? Absolutely. Are many sites more willing to discuss the role of slavery in creating the conditions for armed conflict? Absolutely. But just because non-military topics are discussed more in-depth does not mean that military history has been removed from the story. Moreover, it’s not clear to me what it means to “repudiate” the Confederate side of the story. Is Coski saying that public historians are completely ignoring the Confederacy, or are they just interpreting the history in a way Coski disagrees with?

I have been to Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and Fort Donelson over the past five years. Every single one of these battlefields discussed military history through programs, wayside markers, and museum exhibits. Gettysburg has an enormous Civil War weapons collection in its museum that rivals anything you’ll see anywhere else. Every single site told stories from the Confederate perspective. Every single site has dedicated public historians who are ready to discuss military history, political history, and Confederate history. Not a single monument has been removed from a Civil War battlefield managed by the National Park Service. I concede that the war’s narrative has most certainly changed (for the better), but when Coski asks, “what about the majority experience? What about the millions of white Americans on both sides who fought and endured the Civil War?” I just have to roll my eyes. Last I checked they were still there.

Coski then expands his discussion of Confederate history at Civil War sites by asking whether “emphasizing ‘relevance’ mean[s] the only legitimate way of studying the war will be as a morality play.” He also contends that the popular backlash to Confederate iconography is a “rejection of Civil War history that accords respect to the fighting men on both sides.” Today’s backlash against Confederate iconography, according to Coski, is unique because the “breadth and depth of anger aimed at the Confederacy, Confederate symbols, and all perceived vestiges of Lost Cause thinking” has led to “a widespread willingness to vilify anything associated with the Confederacy as ‘racist.’ Labeling is becoming a surrogate for understanding.” As such, public historians who emphasize “inclusiveness, tolerance, empathy, and an acceptance of complexity” fail to live up to their own self-defined standards by attacking the Confederacy this way.

Here again there is much to disagree with. For one, striving for relevance does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy or relying solely on emotion to win hearts and minds. Discussing Civil War era politics or the experiences of women and people of color during the war is no more a “morality play” than a narrative that focuses on sectional reconciliation or the shared valor of Union and Confederate soldiers. Striving for relevance means expanding the narrative and creating space for multiple perspectives. It does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy at the expense of so-called identity politics or political correctness.

Second, who among Civil War public historians in their professional life is going around doing nothing but vilifying the Confederacy at their workplace? Do some people get heated on social media about the Civil War? Sure. Do some people want all Confederate monuments taken down? Sure. Do some people feel like Confederate icons are intimidating and that the entire Confederate political experiment was rooted in racism? You bet. But in Coski’s telling of the story, interpretations at Civil War sites nowadays largely consist of visitors being treated to long rants from public historians about how bad and racist the Confederacy was in the interest of attracting new audiences to their sites. Public historians design gimmicky programs, share their personal views, and strip the past of its complexity as historical understanding is placed at the bottom of the food chain. As such, visitors are allegedly treated to an interpretation of the war from an “activist” perspective that is more interested in shaming than understanding. This description may accurately explain the culture of social media interactions on Twitter, but I completely reject this characterization when it comes to describing trained professionals whose job is to provide a compelling, complex, and accurate interpretation of the Civil War. Many public historians today reject the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War because it is largely inaccurate, but that does not mean they also reject a nuanced understanding of the past that acknowledges the complexities of Confederate allegiance and military service.

Here’s the thing. I don’t think the white actors of Civil War history are going anywhere. I don’t think public historians at Civil War historic sites place anything ahead of telling a good, accurate story. I don’t think anyone who’s long been a student of the Civil War should be alarmed by the fact that Civil War scholarship is expanding and changing. I don’t think a “both sides fought for what they believed in” or Lost Cause-inspired interpretation is the solution to bringing back audiences to Civil War historic sites. I don’t think complaining about identity politics today is particularly wise when for a very long time Confederate identity politics dominated the culture surrounding historic interpretation at Civil War sites.

Where we go from here is a difficult question, and I think there’s a lot more evaluation and study needed before we can start to formulate an answer. While I think Coski’s basic wish to remember the traditional audiences of Civil War history is fair, his characterizations of Civil War history and the public historians who interpret it today are badly flawed.

Cheers

Losing My Faith in Public Monuments

Goodbye

Earlier this month I participated in a brief discussion with public history graduate students at Colorado State University about public monuments. In the course of the discussion I made a frank confession: I have “lost faith” in public monuments and question their ability to be effective teaching tools about the past.

To be sure, my current views still strongly align with the arguments I made in this essay for the National Council on Public History about a year and a half ago:

Revisionism is fundamental to the historical process, including changes to public commemorative landscapes. As new documentary evidence emerges and contemporary events shape perceptions of past events, historians constantly go back into the historical record and offer new interpretations and understandings of the past. So it goes with public monuments as well. When local communities contemplate their pasts, they hold the right to alter their commemorative landscapes to reflect their shared values in the present. When the British had possession of the American colonies, they put up a statue of King George III in Manhattan. When the Americans declared their independence from the British, they tore that statue down. That’s how it works.

Local communities should be empowered to determine what they want their commemorative landscapes to look like. State laws in places like Alabama, Tennessee, and North Carolina that ban local communities from taking down Confederate (or other) monuments in public places are wrong. They strip local communities of their power to create public spaces of their liking. These laws are wholly intended to shut down debate about the place of Confederate monuments in public society and reinforce the notion that these monuments are less about history or the need to stop “erasing history” so much as promoting a certain view of the past that celebrates Confederate heritage.

Public monuments, regardless of what they commemorate, are partly historical but also inherently political. These icons are reflective of a community’s shared values and what they consider worthy of a place of honor. They say as much about the present as they do the past. These important distinctions are thrown to the wayside when the debate is portrayed as a question of whether or not history is being “erased” when a public monument is removed. I can still read Jefferson’s Davis’s autobiography and learn from it even if a statue of his is removed. I can still go to a library, museum, or historical site to learn more. In reality, public monuments often have a very small role in shaping how people remember the past.

It is fair to say, however, that my views on this subject have evolved in a new direction. I would add the following arguments to my general view of public monuments:

Public monuments promote the worship of false idols. President and Congressman John Quincy Adams once stated that “Democracy has no monuments. It strikes no medals; it bears the head of no man upon its coin; its very essence is iconoclastic.” In other words, public monuments were the work of monarchies and theocracies. They promoted the worship of false idols and were inherently undemocratic because they ran the risk of creating a cult of personality. In a society shaped by popular elections and the sharing of power, the essence of democracy was the importance of looking forward, not backwards. There is much to agree with here. Public monuments are, after all, places of honor that celebrate individuals and events. Could it be fair to say, however, that these icons run the risk of becoming symbols that distort the past, and that they unfairly demand all to worship at their altar without question?

Asking what new monuments can replace old ones currently being removed is the wrong question to ask. Some better questions to ask would be, “what can local communities and historians do to promote better historical understanding of the past? Are public monuments the best way to go about accomplishing this objective? If not, what else?” As previously argued, people learn about history through a number of different mediums: classrooms, museums, historic sites, books, the internet, etc. Historians can and should use public monuments as teaching tools, but they must also strive to assert the importance of history education across the lifespan, from early formal education to later informal experiences in public history settings. I increasingly find myself questioning whether the removal of a monument with the addition of a new one really serves any useful purpose for a society. If the spirit of history education isn’t there to reinforce the many ways people can learn about the past in a nuanced and thoughtful way, then public monuments will continue to play a confused role in the way history is understood by individuals and societies.

Cheers