Okay, So You Have Civil War Ancestors. So What?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
What does a family tree say about us today? Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.


Interpreting Indiana’s 1907 Eugenics Law

Growing up, I didn’t really learn much about the Progressive movement in the United States or about the history of the Era itself (1890s-1918, although those dates are up for debate). With the exception of World War I itself, many schools nowadays simply pass over this time period and its social, cultural, and political conflicts. Who remembers talking about the 1890s or 1900s in their high school history class? As a student teacher, I was only allowed to talk about World War I, with a brief mention of women getting the right to vote.

What I did learn about the Progressive Era in high school was fairly rudimentary. Industrialization had led to rapid economic change and development throughout the United States; Progressives emerged to protest the widening gap between rich and poor and the staggering amount of corruption that stained the business and political landscape at the time. Progressives called for the end of monopolies, the enactment of labor laws that protected workers (particularly children) and a more efficient system of governance that was better suited to the needs of a rapidly changing society. Regarding the latter, I like how William Leuchtenburg defined Progressivism (Wikipedia liked his definition too):

The Progressives believed in the Hamiltonian concept of positive government, of a national government directing the destinies of the nation at home and abroad. They had little but contempt for the strict construction of the Constitution by conservative judges, who would restrict the power of the national government to act against social evils and to extend the blessings of democracy to less favored lands. The real enemy was particularism, state rights, limited government.

I have been learning more about the Progressive Era through my study of the Indiana Grand Army of the Republic, and am now working hard to try and learn more about this fascinating time period. I’ve also noticed that many people today continue to call themselves “Progressive.” It would be safe to say that the theories of progress, efficiency, and reform have continued to play a vital role in shaping the personal ideologies of many people today. However, those that call themselves “Progressive” today may want to proceed with caution and avoid using the term too freely. While many of the goals of Progressives at the turn of the 20th century were admirable [yes, child labor laws are good, most food and drug regulations are good, and I’m glad monopolies are illegal], there was a dark side to Progressivism as well. The consequences of this dark side were felt the deepest in Indiana, which prided itself on being one of the most Progressive states in the Union at the time.

In 1907, Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly signed a law making forced and involuntary sterilizations legal in Indiana, the first of its kind in the United States. Following the dictates of progress, efficiency, and reform, the 1907 Eugenics Law reflected the views of many Progressives who believed that such a law was in the best interests of society as a whole and, equally as important, the person who was deemed unfit to procreate. Alexander Johnson, Indiana’s secretary of the Board of State Charities in 1889 [note the title], rationalized in his memoirs that “Generation after generation many of the families to which these defective people belonged had been paupers, in or out of the asylum; their total number and the proportion of feeble minded among them steadily increasing as time went on.”

The law reads as follows. Emphasis is mine:

Whereas, Heredity plays a most important part in the trans-
mission of crime, idiocy and imbecility;

Penal Institutions—Surgical Operations.
Therefore, Be it enacted by the general assembly of the State of Indiana, That on and after the passage of this act it shall be compulsory for each and every institution in the state, entrusted with the care of confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles, to appoint upon its staff, in addition to the regular institutional physician, two (2) skilled surgeons of recognized ability, whose duty it shall be, in conjunction with the chief physician of the institution, to examine the mental and physical condition of such inmates as are recommended by the institutional physician and board of managers. If, in the judgment of this committee of experts and the board of managers, procreation is inadvisable and there is no probability of improvement of the mental condition of the inmate, it shall be lawful for the surgeons to perform such operation for the prevention of procreation as shall be decided safest and most effective. But this operation shall not be performed except in cases that have been pronounced unimprovable: Provided, That in no case shall the consultation fee be more than three ($3.00) dollars to each expert, to be paid out of the funds appropriated for the maintenance of such institution.

The Indiana Historical Bureau is in charge of all historic markers in Indiana, and in 2007 they erected a historic marker to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passage of this law. The marker stands on Senate Avenue, just west of the Indiana State House. I was out and about in downtown Indianapolis today and took these photos of the marker:

The front side:

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

And the back:

Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

You can read more about this marker here. Roughly 2,000 people were sterilized under the 1907 law. Progressivism as a whole is not completely right or wrong, but a topic like eugenics complicates how we define “progress” and what it means to use the power of government to enact social change.

Public history is extremely tough. Public historians must take complex historical topics that are often controversial and painful and interpret them for a public audience of all ages, races, sexes, etc. Each side of this marker is composed of roughly 365 characters, the equivalent of roughly two and a half tweets. That’s all the IHB gets! Keeping that in mind, I think IHB did a great job of summarizing this troubling topic. Even more remarkable (pun intended), of all the historic markers in Indiana, this one is in an extremely prominent location. Thousands of people walk daily along Senate avenue, including state employees, state legislators, and the governor. It took a lot of courage to get this marker erected, and kudos should be given to IHB and any other organization or individual involved in the project.

Do you think the marker is well done? If you were in charge of writing the text for the 1907 Eugenics Law, would you do anything differently, and if so, what?