Tag Archives: Memory

A Response to Shaun King’s Essay about Presidents Who Owned Slaves

“Heroes of the Colored Race” Photo Credit: Library of Congress

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.

Cheers

Public History Sites and Nostalgia for the 1950s

One of the finest studies on the “nostalgia trap.”

Earlier this month I was in northwest Arkansas for a conference and had an opportunity to visit a number of history museums while there. Those site visits included the Daisy Air Gun Museum, the Rogers Historical Museum, and the Walmart Museum (yes, they have one). I found each site charming and the people who work at these sites extremely friendly. Everyone made me feel welcomed and were glad to have me as a visitor. On the whole I enjoyed my experiences at these places.

I am a critical viewer of museum exhibits, however, much in the same way that a musician is a critical viewer of other musicians or a filmmaker critically views rival cinema. My training in museum and historical methods ensures that I can never go back to looking at museums and public history sites as objective storehouses of artifacts and disinterested facts. I view every aspect from aesthetics to text markers to guided tours in an effort to see what larger interpretive messages these places hope to convey to their viewers. Although each site covers a wide time period that in some cases goes back to the late nineteenth century, they all had a similar interpretive centerpiece at the heart of their expererince: nostalgia for the 1950s.

Nostalgia is an inherently conservative emotion in my view. It smooths over the rough edges of history’s complexities and often focuses inward on our idealized personal memories of life experiences. Nobody looks back at a bad life memory in a nostalgic way. Nostalgia doesn’t convey how things were but how we wish they were and how we wish them to be. It tries to recreate an image of a past world that can never be recreated in the present, and the inability to bring this past world alive in the present intensifies our desire to bring it back against all odds. And above all else, we use nostalgia to reclaim our innocence – to return to a time when fear and insecurity didn’t exist and when things were simpler (at least in our minds). As Alan Jay Levinovitz argues in Aeon, “it is crucial to distinguish between wistful memories of grandma’s kitchen and belief in a prior state of cultural perfection.” Nostalgia is wistful thinking about a state of perfection that never existed. And it often sells within the context of museums.

The 1950s are a particularly unique time period shrouded in more nostalgia than any other era in recent history. Each museum I visited covered different aspects of this nostalgia. Men worked hard and had jobs to support the family; women stayed home and tended to the domestic sphere; children went to school and behaved like good little boys and girls; local law enforcement always had residents’ best interests at hand; everyone went to church and prayed to the same Christian God; racial, labor, or any other form of social strife was non-existent; everyone knew their place in society and happily accepted that place without reservation. We might call this interpretive phenomenon “Andy Griffith History.”

At one of the aforementioned sites I overheard a woman ask a museum employee why there were no exhibits on the contributions of African Americans or any other minority group to the life of the people in northwest Arkansas. The employee said that “well, we don’t have any exhibits on that topic unfortunately and the town of Rogers was a Sundown town in the 1950s.” A person visiting these sites without any sort of background in the history of the Civil Rights Movement would not realize that Walmart’s growth as a company occurred as Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus supported racial segregation of public schools and the Little Rock Nine crisis occurred. Nor would many people without prior knowledge look at the Walmart museum and learn that labor conflicts have occurred frequently throughout the company’s history. The pull of nostalgia only allows for a innocent view of the period devoid of any social conflict.

I suspect that 1950s nostalgia draws people to these places because the period has been so mythologized in popular culture and many (white) people alive today remember the era in fond terms. I do wonder, however, if this approach will continue to work over the next twenty or thirty years and if places that rely on nostalgia this way will have staying power in the long run. Again, I found a certain charm in these museums, and there were certainly good aspects of the 1950s that we should remember and celebrate. We should always heed Levinovitz’s advice, however, and avoid believing that any past era was perfect. That sort of thinking is bad for history and probably bad for determining contemporary policy too.

Cheers

Confederate and American Heritage Side-by-Side in New Orleans

In my last post I argued that the National World War II museum in New Orleans, Louisiana, is openly nationalist and Ameri-centric in its interpretive focus. It might very well be one of the strongest symbols of Americanism in the entire city. What I mean by this statement is that the museum’s exhibits and programming do not simply tell the story of World War II (admittedly from a U.S. perspective) but also encourage loyalty to the country today and adherence to the idea of using America’s position in world affairs to export American freedom and democracy around the globe. The museum avoids making any specific statements on contemporary politics or politicians, but it subtly advocates the idea of a strong, “more perfect” union to promote American ideals today, just like we did in victory during World War II.

If you look out the museum’s windows towards the western part of the city, however, an icon with a remarkably different symbolism emerges nearby: the famous Lee Circle and giant statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. This statue was erected in 1884 to commemorate and celebrate General Lee and the Confederacy. The statue has always had a modicum of opposition, but in 2015 the New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 to remove the statue. Since then four separate lawsuits have been filed in opposition. The case currently remains in court and the statue, of course, remains standing. Putting aside the question of whether or not the statue should come down, it is nevertheless interesting to see contradictory symbols of Confederate nationalism and American nationalism so close to each other.

The view of Lee Circle from the National World War II Museum. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

The view of Lee Circle from the National World War II Museum. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

As historian Gary Gallagher and numerous other historians of the Confederacy have argued, General Lee was the epitome of Confederate nationalism. Confederate supporters viewed him in the same light as George Washington and took inspiration from his determination on the battlefield. As Gallagher argues, “to be able to wage war, the Confederacy was willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of its young men and suffer the destruction of its economy. In terms of military casualties, Confederates sacrificed far more than any other generation of white Americans in U.S. history. Yet the South still fought.” That fight, of course, aimed to achieve disunion with the United States in the hopes of creating a new, independent slaveholding white republic. The erection of a statue to honor that fight in the heart of a major Southern city, just like the creation of the World War II museum to honor another fight eighty years later, was not just an act of remembering and commemorating history but an expression of contemporary values by political and cultural leaders in New Orleans.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Counterfactual history is always a risky proposition when trying to achieve historical understanding and in this case we’ll certainly never know the right answer, but you can’t help but wonder what the fate of the world in 1939 would have been if the cause of Confederate disunion would have been successful in the 1860s.

Cheers

The Missouri Sons of Confederate Veterans Want You to Know that “Confederates of Color” Existed

Photo Credit: Civil War Memory

Photo Credit: Civil War Memory

Back in August Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory wrote a short blog post about the Missouri Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He mentioned that the MO SCV paid to have two billboards put up–one “near Kansas City” and one “outside St. Louis”–with three men posing in Civil War outfits, a Confederate flag in the background, a listing of the organization’s website, and a very strange question: “75,000 Confederates of Color?” I read Kevin’s post and subsequent comments while having a good laugh but didn’t think much about it after that.

Well, I just happened to have found the billboard “outside St. Louis” yesterday while driving on Interstate 70. It is located in High Hill, a tiny town of 200 people about an hour west of St. Louis, and can be seen when going eastbound towards St. Louis.

In recent years there has been a push within some quarters of the Civil War history world to suggest that there were thousands–if not tens of thousands–of African American men who voluntarily chose to serve in the Confederate military during the war. I’ve chosen to stay out of this particular conversation because I think Levin and a number of other Civil War bloggers have done a fine job of covering the topic. Kevin’s also got a forthcoming book on the myth of Black Confederates that I look forward to reading when it comes out. But what I do know is that historians generally acknowledge that a small number of blacks may have served in the Confederate military following the Confederate Congress’s passing of General Order No. 14 on March 13, 1865, a month before General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. The act gave President Jefferson Davis the authority to “ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men . . . to perform military service.” But the idea that tens of thousands of African Americans slaves, much less 75,000 of them, voluntarily chose to fight for the Confederacy is simply wrong and without evidence. Suffice to say it would have been literally impossible for most enslaved African American males to voluntarily choose to fight for a government dedicated to their continued enslavement.

There are many reasons to explain the rise of this phenomenon. One is a simple misreading of so-called “Black Confederate Pensions” that some former camp servants received after the war. Since the United States government did not award pensions to former Confederate veterans in the years after the war, former Confederate states took it upon themselves to establish a pension system for former soldiers. But some of these pensions dollars also went to former black camp servants who could prove that they had rendered some sort of service for the Confederacy, be that building earthworks, cooking and cleaning, or attending to the needs of a white enlisted soldier. These pension records are sometimes misinterpreted to suggest that Black men were enlisted in the Confederate military and treated as soldiers at the time when in fact they were not. For example, our old friend George Purvis once attempted to argue on this blog that he could find “10,000 names and numbers [phone numbers???] of Negroes” based on his own misreading of these pension records, and, in an odd extension of this argument, suggested that it was actually black soldiers in the United States military who were forced to serve! In other situations I suppose the black Confederate argument emerges as a way of arguing that the war had nothing to do with slavery or, as seems to be the case of the Missouri SCV, to promote a preferred narrative of the war and boost membership in and awareness of the organization.

If the motivation of the SCV in raising these billboards is to promote awareness and support of the organization, why does the statement “75,000 Confederates of Color” end with a question mark? While High Hill gets tens of thousands of drivers on a daily basis driving through on Interstate 70, why is the sign located there and not closer to the St. Louis regional area, where upwards of three million people live and commute daily? And while we know that numerous Indian tribes and a smattering of other racial groups in small numbers supported the Confederacy during the war, how does the Missouri SCV come to conclude that the correct number of people of color who served in the Confederate military is 75,000? Why not 10,000, 100,000, or four million? Where is the evidence for this claim?

But, you may say, herein lies the power of effective advertising! The billboard is provocative and challenges you to learn more by visiting the MOSCV.ORG website, where you can find the answer to this question. Fair point.

Well, I did just that today, and in the course of researching every nook and cranny of this website I can pass along to you that there is not a single resource on it to substantiate the claim that there were 75,000 “Confederates of Color” in the Confederate military during the Civil War. The lone piece of evidence the Missouri SCV offers is a 1903 newspaper article from the Confederate Veteran about one “Uncle” George McDonald, who is identified as “a colored Confederate veteran” but whose military assignment and regimental unit go unmentioned. There are no other primary source documents or references to reliable historical scholarship on the topic of “Confederates of Color” listed anywhere on the site.

Since there wasn’t much else on the Missouri SCV’s website about this topic, I opened up the most recent newsletter to see if there was any mention of the billboards there. Nope. There was news about recent Confederate flag rallies throughout the state, including one in the St. Louis area that I didn’t realize was organized by the Missouri SCV when I wrote this blog post about it last year. And there was a rather interesting editorial that included the following commentary:

As I am sure ya’ll are aware, our heritage is under attack from every angle imaginable. Our enemy our opportunists and they do not rest; NOR SHOULD WE. Even within our borders of our sovereign MISSOURAH, the flags of our ancestors have been removed from the sacred grounds of their final resting places and monuments to their memory are moved or relocated. The very sight or mention of anything Confederate sends college students scurrying for their “safe zones.” In St. Louis, the politically correct liberal bastion of insanity, the Confederate Memorial at Forest Park has been deemed unfit for common public view by the historically incompetent Mayor Francis Slay of St. Louis. Mayor Slay wants the memorial out of Forest Park. His actions are tantamount to what ISIS is doing worldwide as they spread their version of hate.

Whoa, Nelly!

Is this approach really the best one for making your point and convincing others of your arguments? To be sure, I’m not interested in making blanket generalizations about the views and opinions of the Missouri SCV as a whole, but we learn a few things about the editors of their publications in this commentary. Obviously there is a tinge of contemporary politics underlying the SCV, particularly the belief that liberals can’t handle dissenting opinions (although this screed makes you wonder if these newsletter editors can handle dissenting opinions without going off the rails) and that places that lean liberal are bastions of “insanity.” Most interesting is the implied proclamation (to me at least) that a true Missourian supports Confederate heritage and proudly calls this state “Missourah” while the city of St. Louis is some sort of otherized foreign entity whose residents don’t represent that values of the state as a whole. What’s equally odd about all of this is how the SCV boldly proclaims on its homepage that it has taken steps to “[educate] the public about the ethnic diversity that existed in the Confederate ranks,” yet these newsletter editors have no qualms saying such nasty things about St. Louis, a place where, you know, many PEOPLE OF COLOR live.

(Also, just to clarify, Mayor Slay did not call for the Confederate Memorial at Forest Park to be removed, only that it was “time for a reappraisal” and a broader conversation within the St. Louis community about the merits of the monument remaining in Forest Park. Mayor Slay’s committee looked into finding an institution willing to take the monument without success and it remains in Forest Park today).

It’s never a dull day here in Missouri.

Cheers

A Quick Review of Sanford Levinson’s “Written in Stone”

Sanford Levinson - Written in Stone

A couple weeks ago I had the distinct privilege of meeting Dwight Pitcaithley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service and currently a part-time history professor at New Mexico State University. Dr. Pitcaithley is an intellectual thinker and public historian that I really look up to, and it was great being able to participate in a workshop he put on about the causes of the Civil War for my work. In the course of the workshop we got wrapped up in the whole Confederate icons debate and he recommended that we read Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies by Sanford Levinson, a law professor and Constitutional scholar at the University of Texas Law School. Written in Stone clocks in at a very short 140 pages and I finished reading it a few days ago. I recommend it as a worthwhile read for those interested in this topic.

Although Written in Stone was published in 1998, it reads as if it was written in the past year. Levinson addresses all of the controversial icons that have either been removed or put under intense scrutiny in recent months, including the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State Capitol, Monument Avenue in Richmond, and the statue to the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans, among many others.

Levinson’s legal training allows him a unique perspective on this topic that I hadn’t really considered until reading this book. One of the big questions of the book is whether the state “can properly honor anyone, or celebrate any particular views” in a fair fashion. Can the state celebrate its history and honor that history thorough public commemoration? One view is that public commemoration by the government should be ruthlessly neutral and regulated the same way religion is via the establishment clause of the Constitution, neither aiding one religion, all religions, or one over another. In this view one might look at the celebration of “American heroes” as a form of civil religion that could be deemed unconstitutional and is at the very least in bad taste. But Levinson argues that a “neutral” approach to historical commemoration is naive and impossible to achieve. While he acknowledges that the state runs the risk of dominating the intellectual marketplace, he asserts that the state does have a role in that marketplace, from politicians giving major policy speeches to public school teachers and school boards determining what textbooks will be used in the classroom to educate students. He also cites United States v. Gettysburg Electric Co., an 1896 Supreme Court case in which the Justices unanimously determined that the federal government could confiscate land from an electric company since the land in question, which the government intended to use for housing Civil War monuments, constituted a “public use.” Chief Justice Rufus Peckham’s opinion expressed the idea that preserving the land for monumentation and public use “manifests for the benefit of all its citizens the value put upon the services and exertions of the citizen soldiers of that period.” So, in sum, the government can engage in public acts of commemoration through monuments, flags, and other icons. This right is a double-edged sword, however, as what constitutes what is worthy of public commemoration is very much contested.

Levinson makes a number of arguments about Confederate icons in Written in Stone. He argues forcefully that the taint of racism, slavery, and opposition to Civil Rights that is so often identified with Confederate iconography makes the erection of new public iconography honoring the Confederacy in poor taste and something he would reject. At the same time, however, Levinson opposes the idea of taking down older, preexisting icons. He instead calls for them to either stay in place, to contextualize them, provide a counter-monument, and/or relocate them to a museum, all of which he prefers to outright demolition. At the end of Written in Stone Levinson offers nine different solutions for addressing the Jefferson Davis statue at the University of Texas, all of which are worth considering. (Last year that statue was removed from UT and relocated to UT’s Briscoe Center for American History).

I do not agree with Levinson on all points. I think he over-emphasizes the power of contextualized wayside markers as effective educational pieces for addressing the troubling history that something like the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place aims to venerate and celebrate. I think most people who view public icons with wayside markers don’t bother to read the markers or only skim them without really making a strong effort to interpret their meaning. I also think Levinson downplays the fact that many Confederate icons in public spaces like town squares and campus buildings have always been a point of controversy within local communities, particularly ones with a large African American presence. The recent debates may be new to many people, but they are old hat for those who live and work in communities where they see these icons on a daily basis. If the themes and messages of the Confederacy are too tainted and too offensive to be honored through newly constructed public iconography, then why should local communities be saddled with past Confederate icons that no longer represent the values of those communities? Are there times when taking down and destroying an icon is the most appropriate measures for ensuring healing, reconciliation, and closure from the past? I believe there is, such as when the Confederate Flag was lowered from the front of the South Carolina State House and when the city of New Orleans announced its intentions to remove its monument to the Battle of Liberty Place. I would say, however, that such drastic measures should only be a last resort and used sparingly on an individual basis. There are certainly times when contextualization, removal to a museum, or simply doing nothing are also appropriate.

Be sure to check out Levinson’s book if you get the chance.

Cheers

From Riot to Massacre: The Challenge of Describing Racialized Violence in U.S. History

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Back in February I had the opportunity to travel to the University of Memphis to hear a talk from Dr. Andre E. Johnson and meet leaders at both the University of Memphis and the larger Memphis community to discuss efforts to commemorate the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The formal ceremony commemorating the event occurred in May. What follows is a brief essay I wrote following my trip to Memphis. At this point it is slated to be published in a future National Park Service Handbook on the Memphis Massacre, but I want to also share it with readers here on the blog.

***

My job with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site (ULSG) in St. Louis, Missouri, requires that I interpret difficult and contentious topics in nineteenth century American history, including slavery, the causes of the Civil War, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction. The programs we offer at the park are reflective of a larger interpretive shift within the NPS over the past twenty years. This shift explicitly ties stories of emancipation and political debates over civil rights to the military aspects of the Civil War experience. By connecting political and military conflicts within a broader interpretive framework, the agency’s educational initiatives aim to demonstrate how the Civil War Era represented a prolonged and violent struggle over the meaning of American freedom. One such initiative is taking place at the University of Memphis, where NPS officials at ULSG recently began working with the university and other community members to raise awareness of one particularly harrowing event from the era: the Memphis Massacre of 1866.

One major takeaway from learning about the massacre and meeting community leaders in Memphis pushing for a public commemoration of this tragic event is that I’ve gained a better understanding of the evolving terminology scholars are currently using to describe racialized violence in American history. The words we use to describe historical events can say much about the ways we understand and remember the past, and they play a crucial role in providing context for describing historical events. Historically the May 1866 mass killing of African Americans in Memphis by white residents has been described by scholars and popular media as a “race riot.” This has also been the case with similar events in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), East St. Louis, Illinois (1917), and Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921). But the leaders of this commemorative effort in Memphis have boldly and correctly reframed this event as a “massacre.” I believe riots and massacres are distinct from each other in two different ways.

The first distinction lies in the use of violence. In a riot there are usually two groups of people engaging in violence. One group attacks property, other citizens, and/or a government authority, while the second group—typically the government authority—responds by using law enforcement to shut down the first group, often through their own use of violence. In a massacre, however, only one group uses violence, and that violence is often targeted towards powerless groups unable to defend themselves. Under this terminology we can clearly say that what happened in Memphis was indeed a massacre of innocent victims, not a riot. In fact, governmental authorities in Memphis actually encouraged the plundering of black lives and property in the area. General George Stoneman, in charge of black and white Army troops at nearby Fort Pickering, stated as much in later Congressional testimony about the violence.

The second distinction lies in emphasis. The language of riots places the interpretive focus on groups engaging in violent attacks. The language of massacres, however, places the interpretive focus on the victims of those violent attacks, forcing us to ask why these people were targeted for the destructive treatment they received from oppressive social groups and government entities. By rebranding the events in Memphis in 1866 as a massacre, the National Park Service, scholars at the University of Memphis, and other community members are leading an important effort to commemorate the lives of black Memphians who attempted to carve an existence for themselves as freedpeople in a newly reconstructed country, but whose hopes and dreams for the future were destroyed over three days of deadly racialized violence towards their community.

“Make America Great Again,” “A Future to Believe In,” and Competing Philosophies of American History

"We have a great history. The best history ever. It's really special. I'm going to build a wall around our history so that angry liberal historians won't destroy it. I'm about winning, and the history of my presidency will be summarized in one word. 'WINNER'."

“We have a great history. The best history ever. It’s really special. I’m going to build a wall around our history so that angry liberal historians won’t destroy it. I’m about winning, and the history of my presidency will be summarized in one word. ‘WINNER’.”

The current U.S. election has been a consistent stream of embarrassing statements, extremist rhetoric, radical political stances, glaring hypocrisies, and nonstop media coverage that in many cases comes off as an uncritical infomercial for Hilary Clinton and/or Donald Trump, the presumptive Presidential nominees of the Democrat and Republican Parties. I rarely discuss contemporary politics on this website and I don’t want to wade too deeply into those depths with this post.

One theme from this election that interests me, however, is the degree to which political change from the status quo is necessary to ensure future prosperity for the United States. Bernie Sanders and Trump maintain two remarkably contrasting political platforms, but they’re also the two loudest advocates for a political revolution that completely dismantles the vaguely-defined Washington “establishment” and puts a totally new order of governance into place. Meanwhile other candidates like Clinton and the now-departed John Kasich often speak in more moderate terms about incremental change, compromise, and the toning down of heated rhetoric.

Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” has clearly resonated with a good number of Americans who, for various reasons, feel like they are falling behind economically while also watching their moral values and ways of life being destroyed in a twenty-first century culture war. The slogan offers itself as a great title for a manifesto in support of a conservative revolution. But what, exactly, does it mean when we call for America to become great again? Are we not great now? What greatness are we trying to recover? Who are we trying to take the country back from? When in American history was this country ever truly great for all? What does “Make America Great Again” say about how we view the whole of U.S. history?

In his 2015 publication Fighting Over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution, historian Andrew M. Schocket argues that the memory of the American Revolution and the development of U.S. history holds inherent “political and cultural implications” for how we view the world today. In sum, how we view the origins of the country’s founding can say a lot about how we view the role of politics and government in our lives today. Schocket distinguishes between those who view the American Revolution from an “essentialist” viewpoint and those who view it from an “organicist” viewpoint.

The essentialists argue that American history has only one discernible meaning that offers us clear lessons for navigating the contemporary world, and that any other interpretation or act of “historical revisionism” that diverts from the clear, God-ordained version of American history is flawed. This version of history emphasizes the importance of “private property, capitalism, traditional gender roles, and Protestant Christianity,” according to Schocket, and it views the U.S. Constitution as a perfect or near-perfect document that promotes freedom and liberty for all. The essentialists also assume that our contemporary U.S. government has strayed from its glorious founding ideals, and that the great future struggle of American society lies in restoring our political life to one that sits in harmony with the constitutional order that existed during the nation’s founding and early formation, which is the greatest, most free era in our history. The essentialist vision is all about making American great again.

The “organicist,” version of American history differs from the essentialist one in several ways. The organicists argue that there is no single, fully accurate version of American history that can be learned without interpreting the facts of the past. They believe that there are many ways to interpret this history and that appreciating the various interpretations people form about the past allows for a more holistic and accurate understanding of American history. For example, Schocket explains that “you might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they wanted to keep their slaves, and I might insist that white Virginians revolted primarily because they resented British governance, and we could both have a legitimate claim to be debated.” The organicists also refrain from glorifying the American Revolution and the nation’s early years too much, instead stressing the contrast between the ideals of the founders and the sometimes destructive policies they implemented in practice. The great future struggle of American society for the organicists isn’t so much about returning the country’s government to a state of perfect alignment with its glorious past (which in their minds is a contested belief subject to debate) as much as it’s about improving upon that past by achieving the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality through good governmental practices in the present. The organicist vision is perhaps best articulated through Sanders’ campaign slogan, “A Future to Believe In.” (It bears repeating, however, that the Sanders campaign platform of a “political revolution” to accomplish these ideals is contested, and I doubt all organicist-minded thinkers would agree with the necessity of such a revolution).

I suspect that most Americans fall somewhere in between the essentialist-organicist spectrum. I don’t believe the constitution or American history as a whole can be understood through one uniform narrative devoid of interpretation, and my training as a historian stresses the importance of understanding multiple perspectives and interpreting history through both primary and secondary sources. I also tend to agree with Ulysses S. Grant when he wrote (more or less) that it’s impossible for a contemporary society to solely live by the rules set by people hundreds of years ago. In these regards I find myself aligned more with the organicist interpretation. I can embrace some essentialist philosophies, such as the belief that the nation’s constitution and republican form of government have promoted freedom and liberty for many Americans, but I would argue that the challenge of enhancing everyone’s freedoms is a never-ending project that requires constant debate and discussion about the best path forward. There will never be a point when we wave a “Mission Accomplished” banner once we’ve successfully implemented a perfect form of Republican governance throughout the United States. Moreover, asking an essentialist-type question like “What would Jefferson do?” is not very useful. Instead, we should follow the lead of historian David Sehat and ask, “What is the common good today?”

Cheers

A Response to James C. Cobb’s Article on Renaming College Campus Buildings

Forrest Hall

I made a personal vow to myself at the beginning of this year to scale back the amount of blog posts I wrote about the ongoing Confederate iconography discussion now taking place throughout the United States. While I find the discussion fascinating in some regards, it has also been frustrating to see it turned into a series of fearmongering, reactionary claims about the “destruction of history” that could come along with the removal of any particular icon. Alex Beam’s screed in the Boston Globe in which he felt compelled to compare the takedown of Confederate icons to ISIS-led destruction of historical artifacts in the Middle East is a particularly harrowing example of this fearmongering in action. But last month’s NCPH roundtable on Confederate monuments and an ongoing controversy at Middle Tennessee State University about an ROTC hall named after Nathan Bedford Forrest have me fired up again, and I’m ready to jump back into the fray for a least a little while longer.

The root of these “destruction of history” claims lie partly in what I consider a basic misunderstanding of the reasons why honorific monuments, statues, memorials, and other icons are erected in the first place. Historical icons are established to designate a place of honor for people, causes, events, and ideas that political and cultural elites consider worthy of recognition by the rest of society. For some people, however, they are viewed only as artifacts that tell a pure, objective story about the facts of history and nothing else. In this line of thinking public iconography is devoid of politics, interpretation, and myths, so therefore any effort to remove an icon that is now seen by many people as offensive and historically inaccurate is a threat to our nation’s history and ultimately a flawed effort that will do nothing to change the politics of the present. The idea that a monument to the Confederacy erected in 1914 might be more reflective of the politics of 1914 and the ways rich elites understood their history at that time rather than the history that actually occurred in 1864 is often unappreciated in this discussion. Historians have sometimes missed these points as well. The latest example comes to us in Time from James C. Cobb, a retired history professor from the University of Georgia.

I find Dr. Cobb’s essay very odd. His overall argument is that “slavery was far more integral to America’s development as a nation than we have chosen thus far to acknowledge,” but because slavery’s influence colors the legacies of so many historical figures and institutions that we choose to venerate today, any effort to rename a building or remove an icon related to slavery and slaveholding is futile and a path towards the eventual destruction of All Historical Things That Make Us Feel Bad. Removing a few names doesn’t give society “a definitive resolution of so intricate and complex a historical dilemma,” so why bother?

This is akin to arguing that it’s futile for me to clean my room because its dirtiness is simply too overwhelming for me to deal with in an effective manner.

Cobb assumes that people advocating for removing the names of figures like Forrest, John Calhoun, and Jefferson Davis at college campuses are doing so because they don’t want to talk about slavery and in fact want to “cleanse American culture of ties to slavery.” On the contrary, the arguments in favor of renaming these halls are rooted in a belief that the legacy of slavery and its connections to the present aren’t talked about enough in college classrooms and society as a whole, and that a more critical approach to understanding U.S. slavery that removes its most vocal advocates from their places of honor is necessary for a better historical understanding of slavery that doesn’t casually gloss over past and present inequities, be they social, economic, or political. It’s not apparent to me that removing Nathan Bedford Forrest’s name from MTSU is going to end all classroom discussions of his legacy as a slaveholder, Confederate General, and founder a member of the Ku Klux Klan*, but I do see how removing his name would demonstrate MTSU’s willingness to acknowledge its history of supporting racial segregation in public education (Forrest Hall was named in 1954 for those ends) and advance its commitment to fostering a campus culture that’s more welcoming to people of all colors and backgrounds today.

Cobb also makes a mistake in my opinion by lumping George Washington into this discussion. As I have previously argued here, the discussion about Confederate iconography is also about the merits of honoring the cause of disunion. Washington was a slaveholder but also an ardent Union-loving nationalist who was obviously long dead by the time of the Civil War, so lumping him with people like Robert E. Lee indicates to me that Cobb thinks these campus renaming discussions solely revolve around questions of slaveholding and slavery and not also patriotism, federalism vs. nationalism, unionism, and disunionism.

Finally, Cobb’s rundown of Northern support for slavery in the years before the Civil War does little to advance the discussion besides essentially arguing that “Northerners were bad people too.” It is well known, of course, that the economic engines of cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston used slave-produced goods in the South as fuel for their factories, commerce, and trade. New York City during the Civil War Era in both politics and finance was run by conservative Democrats who understood and profited from the economic benefits of slavery, and who were alarmed by the rise of the Republican party and its opposition to the future westward expansion of slavery. But Cobb seems to ignore the fact that the North was not a monolithic political entity and that a range of views towards slavery existed in that region. Many white Northerners by the time of the Civil War felt that slave labor was inferior and less productive than free labor and that slavery was incompatible with the ideals of republicanism and popular government. This is not to suggest that white Northerners were advocates for racial equality and black rights – the vast majority were not. But it suggests that Cobb’s interpretation of Northern perspectives towards slavery is inadequate and not truly representative of the full spectrum of political beliefs leading up to the Civil War, and therefore not very convincing for his larger argument about Confederate icons.

It bears repeating once again that the best approach going forward for addressing these Confederate iconography discussions is to look at each case individually on its own merits. A one-size-fits-all approach such as the one pushed by Cobb (and currently being written into law in some states) lacks the necessary historical context for understanding individual cases and runs the risk of paralyzing any future efforts to rename campus halls or remove offensive icons and simply bad history from our commemorative landscape.

Cheers

*Addendum: It’s been brought to my attention several times that Nathan Bedford Forrest was not the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, although he was an active member of the group during its early years after the Civil War. I did some fact-checking to verify the claim and it looks like I screwed up in saying he was the founder of the organization. I regret the mistake on my part and have amended this essay to correct it. The factual error, however, does not change the arguments I make in this essay one bit.

 

Bad Historical Thinking: “History is Written By the Victors”

No.

No.

One of the most unfortunate and widely-accepted ideas about historical thinking is that “history is written by the victors.” This talking point asserts that the truth of the past is not shaped by reasoned interpretive historical scholarship or a factual understanding of the past, but by the might of political and cultural leaders on the “winning” side of history who have the power to shape historical narratives through school textbooks, public iconography, movies, and a range of other mediums. To be sure, these mediums are powerful venues for establishing political ideologies and shaping personal assumptions about the way the world works. And it’s definitely true that governmental or “official” entities can and do exploit this power to achieve their own ends. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, historian John Bodnar discusses the concept of “official cultural expressions” that aim to shape how people remember the past. These expressions originate from social leaders and official authorities who seek to shape society’s historical understanding in ways that promote “social unity, the continuity of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo” (13). In other words, those in power have an interest in maintaining their power, and a “useable past” that conforms to their vision of present-day conditions can function as a strong tool in upholding their status.

It is a mistake, however, to assume that only the “winners” of history have the power to manipulate the past to attain their present-day goals, especially in an age where the internet wields enormous potential for a person from any walk of life to build a powerful platform for spouting their beliefs and opinions. We must do away with this fiction that history is only written by the winners. (I know that “Winners” is a vague and ill-defined term in this context, but I will set aside any long-winded attempt at a definition for this post).

There may be no stronger example of “losers” writing widely accepted historical narratives than those who have advocated for the Lost Cause interpretation of the American Civil War. The central argument of the Lost Cause, of course, is that the Confederacy was morally and constitutionally right in their efforts to secede from the United States. But loss is central to Lost Cause theory in that many of its advocates argue that the Confederacy was doomed from the very beginning of the war since United States forces had superior resources and military forces to overwhelm them. Although the historical reality demonstrates that there were several instances during the war when it appeared the Confederacy was on the brink of victory, the narrative power of young men patriotically putting their lives on the line for a doomed yet noble cause still appeals to a great number of Americans today.

In the years after the Civil War, Lost Cause advocates grabbed their pens and their pocketbooks in an effort to win the memory battle over the meaning of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. In 1866 Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill established The Land We Love, a magazine that glorified Southern literature, agrarianism, and provided a platform for Confederate veterans to publish their reminiscences of battle. From 1884 to 1887 the popular Century Magazine published its famous Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, which included lengthy articles from both United States and Confederate military leaders about the war. Former Confederate political leaders like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens wrote autobiographies and histories of the Confederacy that reflected their version of events. Many history textbooks in schools throughout the country, but especially those in former Confederate states, taught a Lost Cause version of the war that glorified the Confederacy. Later on a number of motion picture films like Birth of A Nation and Gone With the Wind further extended the Lost Cause’s reach. And for roughly fifty years (1880-1930) countless millions of dollars were spent through both donations and public tax revenues to support the erection of monuments glorifying the Confederacy all across the South (and elsewhere, I’m sure).

All of these expressions of memory and historical interpretation were readily accepted by many if not most of Americans all over the country after the war. The “Losers” succeeded in writing a history that gained popular acceptance in American society. And the Lost Cause interpretation of the war is readily available for those looking to study it today. Anyone can go online and read Davis, Stephens, and many other Lost Cause materials on Google Books or HathiTrust. Anyone can find the Declarations of Secession written by the various Southern states that chose to explain their reasoning for embracing disunion.

History is written by everybody, not just the “winners.” It’s true that there have been times in history when “official narratives” have aimed to eradicate alternate historical interpretations that didn’t fully conform to the desires of the nation-state, the Church, or what have you. But the bigger point that is equally true is that historical counter-narratives always exist to subvert “victors” history, both orally and in print. “History is written by the victors” is a lazy argument that is usually deployed in the absence of historical evidence to defend claims about the past. This is why it was so ironic to me when a few of my NPS colleagues on our Facebook Employees page complained that “history is written by the victors” when the city of New Orleans decided to take down their Confederate statues in December. Clearly that’s not a true statement once you see how former Confederates and their supporters succeeded in shaping NOLA’s commemorative landscape for more than 150 years following the end of the Civil War.

Cheers

An Update on the Status of the St. Louis Confederate Monument

The Confederate Monument in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo Credit: KDSK http://www.ksdk.com/story/news/local/2015/04/22/stl-mayor-wants-to-rethink-confederate-statue/26164443/

The Confederate Monument in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo Credit: KDSK http://www.ksdk.com/story/news/local/2015/04/22/stl-mayor-wants-to-rethink-confederate-statue/26164443/

I hope readers have enjoyed the holidays in the company of loving friends and family.

As we wind down 2015–a year that current and future Civil War scholars will look back upon with much interest given all that has transpired with the nation’s commemorative landscape and Civil War memory–the St. Louis Post-Dispatch passes along news that the “St. Louis Confederate Monument Reappraisal Committee” has published a report on their investigation into the possibility of removing a historic monument dedicated to the Confederacy in downtown St. Louis and relocating it elsewhere. This effort was commissioned by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who broached the topic in April with a blog post suggesting that it was “time for a reappraisal” of this monument and its place of honor in Forest Park, a popular destination in the downtown area.

I wrote about that monument and my own reservations about relocating it a few days after Mayor Slay’s original post. I still hold a lot of the reservations I expressed in that original post, but my thinking on this subject has evolved since that time. The possibility of a change to the monument’s interpretive text and/or a relocation seems much more politically feasible now compared to then, and I am more reconciled to the idea of a relocation although I’m not fully sold on it. The number of changes to Confederate iconography throughout the country since the Charleston Massacre in June has been nothing short of astounding. Whether or not you support these changes, all can admit that they’ve come fast and in bunches.

The committee’s report clocks in at twenty-five pages. Here were some of the big points it addressed and a few of my impressions after reading the entire report:

  • In the committee’s very short history of the monument they note that while the United Daughters of the Confederacy provided financial support for erecting the monument, there was “what have been reported to be years of political controversy” leading up to the monument’s dedication in 1914, suggesting that not everyone was on board with the messages it intended to convey at the time of its unveling. Unfortunately the committee provides no further details as to who complained about the monument or what they complained about. The committee also adds that amid the Civil Rights Movement in 1964 the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy held a fiftieth anniversary re-dedication ceremony at the monument that highlighted the “many charitable works” of the SCV and UDC.
  • The committee solicited bids from contractors who could remove the monument from Forest Park. They estimate that the cost to dismantle the monument, move it to another site, prepare the new site for the monument, and re-erect it could cost as much as $268,580. Added to the financial challenge here is the Mayor’s request to use only private funds to remove the monument – no taxes. How would this process work and who would be willing to donate money to have the monument removed? The report does not tell us.
  • The committee reached out to a number of local institutions about submitting a proposal for receiving the monument. Although neither National Park Service site in St. Louis was contacted, numerous universities, cultural institutions, and Cavalry Cemetery were contacted. The committee requested that each institution, if interested, provide information within their proposal about the institution’s history, its primary audience and attendance numbers, educational programming, a budget for funding the monument, and a statement explaining why the organization would be an appropriate custodian for the monument. Every institution except for one declined to submit a proposal. An official with the University of Missouri-St. Louis left the most detailed response and stated that “I don’t believe that the sentiment of the faculty/staff would be favorable [to receiving the monument] and that the deliberations, in-and-of-themselves, may be divisive for the campus and our key stakeholders.” The monument is a political hot potato and they know it.
  • The relatively new and privately-owned Missouri Civil War Museum was the only institution to submit a proposal for the monument. The committee reported that the museum’s proposal offered to take full ownership of the monument at the City’s expense, but that said proposal “was incomplete and non-responsive to the RFP. The museum currently has no place at which it could display the monument. It informed the committee that it ‘is not interested in submitting any detailed plans of interpretation or exhibition of the monument’.” Indeed, a cursory glance at the proposal indicates that few of the committee’s questions were answered with any sort of detail. The tone of the letter leaves the impression that the museum believes it is doing the city and Mayor Slay a favor by relocating the monument to their facility. By allowing the transfer of the monument and all of its “social and political issues and problems” to the museum, they alone should have the right to determine budgetary and interpretive issues at their discretion without the city’s input.

The folks at the Missouri Civil War Museum are good people and their dedication to preserving historical artifacts related to Civil War history is unparalleled within the St. Louis area, but I don’t see this current proposal getting anywhere. I find it curious that the museum’s proposal asks for full ownership of the monument while simultaneously lacking any sort of detailed budgetary, educational, or exhibit plan. Given the relative newness of the museum and its expanding facilities I believe that at some future point the museum could be in a position to have an acceptable plan for housing the monument, but now does not seem to be the right time for such a transfer, and I get the impression that the committee feels the same way.

At this point there is a bigger question of community input that still needs to be figured out in this discussion before determining if and where the monument could be relocated or who might take ownership of it. So far the discussion has taken place entirely at the institutional level, from Mayor Slay’s blog post, to the formation of a monument committee, to the institutions that have been contacted about submitting proposals. Where do the perspectives of the St. Louis community fit into this conversation? Why not follow the example of other cities where town hall meetings and other community forums have been used to expand the conversation? While I respect the Missouri Civil War Museum’s work and appreciate their willingness to accept the monument, there are many stakeholders outside that museum’s realm who have not been heard through this process and–based on the language of the museum’s proposal asserting that all future decisions about the monument will be determined “entirely by our museum officials”–will not have a voice at the table under this proposal.

So…it appears that the committee report’s most useful insight is that no one knows what to do with this thing.

Cheers