Commemorating a “Loyal Slave” In Georgia

St. Simons Island, Georgia. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Civic leaders in Glynn County, Georgia, are proposing a sculpture trail to commemorate that county’s history and promote tourism to the area. One of the sculptures being proposed highlights Neptune Small, an enslaved man on the Retreat Plantation. When the Civil War broke out Small’s enslaver, Henry King, brought Small with him to Confederate military lines. When King died on the battlefield, Small picked up King’s body and eventually brought it back home. The Sculptor, Kevin Pullen, explained that “What I tell people is it’s a love story. Because these two grew up together. They were love buds when they were little people. The whole slavery and Civil War piece was the backdrop for their lives. They lived on the same property, and they grew up in the same place.”

Historian James De Wolfe Perry pointed out that “As an enslaved person, [Small] had incentives other than loyalty or devotion” for returning King’s body. Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory added that “This is an interpretive weakness of the entire Lost Cause narrative that it makes little attempt to engage former slaves as to motivation and how they viewed their participation in the war.” He followed up with a blog post, commenting that “The basic outline of Pullen’s account accords with the available evidence, but to depict Small in his role as the loyal slave feeds into an insidious myth that has long been used to justify legal segregation, white supremacy, and the Lost Cause narrative of the war.”

I tend to agree with these sentiments. My initial response to this proposed sculpture is great discomfort. To me it seems to romanticize slavery and the master-slave relationship, which in Pullen’s telling of Small and King’s relationship is a “love story.” It also downplays the fact that the “loyal” Neptune Small and enslaved camp servants like him were not there voluntarily in service to the Confederate military, but due to impressment. In reality, we don’t know what Small’s motivations were for returning King’s body to Georgia. It is not a stretch to suggest, for example, that perhaps Small returned King to his old plantation in the hopes of gaining his freedom for this action. And as the article points out, the Kings did give Small an 8-acre tract of land for returning his enslaver’s body. The murky details of this story make me skeptical about the wisdom of commemorating it through a sculpture.

Cheers

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Exploring the Past Turns 5

Photo Credit: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/explore/helicopter-cake/

January 1 marks the fifth anniversary of creating Exploring the Past. Establishing on online presence to share thoughts, ideas, and scholarship with interested readers and to network with other history scholars has been immensely rewarding for me on a personal and professional level. I initially created this website as an avenue to work on my writing skills while I was a graduate student at IUPUI and to contemplate (in a public setting) what studying history meant to me. I continue to write here for those same reasons, but as a professional public historian I’ve also worked to discuss challenges I face in my work and to contribute to larger conversations within the field about fair employment practices, “public engagement,” and interpreting difficult histories.

Through this blog I’ve written more than 400 posts and have received thousands of comments, most of which came from real people and were positive in nature. I’ve developed strong real-life and online friendships, have been offered speaking and writing gigs, and have felt a sense of personal accomplishment from this blog. Most notably for this year, through this blog I was offered a regular writing position at the Journal of the Civil War Era‘s blog Muster, which has put me in contact with some of the finest Civil War scholars in the field and has challenged me to become a better writer.

What guides me in my public writing is the belief that historians should make their work accessible in content, style, and location. Historians will continue writing in long-form mediums like books and journal articles because the field needs “slow scholarship” – scholarship that needs time for comprehensive research, thinking, and evolution over a long period of time, oftentimes several years. But blogging is a unique art form in and of itself: the ability to break down a complex topic into 100 to 1,200 words is a challenge not easily accomplished even by the best historians. History blogging oftentimes reaches an audience much broader than the one reached by books and journal articles, and it forces writers to put their best foot forward when making an argument that will reach an audience beyond the confines of the academy or the museum. I consider my public writing an extension of my work as a public historian and it offers me a chance to discuss topics that I may not get to discuss in my regular job.

I believe 2017 was a major year of growth for me as a historian, intellectual, and scholar. I gave several talks, including one you can see here in which I discussed controversial public monuments; I wrote a journal article on Missouri Congressman John Richard Barret that now looks to be published next year; I was elected to the Board of the Missouri Council for History Education; I made huge strides at work, where I’ve taken on increased responsibilities, including developing education programs for schools and senior groups, running teacher workshops, and conducting historical research; and I wrote five online essays that in my belief constitute some of my best writing:

Conversely, my personal success was marked on this blog with a good number of negative, personally insulting, and trollish comments – more than the previous four years combined. I attribute part of this development to the internet in general, where efforts to improve the public discourse are Sisyphean in nature, but I also believe it’s reflective of this blog’s growing readership. If a post shows up on Google and ends up being shared by a few people who may love or hate what you have to say, you’ll quickly find out that people from all parts of the globe will find your writings, for better or worse.

What was particularly strange for me was the number of negative comments on blog posts that I wrote several years ago. There is no such thing as a perfect writer, and the work of improving one’s writing is a process that takes years to develop. There has been a noticeable movement among Twitter users to delete old tweets that could be harmful in the present, and more than a few times I have contemplated deleting old blog posts here that no longer reflect my thinking (and there are a good number of them here). I have made mistakes over the past five years and it would be easy to remove them. At the same time, however, I believe this blog is in some ways a tangible story of my growth and development as a historian. It is a personal archive of sorts, and I choose to leave it as is not just for others but for myself.

2018 will start with lots of exciting projects and I look forward to seeing what happens from here. As always, thank you for your readership and support over the past five years.

Cheers

“He Was a Man of His Time”

From journalist Adam Serwer’s two essays (here and here) on the now-removed statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans:

[Robert E.] Lee was a man of his time. So was George Henry Thomas, a son of Virginia who chose to fight for the Union over fighting for slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was a man of his time, as was Frederick Douglass. Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln were men of their time. Wesley Norris, whom Lee had tortured for escaping his plantation, was a man of his time. The hundreds of thousands of men who fought for the Union, including the black soldiers murdered and humiliated by Lee’s lieutenants, were men of their time. We do not, in the main, build statues to people about whom the best that can be said is that they were of their time. We build them to people who rise above their times, and like many other men of his time, as a farmer, a general, a statesman, and an educator, Lee failed this test in every respect.

Food for thought.

Cheers

Why I Support Moving the St. Louis Confederate Monument to the Missouri Civil War Museum

A lot happened this week with regards to the St. Louis Confederate monument. On Thursday, June 8th, the top of the monument was removed as the first phase of its removal began. A city hall meeting took place that night about the monument, and Alderwoman Sharon Tyus was among a number of officials that brought up a bill that proposes to “identify and remove all Confederate-related statues, memorials, monuments, and street names from city-owned parks.” Equally important, it allows a museum to obtain the monument, provided that the institution raises the funds to move it to their institution.

The Missouri Civil War Museum has restated their willingness to accept the monument and has started a fundraising page to pay for transportation costs. Given the circumstances of the situation and the city’s determination to dismantle the statue, I believe the museum’s efforts to acquire and relocate the statue is the best option moving forward. Relocating the monument to a museum setting is a worthwhile, moderate option that allows future opportunities to educate people about the Civil War in Missouri and, hopefully, the history of the monument itself. The specifics of an interpretive program remain to be seen, but leaving the monument in a warehouse means no interpretive program at all. The Missouri Civil War Museum has grown tremendously since its opening in 2013 and is now one of top history-related sites worth visiting in St. Louis. I have full trust in the fact that the museum would be a good steward for the monument and I plan to donate to their campaign.

As I have written numerous times on this website, my views on Confederate iconography are nuanced and do not fall easily into the “Take em’ down” or “Leave em’ up” camps. In an earlier post about the St. Louis Confederate Monument I stated the following:

local communities should be empowered to determine what sorts of public iconography they want to recognize and commemorate in their public spaces. The people and events these icons represent should be reflective of that community’s values and be considered something worthy of honor. If a majority in the community don’t consider that icon worthy of honor or reflective of their values, then there are sufficient grounds for the community to discuss that icon’s future, whether that be remaining in the same spot, being moved to a cultural institution like a museum for added context, removed and obliterated, or some other solution. I personally am fine with removing the monument from Forest Park and am tired of the argument that removing any public historical icon is “erasing history,” especially when the history being removed is inaccurate.

That remains my position today. The city has a right to remove any monument it deems unfit for their property and I don’t resent them for taking this action. I didn’t necessarily support removing the monument, but I can live with it coming down. One firm position I hold is that any iconography located in a public space is inherently political, even if it’s intended primarily to “honor the soldiers.” Such iconography makes a statement about a community’s values and the politics of the time in which it was erected. The St. Louis Confederate Monument has always experienced some form of resistance within the community since its erection in 1914 (see museum professional Lisa Gilbert’s research on archived newspaper articles and a speech by Union veteran George Bailey against the monument for examples),  but that resistance within the city has now arrived at a point where it can be safely concluded that many of the city’s residents are opposed to its presence in Forest Park and believe it doesn’t convey values that represent the community. That said, removal to a museum presents opportunities to educate Americans about the history of the Civil War while also potentially decreasing some of the political heat such a monument carries in a public space.

Not everyone will agree with me on these views, and that’s okay. We’ll see what happens from here.

Cheers

(Disclaimer: As with everything I post on Exploring the Past, the views I express are mine and mine alone. They do not represent my employer or anyone else but me).

 

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

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

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.