A Missouri Slaveholder Predicts the American Civil War

I am currently doing research for a journal article on Missouri politics before the Civil War (more info on that is forthcoming) and came across this remarkable Letter to the Editor in the Daily Missouri Republican, which was actually the most popular Democratic newspaper in St. Louis. It would be really useful as a primary source in a classroom setting. The letter, written by “Slaveholder” and published on August 4, 1860, is a remarkable document for three different reasons:

  1. It demonstrates that the leading issue on the minds of Missourians leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War was the status of slavery, particularly its westward expansion into new federal territories. Just about every day in the newspapers slavery was the main topic of concern in the 1850s and early 1860s.
  2. It captures the concerns of proslavery border state residents who feared the election of Southern Democrat John C. Breckenridge as much as Republican Abraham Lincoln.
  3. In many respects it correctly predicts the consequences of the Civil War for Missouri. The state would experience the third most number of battles during the war (behind Virginia and Tennessee) and slavery would be abolished by the state legislature in January 1865, less than five years after this letter was written.

Here is an excerpt of the letter:


In Support of Academic Historical Scholarship That is Clear and Concise

A few months ago a friend of mine gave me a copy of Suhi Choi’s recent book about the Korean War and how it has been remembered in both the United States and (South) Korea. Choi, a communications professor at the University of Utah, employs public history techniques throughout the book to analyze oral histories she conducted with victims of the No Gun Ri massacre, media accounts of the massacre, and various monuments that have been erected in both countries to commemorate the war as a whole. I enjoyed reading the book for its content and arguments, but what I enjoyed the most was its brevity. Clocking in at 115 pages of main text and five chapters, the book was a quick read (with the exception of some jargon-y passages throughout) yet thoroughly researched and intellectually stimulating. The book’s shortness reminded me of the Southern Illinois University Press “Concise Lincoln Library” series that has published numerous short studies on various aspects of Abraham Lincoln’s life that are typically between 100 and 150 pages long.

While I acknowledge that different historical topics require studies of varying length and depth (I currently have one book on my nightstand that is more than 800 pages long), I find myself increasingly supportive of the idea that academic histories, generally speaking, should be shorter and more concise than what they typically are now. I am no expert on publishing books with an academic press, but I’ve been told by those who’ve been through the process that they normally don’t accept anything less than 75,000 words, or roughly 250 to 300 pages. That makes sense because most PhD dissertations end up being about that length, but I think there should be some sort of system in place to encourage and publish more scholarship that would be more appropriately covered in a study between 100 and 150 pages.

As a scholar who regularly reads books from academic publishers, I crave the analysis, interpretation, and detailed research that such books offer to their readers. As a reader, however, I am more likely to go back to a short book and read it again in the future, whereas with a longer book I feel less inclined to read it in full or go back to read it a second time. It’s important for me to read as many print books as possible to get a more comprehensive understanding of historical topics that fascinate me, but the presence of thoughtful online essays and history blogs has changed how I read and reduced the amount of time I dedicate to reading full-length print books. I admit that nowadays page length plays an extremely important role in determining what I read next. 150 pages is more often compelling to me than 500 pages.


A Parting Gift From General Grant

Frederick Tracy Dent (1820-1892). Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Frederick Tracy Dent (1820-1892). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Yesterday my friend and colleague Bob Pollock and I took a trip to Southern Illinois University Carbondale to conduct research on the papers of Frederick Tracy Dent, the brother-in-law of General and President Ulysses S. Grant. Bob is currently researching the Dent family and has been writing extensively about this research on his blog Yesterday…and Today. We didn’t really find any documents within the collection to help answer our questions about the Dent family, but we nonetheless found some really interesting material, including letters from Grant, William T. Sherman, James Longstreet, and Frederick T. Dent himself. Bob discussed some of our findings here.

Frederick T. Dent was born on December 17, 1820, in St. Louis, Missouri, and grew up at the White Haven estate that is now the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. He attended the West Point Military Academy and was a graduate of the class of 1843. During his time at West Point Dent befriended and was roommates with Ulysses S. Grant, a fellow 1843 graduate. When Grant was sent with the 4th U.S. Infantry to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis following graduation, Fred invited him to meet the rest of his family at White Haven. Ulysses met Fred’s sister Julia at White Haven in the Spring of 1844, and it was here where Ulysses and Julia fell in love and began a four-year courtship. Their wedding took place in downtown St. Louis in August 1848 and the marriage lasted thirty-seven years.

Fred had a stellar forty-year career in the U.S. military. He served in the Western frontier and the Mexican-American War during the antebellum years. When the Civil War broke out in 1861 he stayed with the United States military and started the war out west. Following Grant’s promotion to Lieutenant-General in March 1864, Dent was appointed an aide-de-camp on Grant’s staff. Following the war he was promoted to Brigadier General of the U.S. Army in 1866, and he served as a “military secretary” for Grant during most of his Presidency (1869-1873). If you wanted to meet with President Grant, you had to go through Fred first (this fact became evident yesterday as we sifted through numerous letters from people seeking Fred’s assistance in securing an interview with Grant). Fred retired from the U.S. military in 1883 and later moved to Denver, Colorado, where he died in 1892.

In the course of our research we stumbled upon a touching letter written by Frederick Dent Grant to Frederick T. Dent in March 1886. Fred Grant was Ulysses and Julia Grant’s oldest child and Fred Dent’s namesake. Ulysses had died on July 23, 1885, exactly eight months prior to this letter, and Fred Grant had an important message for his uncle:

New York
March 23d 1886

Dear Uncle Fred,

Just before my beloved father died he gave some instructions about what he would like done. Among these wishes was one about you. He said he wanted to send you a little present in memory of old and happy days. That he had grown very fond of you, and that if Mother could spare it he would like her to send you $500[,] which I now enclose to you with her love.

Mother says if you and Aunt Helen can come she would like you to pay her a visit. All join in love for you and yours[.]


Your Nephew
Fred Grant

Ulysses S. Grant never forgot the assistance, kindness, and companionship his brother-in-law provided him throughout a more than forty-year friendship. Through this relationship we can see the generous character of both men.


Does Digital Technology Encourage Data Democratization?

big-dataA recent classroom discussion regarding digital technology–more specifically, who has access to this technology–has been lurking in my head over the past 24 hours. Here’s why.

My interactions with digital technology during my time in high school (2002-2006) were fairly unremarkable for someone who was raised in Midwest Suburban-town, USA. There was no such thing as a SMARTboard and, with regards to my Social Studies classes, we never utilized digital technology in any capacity whatsoever. All tests were done on paper and all educational material came in the form of big, bulky textbooks written circa 1995. Yet my school did have a computer lab (which was greatly utilized by the science teachers, but hardly anyone else, which is telling) and I was encouraged at home to use computers, the internet, and all digital technology to my advantage.

It was interesting hearing some of my classmates share their experiences during high school, which were not the same as mine. One person remarked that they went to a fairly affluent high school that will be completely eliminating paper textbooks and giving all of their students iPads next year. Conversely, another person told us they went to a rural high school that had next to nothing in terms of technology and history textbooks that were written in the 1960s. Considering that we’ve all graduated from high school within the past seven or so years, I would surmise that this digital divide remains a fixture in our educational landscape today.

To be sure, digital technology has provided the impetus for some remarkable efforts to democratize data, by which I mean the ability for all people in society to have access to voluminous collections of data (books, articles, graphs, and perhaps most importantly, information). In their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig point out on page 4 that:

Online accessibility means, moreover, that the documentary record of the past is open to people who rarely had entree before. The analog Library of Congress has never welcomed high school students–its reading rooms, no less its special collections, routinely turn them away. Now the library’s American Memory website allows high school students to enter the virtual archives on the same terms of access as the most most senior historian or member of Congress.

This is great and truly exciting for those of us who have grown tired of solely relying on a bland, passive textbook to guide our lesson plans in the classroom (although I think the textbook itself should still be used, albeit in a different role). Yet I feel that my ongoing discussions with students and teachers around the country suggest that perhaps digital technology is widening the gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The schools that had the money years ago had the nicest classrooms and the newest textbooks. We are now seeing today that the schools with money are the first ones to get SMARTboards, iPads, and easy access to these online resources. Meanwhile, the poor schools continue to rely on old textbooks from the 1960s and are lacking funds to buy digital technology now or in the foreseeable future. Thus, as we increasingly rely on digital technology as an integral part of our lives, those who grow up without access to or education in these technologies end up being thrown into a workforce in which their skills fail to match those desired by employers in all types of fields. Furthermore, it doesn’t help when websites with valuable research and information put up paywalls that restrict access to a limited number of “paying customers” who can afford the frequently excessive fees these sites charge.

This discussion on the digital divide is particularly relevant right now. Several states are considering the possibility of dropping the General Education Development (GED) exam amidst great changes in the test format and cost. The creators of the GED want to remove the pencil and paper aspect of the test and go completely digital. The cost of the test will be doubled in many states to $120, and in Missouri the test will cost $140. The President and CEO of the GED Testing Service has rationalized this by stating that, “the GED was in dangerous position of no longer being a reflection of what high schools were graduating,” which is true to a certain extent. Yet an employee of the Missouri Career Center aptly summarized the challenges of digitization by replying that for many GED students, “Transportation is a challenge. Eating is a challenge. For them, coming up with $140 for an assessment, it’s basically telling them, ‘Forget about ever getting this part of your life complete.'”

I’ve been reminded this semester that we must look at books as a technology as well. I don’t know a lot about the history the book, but I can imagine that many hours of study have gone into questioning whether or not the advent of the book and the Gutenberg press in the 15th century has contributed to a democratization of access to data and information throughout history. We’re having that same discussion with digital technology now, and there are no easy answers. More than anything, I’ve been taught to study and understand the power interests behind the creators of digital technology. Textbook companies have adopted digitization and are now creating textbooks for iPads, but these companies can now charge exorbitant fees every year to the schools that buy this software, rather than having the schools buy paper textbooks every five or ten years. Likewise, companies that created standardized tests for our students have a financial interest in going paperless and offering their tests on computers exclusively, which leads to increased costs and jobs for people with computer and programming skills, which are often filled by people who had access to computers when they were younger.

Who, if anyone, loses out in this process? Are we actually using digital technology as a tool for democratization, or is the opposite actually occurring?

Check out the full post at the IUPUI Digital History Blog!

Digital Public History

Researchers interested in British law have greatly benefitted from the digitization of the Old Bailey Proceedings, 1674-1913. This collection of court cases from London’s central court is one of the strongest digital repositories in existence and holds the potential to advance the user’s experience in many ways, whether helping them to ask new questions about the history of British law, conduct genealogical research, or–thanks to Old Bailey’s open access to its encoding practices–help educate a person looking to create web code for their own website. With a collection of 197,000 trials composed of roughly 120-127 million words, the Old Bailey Proceedings are one of several new digital projects that have attempted to make the process of conducting textual and quantitative analysis easier for all types of researchers.[1] In this essay, I will attempt to address some of the advantages and disadvantages of conducting textual and quantitative analysis online.

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We Destroy a Part of Our History Every Day

I spent the majority of today conducting research at the Indiana State Archives for my thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic. It did not go as well as planned. I was particularly interested in studying the letter books of the Department of Indiana’s Assistant Adjutant General, of which there are 25 volumes from 1895-1918 at the archives. The Assistant Adjutant General was the right hand man of the Department Commander, the person in charge of the entire state GAR. He was sort of like a press secretary for a top executive today. I went through the collection from 1895-1900, and let me tell you, these puppies are thick. Each volume was between 900-1000 pages and covered the AAG’s correspondence over a 6-9 month period, roughly. The AAG at this time, R.M. Smock, was most definitely a man of letters and very passionate about his job.

I was hoping to use this collection to gain a better insight into the views and ideas of the GAR as a whole. I wanted it to be passionate and personal. However, most of the letters are purely bureaucratic in nature: writing local posts reminding them of bills due to department headquarters, helping to organize new posts into the order, making preparations for the state and national encampments, answering questions about the proper rituals of the GAR, etc. Several people wrote to the AAG looking for friends and loved ones who may have been in the organization. A lady named Ida C. Patterson from Honolulu, Hawaii, mailed the AAG asking him to look for one William Eaton, who was supposedly living in Indianapolis in 1898. The AAG responded on March 18 by stating, “I do not know where such a party lives. I have examined the roster of the Indiana soldiers at the Buffalo [National] Encampment and do not find his name in the list.” If I were writing a thesis on the GAR’s organizational structure or the migration of GAR veterans (and their loved ones) to the West, such a letter might elicit a stronger interest from me, but I’m pretty sure 95 percent of the AAG’s letters will be of little use to me, which means that I will unfortunately need to continue going through the letters up until 1918 for that 5 percent that could benefit the project.

Another disappointing realization made today was that some of the AAG’s letters–regardless of their content–have been permanently destroyed. The typeset ink used for these letter books has faded so badly that they are now unreadable to us today, leaving us in a sense of bewilderment as to what these letters may have contained. None of this material has been digitized, just like most of the archival material in repositories around the world. Even a prominent institution like the Smithsonian is fighting just get 10 percent of their collections online. Clearly, historians are in a race against time to preserve the documents in their archival institutions.

See if you can read this AAG letter from 1895 (click to expand):

GAR AAG Letter - Illegible

Thankfully, most of the AAG letters I’ve seen so far look more like this one (a letter not from the AAG but from Dept. Cmdr. James S. Dodge to A.S. McCormick, Commander for John A. Logan Post 3 in Lafayette, Indiana) and reads as follows:

Replying to your esteemed favor of the 25th inst. in reference to the propriety of allowing the pictures of Generals Lee and Longstreet in the Grand Army Post hall, permit me to congratulate you on the stand you have taken in this matter, and you should not, no difference what pressure may be brought to bear on you, waver in the least in carrying out your good resolutions. I can readily understand why a camp of confederate veterans might order the pictures of Lincoln, Grant, Thomas, Sherman, Logan and other heroes of the Union war hang in their meeting place, but it is beyond my comprehension how any person who loves his country and the Union for which he fought can want to hang the picture of a rebel General in such a place.

GAR AAG Letter - legible

This was my favorite letter of the day and I think it has real potential to be included somewhere in the thesis. I’ll comment on it further in another post, but for now I want to focus on the first, illegible letter. Such letters are being lost to historians on a daily basis. The ravages of time are wiping out these documents, but there are also institutional challenges to be considered. Many archival repositories are struggling financially yet receiving large collections from donors. As time, money, and space decrease in quantity, archivists are forced to destroy many objects no longer deemed important. In his article “The Archive(s) is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists, and the Changing Archival Landscape,” published in the The Canadian Historical Review in September 2009, Archivist Terry Cook has suggested that only “1 to 5 per cent of the total available documentation of major institutions is preserved.” When I first read that, it shocked me. That means 95-99% of archival documents are destroyed by major archival institutions. Wow. It is actually a surprise that these AAG letters still exist today.

My experience today reminded me of Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1987 essay, “The Historian is Both Discoverer and Creator.” Boorstin reminds us of a harsh truth in history-making. “Historians,” remarks Boorstin, “can rediscover the past only by the relics it has left for the present… My life as a historian has brought me vivid reminders of how partial is the remaining evidence of the whole human past, how casual and how accidental is the survival of its relics.”

Yet Boorstin ends on a high note: “The historian-creator refuses to be defeated by the biases of survival. For he chooses, defines and shapes his subject to provide a reasonably truthful account from miscellaneous remains.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. If I can use these documents to tell a reasonably truthful story about the GAR in Indiana, I will be satisfied. It won’t be definitive or beyond criticism, but it will hopefully start a conversation about an important organization in the history of Indiana and the entire United States.

To be continued…

What Does it Mean to Have “Museumness?”

For my Digital History class last week I was assigned a reading by Angeliki Antoniou, George Lepouras, and Costas Vassilakis entitled “A methodology for the design of online exhibitions.” Generally speaking, the authors have a lot of good ideas for museum exhibit designers, and the article is solid. They correctly point out that when creating a museum exhibit–whether physical or virtual–designers must take into account the audience they want to cater their content to. Within the minds of a museum audience lies a collection of competing desires for learning, entertainment, and socialization from exhibits. These needs drive an audience’s purpose for attending a museum in the first place, and I get the impression from this article that the implementation of digital technology into a museum’s exhibits has brought a sharper focus to the question of how a museum meets the needs of its audience. Whereas museums of the late 19th and early 20th century could often put a large collection of artifacts on display along with a descriptive label to fulfill the museum “experience” (making personal discoveries about the past), modern museum exhibit designers understand that their audiences often seek connections to artifacts through digital technology. Audiences have expectations about what they want to learn and how they want to see information, and finding that correct balance between tangible and virtual must always be on the designer’s mind. Furthermore, designers understand that digital technology has the potential to enhance or harm the quality of their exhibits, depending on how that technology is used.

The authors also attempt to create specific exhibit design methodologies for different types of museums (Zoos, Archaeological, Art, Science, History, etc.). They correctly argue that visitors’ perceptions and expectations of a museum are largely dependent on the type of museum they visit, and that these perceptions will determine whether learning, entertainment, or socialization will be the primary focus of a museum’s physical and digital exhibits. In order to differentiate these museum types, the authors utilize the term museumness in their discussion:

The term museumness is introduced in order to describe visitors’ perceptions on a certain physical or virtual space and whether this space forms a typical museum or not. Museumness does not form a yes or no category; rather it suggests a continuum that different museum types can have higher or lower scores. For example, visitors might consider both an archaeological museum and an art gallery as museums, but of different degree of museumness, since the former collects all the stereotypical characteristics that form the notions of museums and the latter contains fewer of those characteristics.

And now I’m lost.

I understand that there are different types of museums that exist, but what’s the point of giving them higher or lower “scores?” It appears to me that the authors are being contradictory in suggesting that a “typical museum with stereotypical characteristics” even exists while arguing that there are many different types of museums. It is also rather presumptuous to suggest that museums are some sort of static entity that never changes over time. When we speak of “typical museums” and “stereotypical characteristics,” what time period are we referring to? What was the “typical museum” to an average visitor in the 20th Century and what does it mean to us today? What are the “stereotypical characteristics” of a museum, especially when acknowledging the wide diversity of museums that exist? What are the “stereotypes” that visitors hold about museums, and how accurate are those stereotypes in actuality? How can an archaeological museum have a higher degree of “museumness” than an art museum, and why is such a distinction necessary? How can such a point be qualified, quantified, or verified? If, say, a zoo’s primary mission is to entertain, rather than educate, does that somehow make it less of a museum than an art museum? Haven’t museums always sought to entertain their audiences to some degree? Does entertainment somehow cheapen the museum experience?

I could go on, but I digress. In sum, we’ve been given a new term without having it properly defined and explained to us. I have no idea what these people are trying to argue or why I should add the word “museumness” to my lexicon. Again, I understand that different museums have different audiences and different needs that should be filled by the exhibits created by a specific museum, but I don’t know how ranking these museums based on a high or low “museumness” scoresheet helps me accomplish that goal. This article helps us think of ways in which we can create more effective museum exhibits physically and online, but the authors do a poor job of defining the key terms used in their argument, which compromises the overall quality of their essay, in my estimation. If you’re going to use new, revisionist terms in your argument, you must make every effort to define, explain, and clarify to your audience what exactly you’re trying to say.

Perhaps I am missing something here. Any feedback is appreciated.