America’s A-La-Carte Relationship with Civil War History

In my last post I excerpted a Letter to the Editor in the August 4th, 1860 edition of the proslavery Missouri Republican from “Slaveholder.” The letter explained why voting for Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas for President was the only way for both the Union and slavery to continue peacefully in the United States. It was a fascinating plea against secession as a form of protecting enslaved property, and it highlighted the thoughts of many proslavery Missourians as the country spiraled towards war less than a year later.

In that very same issue of the Missouri Republican–on the front page, no less–the paper posted a comprehensive of listing of auctions and items for sale in St. Louis. And if you look closely enough, you’ll see a listing about a runaway slave and a couple listings from Bernard M. Lynch, the city’s most prosperous slave trader. One of those ads is for an enslaved boy “between ten and twelve years of age,” conveniently placed right next to ads for furnaces, steam engines, and other pieces of property.

I’ve been reading Historian Jelani Cobb’s essay on the four New Orleans Confederate monuments that have either come down or are slated to come down soon. I think we have to be careful about who we generalize as opposing the removal of these monuments and why they do so, but he makes the point that many protestors–some of which are making death threats against the city’s Mayor and/or using racist language and Confederate flags to intimidate the city’s African American population–are enamored with a glorified “a-la-carte relationship with history”:

the protesters who lined up to defend the monument wish to maintain an à-la-carte relationship with history. They have cloaked their defense of the monuments by presenting it as a recognition of the valor of the men who fought for the Confederate cause. But that excuse falls flat when recognizing, for instance, that there is no monument in New Orleans to the mass slave revolt that took place in 1811, when some two hundred men who had endured the brutality of bondage marched on the city, killing two white men and burning plantations as they went. This is not the version of valor recognized by the crowd before the Lee memorial, or those phoning in death threats to Landrieu’s office.

I feel like we have a tendency in the United States to glorify and valorize the nation’s soldiers, past and present, without assessing why they went to war in the first place. The exceptions to that theory are probably the Revolutionary War and World War II.

As long as we commemorate the Confederacy’s legacy purely in terms of its soldiers’ military service and frame the erection of Confederate monuments as an apolitical extension of that commemoration and nothing else, we will downplay the politics of why the Civil War occurred in the first place. And we will minimize the stories, experiences, and legacy of thousands of ten-year-old enslaved boys and girls who were sold out of slave pens in the Land of the Free while Lee and Beauregard marched to Dixie.

Cheers

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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:

A Letter to the Editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

Ronald C. White, Jr., a popular biographer who’s written several books about American Christianity and Abraham Lincoln, recently published a new biography of Ulysses S. Grant that’s been getting national attention. While I haven’t had the chance to read the book yet and admit that I’m skeptical as to how many new findings White will uncover in it, the book is getting a lot of buzz and will hopefully expose more people to Grant’s story.

My local newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, recently published its own review of White’s book by Harry Levins, a retired writer for the paper. The review itself was okay, although he screwed up a bit about Grant being inspired to protect Native Americans because of his experience in the Mexican-American War. I’m not really sure where Grant developed his views towards Indians, but they were more likely influenced by his time doing frontier duty in Washington Territory and California in the early 1850s and his friendship with Ely Parker when the two first met in Galena, Illinois, around 1860.

In any case, what was most irksome to me and a number of my co-workers was Levins’s mentioning of Grant’s Farm as a relevant site to visit in the St. Louis area while completely omitting any mention of us at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. I was encouraged by my supervisors to write a letter to the editor of the Post-Dispatch and it was published in today’s Sunday edition of the paper. Here it is:

***

In the book review (“A man of modesty, calmness,” Nov. 6) of author Ronald C. White Jr.’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Harry Levins remarks that the book would be a useful read for local residents who might be taking guests to Grant’s Farm, the famous animal park operated by Anheuser-Busch InBev since 1954.

While Grant’s Farm is a wonderful family-oriented attraction worth visiting, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, a 10-acre unit of the National Park Service that lies directly across the street from Grant’s Farm, is another family-oriented attraction that readers should take note of. The site is dedicated to preserving and interpreting the historic White Haven home where Grant’s wife, Julia, grew up and where Grant himself tried to make a living as a farmer in the 1850s.

The site also explores the lives of the enslaved people owned by Julia’s father, Frederick Dent, and the history of St. Louis in the years during the Civil War era. The site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Perhaps readers of White’s biography will also be inspired to visit this national historic site and learn more about Grant’s connections to St. Louis.

Cheers

The Pruitt Igoe Myth

The other night I had a chance to watch the above documentary, The Pruitt Igoe Myth, about a failed public housing complex in St. Louis. Pruitt Igoe was billed in the 1950s as an example of smart urban planning and a model for future cities dealing with housing crises. The complex quickly ran into a myriad of funding and maintenance issues, however, and the complex became so dangerous that St. Louis police officers sometimes refused to go into the area. Pruitt Igoe was torn down in 1972, and the area where the complex was located is littered with dilapidated trees and brush today.

The “myth” that the movie describes is the idea that Pruitt Igoe failed mostly because of the poor black residents who lived there. Instead, the movie argues that other factors such as structural racism, government subsidization of outlying suburbs (aka White Flight) in St. Louis county that drove away crucial tax revenues for the city, and political ineptitude within the St. Louis Housing Authority all contributed to an idealistic initiative that was arguably too expensive to financially sustain long-term. As one interviewee says in the film, “you can’t build yourself out of poverty.”

Even though I’ve been a St. Louis resident for most of my life, I learned a lot of new things about the city’s history from this film. There’s a nice mix of oral histories from former residents of the complex and historical analyses from urban historians. If you’re into St. Louis or urban history and have 90 minutes to spare, give it a watch.

Cheers

Saying Goodbye: The Politics of Franchise Relocation in the “New NFL” Era

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last week the National Football League decided the St. Louis Rams would now be the Los Angeles Rams. The talented scholars at Sport in American History let me put my sportswriter’s hat on and submit a piece for the site, which went live today. I wrote about my disappointment as a St. Louisian who loved Rams football and made the case that the Rams relocation to Los Angeles sets a bad precedent for future NFL relocation crises. Writing this essay was simultaneously sad and liberating. Check it out here and let me know what you think.

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

A Brief History of U.S. Grant’s Hardscrabble Log Cabin

We at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis are often asked about a log cabin that Grant built on his in-laws White Haven estate while living on the property from 1854-1859. The log cabin attracts much curiosity from visitors partly because it still stands today, but it has been moved several times and is not located on the remaining ten acres the National Park Service preserves at White Haven today. It is currently located across the street from ULSG at Grant’s Farm, an animal park attraction run by Anheuser-Busch InBev on property now owned by the Busch family. But how did it get there?

When Ulysses and Julia Grant married in 1848, Julia’s father, Frederick Dent, gave the newlywed couple roughly 80 acres of property on the northern boundary of his 850 acre White Haven estate. (St. Paul Churchyard now sits on this part of the original property and in 1946 the Daughters of The American Revolution placed a marker commemorating Grant’s presence there). When Grant resigned from the U.S. Army in 1854 and moved to the White Haven property to be with his wife and kids, he began farming fruit and vegetable crops on this land. The next year he also began constructing a log cabin for his family that would eventually turn into a four-room home. Julia Grant later recalled this experience in her Personal Memoirs:

[Ulysses] thought of a frame house, but my father most aggravatingly urged a log house, saying it would be warmer. So the great trees were felled and lay stripped of their boughs; then came the hewing which required much time and labor; then came the house-raising and a great luncheon. A neat frame house, I am sure, could have been put up in half the time and at less expense. We went to this house before it was finished and lived in it scarcely three months. It was so crude and so homely I did not like it at all, but I did not say so. I got out all my pretty covers, baskets, books, etc., and tried to make it look home-like and comfortable, but this was hard to do. The little house looked so unattractive that we facetiously decided to call it Hardscrabble. [78-79]

This short-lived experience at Hardscrabble ended when Julia’s mother Ellen died in January 1857 and Frederick Dent asked the Grants to move back into White Haven, the main home on the property.

Hardscrabble remained on the White Haven property for a number of years after the Grants had lived there, but it was eventually moved to the nearby town of Webster Groves, where a real estate company conducted its business out of the home. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, Hardscrabble had fallen into disrepair. Cyrus F. Blanke, a coffee salesman eager to save the home and attract interest in his business, purchased Hardscrabble for $8,000 and moved it piece-by-piece to Forest Park in downtown St. Louis in preparation for the 1904 World’s Fair. They placed the home just east of where the St. Louis Art Museum is located today, and there the Blanke Coffee Company sold coffee to fair-goers and proudly celebrated Grant’s connection to the place.

The Hardscrabble Log Cabin circa 1890. Photo Credit: Library of Congress
The Hardscrabble Log Cabin circa 1890. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Following the World’s Fair questions once again emerged about the log cabin’s future as the Blankes expressed no interest in maintaining or moving the home. For several years it remained in Forest Park until the Busch family purchased it in 1907 and moved it to its current location. The roughly 250 acres of land where the animal park is located was originally part of the White Haven estate when the Dents and Grants owned it, but the Busch family purchased it from a later owner in 1903, four years before adding Hardscrabble to the property. This Busch property initially functioned as a home and hunting ground for the family, but in 1954 “Auggie” Busch opened “Grant’s Farm” to the public to showcase his exotic animals, offer free Budweiser beer, and give tours of Grant’s Hardscrabble cabin. This operation continues today, but unfortunately the site stopped offering tours of Hardscrabble about twenty-five years ago, so it remains quietly on display near the intersection of Grant and Gravois roads.

The Hardscrabble Log Cabin as seen today at Grant's Farm. Photo Credit: National Park Service, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
The Hardscrabble Log Cabin as seen today at Grant’s Farm. Photo Credit: National Park Service, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

Major changes now appear to be coming to Grant’s Farm, however. Six of Auggie Busch’s children collectively own the property, and it was announced last week that four of the children have agreed to sell the property to the St. Louis Zoo. The zoo proposes to continue the current operation but also add a breeding ground for endangered species, a night zoo for nocturnal animals, rope courses and zip lines, and upgraded facilities. This plan is contingent upon taxpayer support of Grant’s Farm (which is currently funded through A-B InBev) and a judge’s order backing the four Busch children seeking to release the land from the family’s trust. But the situation is even more complex because one of the sons, Billy Busch, wants to keep the land in family hands and build a Kräftig Beer Brewery on the site, a plan his brother Adolphus supports. What happens next will have to be determined in court in early 2016.

Lost in all of this current conversation, however, is what might happen to U.S. Grant’s Hardscrabble log cabin. Neither the zoo or Billy Busch have commented on what they’d do with the home. Will it stay in its current location? Could it be open for interpretive tours again? Is there a chance it could be transferred to the National Park Service and moved across the street to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site? I have no idea what might happen, but it will be interesting to see what develops from here. I would love to see the house opened again for tours, whether that be at its current site or moved over to ULSG.

UPDATE: The St. Louis Zoo withdrew their offer to purchase Grant’s Farm from the Busch family in March 2016.

Cheers