Although I wrote this essay about Ulysses S. Grant and public monuments two years ago, I recently received an interesting comment in response to that essay. The comment asked about the usefulness of monuments and statues as tools to promote civil religion and whether I felt they could still serve that purpose. I wanted to share the original comment and my response here.
First, I understand we don’t need statues to document accurate history and that instead monuments are about popular memory. But do you think monuments of heroes meant to inspire veneration as part of America’s civil religion — which helps a diverse society cohere around a shared story — are not necessary or helpful?
Second, as to Grant specifically, do you feel that critics (today, it’s racial justice activists; in the past, it was Lost Causers) are missing a sense of proportion and context? If we weigh:
a) In his personal life, Grant’s benefitted directly from one enslaved person of his own for about a year and indirectly from 30 enslaved held by the Dent family over a couple decades, against
b) In his public life, Grant won the Civil War that permanently ended 250 years of slavery in our part of North America and enabled 4 million people and their descendants to enjoy freedom (imperfect though it be)
Does a fair sense of proportion help us re-orient the discussion towards Grant’s real significance to American and world history?
Here is how I responded:
To your first question, I do admit that I take a skeptical view of the use of statues and monuments within the context of civil religion. My primary concerns are that they promote the worship of false idols and overly simplify the complexities of history. Put differently, I get worried about histories that are flattened in the name of unquestioned patriotism, nationalism, and the glorification of the nation-state. While I think there are many admirable people from the past that we can learn from, I think the language of “heroes” and “veneration” runs the risk of creating division within the diverse groups you speak of. After all, veneration is quite literally the act of honoring a saint. Therefore, within the context of civil religion, if certain individuals or groups do not properly “venerate” historical figures deemed as important to society through monumentation, they are considered unpatriotic, not real Americans, politically radical, etc. etc. So yes, I question the very premise that statues can help diverse societies cohere around a shared understanding of the past.
I am personally interested in Jurgen Habermas’s ideas around “constitutional patriotism,” or the notion that societies work to develop a respect and appreciation for civic ideals central to a republican form of government: freedom, liberty, civil rights, democracy, checks and balances, and the rule of law, etc. rather than the veneration of specific individuals from history. Individuals can help students of history appreciate these civic ideals in action, but I think there are more appropriate methods for achieving these ends, most notably the use of primary sources and facilitated dialogue between historians, educators, and students.
To your second question, I don’t know if I have a great answer to offer. I would begin by saying that it is definitely important for us to study individuals personal lives so that we can see what factors shaped their future actions and beliefs. It is very significant to Ulysses S. Grant’s story to understand the context of his interactions with slavery in the 1850s. At the same time, it is obviously true that those actions alone cannot define Grant’s entire legacy. In fact, those connections to slavery actually help us better appreciate how far he evolved in supporting civil rights as president in the 1870s. All of these factors live together in tension when studying Grant’s life, and professional historians are far from unified in their interpretations of Grant’s “real significance” to history. So it’s no surprise to me that society at large has a very conflicted attitude towards Grant’s significance. As a historian, all I can hope for is that all people make a genuine effort to appreciate context, complexity, and nuance when studying the past.
To briefly expand my original response, I wasn’t really sure how to address the “racial justice activists vs. Lost Causers” dichotomy. For one, there are plenty of Lost Causers still around today – they have not been removed to the dustbin of history and you only need to get onto social media for about five minutes to see Lost Cause-ism in action. One of the challenges in ascribing a motive for tearing down Grant’s statue in San Francisco is that we still don’t know who did it or what the motivation was for doing it. Was it taken down for racial justice? Was it because of Grant’s slaveholding past or his Indian policies or something else entirely? Do all that many people outside of history even know that Grant enslaved a man? I don’t really know. Within the context of the summer of 2020, I think Grant simply became a symbol of governmental power that was targeted because of that symbolism and not necessarily because of his legacy or “real significance” to American history. That no other statues or monuments of Grant have come down since then suggests it really was about the politics of 2020.
A friend shared the following quote from the late author Michael Crichton in his book Prey. It’s been rattling around in my head since I saw it.
“We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. We never seem to acknowledge that we have been wrong in the past, and so might be wrong in the future. Instead, each generation writes off earlier errors as a result of bad thinking by less able minds—and then confidently embarks on fresh errors of its own.”
I have mixed feelings about this sentiment.
Of course, without having read the book I don’t know the context in which Crichton uses the term “we.” Putting that aside, I think the quote speaks to the value of studying history while at the same time going too far in trying to make history a tool to solve future social problems.
On the one hand, Crichton argues that societies fail to acknowledge mistakes from the past, but then follows by saying that each generation does acknowledge past mistakes but is too quick to dismiss those mistakes as “bad thinking by less able minds.” It would be very easy to find examples of both in action. All too often, the way history is taught to young people in a formal education setting is a form of what the late James Loewen described as “chronological ethnocentrism.” Put simply, the past is left in the past. Chronological ethnocentrism “lets [history textbook authors] sequester bad things, from racism and robber barons, in the distant past,” Loewen argues. “Unfortunately for students, it also makes history impossibly dull, because we all ‘know’ everything turned out for the best. It also makes history irrelevant, because it separates what we might learn about, say, racism or the robber barons in the past from issues of the here and now.”
Another point not always acknowledged is that it isn’t so much that people from the past were less intelligent than people in the present. It’s that they did not have access to the same tools, technology, and information that people in the present have.
On the other hand, Crichton seems to imply that each generation ends up making “fresh errors” because of historical ignorance, and that by extension a strong sense of historical literacy will help those generations avoid making the same or new mistakes in the future. In other words, it’s a return to the old quote from George Santayana about those being ignorant of the past being doomed to repeat it.
To me, this part of Crichton’s point oversells the value of history.
The reality is that new mistakes will be made regardless of an individual or society’s collective historical knowledge. There will always be new mistakes because unprecedented circumstances, contingencies, and surprises will emerge that history cannot provide an answer for. A specific outcome from a particular historical event does not mean that the same outcome will emerge in a similar future event. To cite but one example, the 1918 influenza pandemic did not prevent another pandemic from emerging a little over 100 years, nor did it provide a solution for reducing sickness and death in this current plague. History alone cannot save us.
Growing up, I got into history for two different reasons. One is that history is simply interesting to me on its own terms. Regardless of what artifacts, documents, or books might have to say about the present, they hold a power in their own right for what they can say about the time period in which they were created. Secondly, I was interested in understanding how present day society arrived at its current social, political, and economic situation. But I don’t know if I ever got into history because I believed it provided a blueprint for the future. I don’t think it can.
There’s a lot of value in studying past case studies to see what worked and what didn’t; to be inspired by good acts while being aware of bad ones; to do our best to avoid the mistakes of the past. But when it comes to predicting the future . . . I’ll leave that to the meteorologists, social scientists, and data analysists.
Robert E. Lee has had a rough couple years on the commemorative landscape front. His statue in New Orleans was removed in 2017, his statue in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol was removed last year, and his statue in Richmond, Virginia was removed a few days ago. While Lee’s legacy is still celebrated by a large number of Americans, it is clear that his presence within the nation’s public commemoration of the American Civil War through monuments, memorials, and statues is changing. A majority of residents within these local communities have expressed their values through activism and voting and have declared that Lee is no longer worthy of the public commemoration that he has enjoyed for more than 100 years. As our understanding of the past is constantly revised as new evidence comes to life and new interpretations are offered by historians, so too are public icons revised as new understandings of the past emerge.
There are plenty of debates to be had about the merits of Lee’s statues on historical and aesthetic grounds and the process by which these three icons were ordered to be removed through government orders. I am not interested in rehashing those debates here, but the above tweet from David Reaboi of the Claremont Institute did raise my eyebrows for what it had to say about who could participate in debates about Confederate iconography. As can be seen, Reaboi is perplexed by people who have taken a strong view of Confederate iconography but whose families have no direct connection to the Civil War since their families immigrated to the United States after the war. Reaboi labels these people (of which I’m assuming he means people opposed to Lee’s statues) as “self-righteous” and the entire idea of their participation in these debates “gross.”
I find these comments to be troubling, possibly nativist, and “gross” for a number of reasons.
On the most basic level, these comments fly in the face of inclusive commentaries about the place of immigrants and their progeny in American society. Lofty rhetoric about the United States as “A Nation of Immigrants” and legal protections in the 14th Amendment guaranteeing birthright and naturalized citizenship aim to abolish legal and cultural hierarchies between native and foreign-born citizens. In other words, once you are a citizen of the United States, it no longer matters whether you are a lifelong citizen or a citizen who became naturalized today. All citizens have the same legal protections to participate freely in American society and a right to help shape the country’s future. That would also mean the right to participate in what history is commemorated in the public square in the future, contrary to what Reaboi states.
One might also point out that a deep ancestral connection to the United States should not be fetishized. After all, there are plenty of native-born Americans with a very poor understanding of U.S. history and many foreign-born people with a strong understanding of U.S. history. It’s worth remembering, of course, that U.S. history plays an important role in the country’s naturalization test, a test that many native-born citizens would struggle with! Moreover, just because a person is descended from Robert E. Lee does not make them an expert on the American Civil War, nor does it give them an elevated voice on what should be done about Lee’s statue today. An understanding of history does not develop from genetics or through osmosis, but by use of historical methods, research, and interpretation. To say one U.S. citizen’s opinion on the Lee statue is more valid than another’s because of their ancestral origins is preposterous. What difference does it make if my ancestors came to the United States in 1826, 1866, or 2016 if I’ve studied the Civil War and have views about its history?
It is also worth mentioning that Reaboi fails to grapple with the idea that people whose descendants were here long before the American Civil War might also have a negative opinion of Confederate iconography. After all, some of the most vocal opponents of Lee’s statues are the descendants of African Americans, Native Americans, White Americans, and others who have a long ancestral history of living in the United States. The notion that the loudest “self-righteous” critics of Lee’s statues have no familial connections to the Civil War is therefore a strawman in no way rooted in the reality of the situation.
All of this is to say that NO, you do not have to have an ancestor who experienced the American Civil War firsthand in order to form an opinion on Robert E. Lee’s statue. In the end, it’s about the quality of the arguments being made and the evidence used to support those arguments. If you have a compelling argument to make, your ancestral background shouldn’t matter. Focus on the game, not the players.
Finally, I should also mention that Reaboi continued his opinions in another tweet by criticizing “our modern desire to see history as a simple morality play between forces of Progress and Evil.” The irony of this view is that public iconography is often guilty of doing this very thing by reducing complex history to a narrative of national progress and unquestioned hero worship through statuary. And since many Civil War monuments and statues were erected in the late 19th century and early 20th century, we can see that the desire to turn history into a simple morality play of progress and evil is not modern at all. These monuments and statues are actually reflective of a longstanding tradition of using history to promote nationalism, patriotism, and a “consensus” view of history. Many critics of public iconography like Robert E. Lee’s statues have grounded their criticisms on the idea that society needs to ask serious questions not just about history, but how and why we honor certain historical figures and events through public icons. Seen in this light, these critics are actually asking society to take history more seriously.
P.S… Just in case anyone is wondering about my own family connections to American history, I do have a Civil War ancestor. My great-great uncle Charles Brady served in the 49th Missouri Infantry Regiment (Union) during the war.
Former First Lady Julia Dent Grant was very forthright about her relationship with slavery in The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant. Having grown up at the 850-acre White Haven plantation in the St. Louis countryside with upwards of thirty enslaved African Americans at one point, Julia was taught from a very young age that slavery was a “positive good” that established a stable, appropriate relationship between Black and White Southerners. Slavery was central to her own privileged upbringing by ensuring that she had no chores to do at home and that time could be spent enjoying the niceties of friends, family, entertainment, and a formal education while the enslaved did the work of making this ideal upbringing possible. Julia Grant sincerely believed that “our people were very happy” with this lifestyle and even went so far as to lament that “the comforts of slavery passed away forever” with the coming of emancipation during the American Civil War (34).
As I previously wrote several years ago, the evidence suggests that Julia Grant never legally owned any enslaved African Americans. She was, however, informally “gifted” four enslaved people from her father, Frederick F. Dent, that served at her pleasure. In fact, Dan, Eliza, Julia, and John actually served Ulysses and Julia Grant and their entire family while they lived at White Haven from 1854 to 1859 and during their brief stay in downtown St. Louis from 1859 to early 1860. According to Julia, when the Grants decided to move to Galena, Illinois, “we rented our pretty little home [in St. Louis] and hired out our four servants to persons whom we knew and who promised to be kind to them” (82). An additional letter from Ulysses S. Grant on May 10, 1861 confirms that when Dan, Eliza, Julia, and John were hired out, the income generated from the arrangement went to Frederick F. Dent, not Julia, pointing to him as the legal owner of these people.
For the purposes of this post I’m interested in exploring how the enslaved woman Julia, sometimes referred to as “Jule,” achieved her freedom. In November 1861, Julia Grant came back to St. Louis from Galena, Illinois, to visit her father at White Haven. While there, Julia somehow regained possession of Jule and took her away from White Haven. “When I visited the General during the war, I nearly always had Julia with me as nurse,” Julia Grant recalled (83). Remarkably, Julia maintained possession of Jule for a little over two years until January 1864, one year after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
During this time, Julia Grant discovered that her eldest son, Frederick D. Grant, was deathly ill back in St. Louis. Anxious to get back to him, Julia prepared her things and took Jule with her to St. Louis, until this moment happened during the trip:
“At Louisville [Kentucky], my nurse (a girl raised at my home) left me, as I suppose she feared losing her freedom if she returned to Missouri. I regretted this as she was a favorite of mine.”
The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant, p. 126
The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to Missouri, so at first glance it does not make much sense why Jule would be concerned about losing her freedom if she didn’t have it in the first place. A closer look, however, indicates that Julia Grant and Jule were at General Grant’s headquarters at Holly Springs, Mississippi, on January 1, 1863. Technically speaking, the Emancipation Proclamation would have made Jule a free woman since she was in Confederate territory at that time. Therefore, when Julia Grant made plans to return to a state where slavery still existed in 1864, Jule decided to flee when the opportunity arose.
This story raises some interesting questions about the meaning of “freedom.” Even if Jule was legally freed through the Emancipation Proclamation, did she truly acquire any new rights that day? Did she now possess a right to leave Julia Grant’s “employ” at will? Did she begin to earn wages for her labors, or did she continue to toil in much the same way as she always had in slavery? If Jule was now free, was she truly free so long as she remained alongside Julia Grant?
The wording of Julia’s recollections suggests that Jule considered herself a free person in January 1864 and that returning to Missouri threatened her freedom. Conversely, the passage also suggests that Julia Grant still viewed Jule as “hers.” The sight of an African American woman raised at White Haven leaving her was a moment of profound sadness for Julia Grant, something that remained on her mind more than thirty years later. In any case, the question of whether Jule was freed in 1863 or 1864 should not distract us from the fact that ultimately she took matters into her own hands and seized freedom on her own terms by leaving Julia Grant in 1864.
When the horrible pandemic of 2020 required me to telework from home for three months and halted some of my favorite hobbies outside the home, there was a part of me that wanted to renew my presence on this blog. Why not take some of my newfound free time to write more essays about my historical interests? Instead, I didn’t write a single post between February and September. Equally important, I can’t help but notice that since maybe 2017 or 2018 there has been a significant decline in blogging by historians more broadly. Al Mackey’s still chugging away at Student of the Civil War and Pat Young’s doing his thing at The Reconstruction Era Blog, but many other noteworthy names have moved on. What gives?
With regards to the pandemic, one could argue that we are all burnt out by Zoom meetings, emails, and the constant isolation of working from home, therefore the idea of spending a few more hours each day writing on a blog is unappealing. And yet, plenty of historians (myself included) spent plenty of unnecessary time on Twitter talking and tweeting about history during this time.
I would suggest that the rise of the Twitter thread is one reason that blogging has changed. For those not on Twitter, a thread enables users to connect a series of tweets together to form a more coherent stream of thoughts. Some have taken to calling this medium “microblogging” since each tweet is, at most, 280 characters long. To cite but one example, Princeton historian Kevin M. Kruse has gained international fame for his threads on 20th century history, particularly the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these threads were started by Kruse’s attempts to debunk bad history being peddled by known psuedo-historian Dinesh D’Souza and others like him on Twitter. There has been vigorous debate about the effectiveness of these threads and the usefulness of debating people who are not invested in having a fair discussion about history. I personally don’t care to see a bunch of people wasting too much time on a single tweet or getting into condescending arguments (“Historian here…”) with pundits, celebrities, and politicians. Nevertheless I do think Twitter threads, when done well, can be really informative. And there’s something to be said about engaging in debates about history not because D’Souza will change his mind, but that other open-minded people might be exposed to your arguments and be compelled to learn more about a given subject.
Other factors play into the decline of blogging. Podcasts have become a popular medium for historians, although they can be much more time consuming than a blog. Conversely, writing tweets is easier than blogging and allows for short thoughts to be quickly thrown into the social media mix. Additionally, Twitter’s algorithm now privileges popular tweets and threads more broadly rather than a chronological timeline, meaning that someone could log in eight hours after a thread was written and still see it on their personal timeline. Meanwhile, at the academic level, blogging has been largely dismissed as an effective tool of scholarship and is viewed by many historians not on social media as pointless. Perhaps the best example of this line of thinking is Princeton historian Allen Guelzo’s remark that blogging is a “pernicious waste of scholarly time” (I guess he has not talked with Kevin Kruse about social media at a department meeting yet). It appears that any sort of blogging done by emerging scholars does not figure into their employment prospects, nor does it figure into a tenure application. Why waste your time on something that doesn’t advance your career?
In sum, a multitude of factors have made history blogging less appealing, including changes to Twitter’s platform, the appeal of writing twitter threads that could gain a wide audience (and more attention for the historian), the rise of podcasts, scholarly dismissals of blogging, and a crippling pandemic that has changed our lives. Speaking personally, I am at a different chapter in my life compared to when I was a graduate student who was single and living, eating, and breathing history 24/7 with little time for much else. Furthermore, @theglamacademic also makes a good point in suggesting that “the continuous disruption caused by new social media tools is also something to note,” by which she means that social media communities have always been in flux, whether the platform is AOL Instant Messenger, MySpace, WordPress, or TikTok.
I still believe in blogging, however.
The most important argument I can make is that a blog is an easily accessible record of YOU. While a Twitter thread may be more accessible within a moment of hot discussion or controversy, it becomes very, very difficult to find that thread on Twitter long after the discussion has ended. Moreover, many people who are enthusiastic about history are not on Twitter, which can do much to limit exposure to your content. With blogging, the use of tags, metadata, algorithms, and search engines makes your content more accessible in the long term in a way that can’t be achieved by using Twitter. Nobody has to log in to view your content on a blog. Finally, I would argue that in comparison to tweets, blogs allow for more extended thoughts to be expressed in a more nuanced manner (although this argument is somewhat ironic since much academic resistance to blogging originally argued that blogs were too short and cut out important context that could be included in a 30-page journal article).
I came of age as a blogger, writer, and historian in the early 2010s, when we were living in what could be described as a “golden age” of blogging by historians. Those blogs were really crucial in helping me learn more about public history, 19th century U.S. history, and current debates about both fields taking place among sharp minds. At one point I was writing upwards of 15 to 20 posts on a month on this very website. I don’t know if (I) or (we) will ever get back to that point ever again, but I still love blogging about history and will continue to write in this space when time permits.
2019 saw the deaths of two noteworthy scholars who wrote biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. Both biographies were popular best-sellers when they were released and both represent crucial landmarks within the Grant historiography. And yet both are what could be best described as a double-edge sword; they advance our knowledge of Grant and his times while still making crucial mistakes along the way that illuminate the difficulty of writing an accurate historical biography.
Jean Edward Smith died in September at the age of 86. The New York Times described Smith as “a political scientist and renowned biographer whose works helped restore luster to the tarnished reputations of underrated presidents.” That was certainly the case with his 2001 biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Smith specialized in 20th century presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower for most of his career. His study on Grant, however, is notable because it was one of the first major birth-to-death biographies that attempted to overturn some of the common stereotypes of Grant being a drunk butcher who oversaw a hopelessly failed and corrupt administration. While more recent popular narratives on Grant from biographers like H.W. Brands, Ron White, and Ron Chernow have undoubtedly supplanted Smith on the best-seller list, I would actually place Smith’s study above all three of them. Grant is a readable page-turner that offers a sympathetic but also convincing interpretation of Ulysses S. Grant’s life. It was the first biography of Grant that I read while in college and inspired me to learn more about the American Civil War, so for that I will always be grateful to Jean Edward Smith.
Nevertheless there are shortcomings and mistakes that make me very conflicted about the biography. At times I believe the book is too defensive of Grant. To cite but one example, Smith portrays Grant’s Indian Peace Policy while president as progressive and forward-thinking. Grant certainly disagreed with the “removalist” school of thinking that wanted to eliminate all Native Americans through violent means (embodied most notably through General Philip Sheridan’s remark that “a good Indian is a dead Indian”). But Grant’s policies essentially called for forced confinement of native populations in poorly-supplied reservations and harsh assimilation policies that some scholars today would describe as cultural genocide. Grant’s views may have been moderate for the time, but they were most certainly not forward-thinking, in my opinion.
An equally serious problem with Smith lies in at least one documented instance in which his writing veers dangerously close to plagiarism. Here’s the bit from Dimitri Rotov’s Civil War Bookshelf:
From Jean Smith’s Grant, page 411, bottom paragraph:
The President’s casket, draped in black crepe, rested on a raised platform under a domed black canopy. President Johnson, the Supreme Court, members of the cabinet and the diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for the President’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln felt unable to attend. At the head of the catalfalque, standing alone throughout the ceremony, was Grant – the living symbol of the cause for which the President had given his life.
Correspondent Noah Brooks reported that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant later said he was grateful that Lincoln had spent most of his final days with him at City Point. “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”
From Grant Takes Command by Bruce Catton, 1969 ed., page 479, bottom paragraph:
Draped in crepe and black cloth, the President’s casket lay in the East Room under a domed canopy of black cloth. President Johnson, members of the Supreme
Court and the cabinet, the uniformed diplomatic corps and other dignitaries, were seated in the room. At the foot of the catafalque were chairs for members of Mr. Lincoln’s family, represented only by Robert Lincoln, Mrs. Lincoln feeling unable to attend. At the head of the catafalque, all through the service, stood General Grant, alone.
Correspondent Noah Brooks said that the general “was often moved to tears.” Grant reflectively said he would always be glad that Lincoln had spent most of his final days in Grant’s company, and when he tried to sum up the man he could only say: “He was incontestably the greatest man I have ever known.”
William McFeely died just a few days ago at the age of 89. Like Smith, he received a New York Times obituary that describes him as an acclaimed biographer of Ulysses S. Grant and also Frederick Douglass. Contrary to Smith, McFeely was trained as a historian and specialized in African American history and the Civil War Era, particularly Reconstruction. His 1981 biography of Grant won a Pulitzer Prize and was the standard study on Grant for at least a generation. Also contrary to Smith, McFeely went the opposite direction and was a harsh critic of his subject. One quickly gets the impression from reading the book that McFeely simply didn’t like the guy.
On the one hand, McFeely’s book remains one of the best and most widely-researched studies within the genre. For example, while most biographers today consider Grant to have held anti-slavery beliefs throughout his life, I actually agreed with McFeely when he argued that Grant’s 1854 resignation from the Army and move to St. Louis to become a farmer was in part based on a desire to emulate his father-in-law’s luxurious plantation lifestyle. I appreciated McFeely’s attempts to contextualize Grant’s St. Louis experiences, and his interpretation on this subject makes an appearance in my Journal of the Civil War Eraarticle on Grant’s relationship with slavery that was published this past September. On the other hand, McFeely made his own mistakes along the way. And his overall interpretation of a cold, heartless tactician who did not care about African Americans or Reconstruction more broadly led Brooks Simpson (who is, in my view, the preeminent scholar of Ulysses S. Grant over the past thirty years) to suggest that Grant would not recognize himself in McFeely’s biography.
The biggest problem with McFeely’s biography, in my opinion, is his excessive use of psychoanalysis to interpret Grant’s thoughts and personality. There are many examples to cite, but the most obvious one comes on pages 10 and 11. Here McFeely assesses Grant’s early boyhood in Ohio and how he communicated that upbringing in his Personal Memoirs. He cites this passage from the Memoirs:
A Mr. Ralston living within a few miles of the village . . . owned a colt which I very much wanted. My father had offered twenty dollars for it, but Ralston wanted twenty-five. I was so anxious to have the colt, that after the owner left, I begged to be allowed to take him at the price demanded. My father yielded, but said twenty dollars was all the horse was worth, and told me to offer that price; if it was not accepted I was to offer twenty-two and a half, and if that would not get to him, to give the twenty-five. I at once mounted a horse and went for the colt. When I got to Mr. Ralston’s house, I said to him: ‘Papa says I may offer you twenty dollars for the colt, but if you won’t take that, I am to offer twenty-two and a half, and if you won’t take that, I am to give you twenty-five.’ It would not require a Connecticut man to guess the price finally agreed upon.
. . . this transaction caused me great heart-burning. The story got out among the boys of the village, and it was a long time before I heard the last of it. Boys enjoy the misery of their companions, at least village boys in that day did, and in later life I have found that all adults are not free from the peculiarity. I kept the horse until he was four years old, when he went blind, and I sold him for twenty dollars.
McFeely argues that this “one boyhood experience haunted Grant all his life. He referred to it often, usually giving the appearance of laughing it off; but something that must be laughed off repeatedly cannot be dismissed.” McFeely continues:
In the Memoirs, Grant presented this incident as having provided a lesson well learned in his education as a maturing businessman, but actually it functioned in the opposite way. It reminded him every time he had business to do that he was not good at it, that he was still an embarassable boy. What was more, he had been humiliated and mocked not for being discovered secretly doing something nasty, but for being innocent and open; in effect, he had been told that grown-up things, business things, were the affairs of men who laughed at boys who were direct about what they wanted. The mockery came not from the horse, but from the boys in town who feigned sophistication, from the owner of the horse, and very probably his father, who without malice but with great ability to harm, may have laughed at the boy’s ingenuousness. If the story is seen as demonstrating a second point, Ulysses’ love of horses, the blinding of the animal sours the effect. ‘My colt’–that unspoiled beautiful moment–became a broken animal, and in the terrifyingly cruel end to which the creature had come Grant saw himself. The blinded beast walked nowhere in the ceaseless drudgery. Trivial though the story of the purchase of the horse may seem, Grant spent a lifetime not getting over the transaction with Mr. Ralston.
Is this a fair and reasonable interpretation of Grant? Does the blinded horse really symbolize how Grant viewed himself; a broken beast walking through ceaseless drudgery to nowhere? Did Grant include this story in his Personal Memoirs because he was traumatized by the event? Could it not be interpreted with equal credibility that Grant’s own explanation for telling the story–that it was an important lesson in the harsh realities of the business world and reflective of a small, rural town’s culture where everyone knows everyone’s business–is valid?
Historians and particularly biographers face a tough task when they attempt to interpret their subjects inner-most thoughts and personality. The subject offers the biographer pieces of the puzzle through letters, diary entries, written books like a Personal Memoir, and other related documents. The biographer must sift through those pieces and put together a picture that makes sense and an accurate portrait of a person’s life and times. Psychoanalysis may serve a purpose in that process, but sitting a historical subject down and becoming an armchair psychologist requires a great deal of caution. In my view McFeely too often throws caution to wind to craft interpretations that are too loosely based on personal speculation and innuendo.
By all accounts, however, McFeely was a generous scholar who advanced the fields of black studies, African American history, and Reconstruction. His biography on Frederick Douglass is still highly regarded, and from what other historians have said he was a thoughtful, caring person (as I’m sure Smith was as well).
Both biographers’ studies of Ulysses S. Grant represent important landmarks for understanding Grant and should be taken seriously by scholars. May they both rest in peace.
I recently toured a historic Catholic church in my local area. The church has all the ingredients of a fascinating visit; a historic structure dating back to 1821, loads of artifacts and church records that provide insights into Catholicism’s westward expansion (for better or worse), and an inspiring story of grassroots preservation when the Archdiocese of St. Louis planned to demolish the church in 1958. The local community at that time did not want to see the church demolished, and for the past sixty years it has been run by a private foundation that relies on donations to stay afloat. The lone paid employee mentioned, for example, that the entire church was recently re-plastered after an elderly woman who had visited the church insisted on paying for a professional to do the job. That’s how a lot of small, local sites like this one get by.
What struck me the most during my visit, however, was a comment the employee made about local support. She stated that she was in her sixties and that all of the volunteers who assist at the site are in their eighties and nineties. The resignation in her voice when she quite honestly wondered if the site would be able to continue operating in the next ten or twenty years was palpable. Who would step up in the future to support this historic church and continue the mission of interpreting this history?
As noted in my last post, there’s been a lot of recent soul-searching, anxiety, and discussion among historians about visitation to historic sites throughout the United States. But for the most part this discussion has focused on large institutions with a national following such as Colonial Williamsburg or the Gettysburg Battlefield. By focusing too much on the big national sites, however, we run the risk of forgetting the thousands of small historical societies and sites like this Catholic church that face much more dire circumstances moving forward.
I don’t propose to have solutions for saving this particular church, but I do think a lot of the work must start on the local level. Generally speaking, small sites are not going to show up on the top of a TripAdvisor list and will not be on the radar of someone visiting from out of town. The financial support and patronizing of the site’s resources has to start at the local level with residents who care about the history. I suspect that the particular Catholic church I visited faces some unique challenges thanks to the ongoing struggles of the Catholic religion more broadly and a changing local population that is no longer majority-catholic. Those challenges will be hard to overcome moving forward. The larger point, however, is that just about every community in America can point to some sort of historic site in their area that is going through similar challenges.
To put it simply, I’m more concerned about the future of small local history sites than I am Colonial Williamsburg. We need to keep that mind as we continue this conversation.
I’ve been thinking about visitation to historic sites in recent weeks. I wrote a post for Muster last year about visitation trends at National Park Service Civil War historic sites, but the topic is back in the news with two articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico lamenting a supposed decline in visitation at both Civil War sites and historic sites more broadly. I’m currently working on a new piece for Muster about what we can do to keep making Civil War sites relevant in the future, but in the meantime I went back and reread John Coski’s opinion essay for The Civil War Monitor (Summer 2018) about the state of Civil War public history. Dr. Coski is an excellent scholar and public historian. He’s also the go-to expert on the history of the Confederate flag. Unfortunately, I disagreed with almost every argument he made in this piece.
Coski contends that public historians at Civil War historic sites have tried to “make the Civil War more attractive and more politically palatable for people who have not been interested in the subject as it was taught in schools and presented at historical sites until recent decades.” While he offers lukewarm support for this goal, he cautiously warns that these efforts can go overboard and potentially alienate people who have long-supported Civil War historic sites. If “traditional” audiences stop visiting and sites continue to struggle with recruiting new audiences, the future of Civil War public history could be in trouble as popular interest in the era continues to wane.
Coski’s argument is understandable and fair, but in making the argument I strongly disagreed with his characterization of public historians and their goals when working at Civil War historic sites.
A common talking point that Coski emphasizes is that “the rise of digital technology” has played a role in declining visitation trends. People can now learn about historic sites online without visiting them, and so they simply choose to stay home. The problem with this argument, however, is that there has been no comprehensive study undertaken to prove a correlation between increased digital technology usage and decreased visitation to historic sites. While both trends can be true independently, it is not at all clear to me that one trend explains the other. Plenty of other historic sites and museums have had no problem with declining visitation. For example, visitation to art museums has experienced a slight increase in recent years, and the popular National World War II Museum smashed its previous visitation record in 2018. In fact, some argue that digital technology actually boosts visitation to museums and historic sites because people see content online and become more motivated to visit in person. This data seems to suggest something besides digital technology as the cause behind sluggish visitation at Civil War sites.
Coski continues by arguing that public historians are trying to attract new audiences by “emphasizing non-military aspects of the conflict and repudiating the Confederate side of the story.” Here again, these claims are questionable. Have Civil War sites placed an increased emphasis on the political aspects of the Civil War? Absolutely. Are many sites more willing to discuss the role of slavery in creating the conditions for armed conflict? Absolutely. But just because non-military topics are discussed more in-depth does not mean that military history has been removed from the story. Moreover, it’s not clear to me what it means to “repudiate” the Confederate side of the story. Is Coski saying that public historians are completely ignoring the Confederacy, or are they just interpreting the history in a way Coski disagrees with?
I have been to Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and Fort Donelson over the past five years. Every single one of these battlefields discussed military history through programs, wayside markers, and museum exhibits. Gettysburg has an enormous Civil War weapons collection in its museum that rivals anything you’ll see anywhere else. Every single site told stories from the Confederate perspective. Every single site has dedicated public historians who are ready to discuss military history, political history, and Confederate history. Not a single monument has been removed from a Civil War battlefield managed by the National Park Service. I concede that the war’s narrative has most certainly changed (for the better), but when Coski asks, “what about the majority experience? What about the millions of white Americans on both sides who fought and endured the Civil War?” I just have to roll my eyes. Last I checked they were still there.
Coski then expands his discussion of Confederate history at Civil War sites by asking whether “emphasizing ‘relevance’ mean[s] the only legitimate way of studying the war will be as a morality play.” He also contends that the popular backlash to Confederate iconography is a “rejection of Civil War history that accords respect to the fighting men on both sides.” Today’s backlash against Confederate iconography, according to Coski, is unique because the “breadth and depth of anger aimed at the Confederacy, Confederate symbols, and all perceived vestiges of Lost Cause thinking” has led to “a widespread willingness to vilify anything associated with the Confederacy as ‘racist.’ Labeling is becoming a surrogate for understanding.” As such, public historians who emphasize “inclusiveness, tolerance, empathy, and an acceptance of complexity” fail to live up to their own self-defined standards by attacking the Confederacy this way.
Here again there is much to disagree with. For one, striving for relevance does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy or relying solely on emotion to win hearts and minds. Discussing Civil War era politics or the experiences of women and people of color during the war is no more a “morality play” than a narrative that focuses on sectional reconciliation or the shared valor of Union and Confederate soldiers. Striving for relevance means expanding the narrative and creating space for multiple perspectives. It does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy at the expense of so-called identity politics or political correctness.
Second, who among Civil War public historians in their professional life is going around doing nothing but vilifying the Confederacy at their workplace? Do some people get heated on social media about the Civil War? Sure. Do some people want all Confederate monuments taken down? Sure. Do some people feel like Confederate icons are intimidating and that the entire Confederate political experiment was rooted in racism? You bet. But in Coski’s telling of the story, interpretations at Civil War sites nowadays largely consist of visitors being treated to long rants from public historians about how bad and racist the Confederacy was in the interest of attracting new audiences to their sites. Public historians design gimmicky programs, share their personal views, and strip the past of its complexity as historical understanding is placed at the bottom of the food chain. As such, visitors are allegedly treated to an interpretation of the war from an “activist” perspective that is more interested in shaming than understanding. This description may accurately explain the culture of social media interactions on Twitter, but I completely reject this characterization when it comes to describing trained professionals whose job is to provide a compelling, complex, and accurate interpretation of the Civil War. Many public historians today reject the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War because it is largely inaccurate, but that does not mean they also reject a nuanced understanding of the past that acknowledges the complexities of Confederate allegiance and military service.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think the white actors of Civil War history are going anywhere. I don’t think public historians at Civil War historic sites place anything ahead of telling a good, accurate story. I don’t think anyone who’s long been a student of the Civil War should be alarmed by the fact that Civil War scholarship is expanding and changing. I don’t think a “both sides fought for what they believed in” or Lost Cause-inspired interpretation is the solution to bringing back audiences to Civil War historic sites. I don’t think complaining about identity politics today is particularly wise when for a very long time Confederate identity politics dominated the culture surrounding historic interpretation at Civil War sites.
Where we go from here is a difficult question, and I think there’s a lot more evaluation and study needed before we can start to formulate an answer. While I think Coski’s basic wish to remember the traditional audiences of Civil War history is fair, his characterizations of Civil War history and the public historians who interpret it today are badly flawed.
I recently took a historic home tour that was very fascinating and enjoyable. The house was very nice and the furniture was ornate and fancy, classically Victorian all the way through. I suspect most people go through this home and feel very much the same way I did. At the end of the visit, however, I concluded that I hadn’t really learned anything new about the people who lived at this house.
A few years ago I wrote an essay on this website contending that many historic house tours are boring because they lack a human element. Somebody in the comments section complained about “furniture tours” and stated that a sofa has never changed the world. I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot lately.
Many museums that were constructed around the turn of the twentieth century were designed to overwhelm visitors, repeatedly hammering the idea that these places and these things possessed a reverential quality that needed to be respected by all. Jeffrey Trask even points out in Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Erathat the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art intentionally limited its operating hours to keep out the mass of working class residents in the city. The museum stayed closed on Sundays for many years during the Progressive Era, even though that was the single day of the week many of those working class residents had off.
I still think a lot of historic homes operate under a similar mentality. The homes are preserved with meticulous care and designed to overwhelm and awe visitors with their beauty. These places are important because they have stuff. But the longer I work in the field of public history and the more home tours I take, the more I yearn to see what’s underneath all of this beauty. An ornately furnished historic home is very difficult to interpret because the guide must fight the urge to make it exclusively a tour of “things.” This table was built by person x and cost this much money and isn’t it just beautiful? The situation is even more complicated because many visitors crave this sort of tour and will go around asking what’s original. It’s not that historic furniture is meaningless, but that too often visitors never learn why any of it matters to our understanding of history.
At the end of the day, a tour about people is always more fascinating to me than a tour about things. As I’ve previously argued, a historic home without people breathes no life.
I saw this tweet about empathy in historical practice and it got me thinking. Is empathy the most important skill a historian should posses?
First off, there is the issue of defining terms. My view is that, broadly speaking, empathy is a conscious effort to place oneself in the shoes of another. Empathy is NOT the same as sympathy, but a deliberate consideration of perspectives, experiences, and life challenges that are different from my own. I don’t have to sympathize with General Lee’s decision to join the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, but I can empathize with the decision he faced in that moment. I don’t consider empathy a “skill” so much as a spirit or ethos that emerges from the skills one develops to become a successful historian. When we tell inclusive, accurate stories that are communicated effectively, empathy holds the potential to become a happy byproduct of the historical process. Nevertheless we must remember that empathy–like sympathy & pity–comes from a place of privilege. As a good disciple of Michel-Rolph Trouilott, I believe historians demonstrate power over the past by actively choosing what perspectives are worthy of empathy in their narratives. Historians also demonstrate privilege when determining WHO is in need of empathy. Regardless of whether a historian works in academic or public history, all should consider who in their audiences needs a lesson in empathy.
I don’t think empathy is the most important skill a historian should have, although I think they would benefit from demonstrating empathy in their own work as scholars and communicators of the past. Ultimately a spirit of empathy emerges when the “skills” of good historical work–research, interpretation, communication, evaluation, and others–are put into effective practice.