Should Barack Obama Place a Wreath at the Confederate Memorial at Arlington?

Update on 5/22: Quoted in Judy Pasternak’s piece at the Daily Beast.

Shistorian ociologist James Loewen and Edward Sebesta (his blog) have written a letter calling on President Obama to discontinue this practice as party of Memorial Day exercises:

Since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, presidents have sent annually a wreath to the Arlington Confederate Monument. Prior to the administration of George H. W. Bush, this was done on or near the birthday of Jefferson Davis.  Starting with George H.W. Bush, it has been done on Memorial Day.  We ask you to not send a wreath or some other commemorative token to the Arlington Confederate Monument during your administration or after.

Their letter, along with a number of signatures by notable historians, was recently published on the History News Network.  The content of the letter outlines the racial and political context of the early twentieth century by citing a number of the speeches that were given at the monument’s dedication, including President Wilson’s.  Yes, the monument is a reflection of the Lost Cause myth, which emphasizes the bravery of the men who fought in Confederate ranks.  It downplays the role of slavery as the cause of secession/war and emphasizes states rights; in addition, the monument gives expression to the myth of the loyal slave both before and during the war.  In that sense, the monument has much in common with most Civil War monuments that were erected between 1880 and the first few decades of the twentieth century.  As interpretation, I have very little problem with the content of this letter, though the tone of it is likely to alienate rather than engage the general public in an open dialog – no surprise there.

While I am sympathetic with their view of this matter, I think it would be a bad idea for Obama to end this practice.  While I do not agree with all of Obama’s policies, the one thing that I have come to appreciate is his willingness to engage constructively with those he disagrees.  The president’s visit to Notre Dame this weekend is a case in point and reflects his enthusiasm for taking on extremely complex and emotionally-charged issues in a mature and honest manner.  There are no doubt moments where the president must be decisive in making specific decisions, and this will no doubt alienate and/or disappoint others, but this man cares what others believe and even seems to be willing to amend his own outlook when presented with a compelling argument.  I value having a president who is thoughtful, who listens, and who makes me think.

My problem with this letter is that it is a non-starter.  It is unlikely to lead to anything approaching constructive dialog and it is likely to lead to increased tension and misunderstanding.  Just check out the comments section of the HNN post for evidence of this.  It’s not simply a matter of picking and choosing one’s battles, but it is also how intelligently we choose to take on certain subjects.  Under extreme pressure, President Obama has already demonstrated that he can intelligently address some of the tough questions, from his Philadelphia speech on race back in May to this past weekend’s speech on abortion at Notre Dame.  I will leave it to Loewen and Sebesta to explain what good a refusal to send a wreath to Arlington would do in the short- or long-term.

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52 comments… add one
  • Byron Johnson Sep 12, 2009 @ 15:29

    Someone simply said the Presdient appreciates Civil War history. I believe this to be true. To: Mike from May 20th 2009 at 12:08 pm. Interesting dilenma in your quote that day in as far as Wilson. I studied (and still do). A bit on Josephus Daniels from that era interested me.

    btw: What do you think of Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst from the other day?

  • Kevin Chapman Aug 19, 2009 @ 0:11

    Im very late on this but

    I can’t imagine him attending. Sending the wreath is enough..but It would have been wise for him to stay as FAR AWAY from that event as possible. Obama is President and has a responsibility to honor all Americans..but he’s also a human being. How could anyone expect him to attend that event as a man of color?

    Are you serious? Despite whatever everyone’s interpretation of what the rebel flag means to them the flag already has a bad rap..
    I can’t imagine Obama at full attention with the rebel flag in the background paying tribute to a cause that would have made his advancements in life not possible.

    Might as well make a Jewish President throw a reef over a WW2 German Soldier memorial..

    Their ancestors saw them as heroes.. while Jews remember them as carrying out the policies of their oppressors.

    Draws the same internal conflict..

  • Sherree Tannen Jun 8, 2009 @ 9:22


    There is another petition that is circulating at this time, and that will be presented to President Obama. Whether or not our President will endorse the position the petition represents remains to be seen. The petition is to redress grievances of those who suffered the abuses of “Indian Boarding Schools”–schools in which the “Indian” was to be “killed” and the man saved. The abuses suffered were neither romanticized nor imagined; they were experienced–and they were experienced by helpless children. I know men and women who attended these boarding schools, and whose parents and grandparents attended them. The experiences they speak of are shocking and devastating. The following is some basic information concerning the schools and the petition. I know this is off topic, but again, maybe not. Thanks again, Kevin. Sherree

    Wellbriety Journey for Forgiveness

    Healing the Legacy of the Boarding Schools 1879-2009

    On May 16th 2009, White Bison began a 40-day, 6800 mile cross-country journey to present and former Indian School sites. It’s goal is to promote awareness, dialogue and forgiveness among Native peoples for the historical trauma of the Indian Boarding School Era which began in 1879. Please support the 2009 Wellbriety Journey for Forgiveness and Native American healing now.

    Click to view introductory video from White Bison President, Don Coyhis

    Journey Dates and Sites

    (Click on map or the links below for more information on the Journey sites – opens new window)
    1 May 16th, 2009 Chemawa Indian School – Salem, OR
    2 May 17th, 2009 Warm Springs Agency Boarding School – Warm Springs, OR
    3 May 19th, 2009 Fort Hall Indian Boarding School – Fort Hall, ID
    4 May 21st, 2009 St. Stephens High School – Riverton, WY
    5 May 24th, 2009 Stewart Indian School – Carson City, NV
    6 May 26th, 2009 Sherman Indian School – Riverside, CA
    7 May 27th, 2009 Phoenix Indian School – Phoenix, AZ
    8 May 31st, 2009 Albuquerque Indian School – Albuquerque, NM
    9 June 2nd, 2009 Concho Indian School, El Reno, OK-Not a public event
    10 June 3rd, 2009 Riverside Indian School – Anadarko, OK
    11 June 4th, 2009 Sequoyah High School – Tahlequah, OK
    12 June 5th, 2009 Haskell Indian Nations University – Lawrence, KS
    13 June 6th, 2009 Genoa Indian Industrial School – Genoa, NE – Not a public event
    14 June 8th, 2009 Rapid City, SD
    15 June 9th, 2009 Morris Indian School – Morris, MN – Not a public event
    16 June 10th, 2009 White Earth Indian School – White Earth, MN
    17 June 11th, 2009 Red Lake Indian School – Red Lake, MN
    18 June 12th, 2009 Leech Lake Indian School – Cass Lake, MN
    19 June 14th, 2009 Lac du Flambeau Boarding School – Lac du Flambeau, WI
    20 June 15th, 2009 Oneida Indian Boarding School – Oneida, WI
    21 June 17th, 2009 Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial School – Mt. Pleasant, MI
    22 June 19th, 2009 Thomas Indian School – Gowanda, NY
    23 June 21st, 2009 Carlisle Indian School – Carlisle, PA
    24 June 24th, 2009 National Museum of the American Indian – Washington, D.C

    Petition Requesting Apology for Abuses at US Indain Schools

    This petition calls upon the President of the United States to issue a formal apology for what the US government allowed to happen to Native American children at the schools and for the effects it continues to have on Native American individuals, families, and communities to this day.

  • Ken Noe May 25, 2009 @ 6:34

    In the end, Obama sent the wreath, as well as one to the African-American memorial.

    • Kevin Levin May 25, 2009 @ 6:42

      Thanks for the link, Ken. It’s exactly what Loewen and Sebesta should have suggested from the beginning.

  • Greg Rowe May 25, 2009 @ 5:04


    Both your piece and Caitlin’s are referenced in a May 20 piece on the “Religion in American History” blog.

    I thought that was an interesting place to find a reference to your piece, given the term “Lost Cause religion.”

    • Kevin Levin May 25, 2009 @ 5:13


      Thanks. I noticed that. I’ve referenced the Lost Cause as a religion on a number of occasions. Charles Reagan Wilson expounds on this in his book _Baptized in Blood_ which I highly recommend.

  • Sherree Tannen May 25, 2009 @ 2:45

    “Finally, and I hope I am not offending you, it is easy to romanticize ‘Indigenous’ peoples, but people are people, and Native Americans were not always peace loving inhabitants living in harmony with the land. I would urge you to read Lawrie Tatum’s account mentioned in my last post.”


    You haven’t offended me yet, but we are getting close, so it is time to stop. We have all argued extensively about agency when it comes to the lives and history of African Americans, and rightly so. I am not romanticizing anyone, and agree that it is a disservice to romanticize any group of people. The myth of the “noble savage” went far in harming Indigenous men and women. Having just returned from sitting in an Indigenous ceremony that was outlawed by the US government until the 1970s, I don’t feel well disposed toward this argument. Perhaps it is white society that is romanticizing itself and refusing to face responsibility for the past.

    I do wish everyone a Happy Memorial Day and thank you again Kevin for this forum. I also urge everyone to attend a pow wow some day, if you haven’t already. Most pow wows celebrate Memorial Day every pow wow, and honor veterans of all of our wars in the pow wow arena. It is a very moving ceremony.

    Bob, Peace. Sherree

  • Bob Pollock May 24, 2009 @ 8:55

    I got in a hurry (had to go give a tour) and I see I made typos. Sorry about that. Obviously, you said the warrior chiefs did NOT go along with the Peace Policy. And “corryupot”, wow! That’s corrupt.

  • Bob Pollock May 24, 2009 @ 7:58


    First, let me say that I don’t think there is any way you could offend me. As has been stated on this blog many times, history is complex and open to interpretation. Although I have a BA in Political Science and an MA in History, the one thing my education taught me is that I will never know everything there is to know. That is what makes forums like these so interesting. I will freely admit that I think the weight of historic evidence strongly favors certain interpretations in some of the time periods I have studied, but I am not offended by those who favor interpretations I think are wrong.

    Having said that, the main point of my comment was to respond to your statement that no one was considering how to include Native Americans in the new republic that emerged after the Civil War. They were. President Grant in particular. I would not want to defend the corryupot and duplicitous actions of the U.s. government in its dealing with Native Americans, but in assessing Grant’s Peace Policy we must ask what reasonable alternatives there might have been. In Grant’s mind the advance of white civilization was unstoppable and would eventually overwhelm Native American culture, eventually leading to their complete extinction. We can argue that was is not fair, but it was reality. The only way it might have been stopped was if Europeans had not come to North America in the first place. Therefore, the only way to save them was to help them assimilate. Assimilation was not someting that was only asked of Native Americans, it was asked of everyone who came to this country.

    You state that “the great warrior chiefs of the Apache, the Nez Perces, the Cheyenne, and the Lakota were overly fond of this philosophy. ” You are correct, and this is one reason why the years of Grant’s Peace Policy are the bloodiest in the history of U.S./Native American relations. But evidence suggests that not all Native Americans opposed the policy, and it seems to me the warrior chiefs were afraid of losing their power. Our leaders don’t always lead us in ways that are most beneficial to us. Alao. the first commissioner of Indian Affairs appoiunted by Grant was a full blooded Seneca Indian named Ely Parker. Parker had been on Grant’s staff during the war and he fully supported Grant’s policy. Grant , I’m sure, was heavily influenced by his friend.

    Finally, and I hope I am not offending you, it is easy to romanticize “Indigenous” peoples, but people are people, and Native Americans were not always peace loving inhabitants living in harmony with the land. I would urge you to read Lawrie Tatum’s account mentioned in my last post.

    • Kevin Levin May 24, 2009 @ 8:09


      This is an interesting exchange and I appreciate that the two of you have taken the time to flesh out your own view and question one another in a respectful manner. I am no expert, but I think Bob’s final point about our tendency to generalize and even idealize Native Americans is a disservice. [Sherree, I am not suggesting that you are doing so.] To that point I definitely need to read more. I am looking forward to starting Elliott West’s new book, The Last Indian War (Oxford University Press (2009) this summer. Thanks again.

  • Sherree Tannen May 24, 2009 @ 2:16


    I really appreciate the effort you took to collect and relay this information. I also appreciate Kevin’s willingness to explore this topic. The answers you have given regarding the policies of the United States toward Indigenous Nations is an example of the “benign” racism of the US government toward Indigenous peoples that I am talking about, however, and that benign racism has led to very bloody and devastating results in the lives of men and women of Indigenous ancestry.

    “The proper treatment of the original occupants of this land, the Indian, is one deserving of careful study. I will favor any course toward them which tends to their civilization and ultimate citizenship.”

    This policy was, and is, absolute anathema to many men and women of Indigenous ancestry. Also, I don’t think that the great warrior chiefs of the Apache, the Nez Perces, the Cheyenne, and the Lakota were overly fond of this philosophy. Today, even as we speak, there is a sacred hoop journey underway by the descendants of Indigenous men and women whose ancestors were forced, by poverty and the “civilizing” influence of the westward expansion of white society, into “Indian” boarding schools “for their own good”. At the end of this hoop journey, the participants will present a petition to President Obama asking the US government to formally apologize for instituting the policy that led to the formation of the boarding schools, the express, and stated, purpose of which was to “kill the Indian and save the man”. I have intimate friends who have suffered greatly because of this “benign” policy. I also know a man who is an Elder who was in a boarding school. His view is certainly not that this was a civilizing experience. You are the main person I was thinking of when I said I did not want to offend anyone, Bob, because I have grown to really respect and admire your view and your kindness. I can’t agree with this position, however. Please take a look at what Indigenous men and women themselves say about the boarding school experience, which was a direct outgrowth of the philosophy expressed above. I will not be able to respond until Tuesday, because I will be attending a sweat lodge in which we will pray and do ceremony for the healing of the descendants of the US policies toward Indigenous Nations. I will respond, however, if you want. Or, I will email you, if this is off topic for Kevin. I don’t find it off topic at all, however. Not from where I am sitting. But out of respect for our host, my email address is the following:

    The petition that will be presented to President Obama concerning Indigenous boarding schools can be found at the following address:

    Thank you Bob, and thank you, Kevin. Sherree

  • Bob Pollock May 23, 2009 @ 16:12


    You wrote:
    “I agree with progressive historians that the seeds for the founding of a new republic were sown in the early days of Reconstruction for black men and women, and then cruelly taken away. How about for Indigenous men and women, though? Were they even considered? I know that I am beginning to sound like a broken record, but the history of the new republic is silent when it comes to America‘s oldest inhabitants, just as the history of the original republic was. (unless there are large areas of published research of which I am unaware) ”

    This is way off the topic of this post, but if our host will indulge me, I would like to try to answer your query.

    The history of the republic, old and new, is far from silent regarding Native-Americans. But to speak directly to the post Civil War era, they were certainly considered.

    In his first Presidential inauguration speech on March 4, 1869, Ulysses S. Grant declared: “The proper treatment of the original occupants of this land, the Indian, is one deserving of careful study. I will favor any course toward them which tends to their civilization and ultimate citizenship.”

    The New York Daily World reported that President Grant had informed a delegation from the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw nations that “he was glad to be informed that they would aid the policy for peace between whites and the Indians, and would be glad of any measure which would accomplish that peace and lead to their civilization and ultimately make them citizens of the government. He felt that the march of civilization alone must itself effect the civilization of the tribes now hostile to the government.”

    In an interview with The Boston Daily Advertiser, Grant said: “Our dealings with the Indian properly leave us open to charges of cruelty and swindling,” and he avowed that “All Indians disposed to peace will find the new policy a peace-policy.”

    Grant’s policy became known as the Peace Policy. His idea was to concentrate Indians on reservations where they would be away from the corrupting influences of the worst of white civilization. They would be taught English, learn to be farmers, and become good Christians. They would be paid for the land they vacated, and be provided with food and other necessities, until such time as they would become self-sufficient. The Peace Policy emphasized a spirit of kindness. Today it may seem like supreme white mans’ arrogance but at the time it represented an honest attempt by the highest official in the land to bring justice to the Indian and harmony to the frontier. Grant believed that American citizenship and its attendent rights and privileges was the greatest gift a person could receive. But citizenship carried with it responsibilities that required education.

    Grant’s Peace Policy faced numerous obstacles (which I don’t have space to go into here) and was praised and attacked with equal vigor, but he continued throughout his two terms to achieve his goals. In his second Inaugural address he re-affirmed his support of the Peace Policy. He said: “My efforts in the future will be… by a humane course, to bring the aborigines of the country under the benign influences of education and civilization. It is either this or war of extermination: Wars of extermination…are expensive even against the weakest people, and are demoralizing and wicked. Our superiority of strength and advantages of civilization should make as lenient toward the Indian. The wrong inflicted on him should be taken into account and the balance placed to his credit.”

    Here are some studies I recommend:

    The Reformers and the American Indian by Robert Winston Mardock, 1971.

    Savagism and Civilization, A Study of the Indian and the American Mind by Roy Harvey Pearce, 1965.

    American Indian Policy in Crisis; Christian Reformers and the Indian by Francis Paul Prucha, 1976.
    The Great Father, The United States Government and the American Indians by Prucha, 1984
    Americanizing the American Indians, Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” ed. by Prucha, 1973

    The Indian Frontier of the American West 1846-1890 by Robert M. Utley, 1984

    For an excellent first person account of a Quaker Indian agent’s attempt to bring civilization and education to Indians of the Southwest read:
    Our Red Brothers and the Peace Policy of President Ulysses S. Grant by Lawrie Tatum, originally published in 1899, reprinted 1970.

    For primary documents there is the multi-volume publication The American Indian and the United States, A Documentary History ed. by Wilcomb E. Washburn, 1973.

    I would also suggest the chapter in Jean Edward Smith’s excellent biography of Grant which covers this topic.

  • Sherree Tannen May 23, 2009 @ 6:12


    On covering your back–don’t mention it! I’m there for you! So far I haven’t had any takers on my offer, but I’ll keep you updated. I guess carpetbaggers are more popular than scalawags. I am a little disappointed, lol. (I agree with Ken on this, too. I believe these are the same people commenting over and over in different venues. I actually recognize the interesting, but archaic, prose of the writer of comment #134417. Levin and “his ilk”, “their ilk”. I believe we have heard this language–and the sentiments expressed–right here on your blog, and by the same person, if I am not mistaken.)

    I read the piece by Judy Pasternak, too. It is excellent! I was struck by a quote Pasternak pulled from the letter:

    “It isn’t just a remembrance of the dead. The speeches at its ground-breaking and dedication defended and held up as glorious the Confederacy and the ideas behind it and stated that the monument was to these ideals as well as the dead. It was also intended as a symbol of white nationalism, portrayed in opposition to the multiracial democracy of Reconstruction, and a celebration of the re-establishment of white supremacy in the former slave states by former Confederate soldiers.”

    I agree with this, and I see the point. I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that we have to face this issue as a nation. And I believe that the issue is more complex than the way in which it is presented by either proponents of the Lost Cause view of the Civil War, or proponents of the Progressive view, in certain respects.

    For example, if this same quote is viewed from a different angle, quite a different point of view is portrayed: “It was also intended as a symbol of white nationalism, (the US flag) portrayed in opposition to the multiracial democracy of Reconstruction, (were Indigenous nations ever included in this multiracial democracy?) and a celebration of the re-establishment (establishment) of white supremacy in the former slave states (territories) by former Confederate (and Union) soldiers.”

    Where does the history of the Indigenous Nations of Grandmother Turtle Island fit into the history of any existing theory of the Civil War, or into the history of America itself? I agree with progressive historians that the seeds for the founding of a new republic were sown in the early days of Reconstruction for black men and women, and then cruelly taken away. How about for Indigenous men and women, though? Were they even considered? I know that I am beginning to sound like a broken record, but the history of the new republic is silent when it comes to America‘s oldest inhabitants, just as the history of the original republic was. (unless there are large areas of published research of which I am unaware) I am not trying to offend anyone, Kevin, or to tear down cherished beliefs. And I certainly am not defending the Lost Cause view of the Civil War. I am simply pointing out where the theory breaks down, and breaks down in a significant way. I am also suggesting that if we examine this shortcoming of the theory, that we might find a new way to see our nation.

    I noticed that Ms. Pasternak has written a novel on the Navajo. I am not Navajo, and I do not know the history of the Navajo. I do know about the Long Walk of the Navajo, however. What I did not know, is that the Long Walk occurred during the Civil War. If your readers are interested in this aspect of the war, perhaps they might consider googling the Long Walk so that they can read for themselves what was taking place out West as the new republic was being fought for elsewhere. The Long Walk of the Navajo occurred in 1864, and included all of the history of the Navajo in relation to contact with white society, according to the Navajo. As the Confederacy was sending men to die to preserve the institution of slavery and the Union was sending men to die to end slavery, the Union was also sending men to clear the West for settlement. And clearing the West for settlement involved killing the Indigenous men, women and sometimes children who were in the path of the army. Should the Union soldiers who participated in the removal of the Navajo and other Indigenous nations to reservations be honored if they are buried in Arlington cemetery? I don’t think that those soldiers are interred at Arlington. But if they were, should they be honored? Do you think the Navajo would agree? The Cheyenne? On the other hand, should the Confederate soldiers who fought to keep black men and women enslaved be honored? Do you think black men and women would agree? How do we reconcile all of this? Actually, if President Obama laid a wreath at the monument in question with the caveat that the original reasons for the building of the monument were never valid and now repudiated, then laid a wreath at the African American Memorial, and another wreath for the Union dead, and then participated in an All Nations’ pow wow, we might begin to approach a true honoring of the Civil War dead, and also an understanding of a true multiracial democracy.

    This is too long, Kevin. If you don’t post it, no problem. Have a great Memorial Day week-end. Sherree

  • Sherree Tannen May 21, 2009 @ 11:46


    Wow…I had a feeling that this letter would bring out the crazies:

    I agree, and the Kevin Levin is one of their ilk! They are in to present ism, South Bashing, and hatred of the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy. Levin is born in the North teaching students n VIRGINIA! Keep your eyes peeled for him and let him have it with both barrels.”

    Oh lol. I have to laugh a little, Kevin, because this is so predictable. To help you out some, I am including my email address in this comment so that I can deflect some of your hate mail.

    To contact Sherree the Scalawag, please send all correspondence to tannensherree@yahoo. com.

    Have a good week-end, Kevin. Sherree

    • Kevin Levin May 21, 2009 @ 12:45


      Thanks for covering my back. 🙂


      I’ve always thought that these people constitute a very small minority. The Internet magnifies their presence, but for the most part you have to go looking for these people to even know they exist. They are good for a few laughs.

  • Mike May 21, 2009 @ 10:44

    I dropped by before I shut it down for the weekend. Bob the Bible set up rules and regulations for Slavery and for the most part from my study many in the South did not follow those Teachings from the Old and New Testament. I will never say that it was not Evil. The South was no more Perfect than the North and both bear the blame and shame of Slavery and for the War. Kevin : As for King Georges Statue, I might have wanted it preserved. Yet seeing the Passion of the time I also might have been the one pulling on the rope.
    See you all Tuesday unless I’m near a PC on Monday. Remember all those who died for our Great Nation and say a prayer for those serving today.

  • Ken Noe May 21, 2009 @ 10:36

    I’m struck that many of the people currently “discussing” this issue on HNN, like Kevin’s friend in #134417, are pretty much the same non-Alabamans who camped for days on the Opelika-Auburn News website after our local cemetery flag flap, and who kept are stirring the pot long after the city councilman apologized and we locals moved on. Indeed, they seem to turn up everywhere online. Throw in their many pseudonyms and I wonder if in actuality we’re only dealing with a relatively small group of posters with really good internet contracts.

  • Sherree Tannen May 21, 2009 @ 8:51

    “Evil is evil – or is it? Does the definition of evil change over time?’

    Bob, my answer would be no. The definition of evil does not change over time. Evil is evil. Perceptions of what constitutes a moral action or an evil act might change, but evil itself does not. I think we have to be careful, though, in turning the memory of the war into a morality play, as Kevin has noted on several occasions. This reduces the history to caricature, and can create the insidious form of racism that I am attempting to define, in the sense of absolving all but the most obvious racists (white southerners) of responsibility for the tragedy of slavery–a responsibility that the entire nation holds to some degree, and European nations as well, as you and I discussed in comments to another post. (I am still not over the fact that Penny Lane was named for a slave trader, btw! It just shows how far reaching the history of slavery is. ) It is easy to condemn a man in a white hood, or a man who is wielding a whip. How about a man in a frock coat sitting behind a desk writing insurance policies for slaves? That is evil, too, is my point. Just harder to see. As far as conservative Lost Cause explanations go–I think you pinpointed a decided irony in your comment: if universal moral truths exist, as has been argued; then they exist today; they existed in 1820; they existed in 1833; and they existed in 1851. Where the real problem in understanding perception of evil comes for me, is in attempting to understand the moral universe of someone like Thomas Jefferson, who simply could not see that his slaves were human beings. In this instance, the legacy of the Enlightenment collapsed in onto itself, in my opinion, and with that I will end, since I am way off topic. Happy Memorial Day everyone! Sherree

  • Bob Pollock May 21, 2009 @ 8:31

    Wow, Kevin, I see you have been honored in comment #134417. Better watch your back.

    • Kevin Levin May 21, 2009 @ 9:38


      Wow…I had a feeling that this letter would bring out the crazies:

      “I agree, and the Kevin Levin is one of their ilk! They are in to present ism, South Bashing, and hatred of the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy. Levin is born in the North teaching students n VIRGINIA! Keep your eyes peeled for him and let him have it with both barrels.”

  • Bob Pollock May 21, 2009 @ 7:37


    This may not be related to this post, and you don’t have to put it through, but it is something I have been thinking about while reading your blog and others. Mike seems to have touched on it here, and that is the concept of changing values and morals.

    It is interesting that those who most want to defend the Confederacy often are the most conservative and often are professing Christians. They want to argue that God’s laws don’t change. In other words real values and morals don’t (or shouldn’t) change over time. And yet they are the same ones who argue that we shouldn’t judge the Confederacy by today’s values and morality. When this comes up, you often agree with this, as you do with Mike above. I agree with you that as historians we must be objective, but it does raise the question of whether or not morals do or should change over time. I’m reading Bruce Levine’s Half Slave and Half Free. He included this: “And not even childbearing and its promise of enhancing the master’s wealth gauranteed safety from physical punishment. Master’s determined to discipline a pregnant slave simply ‘made [her] lie face down in a specially dug depression in the ground’ before laying on the whip.” Would any one want to argue that this was morally defensible even in the antebellum period?

    I realize there were those who argued that slavery was divinely ordained and morally right. Melton A. McLaurin, who wrote a book called Celia, A Slave, which is a case study of an incident here in Missouri, said slavery produced a “fundamental moral anxiety.” He wrote: “This fundamental moral anxiety and the moral dilemnas that produced it, were at the heart of the institution of slavery… For many antebellum southerners, including the large majority of those who held no slaves, the moral dilemnas of slavery were hardly abstractions to be debated. They were instead among the inescapable realities of daily life, a significant aspect of the society.”

    Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote: “A society closed in the defense of evil institutions thus creates moral differences far too profound to be solved by compromise. Such a society forces upon every one, both those living at the time and those writing about it later, the necessity for a moral judgement; and the moral judgement in such cases becomes an indispensable factor in the historical understanding.”

    Today’s Confederate supporters don’t like the Confederacy being compared to Nazi Germany. (You may have noticed this exchange of comments on Robert’s blog.) This is exactly what Schlesinger was doing. In 1949, by the way. Evil is evil – or is it? Does the definition of evil change over time?

    Just food for thought.

  • Sherree Tannen May 21, 2009 @ 7:22


    I think a “sniveling mouth breather” may be a term for a Confederate cannibal. I am not sure. Just an educated guess, given the activity involved in being a cannibal.

  • Sherree Tannen May 21, 2009 @ 7:11

    Well, since it is Memorial Day, let’s not forget that African Americans created Memorial Day. The following is from an online course at Yale; David Blight, instructor:

    “Now, before we get to Appomattox–I’m going to save the Siege of Petersburg, the lifting of the siege and the march to Appomattox and the surrender for Thursday, because it makes a perfect segway back into wartime reconstruction plans, because the nature of that surrender at Appomattox has a great deal to do with the kind of reconstruction ideas and plans that were boiling as early as 1863 really, out of Congress and from Lincoln himself. And let me just end with this little story. I mentioned that Sherman made it to the sea at Savannah, marched part of his troops up to Charleston, took Charleston, the seedbed of Secession and all of that, although actually Charleston didn’t fully fall to Union hands until February of ’65. It had been bombarded throughout the last eight to nine months, as I said, from Union ships and guns all around the harbor. And if you’ve ever been to Charleston, that glorious, beautiful colonial city, that Caribbean city, as it looks, with all those mansions about fifteen to twenty blocks up from the harbor, you must imagine it almost completely in ruin by early 1865. All the white people evacuated and abandoned the city, and the only people left principally were slaves, freedmen, thousands of them, and they in effect took over the city.

    The first Union regiment that marched up Meeting Street in Charleston was the 21st USCT, a colored infantry, a black regiment, and they accepted the surrender of the city from its mayor. And then they began to hold ceremonies, the black folks of Charleston, they began to hold ceremonies all around the city. They held a parade in late March–or was it early April–of ’65. They had this huge parade where they had two floats and they had, on one float, they had a little slave auction occurring, a mock slave auction with a woman with her baby being sold away, and on the next float they had a coffin labeled “Slavery,” and it said “Fort Sumter Dug its Grave, April 12th, 1861.” And then they planned one more ceremony, and–oh and by the way, the war, when it finally, finally, finally ended, they held an extraordinary ceremony on Fort Sumter. They crammed about 3000 people onto the little island. All kinds of dignitaries came. Now General Anderson–not the Colonel who had surrendered the fort four years ago–came and raised the U.S. flag, four years almost to the day that they had taken it down. William Lloyd Garrison was there from the North, the great abolitionist who wept uncontrollably when he heard a small black children’s choir sing John Brown’s Body.
    And the very night of that ceremony, which was the 14th of April, they held a banquet of a sort in a building that had a roof on it, back in Charleston, and that was the very night, of course, that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington. But the black folks of Charleston had planned one more ceremony. That ceremony was a burial ceremony. It turns out that during the last months of the war the Confederate Army turned the planter’s horse track, a racecourse–it was called the Washington Racecourse–into an open air cemetery–excuse me, prison. And in that open air prison, in the infield of the horse track–about 260-odd Union soldiers had died of disease and exposure–and they were buried in unmarked graves in a mass gravesite out behind the grandstand of the racetrack. And by the way, there was no more important and symbolic site in low country planter/slaveholding life then their racetrack.

    Well, the black folks at Charleston got organized, they knew about all this. They went to the site. They re-interred all the graves, the men. They couldn’t mark them with names, they didn’t have any names. Then they made them proper graves and they built a fence all the way around this cemetery, about 100 yards long and fity, sixty yards deep, and they whitewashed the fence and over an archway they painted the inscription “Martyrs of the Racecourse.” And then on May 1st 1865 they held a parade of 10,000 people, on the racetrack, led by 3000 black children carrying armloads of roses and singing John Brown’s Body, followed then by black women, then by black men–it was regimented this way–then by contingents of Union infantry. Everybody marched all the way around the racetrack; as many as could fit got into the gravesite. Five black preachers read from scripture. A children’s choir sang the national anthem, America the Beautiful, and several spirituals, and then they broke from that and went back into the infield of the racetrack and did essentially what you and I do on Memorial Day, they ran races, they listened to sixteen speeches, by one count, and the troops marched back and forth and they held picnics. This was the first Memorial Day.

    African-Americans invented Memorial Day, in Charleston, South Carolina. There are three or four cities in the United States, North and South, that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day, but they all claim 1866; they were too late. I had the great, blind, good fortune to discover this story in a messy, totally disorganized collection of veterans’ papers at the Houghton Library at Harvard some years back. And what you have there is black Americans, recently freed from slavery, announcing to the world, with their flowers and their feet and their songs, what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a second American Revolution. That story got lost, it got lost for more than a century. And when I discovered it, I started calling people in Charleston that I knew in archives and libraries, including the Avery Institute, the black research center in Charleston–“Has anybody, have you ever heard of this story?” And no one had ever heard it. It showed the power of the Lost Cause in the wake of the war to erase a story. But I started looking for other sources, and lo and behold there were lots of sources. Harper’s Weekly even had a drawing of the cemetery in an 1867 issue. The old oval of that racetrack is still there today. If you ever go to Charleston go up to Hampton Park. Hampton Park is today what the racecourse was then. It’s named for Wade Hampton, the white supremacist, redeemer, and governor of South Carolina at the end of Reconstruction and a Confederate General during the Civil War. And that park sits immediately adjacent to the Citadel, the Military Academy of Charleston. On any given day you can see at any given time about 100 or 200 Citadel cadets jogging on the track of the old racecourse. There is no marker, there’s no memento, there’s only a little bit of a memory. Although a few years ago a friend of mine in Charleston organized a mock ceremony where we re-enacted that event, including the children’s choir, and they made me dress up in a top hat and a funny old nineteenth century suit and made me get up on a podium and make a stupid speech. But there is an effort, at least today, to declare Hampton Park a National Historic Landmark……”

    I would only add to this wonderful piece of history, from my perspective, that the second American Revolution not only got lost in the North and the South, but throughout the entire nation, as the nation turned West, with a seasoned army and no distractions, making the true end of the Civil War, 1890, Wounded Knee, where many hearts were buried, and many stories –and lives–lost.

  • Tim Lacy May 21, 2009 @ 6:54

    What, 25 more comments, and not one person answered my inquiry about “snivelling mouth breathers”? From where does this epithet come? 🙂 – TL

  • Mike May 21, 2009 @ 5:57

    Kevin that sounds like revisionist theology Brother, Folks say that about the Bible all the time. I am some what humored about all this since I never knew there was a Confederate Monument at Arlington until last year when I was doing some research for a Memorial Day Sermon I was to make for a local Baptist Church. IMO all Historical Markers are worthy of maintaining and Study for no other reason than they are Historical.

    All Ya’ll have a safe Memorial Day Weekend and Remember All gave some & Some gave ALL.

    See you Next Tuesday.

    • Kevin Levin May 21, 2009 @ 6:03


      Call it whatever you want. Monuments are constantly being reinterpreted and there is nothing strange about that at all. I can just imagine you in NYC for the tearing down of King George: “Wait a minute, all monuments are worthy of being maintained.” 🙂 Remember, monuments are not simply about the event/individual commemorated, they are as much about the people who organized and erected the monument.

      Enjoy the weekend.

  • Mike May 21, 2009 @ 5:38

    Thanks for the info Kevin. When it comes to historical Monuments we need to learn why they placed there; Respect the Dead, Learn what they represent (with in the Culture and Times that they lived), learn from their mistakes and vow not to repeat them. Trying to place 2009 thoughts, morals and social ideas on a group of people who were in truely a different time is wrong and gets us no where. IMO it is not conductive to conciliatory dialogue.

    • Kevin Levin May 21, 2009 @ 5:50


      Glad to hear that the information is helpful. I agree that it doesn’t help much to work toward an understanding of the past by judging it based on our own values. It’s much too easy and fails to lead to real understanding. On the other hand, historic markers in public spaces must both be understood as expressions of the efforts and beliefs of previous generations and deemed worthy of continued maintenance by the present community. Public spaces that include historic markers are not static, but must continually be renegotiated by the community.

  • Sherree Tannen May 21, 2009 @ 4:27

    Also, Ghost, please do not include Abraham Lincoln and John Brown in a statement that references Sherman. The monument in question was placed with the conscious intent to promote and solidify an oppressive white power structure. The insidious racism to which I am referring has not been consciously promoted. There is a difference. Abraham Lincoln and John Brown deserve their place in history as men who actually transcended their time period, and who laid the groundwork for the reality and privilege we experience today of having Barack Obama as our President

    • Kevin Levin May 21, 2009 @ 4:30


      Let’s keep this discussion focused on the topic at hand.


  • ghost May 21, 2009 @ 3:40

    Matt McKeon-
    “I mean, in Dublin the IRA blew up a statue of Admiral Nelson, a symbol of British rule, leading to the classic headline “British Admiral Leaves Dublin by Air.” That’s protesting a statue.”

    Are you suggesting we have a ‘War of the Monuments?’

    Remember Mr. McKeon, there are many monuments, North as well as South.

    Lincoln, Sherman, John Brown…

    Anybody want to go down thet route?

    • Kevin Levin May 21, 2009 @ 3:55


      I don’t think Matt is suggesting anything that Americans have not already carried out themselves at different times in our history. I seem to remember a band of angry Americans tearing down a statue of King George in what was then King’s College in New York City. Such actions took place up and down the 13 colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. Please don’t interpret this as an argument for tearing down monuments.

  • Sherree Tannen May 21, 2009 @ 2:47

    “I agree with Caitlin at Vast Public Indifference. The smart thing to do is send the wreath and also send one to the new African American Civil War Memorial in the Cardoza District of D.C.


  • Sherree Tannen May 21, 2009 @ 1:39

    This is yet another thoughtful post in this ongoing conversation, Kevin. I watched President Obama’s speech at Notre Dame. I agree with your assessment. I also agree with President Obama’s approach to difficult issues. He understands–and understands well–that we must “learn to live as one human family”, as he phrased it in the Notre Dame speech. The letter you reference is a non starter. William Ayers as supporter of this position? Please. The cure is as bad as the disease, if not worse.

    For those who wish to commemorate Confederate ancestors: I again ask you to consider what the Confederate flag means to so many black men and women, and to quite a few white men and women as well, myself included. I referred to a personal experience concerning the flag’s use to promote racial hatred in a comment to one of Kevin‘s other posts, and I would like to repeat a quick summary of that experience here, with Kevin’s permission. When I was in high school, our star football player was black. This young man (who was not young to me then, since he was older than I) was not only a star football player; he was also a personal friend of my mother—more like one of her sons. In this young man’s senior year, and largely because of him, our team went to the championship playoffs. The playoffs were held in another town. When we got to the town, some of the spectators held up a banner that read “The only good Lee was Robert E. Lee and he’s dead” (This young man’s last name was Lee) There were also lots of handheld Confederate flags waving. This was in the late 1960s. This young man later began to do drugs, rather than take advantage of a football scholarship, and he died at a young age. My mother mourned this young man’s death as if he were her own son, because he was her son, since we had already learned to be one human family in my small area of the world, thanks to the black community in our area. Did that incident cause this young man to turn to drugs? Maybe. Maybe not. It certainly didn’t help anything. Please think about him when you consider the meaning of the Confederate flag. The flag carries “layers of meanings” as one of Kevin’s very astute fellow bloggers wrote so beautifully in one of his posts.

    Now, on the other hand, the hypocrisy concerning our history must stop on all sides. As far as I know, no one commemorates General Sherman on Memorial Day, and no one should. The armies Sherman led may have freed the black men and women who were slaves in the South. But freed for what? is a legitimate question, that is as legitimate as the question historians have asked when continually confronted with the argument that the Civil War was fought over states rights: ie, “states rights for what? (to preserve the institution of slavery, of course) I wonder if it were widely known that Sherman said that “there would be no n—— in Uncle Billy’s army”, and that Sherman acted upon that belief, if black men and women would feel kindly toward this general. The slaves following Sherman’s army were certainly not always treated kindly, to put it very mildly. Then, after the Civil War, Sherman became head of the US Army and his racism and total war strategies were used to devastate the Indigenous Nations that were in the way of the westward expansion of the nation–a devastation that was so complete that the descendants of those Indigenous men and women are struggling to this day to reclaim their identity and their culture, as are black men and women. Now, for those who point to these facts to bolster an argument in favor of the Confederacy, the “gentlemanly” Robert E Lee rounded up freed black men and women in Pennsylvania and brought them south into slavery. Also, if anyone wants to argue for the benign nature of slavery, please read the story of Mira, a slave who was most likely pregnant with her “master‘s” child, and who was beaten so severely that she died of her injuries. Her body was then exhumed, and her master was sentenced to death for the act, it was so heinous. (Her entire body was covered with open wounds from head to toe) According to a well written and thought out thesis on this subject, the execution of this man only made matters worse for black men and women who were slaves, since the bar was set: beat and rape all you want. Just don’t go too far.

    Some Southerners cling to the Lost Cause myth because it denies the truth of the history of the South. Some Northerners cling to their own myth, which also denies the truth, and fosters an insidious form of racism, since the racist is not even aware that he or she is racist. White Northerners did not save black men and women. Black men and women saved themselves. White southerners did everything in their power to preserve the institution of slavery and to keep black men and women enslaved, including to die. Historians do not have the right to spin history. True historians with integrity do not. I am neither an academic nor a non academic historian. I am just a citizen who is tired of being lied to. President Obama is the one–the one to lead our nation out of this morass. He seems to be one of the few people in our society who sees the entire picture. Thanks Kevin. I am truly sorry for the length of this. If you have to pay for your band width, let me know, and I will send you a check. Heaven knows, I owe you when it comes to lengthy comments! Sherree

  • Kevin Levin May 21, 2009 @ 1:12


    Again, Obama is not scheduled to attend. The question is whether the White House should send a wreath to the location.

    I agree with Caitlin at Vast Public Indifference. The smart thing to do is send the wreath and also send one to the new African American Civil War Memorial in the Cardoza District of D.C.

  • Larry Cebula May 20, 2009 @ 21:06

    Sociologist James Loewen.

  • Greg Rowe May 20, 2009 @ 17:35

    Excuse me, I went back to look, it’s four dozen.

  • Greg Rowe May 20, 2009 @ 17:31

    Kevin, you beat me to it. I had to turn grades in today and was finishing up some of that last night, so was unable to get to it. I agree with you and Ken. Ayers’ signature does little to advance their cause. I think any statement President Obama might make by not attending would be viewed by certain groups as personal and self-serving. While he is entitled to do that, it does not match his approach to race relations. He might not attend the event, but he will not do so for other reasons than a dozen historians asking him not to attend.

  • James Bartek May 20, 2009 @ 17:29


    I find it fascinating, as I believe you’ve pointed out before, how the ancestors of soldiers who fought to preserve Anglo supremacy are now seeking legitimacy through claims of multi-culturalism, racial tolerance, and ethnic diversity, while labeling those who criticize them as racist.

    Re: this comment on HNN:

    Still, disingenuous as it is, the tone of the comment strikes me as more considered and conciliatory than the petition which provoked it – aside from the quip about the “raciest group of learned people,” of course. That’s slick.

    Again, fascinating. And too bad the signatories are listed alphabetically. “Ayers,” front and center…. There’s truth in the adage that academics make the worst politicians. It’s easy enough to attack flawed beliefs. To do so through constructive dialogue, however, without haranguing or alienating (or screaming), requires some pretty sweet social skills. And patience.

  • matt mckeon May 20, 2009 @ 17:27

    I mean, in Dublin the IRA blew up a statue of Admiral Nelson, a symbol of British rule, leading to the classic headline “British Admiral Leaves Dublin by Air.” That’s protesting a statue.

  • matt mckeon May 20, 2009 @ 17:26

    “Professors demand symbolic protest of symbol.”

  • Peter May 20, 2009 @ 17:05

    As I recall, Ronald Reagan seemed to get in a spot of trouble for honoring men fighting for what they believed in.

  • John Wood May 20, 2009 @ 15:56

    He should follow tradition and place the wreath. He is honoring men for fighting what they believed in not some political statement. “Old times are not forgotten…”

  • Ken Noe May 20, 2009 @ 12:19

    I could be wrong, but something tells me that the president and his advisers won’t be eager to follow advice offered in a letter signed by, among others, the now-legendary William Ayers.

    • Kevin Levin May 20, 2009 @ 13:15


      That was my first thought. If they had any chance at all in convincing the president they blew it by allowing Ayers to sign this.

  • Mike May 20, 2009 @ 12:08

    I agree with you to a point about the Flag. But Calling on the President of the USA to not place flowers at a Monument as others have done since Woodrow Wilson is Taking things too far. I want everybody to get along and go along.

    • Kevin Levin May 20, 2009 @ 12:12


      Let me be clear that from what I read the president will not attend the ceremony personally. I also don’t think that by canceling the wreath that this would be “taking things too far.” My problem is that it has no potential to lead to anything productive along the lines that Obama seems to prefer.

  • Mike May 20, 2009 @ 11:40

    This letter and the tone in which it is written and the comments that followed will only make Rednecks and any Copperhead or Compatriot in the South even more angry and galvanized when it comes to racial reconciliation. ( The Letter comes across as Childish and Petty) Many we know here in Texas are very Anti- NAACP because of their SC Boycott and them always making a Fuss about the Confederate Battle Flag. IMO This group of Scholars and the NAACP would be miles ahead by picking their battles more wisely and in this case letting sleeping dogs lie. My 88-year-old Grandmother said the NAACP used to help colored folks; but now all they do is try to stir up a fuss so they can get on the TV or in the Paper. This letter has already been posted on Confederate Colonel and will be on many others before the end of the week. There is no reason to break this Historic Tradition that has continued through 2 World wars till this day.

    • Kevin Levin May 20, 2009 @ 11:52


      Let me say that in the past I’ve been critical about the NAACP’s approach in addressing issues surrounding the public display of the Confederate flag. That said, I believe that civil rights organizations and African Americans in general have the right to be critical of the Confederate flag owing to its history. Some may see it as the flag of an army that functioned as an extension of a slave-holding nation while others no doubt have memories of it as a symbol of “Massive Resistance” from the 1950s and 60s. This frustration is real and in my view it is legitimate. Anyone looking for a good history of this flag must read John Coski’s _The Confederate Battle Flag_ (Harvard University Press)

  • Tim Lacy May 20, 2009 @ 11:21

    I saw the HNN letter yesterday before any comments were visible. I just checked the letter again after seeing this post. Wow. Some folks are downright mean. By the way, what’s a “snivelling mouth-breather”? I’ve never heard that before, as an epithet or otherwise. Lorraine seems pleasant. – TL

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