An Encouraging Site

Shaw 54thI recently accompanied a group of students to Washington, D.C. to take part in a mock Congress.  With a few hours to kill I decided to take a stroll through the National Gallery of Art.  Included in the collection is a reproduction of the Shaw Memorial, which is located on Beacon Street here in Boston.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of students sitting with a museum teacher, who did a wonderful job of interpreting the monument and engaging the group.  The kids talked about the history of Shaw and the 54th as well as the rich symbolism contained in Saint-Gaudens’s relief.  At one point she asked the kids to share sounds that might be heard in such a scene.  It made my day.

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Walking Through Richmond in 1993

Those of you living in the Richmond area will find this documentary to be particularly interesting.  In 1993 the city organized Healing the Heart of America, which among other things included a walk through Richmond in an attempt to address lingering tensions over slavery, race, and history.  Some of the interviews are quite interesting.  You can see the legacy of this walk in such programs as The Future of Richmond’s Past as well as the incredible work of Virginia’s Sesquicentennial Commission.  It is interesting to see the changes to the city’s commemorative landscape in the last twenty years.

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KKK and SCV Fight for Confederate Heritage

kkk-marchjpg-4db46ab8f62a7905

This week I am going to write an essay for my column at the Atlantic on the recent controversy surrounding the renaming of Forrest Park in Memphis, Tennessee.  Court Carney’s 2001 JSH essay on Forrest and historical memory has been incredibly helpful in placing this most recent incident within a much broader context.  I highly recommend it to those of you who are interested in Forrest and his place in our collective memory.

So, if all goes as planned it looks like the KKK will rally in Memphis on March 30.  This weekend we learned that the Sons of Confederate Veterans has requested that the Klan cancel their plans.  The basis for such a claim rests on dubious grounds.  Consider Lee Millar, who is a spokesman for the SCV:

We just want everyone to know that we are here to protect and preserve our history and do it in a gentlemanly fashion. [emphasis added]

You may remember that a few weeks ago Millar referred to Forrest as a “humane slave trader.”  What I find interesting is Millar’s and the SCV’s appropriation of Forrest’s history as their own.  The problem is that no one individual or organization can claim sole ownership of Forrest’s legacy and in this case it seems to me that the KKK has a legitimate claim to honoring the man.  They will likely want to single out Forrest’s growth during the antebellum years into one of Tennessee’s wealthiest slaveholders as well as his presence at Fort Pillow and early leadership of the Klan itself.  That seems to me to be as legitimate a claim as one will find among the major stakeholders who admire Forrest.

As I pointed out before, this places the SCV in a very difficult position.  Nothing that Millar or anyone else in the SCV has said challenges the Klan’s embrace of Forrest.  This could prove to be a very messy and uncomfortable event for the SCV given that they agree with the Klan’s position that the park should not have been renamed.

Klan members are likely to parade in Memphis with the Confederate flag on March 30.  The SCV can bring their own flags as well, but they run the risk of being identified with the Klan.  If they decide to stand up against the Klan in a show of solidarity with the general public they not only will be aligned with those who believe the park should be renamed, but they also will have acknowledged the very facts about Forrest that they have spent so much time either minimizing or denying.

This is too good to be true.

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Crisis at Fort Sumter: The Simulation

fort-sumter-fireEarlier this week my class took part in a simulation that required them to advise the President on what to do with the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter.  Below is the assignment and the list of documents that they used to construct their essays.  The discussion went extremely well.  One thing that I will do next time is have students come to class with outlines of an argument and allow them to use the class discussion to help with a final draft.  A number of students were swayed from their original positions.  The majority counseled that the fort should be resupplied and they argued mainly based on Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address.  They agreed that some kind of conflict was inevitable, but they also believed that a strong stance in the name of the Union was warranted.

Background: On March 4, 1861 Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as the 16th President of the United States from the new Republican Party.  Between his election on November 6, 1860 and February 9, 1861, seven states in the Deep South seceded and formed a new nation – The Confederate States of America.  President Lincoln has scheduled a meeting of advisers for March 29, 1861 to discuss the looming crisis in Charleston Harbor at Fort Sumter, where Major Robert Anderson is surrounded by Confederate forces and desperately short of provisions.  He reports that by mid-April he will be forced to surrender unless relieved.

Assignment: As a member of the cabinet you are requested to advise the president on a course of action.  The meeting will take place on Tuesday February 12 and you will come prepared with a 2-3 page essay outlining your recommendation.  Your essay should be addressed to the president and can be written in the first-person voice.  References to individual documents can be made indicating the doc # in parentheses at the end of the sentence. (Doc. #)

Questions that you will likely be asked by the president:

  • Evacuate or reinforce Fort Sumter?
  • Send only supplies or send additional troops as well?
  • What are the likely consequences of reinforcement or abandonment?
  • Is there any hope of South Carolina and the rest of the Deep South returning peacefully to the Union?
  • What is the likelihood of losing the Upper South (especially Virginia) if the decision at Sumter leads to fighting?  What is the feeling in that part of the country?
  • In the likelihood of war, how will the military situation change if we lose the Upper South? (territory, industry, population, etc.)
  • What is the state of morale in the North.  How is a decision at Sumter likely to effect support for the president and the Republican Party?
  • How important is it to show strength at Sumter and reinforce the president’s commitment that the Union will be preserved?

Documents:

  1. Selection from James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom — This will provide you with an overview of events leading up to and following Sumter.  Pay careful attention to quotes that McPherson uses.  They provide a window into what people were thinking at the time about a possible crisis.
  2. “The Choice is Charybdis”/NYTs Disunion by Jamie Malanowski — What important information does Stephen Hurlbut add to Lincoln’s decision?
  3. Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address — What does Lincoln’s speech reveal about his view of the Union and a possible course of action?  Does he anticipate violence?
  4. Jefferson Davis’s Inaugural AddressWhat does Davis’s speech suggest in terms of policy toward Sumter and does it include anything that Lincoln should consider?
  5. Positions of official cabinet members
  6. Secretary of State Seward counsels restraint for the sake of the Republican party and the nation.
  7. Lincoln to William Seward, April 1, 1861
  8. Lincoln to Winfield Scott (Commanding general of United States forces in 1861), March 9, 1861 and Scott’s response to Lincoln, March 11, 1861
  9. Virginia State Representative Chapman Stuart’s address to the secession convention on April 5, 1861 — According to Chapman at this time is there sufficient reason to secede from the Union over slavery?  Why or why not?  Why might this be important information for Lincoln to know and how do you think it should fit into his decision making re: Sumter?  In other words could the opinions of those in the state legislature like Chapman change if Lincoln were to threaten a fellow southern state?  [Note: Virginia’s secession convention has been in session for over two months.  During that time they took one vote for secession on April 4 and those against won (88-45).
  10. Diary entries by New York City resident, George Templeton Strong — Does Strong’s pessimistic attitude (an attitude likely shared by others) pose any problems for Lincoln?)
  11. Congressman John A. Gilmer of North Carolina (March 1861) — reports on the situation in his state between those pushing to stay in the union and those advocating secession.
  12. A Marylander Rejects Disunion – Maryland congressman Henry Winter Davis on secession and the firing on The Star of the West in Charleston Harbor
  13. Entries by Charleston newspaper editor William Gilmore Simms
  14. Diary entry (January 30 and February 28, 1861) by Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard
  15. Maps/Charts — See the class blog for a series of maps on Fort Sumter and Secession
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James Oakes Wins 2013 Lincoln Prize

Congratulations to James Oakes, 2013 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize winner for Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865.  It was also pleased to see that the finalists included books by Yael Sternhell and Stephen Kantrowitz.  Both finalists made my “Best of 2012“.  All three are must reads.

Below is a very short video of Oakes offering his own understanding of the popular question of who freed the slaves.  His answer offers a concise overview of the main argument in his book.  I am going to include this video for my students to consider as they work through a collection of primary and secondary sources on emancipation.

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States’ Rights For What?

fallofhouseofdixieI am in the home stretch with Bruce Levine’s wonderful new book, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South.  It’s extremely well written and is an excellent introduction to the story of the Confederacy and the central role that slavery played in its ultimate failure.  It should come as no surprise that Levine spends a good deal of time toward the end of the book exploring the debate over the enlistment of black soldiers into Confederate ranks.  The following two paragraphs address the conflict between the recruitment of blacks into the army and the stated goals of the Confederate government to protect the institution of slavery.

What follows serves as a reminder of how dangerous it is to generalize about what Confederates were fighting for outside of any historical context.  This is especially true for those who reduce this complex question to states’ rights.

Some of the measure’s [recruitment of blacks] champions responded coyly to this most fundamental of objections.  The editors of two Richmond papers declared that they and the white South as a whole had been fighting not for the sake of slavery but to secure states’ rights and southern independence.  “We are told by some horrified individuals,” said the Richmond Sentinel in affected surprise, “that this is ‘giving up the cause.'”  But, its editor demanded, just what cause are they referring to?  “We thought that independence was, just now, the great question.”  “This war is waged for the liberty, independence, and nationality of these States,” the Enquirer chimed in, and it was “for this object only” that “the people have made the tremendous sacrifices of the last four years.”  It follows as night the day that “any measure which secures the liberty, independence and nationality of these States is justified and made our imperative duty.”

Davis’s opponents found this claim simply laughable.  Yes, they retorted, we value states’ rights.  But the purpose of those rights has always been to protect the southern master from interference by a potentially hostile national government.  All southerners knew that “slavery–aggressions upon it by the North, apprehensions for its safety in the South”–was the “cause of Secession and that “all other questions were subordinate to it,” one Georgian now reminded his president.  “The principle of State Sovereignty” was “important to the South principally, or solely, as the armor that encased her peculiar institution.”  They had finally opted for full-scale independence for the same reason–to guarantee slavery’s future.  “Of what value is ‘self-government’ to the South,” one Texan demanded, once “the very fabric of Southern prosperity” has been lost? (252-53)

What I find so interesting is that the eventual bill that was passed through the Confederate Congress authorizing the enlistment of slaves into the army was rendered entirely ineffective because individual states and slaveholders held so tightly to their individual property rights in opposition to what they perceived to be an overly intrusive federal government in Richmond.  The only slaves that would be welcomed into the Confederate army were those who had been manumitted by their masters and who freely chose to join.  In the end, Confederates understood what states’ rights was all about.

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