Trayvon Martin and Civil War Memory

Outrage over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin last month in Sanford, Florida can now be seen in the form of graffiti on Civil War monuments in New Orleans.  It should come as no surprise.  Monuments to both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were spray painted with the names of Martin and two other local African American men, who recently died as a result of violent clashes with city police.  The spray painted names are themselves a form of memory, but the use of the Davis and Lee monuments add meaning that go far beyond confronting random graffiti on the side of a building.

Irregardless of whether the graffiti can be traced to the black community, the act itself serves to remind the surrounding community that this violence is perceived to be racial in nature.  The use of these particular monuments not only points to the history of racial tension in the community, but to the institutions themselves that were responsible for creating these public spaces and largely responsible for legally enforcing inequities within the public sector.  The damage to these structures reflects a sense of alienation from the community and a rejection of the community’s values as represented in these monuments.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, the decision to deface these particular monuments reflects the extent to which memory of the Civil War has been eclipsed or shaped by our collective memory of the civil rights movement.  It is likely that the perpetrators of this act know very little about Davis and Lee, but they know enough to connect them to the history of race in the United States during the past 150 years.  That is clearly a recent development.  The appropriation of the meaning of these sites as stamped with a history of racial injustice is itself an attack on the values and preferred Civil War memory of previous generations.

It is unlikely that the monuments will be cleaned in time for the “Final Four” showdown this weekend.  That’s OK for at least one person:

Pastor Shawn Anglim of First Grace United Methodist Church has a different take on the graffiti that has focused on the controversy surrounding the meanings.“Right now, it’s a need for conversation. And whether done in proper way or not, maybe it’s OK it’s up for a week or so. And it gets some people talking a little bit,” Anglim said.

If only we knew how to talk about such things.
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Lucky Penny

For some reason this just made my day.

Paige’s life was dull until the day she planted a penny that magically sprouted her very own Abraham Lincoln. The two quickly become inseparable and it seems Paige’s days of being a lonely girl have finally come to an end. However, her newfound friendship is threatened when Connor, the neighborhood bully, discovers Paige’s secret and decides to harvest a president of his own.

Producers of this project are looking for financial assistance to complete the movie.

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Portsmouth, Virginia Embraces Its Southern Unionist Heritage

Last week the Portsmouth Historical Commission passed the following resolution honoring Southern Unionists:

Whereas the history of the Civil War has at times, understandably but mistakenly, been seen as a battle between regions . . .

Whereas in reality the dedication to Union and Emancipation was shared by millions of Americans north and south . . .

Whereas there were many in the states that formed the Confederacy “who in the darkest hour of slavery kept alive in their souls a love of manhood rights, justice, and the unity of the United States of America”

Whereas these men and women who risked everything to preserve the Union are rarely remembered as much as they should . . .

Whereas in Virginia especially, support for Union was so pronounced that the state split itself in two . . .

Whereas many of the people of present day Virginia can also look to the family histories of Unionism of which they can be proud . . .

And whereas the city of Portsmouth was, for much of the war, a haven for Virginia’s Unionists, both black and white . . .

Be it resolved that the City of Portsmouth through its History Commission. . .

Declare May of this year to be Southern Unionist History Month,

Encourage other localities in Virginia and the Commonwealth itself to join in this declaration, and

Provide for various events and information during May to make Virginians more aware of Civil War Unionism in and around Portsmouth, Virginia.

This week the organization asked the city council to adopt the resolution and set aside May as Southern Unionist Heritage Month.  The council was unable to vote on the resolution since it had not been placed on the agenda in time for the meeting.

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Robert K. Krick Defends Lee From Strawmen

I think it’s time for Robert K. Krick to get a new angle.  How much longer do we have to be subjected to vague references of an “anti-Lee” cabal among academic historians?  In 2007 I was asked to respond to a presentation he gave as part of the University of Virginia’s commemoration of “Lee at 200.”  In it Krick accused academic historians of intentionally distorting the history of Lee through an embrace of psycho-history and an over reliance on interpretation.  It appears that when it comes to Lee: No Interpretation Necessary.  If you want to know what Lee believed, just read his own words.  It appears little has changed in five years.

This past weekend Krick took part in the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s Signature Conference at the Virginia Military Institute.  It sounds like it was a huge success, which I am glad to hear.  Krick used the opportunity to once again go after his fellow historians.  This time, however, he accused them of ignoring Confederate postwar accounts as tainted with Lost Cause mythology.  As one example he cited the following:

One “inane strain” of that criticism, he said, holds that Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wasn’t really so popular among his troops and Southern citizens at the time.  Nonsense, Krick said.  He offered a maxim about the writing of history that he called Hamlin’s Razor (a riff on Occam’s Razor): “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance or sloth.”

Can someone please name one historian who has recently made such a claim?  This is nothing more than a strawman argument.  The article does not mention whether Krick had anyone specific in mind and I suspect that he failed to do so.  And I don’t know one historian who brushes off postwar accounts as unreliable.  What a silly thing to say.  The only example Krick could muster was a recent story out of Ohio in which a teacher reprimanded a student for including Confederate sources.  Krick wrote to the teacher and we can only hope that this is the end of the story, but it tells us nothing particularly interesting about how historians treat postwar Confederate sources.

Enough already.

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Civil War Memory Goes to Yale

This morning I traveled to New Haven, Connecticut to visit with David Blight’s Civil War Memory seminar at Yale.  It was my first time to the campus and I had a wonderful experience.  I had a chance to talk a bit about my research, the blog, and how the Internet is shaping Civil War remembrance.  The students were incredibly thoughtful and I especially enjoyed the opportunity to join in their discussion of a new book of essays edited by Thomas Brown.  They gave me quite a bit to think about.  Thanks so much to Professor Blight and to Brian Jordan [check out Brian's new book on South Mountain] for the invitation.

Afterwards I spent some time with a few of my former students.  It was so nice to see them enjoying and taking full advantage of their college experience at Yale.

All in all, it was a great day.

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