Nathan Bedford Forrest, Race, and Memory in Memphis

Over at the Atlantic I share some thoughts about the recent controversy in Memphis surrounding the renaming of Forrest Park.  I hope the essay at least provides a bit of historical context to this issue.  Once again, thanks to Court Carney for making my job much easier.  Tennessee’s state legislature finally passed a measure making it illegal to remove monuments and/or change the names of public places in honor of military figures.  The legislation is not affect recent changes in Memphis.  Here is a short clip from the debate in Nashville between the sponsor of the bill and Representative G.A. Hardaway of Shelby County/Memphis.

The state of Georgia is now considering similar legislation.  There is something ironic about the passage of legislation by state legislatures to protect monuments to people who supposedly fought for nothing more during the Civil War that the right to make decisions through their local governments without outside interference.

[Click here for all my posts at the Atlantic.]

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Your Book Better Deliver On Its Promises

Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 7.27.16 PMLast night I spent some time browsing Civil War titles on Amazon to redeem my book credit from last quarter.  As always, thanks to those of you who purchase items on Amazon through my affiliate links.  During my search I happened upon this forthcoming biography about John Bell Hood by Stephen Hood, who is apparently a distant relative.  I recently learned of a new collection of personal letters and other documents about Hood that were discovered, but have been kept under close wrap by Stephen Hood.  Given this development I decided to click the link for more information.  I was immediately struck by the description, which I assume will appear on the dust jacket.

Outlived by most of his critics, Hood’s published version of the major events and controversies of his Confederate military career met with scorn and skepticism. Many described his memoirs as nothing more than a polemic against his arch-rival Joseph E. Johnston. These unflattering opinions persisted throughout the decades and reached their nadir in 1992 when an influential author described Hood’s memoirs as “merely a bitter, misleading, and highly distorted treatise” replete with “distortions, misrepresentations, and outright falsifications.” Without any personal papers to contradict them, many historians took full advantage of the opportunity to portray Hood as an inept and dishonest opium addict and a conniving, vindictive cripple of a man. One writer went so far as to brand him “a fool with a license to kill his own men.” Authors misused sources and ignored or suppressed facts sympathetic to Hood.  Stephen M. “Sam” Hood, a distant relative of the general, embarked on a meticulous forensic study of the common perceptions and controversies of his famous kinsman. His careful use of the original sources of the broadly accepted “facts” about John Bell Hood uncovered startlingly poor scholarship by some of the most well-known and influential historians of the 20th and 21st centuries. These discoveries, coupled with his use of a large cache of recently discovered Hood papers-many penned by generals and other officers who served with General Hood-confirm accounts that originally appeared in Hood’s posthumously published memoir and resolve, for the first time, some of the most controversial aspects of Hood’s long career.   “Blindly accepting historical ‘truths’ without vigorous challenge,” cautions one historian, “is a perilous path to understanding real history.” The shocking revelations in John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General will forever change our perceptions of Hood as both a man and general, and those who set out to shape his legacy.

I know in a tough economy publishers must do whatever they can to market new titles so that they stand out from the crowd, but I am not sure I would want to impart such a tone on my book.  Is Mr. Hood really going to demonstrate that historians have “misused” and/or “ignored or suppressed facts sympathetic to Hood”?  It’s also difficult to tell whether some of these nameless historians intentionally distorted Hood’s record or simply came up short because they didn’t have access to these new sources.  This just comes off as downright reckless.

John Bell Hood’s name has come up a few times on this site, most notably in connection a few years ago with the John Bell Hood Society, which took out an advertisement at Civil War News attacking Wiley Sword.  Stephen Hood is the president of that organization and apparently has some real interpretive disagreements with Sword’s interpretation of John Bell Hood.

Is this the case of an author with too much of a personal investment in his subject?  We shall see.

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Seceding From v. Seceding To

Harvard University Press was kind enough to send me a review copy of Walter Johnson’s new book, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom.  I am only beginning to make my through it, but I am very enthusiastic given how much I enjoyed Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market.  I am hoping that the book helps to fill at least part of the whole in my understanding of slavery’s connection to the broader Atlantic World.  The only book that I’ve read that directly addresses this subject is Edward Rugemer’s The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War, which I found to be incredibly helpful as I worked to better understand the massacre of USCTs at the Crater by Confederates.

Hopefully, I will have something more to say about the book in the coming weeks, but for now I want to leave you with a short video of Johnson discussing the subject of the book.  What I love about this video is how he describes the slight shift in the kind of question that drove his research.  It’s so subtle and yet it immediately opens up any number of interesting and potentially fruitful lines of inquiry.  I always emphasize to my students the importance of asking the right question at the beginning of the research process.  With their projects right around the corner I may utilize this video to make just that point.

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Our American Hero

D-Day

Over the weekend this country lost another American hero from World War II and my family lost a dear friend.  Joseph Weiner was 17 years old when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.  From there he fought his way across Europe and in the process was awarded two Purple Hearts and five Bronze Stars.

I first met Joe when I was still in high school.  What I remember more than anything else was his friendly personality and especially his sense of humor.  Joe always had a smile on his face and his jokes were the life of the party.  I will never forget him asking me to think about the theme of a local shopping center that somehow managed to include a BJ’s, Siemens, and Dicks.

Like most kids growing up along the Jersey shore, I spent most of my free time during the summer months on the beach.  Growing up in a beach community you eventually learn where to look for certain people and Joe was no exception.  I could always count on Joe sitting in the same spot with his wife Esther, his step-daughter Janeen and often with my parents as well.  My favorite days, however, were when Joe was alone and we had a chance to talk.  During my high school years it was the war in Europe that held my interest and imagination.  I knew that Joe served in the war and that he took part in the Normandy invasion.  I wanted nothing more than to talk with Joe about his experiences, but early on I understood that this was not going to happen.  He offered little more than a short list of battles he had taken part in and I did my best to respect his privacy.  Even after Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was released Joe showed no interest in revisiting his past.

The one exception took place on the beach years later after Michaela and I had met.   It was just the three of us. Perhaps it had something to do with Michaela being German.   Joe talked for what seemed like and hour about a weekend furlough in Paris in late summer ’44.  It certainly wasn’t the kind of war story that I had anticipated as Joe described spending the weekend above a bakery with two young French girls.  At one point a woman seated close by, who was previously occupied by a magazine, desperately strained herself to pick up every last detail from Joe’s story.  It was that good. In that moment Joe was 17 years old again.

Later my wife thanked Joe for his service, not simply for helping to liberate her country, but for making it possible for the two of us to meet.  I’ve been thinking a lot about that comment over the past two days.  Regardless of how Joe remembered his experiences in WWII, I hope the thought brought him some comfort.

Thank you, Joe.  We are going to miss you.

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Interpreting the USCT at Civil War Sites

Looking forward to seeing some of you next month in Gettysburg for the Future of Civil War History conference.  As I’ve mentioned before I am moderating a panel discussion on interpreting United States Colored Troops at Civil War sites.  We’ve got a nice selection of panelists who can address different aspects of the challenge of engaging the general public about race and the history of USCT through the National Park Service, museums, and the classroom.  Pre-conference discussions are already taking place so that we can take full advantage of our time together in Gettysburg.

Here are the questions we are thinking about.

  • What is gained and lost in trying to understand the USCT experience through the theme of “new birth of freedom”?  How does recent scholarship on the USCT experience grapple with this theme?  In restoring agency to the USCT at historic sites, have we inadvertently made the message visitors receive too celebratory?
  • How does the movie Glory continue to shape popular understanding of the USCT?
  • How can we effectively convey the diverse experiences of USCT soldiers at Civil War sites, and help visitors to understand what changed – and what did not change – between 1863 and 1865?
  • How can Civil War sites use the USCT to move beyond the battlefield discussion of Reconstruction, citizenship, and westward expansion?

For a number of reasons I am very interested in the first question.  I know a few of you out there are planning to attend the conference so having these questions should give you a sense of the scope of the panel.  Even if you are unable to attend feel free to share your thoughts about any of the questions or anything else related to this topic that you think the panel should consider.  C-SPAN is slated to record this panel so it should be available for viewing at a later date.

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