A Different Kind of Reconciliation

One of the more difficult aspects of blogging for me has been the maintenance of Online relationships.  I’ve never had much patience in dealing with problematic scenarios and my tendency has always been to find a way to distance myself from certain individuals as quickly as possible.  This usually involves ceasing any and all contact both on the blog and via email.  We have the potential to get so emotionally worked up and words on a screen seem like an inadequate way of addressing it so why bother.  In all honesty, in five years I haven’t gotten much better at it.

Long time readers are no strangers to occasional spats that I’ve had with fellow blogger, Michael Aubrecht.  At times it went way beyond what was appropriate and a few times it became very personal.  These are not interactions that I am not proud of, but I would like to think that I learned important lessons as a result.  I haven’t thought about it in quite some time, but today Michael left the following comment on Brooks Simpson’s recent post about me.

It’s no secret that Kevin and I have had our share of differences over the years, and at times, they have been of a personal and vitriol nature. Both of us are guilty in this regard and I myself have fanned the flames on more than one occasion. Frankly, there are still many issues that we do not agree upon, although I believe that there are many others that we do. Regardless of our past, I vehemently agree that Kevin’s blog has made a big impact on the CW blogosphere while bringing many important issues to light, such as the Black Confederate myth. I myself have posted on this subject with the same frustration that Kevin has. In my declining health, I find myself needing less conflict in both my professional and personal life, especially conflict that serves no greater purpose. Perhaps even Kevin Levin and I can come to terms and express a mutual respect for one another. That would show everyone on all sides of the argument that the blogosphere is not only a place where historical opinions and truths can be shared with the masses, but also a domain where stubborn historians can find a way to work toward a common goal. That goal of course is the proper preservation and presentation of our Nation’s precious history. As we begin to acknowledge the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial, we must celebrate the reunification of our country. If our forefathers could find a way to come together after four years of horrific fighting, why the hell can’t we find a way to get along too…eh Kevin?

I think Michael is right.  It’s time to move on and put the past behind us.  More importantly, I want to wish Michael a speedy recovery.  I’ve known for a few weeks that Michael’s health was in decline.  This is an opportunity to break through the silliness to what matters.

Get well soon, Michael.

The Seven Days Ballad

YouTube is probably the most popular social networking tool currently being utilized in history classrooms across the country.  The vast majority of them are simply put, horrible.  They reflect very little understanding of the medium by the student as well as their teachers.  In my view it’s the clearest example of what is wrong with the way history teachers utilize social media in the classroom.  While there has clearly been a push to embrace these tools over the past few years, many teachers have not thought enough about how they enhance students’ understanding of the past as well as the analytical skills involved.  Once in a while, however, a video stands out.  In this case two students offer a visual representation of the Seven Days Battles accompanied by a little ballad.  It’s clever and fun.

“Who’s Afraid of…?”: A Response

Thanks to Brooks Simpson for a thoughtful post about the visceral reaction that Civil War Memory engenders in certain folks.  I’ve also thought a bit about this question over the years.  Certainly, the vitriol is something that I did not anticipate.  Brooks correctly notes “that there are people (including me) who take a much more confrontational public stance on various issues, and who have not been the targets of nearly as much abuse.”  We could look at any number of things that certain readers have trouble with, including my place of birth, perceived political biases, as well as the standard litany of vague references to “anti-Southern”, “anti-Confederate”… blah, blah, blah.  Actually, I think there is something else at work here.  Brooks writes:

In short, admitting the quality of Kevin’s blog, one of the factors contributing to his influence is the reaction he engenders from people who assume he possesses such influence … which, ironically, has contributed a great deal to his influence.  If people are afraid of him, then he must be saying important things, and maybe we ought to listen to him given the reaction he sparks.  By assuming his influence, Kevin’s critics have helped make him influential.

I don’t doubt that the attention I receive from these quarters fuels interest in the blog and has contributed to my popularity.  In fact, some of my most loyal readers are counting the days until I leave the South forever.  In the end, however, this does not explain the popularity of the blog or suffice as a reason for my increased notoriety.  I suspect that what energizes this particular base is the fact that my blogging has resulted in increased opportunities to teach beyond the confines of my classroom (public lectures/workshops/advisory roles) as well as all kinds of professional writing opportunities.  I would like to think that it is the quality of my blogging as well as published work that is responsible for this success. It is the blog, however, that has allowed me to showcase this work to a broad audience that includes a small handful of folks that are offended by what I do.  It’s impossible to imagine being offered a writing gig or an opportunity to work with high school history teachers if I wasn’t perceived as a competent teacher as well as a competent practitioner of the historical craft.  To put it another way, it turns out that my blogging matters to a great many people from a wide range of backgrounds.  I suspect that this is what drives these folks to lash out in various ways.  My success is a reminder to the folks that Brooks cites in his post that their conversations have no significance beyond the walls of their blogs, listservs, and Facebook pages.

One final point.  Let’s not exaggerate the importance of the folks that Brooks references.  As far as I can tell they represent such a small sample of my readership that they don’t even appear on the radar screen.  They do not represent a significant constituency and they are not engaged in serious discussion about American history and memory.  They are at best a sideshow.  I would much rather focus on the people who have embraced my blog and helped me to better understand a crucial time in our nation’s history.

Thanks Brooks.

Should Descendants of Confederate Soldiers Celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday?

Well, historian and Sons of Confederate Veterans member, Greg Clemmer thinks so.  Clemmer is the author of Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor, which was published back in 1997.  Unfortunately, he is one of the few voices of reason within the SCV.  Consider what he has to say about Lincoln’s birthday as well as his reasons for attending commemorative events at the Lincoln Memorial:

We have already touched on answers to that first question in previous Examiner articles. Yet most students of the war recognize that the Lincoln Memorial is a monument to democracy … that it is for everyone … that it primarily honors the martyred president’s success in restoring the Union … and that it remains a vivid reminder of our ongoing challenge to bind up the nation’s wounds….

Most recall that over the years the Lincoln Memorial has hosted a number of epic events, from contralto Marian Anderson’s live performance before 70,000 and a national radio audience in 1939, to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, to the inauguration celebrations of George W. Bush in 2001 and Barack Obama just two years ago. Yet few know that this memorial was built of Indiana limestone and Colorado marble, or that Daniel Chester French sculpted Lincoln’s seated figure out of marble from the hills of Georgia….

Yes, just as aged Confederate veterans attended the Lincoln Memorial’s original dedication in 1922, there has been a “Confederate presence” at the monument on this day down through the years. Representatives solemnly present a wreath to honor Lincoln, but a wreath accompanied by that Confederate battle flag—yes, the most recognized symbol of the civil war—walked across those marble steps in remembrance of the sacrifice of both sides … yet signifying to all, the binding up of the nation’s wounds.

Clemmer’s column serves as a reminder that there is a long history of Southern admiration for Lincoln and not simply among black Southerners.   On February 12, 1928, the Virginia House of Delegates rose for the first time in respect for Lincoln’s memory and adjourned “in honor of…the martyred President of the United States, whose death was a distinct blow to the South, resulting in a national calamity.”  Not surprisingly, a number of public figures, including Lyon G. Tyler (son of of the president) and Reverend Giles B. Cook (Lee’s staff) offered a request to “to Repeal the Resolution of respect for Abraham Lincoln, the Barbarian…” and an eleven-page resolution.  At least one newspaper editor encouraged its readers to “put aside old animosities.”

Consider the following 1929 survey of 4,658 boys and girls in Alabama living in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham done by David Spence Hill.  Hill asked the following: Of all persons whom you have heard, or read about, or seen, whom would you most care to be like or resemble”?  One third of the boys and 60% of the girls named a relative or personal acquaintance; however, when it came to historic and public figures their answers were quite telling.  Of the boys, 26% chose Washington while both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee came away with 5% each.  The girls also overwhelmingly chose Washington, but Lincoln earned 3% while Lee only earned 2%.  Barry Schwartz’s analysis of the data is worth repeating in full:

Hill’s survey shows Lincoln’s prestige to have been feeble among school children, but he also documents the decline of the Confederate tradition.  That Lincoln and Lee are named by virtually the same small percentage of respondents is surprising, given the belief about the South’s lingering resentments.  No longer can negative Southern attitudes toward Lincoln be attributed to nostalgia for the Confederacy and its heroes.  Moreover, Alabama children were discovering ideals in the present as well as the past.  Boys ranked Charles Lindbergh (22 percent) just below George Washington.  Girls also mentioned Lindbergh, along with film stars Clara Bow, Billie Dove, and Ruth Elder.  Not the Confederate hero but George Washington and contemporary entertainers were competing against Abraham Lincoln for Southern children’s attention and respect. (p. 55-56)

One of the most popular publications of Confederate nostalgia was Tyler’s Quarterly Magazine and in 1939 one of its contributors complained that “praises for Lincoln emanate in almost equal fervor from practically every section of America.”  Not too long ago newspapers inquired as to why Southern states were not taking part in Lincoln Bicentennial events.  Of course, anyone who bothered to look would have noticed that there are numerous events throughout the South which acknowledge in one way or another his importance to American history.  In fact, Lincoln is getting much more attention than both Lee and Jefferson Davis.  My guess is that the author of the piece was driven more by popular perception than any serious understanding of Lincoln’s place in our national memory.  One of the reasons why I find the study of memory to be so intriguing is that it has the potential to surprise.  I am constantly struck by the extent to which our assumptions about the past or the ways in which previous generations interpreted the past deviate from our own.  We should be careful not to use those who came before as a means to our own ends.  So, if you are a white Southerner who respects and admires Lincoln, it turns out that you are in very good company.

Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner?

Sometimes I wonder if people are aware that there is a historical profession that has been engaged over the past few decades in the critical analysis of every aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life.  Consider the following description of an upcoming BBC documentary on Lincoln:

To most Americans Abraham Lincoln is the nation’s greatest president – a political genius who won the Civil War and ended slavery. Today the cult of Lincoln has become a multi-million dollar industry, with millions of Americans visiting his memorials and thousands of books published that present him as a saint more than a politician.

But does Lincoln really deserve all this adulation? 150 years after the war his reputation is being re-assessed, as historians begin to uncover the dark side of his life and politics. They have revealed that the president who ended slavery secretly planned to deport the freed black people out of America. Others are asking if Lincoln should be remembered as a war hero who saved the nation or as a war criminal who launched attacks on innocent southern civilians.

His “reputation is being re-assessed?”  Historians haven’t just “begun to uncover” anything. You couldn’t even think about doing this documentary without the fact that historians have been working on more critical and balanced interpretations of Lincoln for years. How many books on Lincoln came out during his bicentennial alone?  Give me a break.

By the way, Henry Louis Gates did this very same video a few years ago and in my view he did a much better job.