Watch Out For This Kid

Today was one of those days I live for as a teacher.  Over the course of this past year I’ve been working on an independent study that focuses on how the Civil War has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville, Virginia with Joseph Wolf, who is one of my students.  We met on a weekly basis to discuss various secondary sources that included books by David Blight, Kirk Savage, Thomas Brown, David Goldfield, John Neff, and Gary Gallagher, to name just a few.  In addition, Joseph and I explored the roles of the local chapters of the SCV and UDC and read through a number of their publications.  Joseph’s main focus was to analyze the equestrian statues at Lee and Jackson parks along with our two soldier monuments, located at the courthouse and Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia.

As part of his project Joseph presented his research today during lunchtime to a packed classroom of teachers and students.  He did a fabulous job of explaining the role of Charlottesville during the Civil War, the evolution of the Lost Cause, and the conditions that led to the four monuments.  Best of all, Joseph did an outstanding job of analyzing the monuments for the audience as well as fielding their questions.  It’s been an absolute pleasure working with this student.  As a sophomore Joseph took my elective on Lincoln and as a junior he took my survey course in American history along with my elective courses on the Civil War and Civil War memory.

I have to say, however, that as much as I enjoyed sharing my passion for the Civil War with this student the subject matter is secondary compared with the interpretive skills that were learned and the seriousness that comes with an appreciation of the complexity of the past.  It was a pleasure to be able to sit their with everyone else and watch Joseph as he educated the audience.  He was in command.

Joseph has decided to continue his education at the University of South Carolina where he will major in history.  Luckily for Joseph, Thomas Brown teaches in the History Department.  It’s safe to say that Joseph will graduate high school with an understanding of the Civil War that rivals, if not surpasses, students who are about to graduate from college.  I wish Joseph all the best in his future endeavors.  Keep an eye out for this kid.

[Image: Unveiling of Jackson Statue at Jackson Park in Charlottesville, Virginia]

What Do We Really Know About Our Ancestors?

I have admitted more than once that I don’t have any direct ties to the Civil War generation and no doubt it shapes, to a certain extent, the way I approach this particular period in American history.  In contrast I am struck by the level of intimacy that so many claim when talking or writing about an ancestor that fought in the Civil War.  Of course, living and teaching here in Virginia and blogging mainly about the history and memory of the American South influences the kinds of stories that I come across.  At times I don the hat of a historian and ask follow-up questions about evidence, but more often than not I listen to the story as an expression of how the individual in question chooses to engage and remember the past.  Often times I find that the stories reflect a set of cultural values or work to comfort the individual storyteller and family members.

Recently, I viewed two episodes of the NBC Show, “Who Do You Think You Are,” which follows celebrities as they research their pasts.  It’s essentially a rip-off of Henry Louis Gates’s successful PBS series.  The two episodes followed Matthew Broderick and Spike Lee and both related directly to the Civil War and slavery.  I will leave it to you to watch if interested, but what struck me in both shows was that when push comes to shove we know very little about our ancestors.  Most of us do not have family records on hand such as letters or other legal documents.  Websites like have clearly grown in popularity, but I suspect that the number of users is relatively small.

But if that doesn’t make the point I’ll go even further and suggest that most of us don’t even really know our own family members that are currently living.  How many of us really know the histories of our parents and grandparents?  I am talking about something that gets us beyond the basic narrative outline.  Barring a family member’s early death we could get at some of these questions if we were truly interested.  A couple of years ago my grandmother gave me a collection of letters written between her and my grandfather from the 1940s that you can see in the above photograph.  My grandfather’s auxiliary hats are included along with some wonderful vintage birthday and Mother’s Day cards.  It’s an incredible collection, but I do feel just a little uncomfortable about prying into my grandmother’s personal life.  Many of these letters were written while the two of them were separated by the war and a few of them date to their courtship.  I’ve talked with my grandmother on occasion about the Great Depression and other events, but I still admit to knowing relatively little about her life.

This is a roundabout way of getting to my main point, which is that most of you with ancestors who fought in the Civil War don’t know a damn thing about them.  You don’t know what they thought about slavery, secession, Lee, Jackson, Lincoln, Sherman, emancipation, defeat, victory or anything else for that matter.  Without an opportunity to talk directly with them or the benefit of some written document your claim to know why they fought is about as valid as your claim to know why any random individual fought.  You just happened to be lucky enough to fall within the same family tree.  Your tendency to be offended by a claim about Civil War soldiers or anyone else from that time tells us everything about how you remember the past and nothing about how your ancestor might respond.

The other thing that stood out in the two programs was the difficulty that both men experienced when confronted with a past that they had not anticipated or even understood as possible.  How many of our own claims about our ancestors would go up in flames when confronted with some solid historical evidence?  Would we be surprised?  Is it possible that we might have no idea of how to assess or make sense of their lives?  Perhaps the lesson here is that if we are going to “bear witness” to the lives of our ancestors we should first be willing to take a few steps in their direction.

God Is Definitely a Republican

This is a very strange history documentary hosted by Matthew and Laurie Crouch.  The show, including the over-the-top set is a cross between the 700 Club and Joel Osteen Ministries.  Mrs. Crouch is clearly playing the Tammy Fay Baker role, who along with her husband sit and nod in agreement.  Actually, she looks as if she is high as a kite.  David Barton offers a rather unusual analysis of Reconstruction that I will get to in a moment.  You can watch the entire series here – not that I recommend it.

Barton’s interpretation of Reconstruction basically comes down to pointing out that everything positive that happened relating to race relations and civil rights during Reconstruction and through the 1960s occurred because of the Republican Party.  The Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan, overturned legislation passed during Reconstruction, and resisted the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.  There is a bit of truth in much of what Barton has to say about the importance of slavery, the role of black Republicans during Reconstruction as well as the role of the Democratic Party in overturning much of the post-war legislation.  However, Barton seems to think that the Republican Party of the 1860s and 70s is the same Republican Party of today.  According to Barton, the KKK was started by Democrats to “whack Republicans.”  Of course, Barton makes no mention of why blacks throughout much of the South transitioned to the Democratic Party in the 1930s, the Dixiecrat movement in 1948 or the fact that the president who pushed both landmark pieces of civil rights legislation was a Democrat.