Ron Maxwell’s Arlington Speech

The History News Network has posted Ron Maxwell’s recent address at the Confederate cemetery at Arlington.  He starts off with the right tone, but unfortunately, toward the end he was much too distracted by the Sebesta-Loewen petition.  If you are going to honor soldiers than honor soldiers.  That’s the purpose of Memorial Day.  It just seemed to me to be out of place.  Even more interesting is Maxwell’s theme: “The history of America is liberation.”

In the 19th century the work of liberation would continue, slowly, falteringly, but steadily. Before slavery could be ended by law a transformation of the hearts and minds of Americans had to take place. Mammon is a heavy shackle on the soul. When profits are fused with prejudice change is even harder to accomplish. It is argued that the liberation of America from the nightmare of slavery would have happened in time, as it did throughout the rest of the Western Hemisphere, without a savage Civil War. Alternate histories and speculations of paths not taken are of endless interest, but the facts of history cannot be undone. We did have a brutal Civil War. And the work of liberation continued.

Are we to understand that the Confederate soldiers being commemorated by Maxwell contributed to the liberation of slaves and beyond?

These graves stand as monuments not just to the slain – but to remind us of a world that could have been, but for their sacrifice. A world of oppression, a world of ignorance, a world of conformity. One need only look at the images from Pyong Yang in North Korea – the regimented masses offering homage to their supreme leader – to catch a glimpse of the prison camp that could have been our destiny as well.

Now this is what I call historical revisionism.  Well done, Ron.

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John Brown’s Pikes

For some reason John Brown is back in the news of late with a specific focus on his continuing legacy as well as the pikes or spears that were to be used during the raid.  For an excellent discussion of Brown’s life as well as the significance of the Harpers Ferry Raid I highly recommend viewing a webcast from the Virginia Sesquicentennial’s recent “Signature Conference” held at the University of Richmond.  You can view all the sessions, including the session on Brown (you need to download Real Player), which featured historians David Blight, Manisha Sinha, Clarence Walker, and David Reynolds whose recent biography of Brown is well worth reading.  One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion is their emphasis on placing Brown’s life and motivation (Calvinism) as well as his actions in the context of black rebellion in the United States and especially in the Caribbean.  The emphasis on the latter led me to read Edward B. Rugemer’s recent book, The Problem of Emancipation: The Caribbean Roots of the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press, 2008), which I highly recommend.

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Rare Appomattox-Surrender Document to be Displayed in Ken Noe’s Office

Just kidding Ken, but congratulations nonetheless on securing a priceless Civil War document. See the story here.

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The Future of the Confederate Flag

My recent post on the unveiling of another large Confederate flag in Tennessee generated a number of comments.  It’s an emotional issue on all sides and it is unlikely that the interested parties will ever fully agree on whether it should be displayed in public as well as its meaning.  But that’s the way it is when it comes to controversial symbols.  By definition they are open to multiple points of view.  There is a certain amount of legitimacy on all sides and on occasion we can also see these same individuals/groups engaged in actions that betray ignorance and callousness.  Consider H.K. Edgerton’s ridiculous suggestion that if you don’t revere the Confederate flag than you ought to be considered a “traitor” or the Auburn official who plucked the Confederate flags from a soldier ceremony.  I could go on and on with examples.

Such a state of affairs is one of the reasons why I’ve suggested that the flag ought to be removed to a museum setting where it can be properly interpreted.  I don’t understand why more people in the SCV and other Confederate heritage groups don’t consider such a move.  Done right the flag would be taken out of a public debate that rarely evolves in a way where any real understanding of history is conveyed; it simply works to fuel passions on both sides.  As I see it the problem is that the flag is both connected to men who fought bravely in battle during the Civil War and it is a flag that was used as a symbol against civil rights in the 1950s.  You can’t change the history and, by extension, the way people identify with it.  To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand history and the nature of symbols themselves.  Go to the Museum of the Confederacy and you will see the flag in the context of the Civil War.  Across Broad Street, at the American Civil War Center at Tredegar, you will see the flag associated with the Civil War as well as a symbol of white supremacy in the 1950s.  The flag is there to be better understood.

Now, you might suggest that I am being a bit extreme in suggesting that the flag ought to be retired to a museum.  After all, its supporters want to see it in public as a rallying point and as a symbol of pride.  Fair enough and luckily we live in a society where that is permitted up to a point.  The sticking point as we know all too well is that the visibility of the Confederate flag is determined to a certain extent by society through local assemblies and other levels of government.  And let’s keep something very important in mind as we proceed: THIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE CASE!

The only difference in the last three decades following the civil rights movement is that a much broader segment of the population can now weigh in on issues having to do with how the past is remembered in public spaces because a broader segment of society is now represented in local government.  Because of this the debates are more heated and the outcomes no longer follow what some have taken for granted for far too long.  Does anyone really believe that if African Americans had been allowed to take part in local government during the era of Jim Crow we would not have seen a more vigorous and and even contentious debate about the public display of the Confederate flag along with monuments and other public sites?  Of course we would.  The defensiveness of some who believe that their “heritage” is under attack is a function of the fact that a certain segment of society has had a monopoly on public remembrance.  That has changed since the 1960s, but again, it should not be seen as anything more than the same democratic process at work.

So, what is the future of the Confederate flag (along with other symbols) and their meaning?  Its future will be determined in every community by those who choose to focus on whether this particular symbol best reflects their values and its collective past.  For instance, in Allegany County, Maryland the local school board has prevented the distribution of a pamphlet that depicts the Confederate flag.  In Jonesborough, Tennessee the mayor and aldermen voted to allow the placement of bricks with the names of Confederate soldiers from the county in a display to honor its veterans.  In both cases, as in so many other examples that can be found in newspapers across the country, these decisions are being made by elected officials who do their best to reflect the sentiment of their constituents. Get it right in enough cases and they stand a good chance of being reelected.  Get it wrong and they are out on their asses.  There is no fixed meaning of symbols with the kind of contested history as the Confederate flag, but if enough people rally to allow or prevent its display in a park or parade, etc than in that sense the community has issued a statement.  In each decision the meaning of the flag is fixed until the community chooses to change it.

On one of Robert Moore’s recent comment threads, fellow blogger Richard Williams suggested that the large Confederate flags are examples of “push back” against those who are perceived to be a threat to their preferred view of the past.  I think that is a fair characterization, but it is one that I hope I’ve explained in this post lies at the foundation of our democratic process.  Let me suggest that the supporters of the Confederate flag ought to be grateful that we now live in a society where “push back” is possible.

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Dimitri Rotov Historiography

I just wanted to take a moment to thank Dimitri Rotov for setting us straight on Civil War historiography:

Agitating against “Lost Cause” historiography invites one into a fantasy struggle against a pretend school of thought invented out of scraps of writing and speech and then built into a menace. Centennialism dresses up as Don Quixote to tilt against this windmill while its real foes line up for hard jousting.

Without his thorough analysis many of us might have continued to read historians such as David Blight, Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Gaines Foster, etc.  Since Dimitri has clearly demonstrated that the “Lost Cause” is an illusion I can now move on to more important things such as the “Centennialist School” – whatever the hell that is.

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Celebrities Read Civil War Letters

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SCV Hoists Another Big Ass Confederate Flag

Here’s a sure fire way to announce to the world just how irrelevant you are.  More to the point, the SCV would have us believe that this is nothing more than an attempt to honor the men who carried this flag into battle, but anyone with an undergraduate degree in child psychology can see that this is a classic example of children who are desperate to be seen and acknowledged.  The best part of this ceremony, however, is the inclusion of everyone’s favorite black Confederate, H.K. Edgerton.  He is in classic form:

This place should be full of black folks.  I don’t know why [I’m the only one here]. Maybe your newspaper should have told them to come to celebrate and sing Dixie and salute our flag. It’s a shame white folks and black folks make people think this is an evil flag. This is a southern flag. You can’t attack this flag and call yourself a southerner. You can call yourself a traitor….I represent four and a half million black folks who’ve been beat down and would love to be here, too.  If they tell you they wouldn’t be, the first thing you ask is where they’re from. Then you tell them to go on back.

Tracking Civil War memory can at times be downright fun.  Way to go boys.

If the SCV were really interested in ensuring that the flag is interpreted “properly” they would retire it and push for its display only in museums where it can be given the kind of attention it deserves.  As always my thinking on this issue has been influenced by John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2006).

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A Few Thoughts for Ed Sebesta and James Loewen

Now that things have calmed down a bit re: the petition asking Obama not to send a wreath to the Confederate monument at Arlington, I thought it might be time to offer a few words of advice.  James Loewen recently offered some thoughts in the wake of the controversy.  He finds it difficult to understand the media’s coverage, including its emphasis on Bill Ayers and the overlooking of some of the top scholars in the field:

It turned out that the only name the media cared about was Ayers.  The Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, headlined its story, “Radical Bill Ayers dogs Obama, even on Memorial Day.”  Within the story, Ayers’s name does not appear until the 14th paragraph, which is appropriate.  But no other signer’s name appears at all — not mine, not Sebesta’s, not even McPherson’s, surely America’s pre-eminent scholar on the period, whose Battle Cry of Freedom won the Pulitzer Prize.  Today, searching for “Ayers Obama “Memorial Day” wreath yields 7,570 hits, while “McPherson Obama “Memorial Day” yields just 2,570.

Given the recent political fallout over President Obama’s tenuous connection with Ayers should we really be surprised that the media immediately picked up on and emphasized the inclusion of his name?  The ignoring of the other signers goes without saying.  Most interested parties in this debate could care less about what some scholar believes.  In fact, as I’ve learned over the course of writing this blog many people have an irrational distrust of academics and have probably never read anything by James McPherson, not to mention Manisha Sinha and others.  In the end most people’s memory of the war is fueled by stories and other popular cultural expressions and has almost nothing to do with anything that can remotely be characterized as scholarly.  [That’s not to be taken as a criticism, but as an observation that may or may not be accurate.]

Loewen also seems a bit puzzled by the heated debate that followed on a number of websites.  Yes, the crazies came out in full force and even my name entered the mix, but anyone who follows these issues should have expected just that.  Part of the difficulty for Loewen is that he wants us to distinguish between two types of Confederate monuments.   “One type remembers and honors the dead.  The other,” according to Loewen, “glorifies the cause and typically obfuscates what it was (which was slavery).”  I may be wrong but I don’t think most people make this distinction.  The lone Confederate soldier in front of the court house is as much about a preferred interpretation of the cause of the war as the Davis statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond.  Likewise, the Davis statue can easily be interpreted and used as a setting for an SCV parade that wishes to honor their Confederate ancestors.  These are academic distinctions that mean little in the real world.

In preparation for next year Ed Sebesta has already set up a blog, which he will update as a new petition is organized – that’s right another petition.  Given the results this year it is appropriate to ask what good it will do to try it again.  Should we simply anticipate a differently worded petition with a new list of signatures?  More importantly, how will a new petition advance the debate and force us to look beyond what are deeply-held assumptions about our Civil War memory?   As far as I am concerned petitions such as this are non-starters.  I would encourage Sebesta and Loewen to rethink their overall approach.  I can’t tell you how many times one of my lesson plans has gone awry.  In those situations it is incumbent on the instructor to evaluate and make the necessary changes.

One of the positive results is that the petition led to the sending of a wreath to the African American Civil War monument in Washington.  Think of how many people now know that this monument exists, not to mention that our memory of the black experience in the Civil War remains largely hidden.  Why not work to bring more of this narrative to the public’s attention next year?  How about a well-publicized tour of the USCT section of Arlington next Memorial Day?

We all want to be activists, but we should never lose sight that we are educators first.

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