Thinkin’ Lincoln

Thanks to the staff at the American Civil War Center at Tredegar as well as the University of Richmond for hosting what was by any measure a first-rate conference.  Special thanks go out to Mark Howell who organized the sessions and for inviting me to take part in the conference.  It was a true honor to be included in such a fine list of Lincoln scholars and Southern historians.  I am not going to try to summarize the entire conference in one post; instead, I am going to take the time to think about some of the things I heard and offer reflections in the coming weeks.  I do hope, however, to offer a summary of Ed Ayers’s keynote address, which included a new digital project that Ayers and others are now working on at the University of Richmond.

The most enjoyable parts of these gatherings is the opportunity to interact with talented scholars.  For me it was a chance to finally meet James McPherson.  Although I only spoke with him briefly it was nice to shake the hand of a man whose scholarship helped to fuel my interest in the subject and continues to frame many of the questions that drive my own research.  I can explain to you just how important his body of scholarship is to the field, but you don’t really get a feel for it until you attend one of these conferences.  Throughout the weekend speakers acknowledged McPherson’s role in shaping their own thinking on various topics as well as his generosity and encouragement.   You also get a sense of just how many historians were trained by McPherson and who went on to respectable careers in their own right.  I also spent time talking with historian and fellow blogger, Brian Dirck.  Brian is a hell of a nice guy and his presentation was particularly interesting and one that I will comment on at some point soon.  Sorry for sounding a bit over the top, but some people get excited about sports personalities while others get excited about historians.

In addition to meeting McPherson I had a wonderful time talking with Elizabeth Brown Pryor about her recent biography of Lee as well as the range of responses to it.  I also enjoyed chatting with Frank Milligan, who is the director of the Lincoln Cottage in Silver Spring, Maryland and look forward to the opportunity to work with teachers on the cottage grounds.  On Friday evening I had a wonderful dinner with Frank Milligan, Michael Burlingame, Manisha Sinha, and Leslie Rowland.

My teaching session yesterday morning went well.  We had a small group of educators and we spent the time talking about how we go about teaching Lincoln and the difficulties involved in moving beyond some of our own biases that may have been learned early on in our own lives.  It was a nice change of pace from the conference proceedings and gave me a great deal to think about in terms of my own teaching.  Thanks to everyone who attended.

On a different note, I noticed that the average number of visitors per day has topped 1,000.  I don’t know what this means relative to other Civil War/history blogs; perhaps I am being blown out of the water in this regard.  Still, it seems fitting to use it as an excuse to thank each and every one of you for making Civil War Memory part of your daily routine.

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back

The Charleston Museum is set to unveil a new exhibit that extends their permanent exhibit beyond 1865 with “A Storm Beyond Control: Freed Slaves and Political Mobilization in Reconstruction South Carolina.”  That’s right, up till now, for one reason or another, the museum ended its history of the state with the end of the Civil War.  That means that the history of African Americans in South Carolina only encompassed the institution of slavery.

That powerful narrative went largely unchallenged here until the late 20th century, but since then the racial and cultural myths at its core have aged poorly, causing decades of controversy and indigestion for numerous local institutions. Which raises the question: Did From Slaves to Sharecroppers represent another evolutionary step away from the aristocratic party line?  Museum Assistant Director Carl Borick doesn’t think so, contending the organization made a break from the past when it updated its mission in the 1980s.  “Since 1983, we’ve been pretty up-front about our history,” Borick says. “The museum has been very open to admitting the good and the bad. Slavery was what it was. We show that in our permanent exhibit.”

But good history also teaches us a healthy respect for irony, and no matter the efforts of its current employees, memory at the Charleston Museum remains highly selective. Glorious victory at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in 1776 gets a special display case. Humiliating defeat on the peninsula in 1780 — the largest surrender of patriot troops in the Revolutionary War — essentially goes unmentioned. Captured German and Japanese weapons from World War II? They’re on display. But the Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969? Nada.

Well, better late than never.  Meanwhile, just north of Charleston in Berkeley County, the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans [General Ellison Capers Camp 1212] is asking the local school board to close in honor of Confederate Memorial Day on May 10.  Although the holiday falls on a Sunday the SCV is encouraging the schools to close on Monday.  And what does this particular chapter hope the kids should do on this day off from school?  Any suggestions on how to honor their Confederate heritage, including the African American students in the district?  They don’t say.  In fact, you will not find anything educational on their website, which is the case for just about every SCV website that I’ve come across.  Check out the video in the link if it is still functional.  The head of this particular chapter is a real whoot.

“Sic Semper Tyrannis”

22th Regt. U.S. Colored TroopsBanner for the 22th Regt. U.S. Colored Troops, by David Bustill Bowser. Organized at Philadelphia in January 1864, the 22nd U. S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment lost 217 men during the last year of the Civil War. David Bustill Bowser was a self-taught black artis; he designed regimental flags for eleven African-American units and also painted portraits of Abraham Lincoln and John Brown.

Bowswer sent the 127th and 3rd regiments off to war carrying banners reading “We will prove ourselves men” and “Rather Die Freemen, Than Live To Be Slaves.” The 45th’s banner, proclaimed “One Cause, One Country,” while the 24th’s banner depicts a black soldier ascending a hill, his arms outstretched in prayer, beneath the words “Let Soldiers in War, Be Citizens in Peace.”

What I find interesting about this particular image is that Bowser utilized the Virginia state motto before Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.  We almost automatically associate this phrase with Booth’s deed.  The Confederate has tossed aside his sword and flag and must await his fate, which is now in the hands of what I assume to be a former slave.  The tables are now turned and both the future of this Confederate soldier and of the South rest in the hands of those who were once oppressed.  This is a very powerful example of the emancipationist legacy of the Civil War.

Note: Assuming that the soldier is a former slave than this is also an interesting example of The South v. The South theme.

[Image from Library of Congress]

Lee for Sale at Mount Vernon?

bob-leelargeOne of my readers came across this little item in the Mount Vernon gift shop.  He thought it would make for a wonderful Hanukkah present for me and I couldn’t agree more.  It’s never too early to think about showing your appreciation for your favorite Civil War blogger.  At first I was confused as to why Mount Vernon would offer for sale a Lee bobblehead.  Well, maybe not too confused.  So, what’s the connection?  According to the description on the bobblehead box:

Robert Edward Lee, a West Point graduate, was the first to graduate with no demerits during his four years at the Academy. After his graduation he married Mary Custis, the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis. As a General of the Confederate Army his achievements won him a high place amongst the great generals of history. Even after his surrender to General Grant, he was an example of how southern gentlemen should behave by taking action to rebuild the south and urging on his own people to accept the new conditions of the nation. This boxed Robert E. Lee Bobblehead is made of resin and is approximately 7.6” tall.

That’s not very helpful since the supposed connection between Washington and Lee is thought to have been much more substantial.  I thought it might be an opportune moment to recycle an old post on just this question.  The following was posted last May as I was finishing up Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (Viking 2007).  This book is a must read.

One of the early chapters in Pryor’s book deals with the supposed influence of Washington’s memory on Lee’s life.  Most of us take it for granted that Lee idolized the first president and even some historians have assumed a “mystical bond between the two men.”  Pryor argues that most of these stories surfaced following the Civil War as part of a broader push on the part of white Southerners to justify secession and connect the Confederate experience to the “untarnished greatness” of Washington.  Of course there is a great deal of history to work with in forging this connection given Lee’s marriage and his early years which were spent in large part at Arlington and in the shadow of Washington’s memory.  Pryor does not ignore any of this evidence, in fact she agrees that the memory of Washington did play a role in shaping Lee’s career and personal behavior.

Readers will appreciate Pryor’s attention to detail, especially in her grasp of the relevant secondary sources.  She does not attempt to build a strawman argument here, but cites directly those historians who have pushed this connection to the extreme.  The best place to start is with D.S. Freeman’s excellent biography of Lee:

His ideals had their embodiment, for unconsciously he was a hero-worshipper. He viewed his father not as “Light-Horse Harry” was in the tragic years of his speculation, but as he might have been if the promise of his Revolutionary record had been fulfilled. Above his father and every other man he had always placed Washington. The Father of his Country was no mere historical figure to him, great but impersonal and indistinct. Through Lee’s long years of association with Mr. Custis, who knew Washington better than did any man alive in 1850, Washington was as real to him as if the majestic Virginian had stepped down nightly from the canvas at Arlington and had talked reminiscently with the family about the birth of an earlier revolution. Daily, for almost thirty years, whenever Lee had been at home, his environment had been a constant suggestion of the same ideal. He had come to view duty as Washington did, to act as he thought Washington would, and even, perhaps, to emulate the grave, self-contained courtesy of the great American rebel. The modesty of his nature doubtless kept Lee now from drawing the very obvious analogy between his situation and that of Washington in 1775, but the influence and the ideal were deep in his soul. He would not have shaped such a question, even in his own mind, but those who knew him as the inheritor of the Mount Vernon tradition must have asked if he was destined to be the Washington of the South’s war for independence. [Interestingly Freeman does not cite any sources for this claim.]

More recently, Pryor references Richard McClaslin’s book-length study, Lee in the Shadow of Washington.  Most of the following commentary can be found in Pryor’s endnotes.  McClaslin’s evidence includes letters from Lee’s father on paternal guidance, but they do not mention Washington and there is no evidence that Lee ever read them.  In addition, McClaslin cites Henry Lee’s memoirs, but again there is no evidence that he actually read it until after the Civil War or if he did that it had any influence.  (fn60, p. 497)  Additional footnotes further challenge claims made by McClaslin in reference to the Mexican War and Lee’s decision to continue to improve Arlington for the purposes of displaying Washington relics.  In the case of the latter, Lee did indeed add a parlor room in 1855, but the room was filled with Lee family portraits and other items.

One of Pryor’s guiding interpretive assumptions is that our understanding of Lee’s personal side is based on little documentary evidence.  We have yet to collect all of his correspondence and while collections of wartime correspondence are available much of the rest of what we believe about Lee is based on fragmentary evidence – especially his early years.  In the case of Washington’s supposed influence on Lee, Pryor concludes with the following:

In ten thousand letter pages Robert Lee mentions Washington fewer than two dozen times.  He remarks on the public’s interest in its leader; mentions that he looked over a popular biography was sent to him by a friend; notes that celebration of his birthday.  Most of these comments are quite casual.  In his most enthusiastic writing on the subject, Lee, like others of his day, points to Washington’s wisdom and integrity, and particularly praises his valedictory address to the American people, which, ironically, cautioned against growing sectionalism.  But even in his most fulsome expression, the remarks are general, steeped in the national pride of the day, rather than personal feelings.  Never does Lee say he idolizes Washington, or that he hopes to emulate him.  The closest Lee came to a conscious association was after the war, when he struggled to come to terms with his decision to join the Confederate cause, and cites Washington’s change from British to American allegiance as an example of an earlier crisis of loyalty.  But this was after the fact.  During those terrible days of 1861 he used Washington’s name quite differently–as justification for maintaining Union. (p. 52)

I think it is important to remind the reader once again that Pryor is not arguing that memory of Washington did not influence Lee, but that the extent of that influence suggested by historians and other commentators is not borne out in the primary source material that is currently available.

Getting Right With Lincoln or Getting Lincoln Right

It’s comforting to be looking at an entire week off from school.  Of course, I’ve got plenty to do, such as writing three entries for Encyclopedia Virginia as well as a bit of work on my Crater manuscript.  As I mentioned last week, I will also be leading a discussion for around 25 teachers at the ACW Museum’s “Lincoln and the South” conference this coming weekend in Richmond.

This is not a formal presentation.  I simply need to come up with a theme or set of questions to get the ball rolling and, hopefully, the participants will steer it from there.  So, here’s what I got.  In my last post I suggested that we might look at the biases that our students bring to the classroom as well as the intellectual/cultural baggage that we as teachers bring to the study of Lincoln.  I’ve decided to concentrate on the latter.  I am proceeding on the assumption that we can’t address the former question until we better understand how we as teachers approach Lincoln. One of the things I noticed during my recent TAH sessions was the difficulty that some of the teachers had with the subject of the Civil War and memory.  At times, I actually thought they were projecting their own biases and anxieties onto their students.

With this in mind, my plan is to concentrate specifically on how we teach Lincoln and race/slavery.  We will begin the session with a very short handout that includes four brief excerpts from Lincoln on the subject. Two will reveal Lincoln’s harsh views on race and colonization while the other two will highlight his consistent views on the immorality of slavery and its incompatibility with this nation’s founding ideals.

Just as historians do, teachers make choices of what to teach and emphasize in their courses.  I suspect that when it comes to some of the more controversial moments in American history that those choices are influenced by factors that extend beyond the desire for balance and “historical truth.”  In the case of Lincoln we might be talking about having grown up with ideas of the “Great Emancipator” or an image that emphasized his belief in the inequality of the races.  Either way it is likely that such a background will shape the way we present Lincoln in class.  What I am ultimately hoping for is that we can have a frank discussion about the difficulties and challenges involved in discussing the issue of Lincoln and race in the classroom beginning with our own anxieties.  How can we identify our own biases and are there strategies that can be employed that can help us move beyond them?

Please feel free to add your own ideas.  Perhaps this plan makes no sense at all.

So Who Should Lincoln Have Chosen in 1864?

Brian Dirck just finished a series of posts on Abraham Lincoln’s greatest “flubs.”  Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Brian singled out Lincoln’s choice of Andrew Johnson as his vice-presidential candidate as his greatest flub.  Seems reasonable given what transpired following Lincoln’s assassination and Johnson’s opposition to the Radical Republican’s preferred vision of Reconstruction.  Of course, Lincoln could not have know that he would fall victim to an assassins bullet leaving the White House in the hands of a Unionist who proved to be hostile to the idea of black civil rights.  The whole question, however, hinges on the assumption that another choice would have led to a different outcome.  Well, of course it would [Imagine that somehow Thadeus Stevens got the nod and that somehow Lincoln managed to win.], but as Elektratig [click here for his blog] noted in the comments, what if we stay within the political parameters that governed the choice:

So who, then, should Lincoln have chosen? I’m assuming we keep to the same parameters: a Democrat or very “conservative” Republican, from a border state or (if no other choice) the “lower” north.

What a wonderful question and one that I’ve never really considered.  The commenter is forcing us to keep in mind the political considerations that would have shaped the choice of Lincoln (to whatever extent he was actually involved) and the Republican Party.

I’m not a big fan of counterfactuals, but this one is certainly intriguing.  In what way would the short-term effects have been different given the choice?  And in light of my recent post on Marc Egnal’s new book, how might the long-term consequences have been different?  Finally, does careful reflection about this counterfactual force us to shift our popular memory of Andrew Johnson in any way?

Challenges of Teaching the Civil War

n1572390066_30165665_223Next week I will be heading down to Richmond to take part in the American Civil War Museum’s 3-day conference, “Lincoln and the South.” at the University of Richmond.  It’s an all-star line-up of Civil War scholars, including William J. Cooper, Michael Burlingame, David Blight, Brian Dirck – you get the picture.  I will be leading a discussion on Saturday morning for teachers on the challenges of teaching the Civil War and Lincoln in the classroom.  The teachers will range from kindergarten through the college level.

I am working on a set of questions for the participants to consider concerning some of the most challenging aspects of teaching the subject.   What are the most difficult aspects of the Civil War to teach and why?  What are some of the most common assumptions that students bring to the classroom regarding the war and what are some effective ways to challenge those assumptions?  Finally, what biases/assumptions do we as teachers bring to the classroom and to what extent does our own discomfort with some of the more divisive issues shape the way we teach?  Finally, I hope to introduce some strategies for teachers to employ to address some of these issues.

What do you think?

[photo of me teaching on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia]