Today was one of those days that I live for as a historian and teacher. I spent the day in Virginia Beach with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers as part of a workshop on the Civil War and historical memory. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Fitz Brundage sketch out some of the salient commemorative themes during the postwar period while I worked with the group on analyzing a collection of primary sources and discussing how to approach some of these themes in the classroom. The teachers were enthusiastic throughout both sessions. It was impressive given that the material can be incredibly difficult and even a bit draining to those who are approaching these issues for the first time. We have amazing teachers in our classrooms and we need to support them.
The president was right to describe teachers as “nation builders.” I wish the general public had the image of teachers sitting around engaged in serious discussion as part of their professional development rather than the stereotypical views so closely associated with our worst fears about public education. So, what were we really doing today in Virginia Beach? We were doing what we do every day in our respective classrooms, which is making a G-d Damn Difference. Now what about you?
This morning I lectured about Benjamin Butler and slave contraband in the comforts of my classroom in Charlottesville. By the middle of the afternoon I was walking around Fortress Monroe for the first time. Now I am ensconced in my comfortable hotel room getting ready to give a talk tomorrow morning. Before I do so, however, I’ve got a few thoughts to share about the Lowry scandal.
Thomas Lowry will now take his place on the wall of shame next to Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Bellesiles, and Joseph Ellis. [I highly recommend Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect for a thoughtful analysis of these recent examples of unethical behavior.] It’s an impressive list of some of the strangest transgressions in the field and yet there is something about Lowry’s deed that up til now I’ve had trouble coming to terms with. It’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach that somehow won’t go away and that begs for explanation.
One the one hand the decision to alter the historical record makes little sense. As my wife pointed out to me yesterday, it’s not as if it changes anything we can claim to know about Lincoln’s attitude toward military justice. And even if the date was correct it’s not as if Lincoln knew that he would be dead by the next morning. It’s a cheap and meaningless thrill at best.
I actually have less trouble coming to terms (even sympathizing) with the list of characters mentioned above. Yes, they deceived their families, friends, as well as the general public, but the damage was corrected and the guilty parties were punished and forced to come to terms with the consequences of their actions. Lowry will have to face all of this, but his actions went further down that moral road that is clearly marked, “No Return.” In tampering with this piece of history Lowry treated the document itself and the parties involved as a means to an end. As historians we have a moral responsibility to do our best to get the story right because in practicing our craft we establish a moral relationship with those who came before us. That’s right, we have a moral obligation to treat historical figures as ends in themselves and not as a means to an end. Whatever biases we bring to the table and regardless of whether we get it right we intend to tell a true story about the past. When Lowry altered this document he wasn’t thinking about Lincoln or Murphy. He was thinking about himself.
This is what the slightly darkened number five represents to me.
From the acknowledgments section of Don’t Shoot That Boy!: Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice: “As always, any errors, omissions, or ill-founded opinions are the sole responsibility of the author.” [You said it.]
Update from the Washington Post: In an interview Lowry claims that Archive officials pressured him to confess to the document tampering.
Washington, DC…Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero announced today that Thomas Lowry, a long-time Lincoln researcher from Woodbridge, VA, confessed on January 12, 2011, to altering an Abraham Lincoln Presidential pardon that is part of the permanent records of the U.S. National Archives. The pardon was for Patrick Murphy, a Civil War soldier in the Union Army who was court-martialed for desertion.
Charlottesville's Civil War Soldier at Courthouse Square
This week I will be working with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers as part of a Teaching American History workshop on the Civil War and historical memory. This time around I am teamed up with historian, W. Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina, who will take care of the morning session with a lecture that provides an overview of some of the major themes of postwar narratives of the Civil War. My job is to provide teachers with a foundation of content and skills that can inform the way they teach history.
I have a two-hour slot in which to work so my plan is to divide the time between two activities. During the first hour I am going to introduce the group to documents related to the recent debate in Virginia surrounding Confederate History Month. No doubt most of these teachers will be familiar with the controversy, but this activity should give them a chance to think further about many of the points made in Brundage’s opening lecture. I recently completed a lesson in my Civil War Memory class in which we analyzed the very same documents; the lesson concluded with students writing their own proclamation. The results were quite interesting and perhaps at some point I will share a few excerpts.
The next lesson will explore the question of who won the Civil War through a close reading of a collection of primary sources. I teach the Civil War and Reconstruction as part of the same unit and I try to provide as smooth a transition between the two as possible. In other words, I want my students to see the period following 1865 as an extension of a war that raised fundamental questions about the place of African Americans within this nation. In doing so, we move beyond the overly simplistic image of Appomattox as a symbol of reunion and even reconciliation. The challenge of how the nation would be reconstructed raises the obvious question of whose vision of reconstruction would prevail and within what particular time frame. I ask my students to think about these questions to reinforce the importance of acknowledging perspective and the open-ended nature of certain historical questions. Here is a taste of the kinds of documents that we will explore together. [click to continue…]
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A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Clay Risen of the New York Times to talk about what it might take to make their Civil War blog, Disunion, more appealing to teachers. I’ve been reading it for some time and I am thoroughly enjoying both the range of writers and subject matter discussed. Disunion recently won the 2010 Cliopatria Award for best series of posts. We had a nice talk and by the end of our conversation I suggested that an editorial on the recent black Confederate/4th grade history textbook controversy here in Virginia might be worth writing. I wasn’t so much interested in rehashing the historical debate about black Confederates since that has been done to death. Unfortunately, what has been left out entirely from the debate is the fact that the error came about as a result of the author’s failure to understand how to search and assess Online information. It goes without saying that I am honored to published in the New York Times. Click through to the NYTs and the comments which follow.