Mississippi Embraces Grant

aleqm5hyycivpxkwzzz89tv1wmodbj7q-wAfew months ago I reported that Mississippi State University is slated to become the new home to the Ulysses S. Grant Papers after 50 years at Southern Illinois University under the direction of John Y. Simon.  Simon’s recent death raised the question of who would continue the massive project of publishing Grant’s papers until historian John Marszalek agreed to take on the responsibility.  This is good news for all Americans interested in Civil War history regardless of where you live.  The most recent AP article covers old ground, but at some point stories such as this need to begin to move away from the obligatory Sons of Confederate Veterans quote.  In this particular piece it comes at the very end:

Still, Grant’s return to the South doesn’t thrill Cecil Fayard Jr., the Mississippi-based leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  “U.S. Grant is not beloved in the state of Mississippi. Southern folks remember well his brutal and bloody tactics of war, and the South will never forget the siege of Vicksburg,” he said.

Why should we care what Cecil Fayard thinks of one of the most important academic projects in the field of Civil War history?  How many members of the SCV are there in Mississippi anyway?  Do they speak for Mississippians?  I seriously doubt it.  There is nothing offensive about an institution of higher learning taking on such a project; in fact, this is exactly why they exist.

It is becoming clearer that the SCV thrives on sensationalism – the only trick left in their book.   One need look no further than their silly little antics in Tampa, Florida where the local SCV chapter has managed to raise another one of their “big ass” flags outside of the city just in time for the Super Bowl. [This is the same group that cut up the first one for profit, and I believe both flags were made in China.]  Marion Lambert says that they are educating the public, but as the Tipsy Historian points out you will be hard pressed to find anything educational on SCV websites concerning the complex history of the flag:

Basically, there is absolutely no thought, content, consideration, or insight behind what they are doing with this ridiculous flag. The SCV Florida chapter is behaving like a screaming child looking for attention by pressing the buttons it knows will get a response. Moreover, the glaring lack of discussion on these sites makes this organization look absolutely foolish.

I know plenty of elementary school teachers and they tell me that the best way to handle children who are acting out and looking for attention is to ignore them.  Good advice.

Embracing Lincoln in the South

lincolnflashLooks like Abraham Lincoln is getting more attention in the “Confederate South” during his bicentennial than both Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee combined.  Well, before you run for the hills complaining about revisionism remember that Lincoln had strong ties to the South that extended beyond the Civil War.  In a recent interview on C-SPAN, Michael Burlingame went as far as to suggest that in important respects Lincoln was a southerner through his extended family, which moved from Virginia as well as his early years growing up in Kentucky.  Once again, we would do well to go back and dispense with tired and ill-informed generalizations that tell us more about ourselves than anything having to do with regional identification and history.  There are two important conferences that are worth considering, one in Richmond, Virginia and the other in Raleigh, North Carolina.  The first will take place on February 12 at the North Carolina Museum of History.  Speakers include Joe Glatthaar, William Harris, Paul Escott, and John D. Smith.  In March the American Civil War Museum at Tredegar will host a dynamite line-up of scholars to discuss Lincoln and the South.  This is a three-day conference that ought to attract a wide range of Civil War enthusiasts and teachers.

Also in March the Surratt House Museum will host a conference on Lincoln’s assassination.  Howard University’s Emancipation and Race in the Age of Lincoln will take place in April and in July Oxford University will explore the global legacy of Lincoln.  This just scratches the surface and does not include the myriad tours and exhibits that will take place throughout the year as well as all of the Lincoln books that will have been published by the end of the year.  I can detect very little “hero worship” in these events.  It is an acknowledgment that Lincoln’s life and presidency have much to teach us regardless of race and place.

“Kevin the Carpetbagger”

I always get a kick out of the people who find my blogging to be offensive based on the fact that I am not native to the South.  A couple of days ago I noticed a comment on another blog, which referred to me as “Kevin the Carpetbagger”.  Of course, I am not offended by the label because it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the history of the region as well as a simple mind.  In his discussion of the economic, social, and cultural differences between the northern and southern sections of the states in the Deep South, Marc Egnal quotes John Calhoun:

Our State was first settled on the coast by emigrants principally from England, but with no inconsiderable intermixture of Huguenots from France.  The portion of the State along the falls of the rivers and back to the mountains had a very different origin and settlement.  Its settlement commenced long after, at a period, but little anterior to the war of the Revolution, and consisted principally of emigrants who followed the course of the mountains, from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia & North Carolina.  They had very little connection, or intercourse for a long time with the old settlement on the coast.

Such a view stands in sharp contrast with the static and monolithic view of the South that continues to hold sway for so many.  Unfortunately, these are the very same people who claim to defend the heritage of the South against what they perceive to be outside influence.  But what exactly are they defending?  Even Calhoun understood that the boundaries of the Southern states were porous and that diversity ruled when he penned these thoughts in 1846.  How many white Southerners today would have been deemed “carpetbaggers” by earlier generations?  Who, if anyone, has a monopoly on Southern identity?  How does one even go about demarcating such a boundary?  All of us who live in “the South” can trace our family histories back to a carpetbagger.  I am proud to join the long list of carpetbaggers who moved to the South at various points in the past.  We have a rich heritage indeed.

2009 Inspirational Awards

Thanks to Paul Harvey at Religion in American History for choosing Civil War Memory as one of his seven most inspirational blogs. Paul had this to say inspiration-award_marie_antoinetteabout CWM:

Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory: anybody who can teach high school, engage actively in scholarship, and squash stupidly reactionary neo-Confederate and “black Confederate” pet theories all at the same time deserves a special place in blog heaven.

It’s always nice to hear that what you write matters, but knowing that the kind words come from the author of one of my favorite blogs, as well as a top-notch scholar , makes it extra special. Thanks again, Paul.

One of the conditions of acceptance is that the recipient choose 5 to 7 inspirational blogs of his/her own.  So, here are the blogs that I can’t do without and that keep me coming back for more:

Cenantua’s Blog: I bestowed my “Best of” award on Robert Moore’s site this past December, but it is truly one of the most inspirational sites within the Civil War blogosophere.  Robert reminds all of us that you can be proud of your family, regional, and national heritage without losing sight of the complexity of history.

My Year of Living Rangerously: Mannie Gentile has sacrificed much and has made some tough choices in order to work as a seasonal ranger at the Antieam National Battlefield.  His blog not only provides insight into one of the most important Civil War battles, but serves to remind us of how important it is for each of us to pursue our dreams and passions.  Thanks Mannie.

Draw the Sword: Jenny Goellnitz is in the middle of a massive project cataloging every statue and marker on the Gettysburg battlefield.  The result will no doubt prove to be a valuable tool for researchers and visitors alike.  This award, however, acknowledges more than the content of Jenny’s blog.  Jenny’s successful battle with cancer and the role of running in her recovery (much of it on the Gettysburg battlefield) has left me reaching for my jogging shoes on the most difficult of days.

The History Enthusiast: If you ever wanted to know what life is like for a history grad student than spend some time at this site.  The History Enthusiast writes about the joys and frustrations of graduate school as well as the challenges of writing a dissertation.   I’ve been reading long enough to know for certain that even through some of the most challenging periods of this grad student’s career that there remains much enthusiasm for the discipline and that there will be a Phd at the end of the road.

History is Elementary: I have nothing but the deepest respect for my fellow history instructors who labor day-to-day in the trenches.  I sometimes wish that we spent as much time acknowledging the best in the teaching profession rather than those silly polls that purport to tell us how little our students know about their history.  Let’s celebrate teachers such as EHT and perhaps we will attract more like her.  Thanks for your dedication to the profession and commitment to your students.

Congratulations to all the winners and for inspiring me to be a better blogger, teacher, and historian.

Why Does Hollywood Cemetery Need a Michael Shaara Memorial Bench?

Michael Shaara Memorial Bench - Memorial CemeteryHollywood Cemetery is a very special place.  This is the second year that I’ve brought students to this cemetery and I do so because it is rich in history and memory.  Every time I walk up Confederate Avenue I still get a little lump in my stomach as the Confederate obelisk comes into view as well as the countless Confederate graves – many of them unidentified.  Today I talked quite a bit about the steps that the Hollywood LMA took to bring the Gettysburg dead to Richmond in the early 1870s.  My students were visibly moved as they acknowledged the young ages indicated on many of the markers and the dates of death which connected them to the battle of Gettysburg.

As we walked around the loop to where George Pickett is buried one of my student pointed to a bench located next to the grave.  At first I couldn’t identify it, but within a few seconds I burst out laughing after reading the inscription.  The bench is a memorial to Michael Shaara and was dedicated this past July by the Pickett Society of Richmond.  Before proceeding, can someone tell me why the hell we need a Pickett Society?  Exactly what did this man do that was so special other than take part in a battle that for any number of reasons became immortalized as the great turning point of the war?  As I was saying, the bench is dedicated to Michael Shaara and was funded with the help of actor Stephen Lang, who played Pickett in the movie “Gettysburg” and who serves on the society’s board of directors with Ron Maxwell.  The inscription on the bench reads as follows:

Dedicated to Michael Shaara, Author, who so poignantly reminded us of the mortal sacrifice made by the soldiers who valiantly fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1st – 3rd, 1863 Presented to The Pickett Society by Stephen Lang, Board Member, Thespian & Playwright

I honestly don’t know where to begin with this ridiculous piece of commemoration.  The inscription has nothing whatsoever to do with Pickett other than to acknowledge one of the most popular works of historical fiction and its author.  More disturbing is that this organization is essentially acknowledging that their own identification with the general has little to do with serious history and has everything to do with a work of fiction and accompanying movie. In short, history and pop culture have become blurred.  The organization itself seems to have only started in 2000 which connects it directly to both the popularity of the movie and, in turn, Shaara’s book.

This bench has no business being on the grounds of Hollywood Cemetery and it certainly has no place in the Confederate section within feet of the remains of thousands of men who fought and died.  I honestly cannot fathom what the Pickett Society was thinking nor do I understand how the good people who manage HC could have allowed this to happen.  This bench is a piece of trash and ought to be removed immediately out of respect to the people who are buried there.

These people need to rename their organization to the Michael Shaara Society.

Hooray for Hollywood

Today was the kind of day that I live for as a teacher.  My students and I had a wonderful time on our trip to Richmond. It was a bit cold, but we managed.  The highlight of the trip was the Lee statue along Monument Avenue.  We spent quite a bit of time looking at it from various angles and discussing both the pose of Lee as well as a Traveler.  It is indeed a beautiful monument.  I was also surprised by the interest expressed in the Jefferson Davis Monument.  It’s the perfect contrast with the reconciliationist message of the Lee statue.  There is nothing apologetic about the Davis statue and its assertion of states rights as well as other bits of Lost Cause symbolism.  From there we headed on over to the Arthur Ashe monument to discuss the fierce debate that ensued over its placement on the same avenue as Lee, Davis, Stuart, and Jackson.  As I was talking a passerby yelled from his car, “Tear it down.”  A few of the students were surprised and a bit disappointed, but it was the perfect reinforcement to my commentary, which emphasized the continued divisiveness over Civil War memory and who can claim rightful ownership of certain public spaces.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to hit the Lincoln-Tad statue at Tredegar, but we did take quite a hike through Hollywood Cemetery, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  All in all it was a great day and this particular group of students made it extra special.  Here are a few pictures from the trip followed by a poem that one of my students composed from each site.  All of the photographs can be found on my flickr page.


A General today still a symbol to many, ever proud and tall, he instills pride in any.  The cause disputed, different to all, and perhaps there’s still shock at the Confederacy’s “fall”.

An elaborate wall built to vindicate, the man in front, leader of states.  Praise to his army and written law of the land his hand opened up, he asks for respect yet remorse or apologies one should never expect.

Controversy caused by a monument to one, he fought his disease, a battle not conquered.  Yet instead of looking back at segregation, he fought to show his path towards a new kind of nation.

A river to one side with roads to the next, nestled between thousands laid to their rest.  Winding roads, past blocks of stone, bodies of many who fought for their homes.  Some fought in the East, and some in the West now all are together here laid to their rest.  Dates rubbed away and names never known, sacrifice, though, still not forgotten.

Reconciliation at Hollywood Cemetery

Confederate Soldier Monument at TredegarI’ve been browsing Hollywood Cemetery’s website in preparation for tomorrow’s class trip and I am struck by the reconciliationist tone used to describe the various sites.  Consider the following brief description of the Confederate pyramid memorial, which was designed by Charles Dimmock and dedicated in 1869:

“Hollywood’s ninety foot granite pyramid, completed in 1869, is a monument to 18,000 Confederate enlisted men buried nearby.  They went into battle for what then seemed a noble cause of protecting their homes from northern aggression.  When the pryramid was erected, Southerns still called the war “The Lost Cause.”  Now we know that the cause was not a lost one.  These men’s lives, together with those of their norther counterparts, were given to forge a single and better nation. Their blood, shed in battle, gave birth to a new America, one that in another century would restore and protect freedom around the world.  Because so many whose sacrifice refined America lie here in Hollywood Cemetery’s sacred ground.”

I am going to quote the above passage tomorrow as part of my interpretation of this site to get at the continued influence of the Lost Cause and the overall theme of reconciliation in our collective memory of the war.