Lee Accepts the Surrender of Grant in His Vicksburg Boots

let_us_have_peace_vhsThis is my favorite painting of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox in April 1865.  It was painted in the 1920s by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris and clearly reflects the ascendency of Lee in our national memory and imagination.  Ferris titled his painting, “Let Us Have Peace” even though these words were not spoken by Grant for another three years as a campaign slogan at the start of his presidential bid in 1868.  We spent quite a bit of time with this painting in class last week and a number of my students were struck by the placement of both Grant and Lee as well as their hand gestures.  In fact, a few students thought that if a viewer didn’t know any better they would have to conclude that Grant was surrendering to Lee.  Notice Grant’s hand as it embraces a much more forceful and self-confident Lee who appears to be in charge of the situation.  The relaxed pose of Grant’s officers in the background reinforces this contrast.

Much has been made of the attire of the respective commanders, which is also quite telling as a reflection of what we find worth remembering.  Supposedly Lee’s immaculate dress and Grant’s muddy boots point to fundamental differences in character rather than the exigencies of the day.  At times it seems as if the contrast is meant to imply that Grant didn’t really deserve to accept Lee’s surrender.  The emphasis on dress in the McLean Parlor continues to find voice.  Consider this short piece in the Vicksburg Post by Gordon Cotton who speculates on whether those boots were gifts from two Vicksburg sisters, Sallie and Lucy Marshall.  It’s a legitimate question, but would it matter at all if a particular narrative of this moment in time had not been burned into our Civil War memory?

One of the reasons I find the study of historical memory to be so fascinating is that often it is not about history at all, but about what the remember believes he/she needs to make sense of the present.  In some cases the form of remembrance eclipses entirely the historical subject in question and its borders become porous.  Robert Moore’s most recent post is a thoughtful reflection on our remembrance of Lee-Jackson Day:

It is fine to both privately and, to a degree, publicly reflect upon the lives of historical persons. It fulfills various needs of the living. Look at a historical person (or persons) and consider the part of the historical person’s character, actions, etc., and consider how one may take meaning from these reflections. For some, these reflections might even translate into incorporating qualities that some find desirable in the historical person into the way they conduct themselves in their own lives. As long as reflection does not become something greater than a source of inspiration, and I suppose, guidance (as long as it is positive), then it seems innocent enough.

Mr. Cotton includes the following tribute by Ben Hill, which appeared in the Confederate Veteran in 1901 at the end of his article: “He was a foe without hate, a friend without treachery, a soldier without cruelty, and a victim without murmuring. He was a public official without vices, a private citizen without wrong, a neighbor without reproach, a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile.  He was Caesar without ambition, Frederick without tyranny, Napoleon without selfishness, and Washington without his reward.”

Perhaps he was all these things and more.  I couldn’t possibly know one way or the other without having spent significant time with the man.  It may even be the case that Lee’s boots were a gift from two residents of Vicksburg.  Mr. Cotton notes that it is impossible to know for sure.  What I do know is that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant in the McLean house on April 9, 1865.

H.K. Edgerton Goes to Washington

get_imageI guess I should have anticipated a decision by H.K. to use the Obama election/inauguration to unify white and black American around the Confederate flag.  My local newspaper is reporting that H.K. is making his way up Rt. 29, which will take him right through Charlottesville, Virginia to Washington, D.C.  I can’t tell where along the highway he is, but if I find out I am going to make an attempt to meet him in person.  No doubt, he is freezing his ass off, but that is a small price to pay when the goal is to highlight the loyalty that African Americans demonstrated as Confederate soldiers throughout the war.  Some choice quotes from the article:

I’m an African-American and I’m a Southerner and I believe my heritage, which is represented by the flag bearing the Christian Cross of St. Andrew, is being ignored and destroyed. It’s continuing to divide the black folks and the white folks who have a lot in common.

Mr. Obama said he is about unity and bringing this nation together. If he is truly a man of unity, I hope he will consider showing the Southerner that [the Southerner] is an important part of this country.  He could have a Confederate color guard at the White House,” he said. “He could give the Confederate flag a respected place as part of the history and heritage of this country.

It does not represent slavery, although slavery was a fact of life. The flag represents a heritage, a way of life that my forebears had. It represents the men and the families that lived together and fought together to preserve their country from invasion.  My family volunteered for the Confederacy and fought side-by-side with white Southerners and Indian Southerners. They are all my family.

I am Southerner. This flag is not about slavery, it’s about family and God and country. I have more in common with fellow Southerners like George Wallace than I do with [the Rev.] Al Sharpton. I’m from the South. I’m of the South and my family is Southern, be they white, red, black or yellow. We share a heritage and a way of life.

I’ve commented extensively on the issue of black Confederates/Confederate slaves so I will refrain from belaboring the point.  However, it is worth reflecting a bit on Edgerton’s emphasis on the Confederate experience as somehow constituting a point of unity between black and white Americans.  It’s not simply a reflection of poor history, but also of the Confederacy’s overwhelming place in Southern/American memory.  Of course this is no surprise given its importance to the region and the nation, but it clearly overshadows in a way which minimizes other significant moments in the history of the South that had the potential to bridge the racial divide.  Consider the Populist Movement led by Tom Watson, not to mention the Civil Rights Movement itself.

It’s unfortunate that H.K.’s embrace of American history is ultimately a gross distortion of it.  Fortunately, it wouldn’t take much to correct it once he arrives in D.C.  I recommend that he approach the reenactors in the 54th Massachusetts and request to march in the inaugural parade as part of a legitimate historically-based unit.  You want to honor black Southerners who sacrificed everything for their families and nation (even at a time when the Dred Scott ruling was still on the books) than don that blue uniform and acknowledge the heroism of your fellow black Southerners (1).

(1) Of course,  I am aware that the 54th was made up primarily of free blacks from the North, but you get my point.

Happy Lee-Jackson Day

intro_leemonlgFrom the Richmond Planet, June 7, 1890:

The negro was in the Northern processions on Decoration Day and in the Southern ones, if only to carry buckets of ice-water.  He put up the Lee monument, and should the time come, will be there to take it down.  He’s black and sometimes greasy, but who could do without the Negro….

You may say what you will the Negro is here to stay.  Nothing goes on without him.  He was in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the War of the Rebellion, and will be in every one that will take place in this country….

An old colored man after seeing the mammoth parade of the ex-Confederates on May 29th and gazing at the rebel flags, exclaimed “The Southern white folks is on top–the Southern white folks is on top!”  After thinking a moment, a smile lit up his countenance as he chuckled with evident satisfaction, “But we’s got the government!  We’s got the government!”  Yes, our party has the cations, the most people will allow them to keep.


Read Gov. Tim Kaine’s official proclamation acknowledging the day and notice the choice of words.  I have no doubt that Lee and Jackson are rolling over in their graves in anticipation of Tuesday’s inaugural event. 🙂

The Civil War is Alive and Well in Italy

This past spring I had the pleasure of welcoming one of my blog readers from Italy who is both a high school history teacher and an avid Civil War enthusiast.  We spent the day touring the Richmond-Petersburg area battlefields and have stayed in touch ever since.  The following was written by Giuseppe Rufino on the challenges of writing about the Civil War outside of the United States. 

I met Kevin during my stay in America last spring.  Well there is no need to remind you of what he thouroughly described about our walks of Virginia battlefields.  Yet there are other things that I would like to impress upon all readers of  his wonderful blog.  In the first place I want to express my thankfulness to him for giving me the opportunity to write here.  Without his support and that of many other people “on the other side of the pond’, the job I’m doing in my country would not be possible.  I conveyed to Kevin the status of research and culture in Italy of the American Civil War in a recent blog post which you can find here.

Now there is something else to add. Last year I concluded some personal research about the Gettysburg campaign, which gave birth to a book.  At the time I had to find an editor until just a few months ago. Needless to say this is just a first step.  I started with the intention of writing an essay for my curriculum vitae requirements, yet the more I progressed the more I was convinced that I should write a popular history of the Civil War for distribution in Italy.  I cannot rule out that this will be the target of my next work.  We’ll see. [Giuseppe’s Gettysburg study can be found here.]

I have succeded in capturing one’s attention, although more must be done for commercial purposes.  As far as I am concerned I only  wish to say that if an attempt could be made to change some stereotypes about your country’s history I hope I have done my share.  It was also helpful to me to change some of the views I had about the Civil War and I think only through dedicated research, along with the love for historic truth and a dialogue with fellow-colleagues, can help to perform this task.

“Long-Legged Yankee Lies”

I posted this back in March 2006, but decided to showcase it since my Civil War Memory classes will be meeting today to discuss James McPherson’s essay on the UDC and their efforts to control and shape the content of history textbooks at the beginning of the twentieth century.  The article is titled, “Long-Legged Yankee Lies”: The Southern Textbook Crusade, which appeared in Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (UNC Press, 2004). 

By the 1890’s organizations such as the United Confederate Veterans (UCV) and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) had organized committees to oversee and review the content of textbooks for children in schools across the South. As one UCV committee report noted, the purpose of such reviews was to honor the sacrifice of the Confederate soldier and “to retain from the wreck in which their constitutional views, their domestic institutions, the mass of their property, and the lives of their bravest were lost, the knowledge that their conduct was honorable throughout, and that their submission at last . . . in no way blackened their motives or established the wrong of the cause for which they fought.” (p. 68)

Consider Susan Pendleton Lee’s 1895 text, A School History of the United States, in which she declared that although abolitionists had declared slavery to be a “moral wrong” most Southerners believed that “the evils connected with it were less than those of any other system of labor. Hundreds of thousands of African savages had been Christianized under its influence—The kindest relations existed between the slaves and their owners. . [The slaves] were better off than any other menial class in the world.” No surprise that in her account of Reconstruction the Klan was necessary “for protection against . . . outrages committed by misguided negroes.” (p. 69)

By the first decade of the twentieth century most Southern states had created textbook commissions to oversee or prescribe books for all public schools that provide a “fair and impartial” interpretation. These committees worked diligently to challenge publishers who stood to threaten the South’s preferred story of the war: “Southern schools and Southern teachers have prepared books which Southern children may read without insult or traduction of their fathers. Printing presses all over the Southland—and all over the Northland—are sending forth by thousands ones which tell the true character of the heroic struggle. The influence . . . of the South forbid[s] longer the perversion of truth and falsification of history.” (p. 70)

Perhaps the best example of the oversight by the UDC was through the work of “historian general” Mildred L. Rutherford of Georgia. In 1919 Rutherford published A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges, and Libraries. The UCV historical committee recommended the book for “all authorities charged with the selection of text-books for colleges, schools, and all scholastic institutions” and recommended that “all library authorities in the southern States” to “mark all books in their collections which do not come up to the same measure, on the title page thereof, ‘Unjust to the South.’

Here are some of Rutherford’s recommendations:

    1. Reject a book that speaks of the Constitution other than [as] a compact between Sovereign states. 
    2. Reject a text-book that . . . does not clearly outline the interferences with the rights guaranteed to the South by the Constitution, and which caused secession. 
    3. Reject a book that says the South fought to hold her slaves. 
    4. Reject a book that speaks of the slaveholders of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves. 
    5. Reject a text-book that glorifies Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis. 
    6. Reject a text-book that omits to tell of the South’s heroes and their deeds. (p. 72)

Here are corrections to common mistakes found in textbooks:

    1. Southern men were anxious for the slaves to be free. They were studying earnestly the problem of freedom, when Northern fanatical Abolitionists took matters into their own hands. 
    2. “More slaveholders and sons of slaveholders fought for the Union than for the Confederacy (this fit awkwardly with assertions elsewhere that the Yankees got immigrants and blacks to do most of their fighting – McPherson comment). 
    3. Gen. Lee freed his slaves before the war began and Gen. Ulysses S. Grand did not free his until the war ended. 
    4. The war did not begin with the firing on Fort Sumter. It began when Lincoln ordered 2,400 men and 285 guns to the defense of Sumter.” 
    5. Union forces outnumbered Confederate forces five to one, not surprising when the Union population was 31 million while the Confederate population was only 5 million whites and 4 million slaves.” (p. 73)

And there you have it. I wonder if Rutherford and the rest of the gang had any idea of just how successful they were in shaping an interpretation that continues to prove to be attractive throughout this country.  Consider the following two posts (here and here) if you have any doubts.

Confederate Drill Team (1961)

It should be abundantly clear after viewing this video why the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission hopes to steer clear of reenactments.  Nothing like going to see a Confederate drill team show their stuff followed by the execution of a “Yankee” spy.  This was filmed at “Six Flags Over Texas” at the beginning of the Civil War Centennial.  Click here for another video of photographs of the various Civil War-related exhibits.  I can’t wait to show this to my Civil War Memory students.

Obama and Civil War Memory

A few months ago I speculated on how an Obama victory might affect how we remember our Civil War.  I suggested that the election of our first black president (regardless of political affiliation) would present us with an opportunity to remember and commemorate aspects of the war that have traditionally been downplayed, if not ignored entirely.  Obama himself has encouraged this by voicing his admiration for Doris K. Goodwin’s book, along with a recent visit to the Lincoln Memorial, and plans to follow part of the route that Lincoln took in March 1861.  Now we hear that reenactors with the 54th Massachusetts will march in the inaugural parade.  Millions of Americans will learn about the history and significance of these soldiers without any of the distraction associated with so-called black Confederates (Confederate slaves).  I couldn’t be happier for the members of the units who will take part because I know first hand what it means to them.


How I Use A People’s History of the United States

halloween1Thanks to all of you who took the time to comment on yesterday’s post on Howard Zinn.  I am not surprised to find that those of you in the college trenches have not come across the book in any of your department’s courses.  One of you noted that the book did not receive much attention from historians when it was first published.  The lack of attention in the form of a review usually means that the book was not deemed worthy enough for scholarly attention.  Thanks to Chris over at Blog4History who followed up my post with a Google search to get a sense of how often the book is being assigned.  When I commented that I had done a similar search, which resulted in similar results, he thought it was suspicious that I failed to mention it in my post.  I assure you that this was not an attempt on my part to cover up the truth and I encourage you to consider his findings.  As I stated on Chris’s blog, I was simply unsure of what to make of the results.  There are pages and pages of results that include professors and AP teachers who include the book in their syllabi.  The results cover a wide range of subjects from history to  political science to anthropology and span a significant number of years.  We are still left with the question of how often the book is assigned.  But even if we had the answer to that question we would still be no closer to the more important question of how it is used.  Richard Williams simply assumes that its frequency of use is sufficient evidence that it is being used for nefarious purposes.  If one of my students came back with Chris’s Google search and the handful of quotes cited by Richard Williams as evidence of a conspiracy or that the book is being used as an example of the consensus view among professional historians I would give that student a failing grade.  That student would not have done his/her research.  Suggesting that the book has no place in the classroom reflects a narrowness of thought as a teacher, while sweeping generalizations about its place in the academy tells us more about the accuser than it does about what is most likely the case.

Yesterday I alluded to the fact that I use Howard Zinn’s book in my APUS History course.  Let me take just a few minutes to sketch how I use the book and I will leave it to you to decide whether it renders me a dangerous liberal/Marxist who is bent on undoing the social fabric of this country as well as the innocent minds of my students.  One of the central skills that my AP students must master is the ability to craft a historical interpretation that reflects a certain analytical writing style as well as an ability to properly interpret primary sources (the document-based question or DBQ).  This is not an easy skill to teach given the fact that most of my students begin the year believing that history is simply what one reads in a textbook.  As such, it is dry and boring and includes little beyond a set of facts.   One way to teach students what historians do is to provide them with examples – examples that highlight the role of evidence as well as broader assumptions that the historian may bring to the study.  I try to find examples that are entertaining, challenging, and that highlight specific points that need to be made about the pitfalls of historical writing and research.  For example, I’ve used excerpts from U.B. Phillips’s Life and Labor in the Old South to illustrate how historians’ writing at the beginning of the twentieth century were influenced by broader assumptions of race.  Using Charles Beard when discussing the intentions of the Founding Fathers in 1787 can also reveal the importance attached to economic matters that occupied the attention of many Americans in the 1920s and 1930s.  Both Meekins and Williams believe that Zinn’s activism in the 1960s and beyond is reason enough not to use the book, that it courses through his books and renders them useless as interpretation and/or classroom use.  But the fact that the narrative is so over the top at times makes it ideal in pointing out how bias often creeps into our scholarship and that it can often be a detriment to the broader study.  I want my students to understand that their location in place and time will influence how they view the historical record and that this is acceptable within certain parameters since we cannot completely eliminate bias.

I usually use Zinn’s chapter on the colonial period and Revolution, which focuses on class conflict as well as a puzzling analysis of the intentions of the Founding Fathers in their attempt to maintain control as the colonies moved closer to rebellion.  We read the chapter carefully to better understand both the kinds of evidence Zinn utilizes as well as the language he employs.  Zinn’s handling of the evidence provides a number of important lessons for my students.  I have them compare the range of Zinn’s evidence with their textbook and other handouts to better understand the importance of inclusiveness and the dangers of limiting oneself to only certain kinds of evidence.  DBQ writers will often include one or two documents that point in a very different direction compared with the other documents; the goal is to see if the student can acknowledge that primary sources always point to more than one interpretation.   They need to be able to acknowledge, but still make the case for their preferred interpretation.  When it comes to class conflict it is pretty clear that Zinn takes his argument too far, but in other respects he is well within the mainstream of current scholarship.  Zinn’s analysis of the results and response of the gentry in Virginia following Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 follows closely on the heels of Edmund Morgan’s seminal work, American Slavery, American Freedom.  I don’t know too many people who would consider Morgan to be a left-wing kook.  A comparative approach between Zinn and other sources can serve as an invaluable lesson for my students as they develop their interpretive skills.

The overall tone of Zinn’s narrative can also be instructive.  Learning how to write with an analytical eye is extremely difficult for many of my students.  They tend to write with an emotional flourish that I assume they bring from their English classes.  My job is to keep them focused on the analysis of sources and additional factual information – the dryer the better for our purposes.   We look closely at a number of passages where Zinn attempts to infer the intentions of the colonial leaders on the eve of the Revolution.  On the one hand, Zinn suggests that as a group they maneuvered themselves into positions such that they would be able to steer the colonies through revolution and remain in positions of power at its conclusion.  At the same time, Zinn asserts that this was not a conscious move on their part, but one that is discernible through the piecing together of their actions.  Much of the language is vague and bordering on psycho-babble.  I ask my students to consider whether the evidence provided is sufficient to draw such conclusions.  We talk about the importance of being able to support every claim as well as the importance of clarity.

As an exercise I ask my students to write a concise 2 to 3-page thesis summary of the Zinn chapter.  They must summarize Zinn’s thesis and explore both his broad assumptions about the period in question as well as the kinds of evidence he utilizes.  Students must also compare Zinn’s approach with other sources, including their textbook.  Finally, they must summarize what they take to be both the chapter’s strengths and weaknesses.  By focusing on the structure of the author’s argument my students can begin to focus more clearly on what they will need to consider when asked to engage in historical interpretation.  This is an assignment that we do throughout the year with a number of different secondary sources.

I would love to know if this is an inappropriate use of Zinn’s A People’s History.  My guess is that my syllabus for this course is included in the search that Chris performed yesterday.  How many other teachers on the high school and college level are using Zinn’s book (as they do every other controversial text) in a responsible manner?

Howard Zinn is not the boogeyman.  Let’s try to wake up from our self-induced nightmares.