Obama Reminds Alfalfa Club Members of Robert E. Lee

Last night Barack Obama attended the annual Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, D.C.  It’s one of those private/elitist dinners where members celebrate themselves and poke fun at one another.  Much is being made of the president’s comments in reference to the origin of the group and the timing of the dinner.  The organization was founded in 1913 and was meant to honor the life of Robert E. Lee.  On the face of it, not a big deal, but according to Tommy Christopher at the Political Machine the Lee connection has been almost entirely ignored by the press as well as by Obama’s White House Staff in the days leading up to the dinner.  Somehow word of this got to the president who chose to reference the connection in his opening remarks:

I am seriously glad to be here tonight at the annual Alfalfa dinner. I know that many you are aware that this dinner began almost one hundred years ago as a way to celebrate the birthday of General Robert E. Lee. If he were here with us tonight, the General would be 202 years old. And very confused.

No doubt, the reference garnered a laugh or two from the audience, but how many members scratched their heads in confusion?  Apparently, the connection with Lee has slackened in recent years according to a 2007 Washington Post article:

It is such an obscure factoid that an informal poll of some of last night’s revelers produced none who’d ever known this to be true — and who apparently would rather not have been asked, judging by the defensiveness that ensued.   “I don’t think that has any meaning today,” Sen. Norm Coleman (R- Minn.) said of the Confederate connection. “I will be sitting across the table from Kenneth Chenault, the African American chair of American Express.”   Jack Kemp hadn’t heard of the Confederate connection either.

The irony of our first black president reminding a predominantly white audience (I assume) of their connection to Robert E. Lee must be savoured like a fine wine.

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Following in Their Footsteps

Professor Stephen Berry was kind enough to send along this wonderful letter after reading yesterday’s post.  In the following 1930 letter, Lexington lawyer and Lincoln-historian, William Henry Townsend, responds to the cranky “posts” of  Mary Carter, who has charged Lincoln with the usual tyrannies and abuses.  Apparently, angry “Lady Rebs” have been unleashing their venom in defense of the “Lost Cause” for a long time.  It’s nice to know that I am in such good company.  Enjoy

Dear Miss Carter:

I have your letter…. Thank you very kindly.  You will pardon me, however, if I say that a careful reading of your lengthy letter fails to disclose much that I had hoped to find in it….  Although it was time for a rebuttal, I find that you abandoned the argument as to all of the…issues…and in lieu thereof, dumped into the hopper of our discussion a putrid mass of undigested vituperation.  Really, my dear Miss Carter, let me say in all good temper that you apparently have run into the same error that the “old tyrant” Lincoln once admonished against when he said: “One ought never plead what he need not, lest he be compelled to prove what he can not!”…  Lincoln once said that “a mathematician could hardly disprove Euclid by calling Euclid a liar.” Yet, you fall into this error also. Dr. Cravens is a liar! Allen Clark is a liar! Mrs. Pickett, the widow of a brave Confederate soldier, is a liar! Mrs. Davis is a weak, unstable creature with traitorous inclinations!! Everybody is either a traitor or a liar who has a good word for poor old homely, kind, tragic Abraham Lincoln!…  I have carefully read the enclosures….  I am sorry to say that they are all alike—bald, blatent assertion, vituperation and abuse, dripping with prejudice and a black, stifling heat that sheds no light….  You say that you will “cease firing” when Lincoln the man is divorced from Lincoln the myth. Why, bless you dear lady, you do not need to do that if it is any sport you. Abraham Lincoln is as far removed from blank cartridges as Mount McKinley was from the “Big Berthas” on the Western Front. If Lincoln himself were here, he would smile and say, in that slow Kentucky drawl: “Will, it don’t hurt me any, and it does her good, so let her alone.”…

Miss Carter, are there really any enemies of the south, or do we see only windmills which prejudice and bias have distorted into pugnacious knight errants of old? Who, at this time, are the traducers of Davis and Lee in the south? What organization of the north is now engaged in vicious propaganda against our southland and its heroes? I have traveled through the north and east extensively, and if we have any enemies, any persons who possess a settled hostility to the south, I have neither read nor heard of them. Name me, please, any man or set of men who are today flooding the mails with defamatory matter concerning any southern soldier or statesman….  Miss Carter, if the tone of this letter has been too emphatic, I confess that I was somewhat nettled at first by the accusation of “posing” in my respect for Lee and Davis and the rather surprising reference to “men of your ilk.”  I had hardly supposed that my two courteous letters merited such an appraisal of me, but I waive these small matters in deference to a southern gentlewoman, doubtless quite sincere, though sadly misguided, who will frankly and candidly, as becomes her breeding, take it all back when she meets Abraham Lincoln in heaven.  With very best regards and many thanks for writing me, I am, sincerely [W.H. Townsend, to Miss Mary D. Carter, August 29, 1930]

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A Short Comment About Your Comments

Some of you have no doubt read the colorful comment left by a reader who refers to herself as “JosephineSouthern.”  Here is a short excerpt:

Oh how trashy you are. You have no sense of decency or honor. If you did you would know in your heart of hearts that what Grant did to VICKSBURG was atrocious evil. Shame on them and Shame on the USA. War on women and children, Grant and Butler the Beast I would spit on today! It is obvious your people didn’t suffer and die through Lincoln’s War and afterwards. So what do you care. We tried getting along with you people, but you just won’t let us.

You may be surprised to learn that I receive these types of comments quite frequently.  Most of them never see the light of day and end up being deleted.  Still, regardless of the content it’s not easy to hit the delete button.  After all, this is a site where interested readers can explore the way in which the Civil War has been commemorated and remembered as well as its continued hold on our culture.  Many of the comments left on this site reflect this continued interest and influence.  Without getting to meta on you, I would like to think that this site itself has become a window into the rich legacy of Civil War memory.  Perhaps at some point in the future researchers will peruse this site’s archives to analyze how various subjects were analyzed by me as well as the response from a broad audience. 

At times it is necessary to delete comments and even ban readers entirely to maintain a certain level of discourse.  I’ve thought about creating a page where I could isolate comments such as the one above.  It is a comprise, however, as this would preserve the comment but remove it from the life of the blog post.  There is an argument for maintaining uncensored discourse on a site such as this.  Finally, I also make it a point to double-check the links which you provide in the comment form.  I maintain the right to delete links that I believe provide false or misleading information.  Again, the same concerns apply.

I would love to know what you think.  What are the alternatives when trying to achieve the right balance between informed/mature discourse and preserving the kind of site that will reflect our continued interest in the Civil War?

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Latschar to Continue as Gettysburg Superintendent

You heard it here first.  According to an NPS press release John Latschar has decided to stay on after learning from the Department of the Interior that his ability to continue to work with the park as the president of the Gettysburg Foundation would be severely curtailed.  This conflict of interest was mentioned by a number of people in the blogosphere, but it is encouraging to know that Latschar will be able to stay on indefinitely in his current position at Gettysburg.  Latschar had this to say:

I had been looking forward to the challenges of moving to the private sector and working for the Gettysburg Foundation.  However, I can’t complain about going back to the best job in the National Park Service as Superintendent of Gettysburg NMP and Eisenhower NHS.  We’ll now redouble our efforts to make our wonderful partnership with the Gettysburg Foundation the best that the National Park Service has ever seen.

Latschar is responsible for some of the most significant changes to the Gettysburg landscape, including new view sheds as well as a state-of-the-art visitor center.  The future does indeed look bright under Latschar’s stewardship.

Update: Looks like the crazies [check comments] are once again coming out of the wordwork to voice their displeasure.  Art Bergeron has left a comment over at Eric Wittenberg’s blog indicating that Latschar may have asked for the ethics review.  If true, it should stifle the crazies who have assumed the worst about Latschar’s character throughout this transition.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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