End of Another Semester

The second of my two Civil War sections just finished their final exams.  They had 90 minutes to write about the evolution of the conflict from limited to hard war.  Students analyzed how and why the war evolved, the relationship between the battlefield and home front, national politics, and ultimately the redefining of freedom and liberty.  I decided against a more traditional objective test since just about all of my students are seniors who need as much practice as possible writing analytical essays before they head off to college.  I used the same format for their midterm exam, which focused on how Lincoln came to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. 

This is the first year where we’ve moved from a semester to a trimester system.  It hasn’t made much of a differenct to my survey courses, but I’ve had to focus much more on what I want to teach in my electives given that I have four fewer weeks to work with.  I had a great time with these students.  Both sections were interesting and worked consistently throughout the semester – only a couple of early cases of senioritis.  Luckily, most of my students are scheduled to take my course on Civil War memory which begins after the Thanksgiving break.

Louisville’s Changing Public Landscape

Plans for a new “Freedom Park” were unveiled yesterday in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, which will include a number of new exhibits and statues related to the civil rights movement.  The site is home to a Confederate monument erected in 1895 by the Women’s Confederate Monument Association.  The project is being led by local city officers as well as University of Louisville officials.  The new exhibits will be placed alongside the Confederate monument in the hopes of creating a more historically diverse public space that reflects a more inclusive citizenry.

City spokesman Chris Poynter said it is important to leave the monument “where it is. It is part of our history. But it tells only one side of the story, and we feel it is important to tell the other side.”

Dr. Blaine Hudson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and an African-American historian who helped develop the concept for Freedom Park, acknowledged that it would be difficult to move the Confederate Monument. He said it “reflects Southern sentimentalism.”  Hudson said he hopes that Freedom Park will be an “outdoor museum that will tell the complete story of the Civil War period, the antebellum period here in Louisville and the civil-rights period.”

According to sculptor Ed Hamilton: “You can’t rewrite history. You’ve got to deal with it head on. But we need to have something to offset that one-sided portion of history.”

I agree that it would be a mistake to remove Confederate statues like the one in Louisville.  They have become part of our cultural landscape and most of them can rightfully be considered works of art.  It’s a mistake on the part of Professor Hudson to even hint at the possibility of removal.  Such a suggestion only works to alienate segments of the public.  Like all public historical displays these monuments need to be properly interpreted and as an educator it is his job to do so.   Adding to the park’s landscape can only enrich the visitor’s experience and provoke questions and dialog about our rich and sometimes divisive history.

My Fredericksburg Battlefield

Just sitting here thinking about what I might say in my keynote address marking the 145th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. I am going to center my remarks on how I use the battlefield to teach. I’ve brought my students to the Chancellorsville/Fredericksburg battlefields for the past 5 years. It’s always a new experience depending on where we go as well as the interests of my students. One of my favorite walks begins in the downtown area of Fredericksburg where we discuss the crossing of the Army of the Potomac and the civilian experience, including the town’s slave population. One of the more interesting stops on our route towards Marye’s Heights is the slave auction block, which is located at the corner of William & Charles Streets.

Thinking about the scope of my comments is difficult as I have an inclusive view of what a battlefield ought to include, especially when my students are involved. It’s never simply about the movement of troops, but the experiences of the men involved along with the bigger issues that defined the war, including its cause and aftermath.  I guess all I want to say is that without this auction block there is no Fredericksburg battlefield.  They are inextricably linked.

A few questions to consider: (1) How many Southern towns have preserved sites such as this?  (2) Why did the city of Fredericksburg preserve this particular site after the war?

A Bailout for Bowling?

Looks like the stand-off between the Virginia Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans and the American Civil War Center at Tredegar will continue over the statue of Jefferson Davis and Jim Limber. You may remember that the SCV spent $100,000 on a new statue of Davis holding hands with his “adopted black son” Jim Limber to be placed next to the Lincoln-Tad statue at Tredegar. The statue is close to completion; however, the ACW Center stipulated that the donation of the statue would be accepted with no preconditions attached or even a guarantee that it would be displayed at all. At the time I argued that this placed the SCV in a very difficult position since they could not pull out of the deal and blame the museum for failing to acknowledge their heritage, and even if they did go along with the deal it would be unlikely that the display of such a statue would prove to be satisfactory to the SCV.

Cristinia Nuckols, who is an editorial writer for the Virginian-Pilot, suggests that the funds spent on the Davis-Limber statue could have been allocated much more effectively on the maintenance of Confederate monuments throughout the city, which are in serious need of maintenance. Keep in mind that Richmond is already home to five Davis statues:

There’s the bronze statue on Monument Avenue, a life-sized version at his grave in Hollywood Cemetery, and three busts in the White House of the Confederacy, the Valentine Richmond History Center and the state Capitol. The latter is placed, in an ironic non sequitur, over a plaque that reads “Capitol Disaster.”

As Nuckols notes in the article, every year the Richmond community scrambles to raise funds to maintain these important historical. To spend $100,000 on another Davis statue when the SCV could have led the charge in maintaining those beautiful statues along Monument Avenue and elsewhere is not only reflective of mismanagement on the part of Brag Bowling and others, but a sign that the organization is losing its way. This is about as silly as the placement of massive Confederate flags along major highways throughout the South. One hundred thousand dollars spent and now Bowling and the SCV are scrambling for a home for their paean to the Lost Cause and bad history.

The news isn’t much better for the UDC and SCV in Maryland, which recently learned that they will not be able to use a room on the Johns Hopkins University campus for an upcoming Lee-Jackson Day event. According to the SCV’s blog, a Hopkins representative stated that they were being denied because they are a “Confederate organization.” It’s hard to know what to make of this given that the university has rented out the building to the SCV since 1988. Perhaps there is more to this story than what is currently being shared? Well, it hasn’t prevented the usual suspects from crying PC and every other chant in their repotoire. No surprise that our good friend Richard Williams sees it as a sign of the political corruption and liberal bias that has infiltrated college campuses throughout the country. Of course, Williams conveniently ignores the fact that for the past twenty years the university has welcomed the SCV to their campus. That seems like a pretty good track record for a leftist leaning/revisionist/anti-Southern [and whatever else you want to throw into the mix] university.

Who Is That “Former Congressman”?

It’s been interesting to observe how my Civil War students have responded over time to the talking heads in Ken Burns’s The Civil War. While we don’t spend too much time on the series, what I have shown has been sufficient to be able to formulate judgments about how it functions as entertainment and historical interpretation. Shelby Foote has clearly grown on them over time. At first they didn’t quite know what to make of his little stories about owls on picket duty and Lee being able to “make himself Grant”, but over time they’ve grown to appreciate his place in the documentary. I think they see him as someone who embodies the memory of the war through his accent, dress, and overall demeanor, and they respect him as someone who cares about this past. As for Ed Bearss, well, let’s just say they don’t know what to make of him. I’ve had to print out his commentary so they at least know what he said and can consider it as part of the broader narrative. My more analytical students appreciate the commentary by Barbara Fields on issues of race and emancipation.

I’ve been able to give my students background information on all of these commentators except for James Symington, who is presented as a “Former Congressman.” He makes only a few appearances in the series and his commentary is not particularly interesting – much more emotional and consensus driven than anything else. My favorite moment comes toward the end of the series in Episode 8: “War Is Hell”, which includes Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

Symington Interview: They knew each other. Grant remembered Lee very well. Lee didn’t quite remember Grant. That was understandable from the time that they were acquainted back in the early days. But I think it was the sensitivity that the two men had for each other and for the moment, enormous dignity and yet the necessary informality. Grant, not wanting to get to the point too quickly, Lee bringing him up shortly to the point of why they’re together. Lee dressed in his last good uniform. Grant apologizing that he was rushing from the field and didn’t have time to change. The scribe being unable to hold the pen steady and having it taken by another soldier. That, from Lee’s point of view, awful moment, and from Grant’s point of view, glorious moment, and yet for the two of them, a sad and quiet moment. And Lee taking his leave and doffing his hat from Traveller and riding back to his troops after securing those reasonable terms. It was the beginning of the unification of the country.

Symington’s effectiveness here is not simply in his choice of words (we’ve heard them countless times before) but in his cadence. The entire episode of Lee’s surrender is dragged out with attention given to every detail of the events leading to and following the actual surrender. There are two stories coming to an end at Appomattox as represented by Grant and Lee. Burns wants his viewers to empathize or sympathize with both men as well as with the two armies. Symington contributes to this emotional build-up by drawing sharp contrasts between Grant and Lee and by reciting his words in short fragments. And just in case viewers are emotionally invested in one side over the other, Symington poignantly reminds us of what it is all about in his final few words: “It was the beginning of the unification of the country.” [Very nice…yeah…whatever.]

I am curious as to why Symington was chosen as one of the talking heads for this series. There is a Wikipedia article on him, but I was unable to find anything more substantive that might help.  I am only now beginning to appreciate the extent to which the talking heads in this series contribute to shaping the film’s overall interpretation, but more importantly, the way in which we identify with key figures and events.

A Very, Very Short Lincoln Biography

James McPherson has been very busy this year. He has already published a lengthy study of Lincoln titled, Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. The other day I received an advanced copy of a concise biography of Lincoln by McPherson published by Oxford and slated for release in February 2009. How concise is this book? Well, if you just include text it tops out at 67 pages. It’s hard to know who might be in the market for this book. A few years ago Oxford published a fairly short Lincoln biography by the late historian, William Gienapp, which I use in my survey classes. It runs just over 200 pages and my students thoroughly enjoy it.

I perused through it just to see if it might be worth using in my classes. As I suspected there isn’t much here to consider. It offers a basic outline of Lincoln’s life and maybe enough to allow you to run a Jeopardy category on the subject. You wouldn’t know this, however, if you read the blurbs on the back of the book:

“James McPherson’s new book is an invaluable contribution–an authoritative biography…that can be read at a single sitting.” — Douglas L. Wilson

McPherson “manages to convey in prose that is both lucid and accessible the complexity of this fascinating figure, the challenges he faced, and what he achieved.” — Shelley Fisher Fishkin

“Abraham Lincoln should be read by every American, indeed by every person in the world over, who wants to understand the preeminent American president.” — Lewis E. Lehrman

I don’t doubt that this is a decent short biography of Lincoln, but to describe it in such terms is to take a leap off the deep end.   Clearly, if you only have a few hours in your life to learn about our 16th president than this is probably the book for you.   You will be conversant in polite company and you will have managed to steer clear of the DiLorenzo types that pose as serious Lincoln scholars, but that’s about it.


Joe Reenacts

Note: Thanks to everyone who has already updated their links to the new site.  It is greatly appreciated.

An Opportunity for the Sons of Confederate Veterans

How many times have we heard from a member of the SCV or someone loosely associated with the organization that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of hate, but a symbol of heritage and pride in the service of Confederate ancestors?  My goal with this post is not to rehash old arguments about whether the SCV or the Confederate flag is sufficiently inclusive to represent how the majority of Southerners perceive regional identification, but to inquire into the SCV’s silence over recent abuses of their revered flag.  A number of news outlets are reporting on an increase in racial crimes and other incidents since last week’s election.

There are two stories in the news concerning high school students – one in East Alabama and the other in Bandera, Texas –  who are wearing the Confederate flag in the wake of the election of Barack Obama.  Even reputable institutions of higher learning such as Cal Poly are having to address the issue with their students.  In this case students hung a Confederate flag and noose outside a window.  A number of fellow bloggers reported on the North Carolina man who inverted an American flag and spray-painted an X through it to represent the Confederate flag.

This is a perfect opportunity for the SCV to issue a clear statement condemning these incidents; anything less is a tacit endorsement of the abuse of a symbol that they claim to hold dear.  Their silence will likely make it that much more difficult to display their flag in ways that they deem to be proper and honorable.  In those cases SCV leaders will no doubt argue that their heritage is being attacked, but what can they expect if the image that most Americans have (white and black) is of a flag used as a symbol of hate?  This is the reason that I completely agree with John Coski who argues that the best place for the Confederate flag is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted.  Allow it to circulate in our communities and you lose any claim of ownership or even authority in defining its “real” meaning.

I am looking forward to my talk in Fredericksburg next month on the anniversary of the battle.  There will be a wreath-laying ceremony and the playing of taps.  No doubt, there will be one or two Confederate flags involved.  I have no problem with this as I am convinced that for many who will attend this ceremony the flag is a connection to ancestors that they believe deserve to be remembered.  Of course, I say this as someone who does not view that flag simply as the symbol of the men who marched into battle, but as the flag of an army which fought under a nation created to perpetuate the institution of slavery.  It is also the flag that was utilized as a symbol of “massive resistance” during the civil rights movement.  The meaning of the flag, as is the case with most symbols, is never fixed.   If the SCV continues to direct their energies and financial resources on silly projects such as the placement of large Confederate flags along major highways, such ceremonies as the one in Fredericksburg may soon be the only place where that flag has a chance of even being connected to the Civil War.