Congratulations John Latschar

John Latschar has accepted a position as the next president of the Gettysburg Foundation after 14 years with the NPS.  During that time he has overseen major changes to the battlefield, including the demolition of the national tower and landscape rehabilitation.  His most important project was the planning and completion of a new state-of-the-art visitor center, which includes what I believe to be the finest Civil War exhibit to be found anywhere.  It’s no surprise that Latschar would want to move on to new challenges, but it is comforting to know that he will continue to work closely with the NPS to maintain one of this nation’s most cherished sites.

Latschar’s detractors are already unleashing their venom.  One fellow blogger has described this appointment as a case of Latschar “feathering his own nest”. The article linked to in this post suggests that Latschar was surprised by the offer and took a few weeks to consider it.  This doesn’t sound like a conspiracy to me but, than again, what do I know.

Stay, Forrest! Stay! (for now)

By now most of you have heard that the Duval County School Board has decided not to change the name of a Jacksonville High School after Nathan Bedford Forrest.  The sometimes divisive debates over the naming and renaming of public buildings and other sites cuts to the core of the close link between history and politics.  In the case of the South these debates reflect drastic changes in the face of local and state government following the civil rights movement.  They are debates over how a community uses its public spaces to reflect its shared history.  Historians have written extensively in recent years concerning the way in which local and national memory has been shaped by Jim Crow politics and a belief in white supremacy. 

The debate in Jacksonville is just another example of what happens when a broader spectrum of the citizenry is allowed to take part in conversations about who should be remembered and why.   This has nothing to do with overturning the heritage of the South; in fact, it is entirely about forging a more inclusive memory and one that can be pointed to as reflective of a community's values.  The two black members of the school board voted for changing the name of the school while the majority voted to retain it.  I obviously know nothing about what went into the decision of the other members, but I have to wonder if they understood what the name might mean to a predominantly black community and even the few black students who actively voiced their concern such as senior, Cardell Brown.  Did they bother to consider how their school came to be named after Forrest or why public places such as schools tended not to be named after Forrest until the civil rights movement?

While Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Kirby Smith and others were all commemorated with schools, community centers, and parks during the height of Confederate commemoration, Forrest's name remained closely tied to the KKK.   In fact, the most powerful "klavern" or local Klan was the Nathan Bedford Forrest Klavern #1, located in Atlanta during the 1940s and 50s.  On the eve of the opening of the school students voted to name it Valhalla, while the booster club bought football uniforms outfitted with Vikings.  The decision to name the school after Forrest was a last-minute decision, although the superintendent warned that the decision might prove to be a mistake just three years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of school desegregation.  Was this really a coincidence?

It was a vote that led to the naming of the school, a vote to retain it, and it will only take a vote in future to change it.  There is nothing sacred about the names of our public buildings.  They reflect the people who either have control of local government or choose to be involved. 

Civil War Memory Turns Three

Three years ago this weekend I started blogging at Civil War Memory.  At the time I had little sense of what I was doing or where it would lead.  Over time the place of blogging within my broader historical interests has become much more carefully defined.  It has led to writing projects, speaking invitations, and has put me in contact with some wonderful people in the National Park Service, academia, the Virginia State government and countless others who make Civil War Memory a part of their daily routine.  Thanks to all of you for reading and sharing your thoughts.  I haven't lost any steam even after 1,487 posts so you are stuck with for at least the near future.

With that in mind keep a lookout for some major changes to this site over the next few months. 

Referencing Civil War Memory and a Very Special Speaking Engagement

About a year ago I did a phone interview with Julie Holcomb who is a lecturer at Baylor University and former director of the Pearce Collections at Navarro College in Texas.  Julie was in the process of writing an essay on the challenges of creating public exhibits and museum displays concerning the Civil War.  Julie focused specifically on how our competing interpretations of the Civil War continue to shape the content and interpretation of various exhibitions.  We talked for about an hour and I wished her all the best in her research. 

A few days ago one of my readers notified me that Julie's essay appeared in a recently-published book by Charles Grear, titled, The Fate of Texas: The Civil War and the Lone Star State (University of Arkansas Press, 2008).   It arrived yesterday and I finally had a chance to read Julie's essay.  I was pleased to see that Civil War Memory was cited extensively throughout the chapter and alongside notable historians of memory and public history such as David Blight, Edward Linenthal, John Coski, and Dwight Pitcaithley.  It's nice to see that blogs are being taken seriously by scholars.   There has been a continuous stream of controversies surrounding museum displays and other exhibits over the past few years and blogging provides an ideal format with which to address these issues and in a way which reaches competing interest groups among the general public.  Thanks Julie.

Today I enthusiastically accepted an invitation from the National Park Service to be the keynote speaker at this years Annual Battle of Fredericksburg Ceremony on December 14 at 2pm.  The ceremony includes the laying of wreaths by the UDC and SUV.  I am going to talk about what we as a community can learn from these battlefields and how battlefields such as Fredericksburg fit into my own teaching about the Civil War and memory.

Virginia is for Obama (Proud to be a Virginian – 11:07pm)

Abraham_obama  Yeswecan

(artist – Ron English)

The exit polls are very revealing.  I was surprised by the split when it came to income brackets.  People making less than $50,000 went with Obama, but even in the higher brackets McCain failed to capitalize on the socialist rhetoric.  It's comforting to know that Americans were not so easily duped by this language.  I wonder what this means for "Joe the Plumber" recording career?  Ten-percent of the electorate who took part in yesterday's election voted for the first time.  I spoke with an employee in our cafeteria who must be in her 60s and who had never voted before.  She went to the polls with her entire family and I can't wait to talk to her about the experience.  Some will attribute this to Obama's "star" quality, but I attribute it to the ability to inspire and rally.  And isn't this what we want in a democracy?
It's already a cliche to say that this election is historic.  It was a very emotional experience watching the tears stream down the face of Jesse Jackson as well as the excitement of the young students at Spelman College.  We just finished discussing King's assassination in class yesterday and at one point I showed the class the famous photograph of the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, which included Jackson.  Congressman Lewis's commentary was also very moving.  We've been discussing Lewis's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement as well and the courage he displayed on more than one battlefield.  I am so happy for him this morning and the thousands of Americans who risked everything to combat injustice and racism.  These are the people – both black and white – who paved the way for this election. 
That said, if we are to appreciate Obama's claim that he represents the most "unlikely candidate" than we must look beyond race.  It is the appreciation of his overall profile, including his age, personal story, and profile that give meaning to his words.  There are two facts of his life that give me reason to be optimistic.  First, this is a man who wrote openly about drug use in his memoir as well as other mistakes of youth.  Second, his election to the position of editor of the Harvard Law Review was made possible by the support of members fo the Federalist Society.  The first example points to a certain level of opennness and honesty, while the second suggests that he will, in fact, try to be a president for all Americans.   
I know this sounds just a little sappy, but you know what, I don't care.  For the moment I am happy and proud of my country.

And You Thought Lincoln Was Dangerous

I noticed that Thomas DiLorenzo has a new book out about Alexander Hamilton.  While I haven’t read it both the title [Hamilton’s Curse: How Jefferson’s Enemy Betrayed the American Revolution–and What It Means for Americans Today] and book jacket suggest that this is a continuation of DiLorenzos’s efforts to uncover the root of centralized government and the supposed breakdown and “death of federalism.” 

DiLorenzo reveals how Hamilton, first as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and later as the nation’s first and most influential treasury secretary, masterfully promoted an agenda of nationalist glory and interventionist economics—–core beliefs that did not die with Hamilton in his fatal duel with Aaron Burr. Carried on through his political heirs, the Hamiltonian legacy:

• Wrested control into the hands of the federal government by inventing the myth of the Constitution’s “implied powers”
• Established the imperial presidency (Hamilton himself proposed a permanent president—–in other words, a king)
• Devised a national banking system that imposes boom-and-bust cycles on the American economy
• Saddled Americans with a massive national debt and oppressive taxation
• Inflated the role of the federal courts in order to eviscerate individual liberties and state sovereignty
•Pushed economic policies that lined the pockets of the wealthy and
created a government system built on graft, spoils, and patronage
• Transformed state governments from Jeffersonian bulwarks of liberty to beggars for federal crumbs

By debunking the Hamiltonian myths perpetuated in recent admiring
biographies, DiLorenzo exposes an uncomfortable truth: The American
people are no longer the masters of their government but its servants.
Only by restoring a system based on Jeffersonian ideals can Hamilton’s
curse be lifted, at last.

The book jacket follows the standard formula used in his two previous books, which castigate Lincoln for instigating an unnecessary war and using it to further the agenda of the “great centralizer.”  DiLorenzo isn’t so much interested in Lincoln as a historical figure but as a case study to further his own Libertarian agenda.  Remember, DiLorenzo is not a trained historian but an economist.  I have no doubt that he is a very good economist, but it is almost impossible to take him seriously as a Lincoln scholar.  While he vehemently complains about the overwhelming number of Lincoln apologists you will find very few references to Lincoln studies after 1950 in his bibliographies.  He rarely challenges the interpretations of those he disagrees with.  In his first book DiLorenzo rails against protective tariffs, the Morrill Act, railroad subsidies, national currency, income tax, the Homestead Act, and of course, emancipation by military force.  He also blames Lincoln for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which extended the power of the courts.  

Please keep in mind that I have no problem with this approach to the past.  There is even an entertaining quality as you feel the momentum of the narrative build to a point of satisfaction and vindication for the writer: “You see, he really was anti-American.”  Kind of reminds me of a political campaign mentality set to a pseudo-historical narrative.  The problem is that the reader ends up learning more about DiLorenzo than about the period he is writing about.  I now know that DiLorezno believes in Libertarian principles of small government and free markets.  My problem is that I could have learned that from one of his publications in an economics journal. 

Now DiLorenzo has set his sites on the Founding Era as Americans worked through their experiences going back to the American Revolution, the Critical Period of the 1780s and the Constitutional Convention of 1787.  In it DiLorenzo finds a battle between good and evil rather than a moment in early American history where the fundamental questions of the proper scope of the federal government and the states, along with the very meaning of individual liberty, were being worked out.   Along the way DiLorenzo intends to debunk the mythmakers (as he supposedly did with Lincoln scholars) such as Ron Chernow whose massive biography of Hamilton is a must read.  There is a reason why books by Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, and Thomas Woods are referenced as further reading on Amazon’s site.  DiLorenzo’s approach to the study of the past is ultimately an extension of his political and economic world view.  You can forget about Hamilton as a historical subject because DiLorenzo isn’t interested in that.  What matters is that in light of what DiLorenzo believes Hamilton was wrong and ultimately to blame for all of our contemporary woes.  Perhaps another way to put is that DiLorenzo is interested primarily in converting the reader to Libertarian principles.  History become a means to an end in DiLorenzo’s hands.

I assume that DiLorenzo’s next book will focus on the centralizing tendencies of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  There you will find a great deal of central control over public morality.  It turns out that the “City on a Hill” was the first step down the long road of corrupt government and the suppression of individual freedom.