“Mr. Levin…I Don’t Get It…”

Today my AP class read and discussed the Gettysburg Address.  I gave them a little background about the battle and showed a couple photographs of the battlefield.  As I was describing the action – specifically the difficulties of attacking uphill – a bright and colorful female student stated the following in apparent frustration: "Mr. Levin, I’ve been to Gettysburg and I’ve walked the battlefield.  I don’t understand what the problem was…I mean that field is as flat as a pancake.  I don’t get it."  She was referring to the area specifically around the center of the battlefield.

Now that was a precious moment.

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Civil War Memory 101

Since this site has experienced a very sharp increase in the number of visitors over the last few weeks I thought it might be helpful to introduce the overall focus of this blog with a series of questions that I am preoccupied with.

Robert Penn Warren: “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”

1. How have Americans at different times chosen to remember the Civil War and how has that collective memory been shaped by a need to forget certain aspects of the war?

2. What are the important lessons to be learned about our Civil War and how should those lessons be taught in our schools and other public spaces?

3. Why might it be important to step back and analyze the way nations have chosen to remember their history?

4. What is the relationship between history and political power?

5. What is it about the Civil War that explains its continued presence in our culture and its strong tug on our imaginations?

6. What was the Civil War’s most significant result?

7. What explains the continued popularity of Lost Cause themes throughout the country?

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Confederate Veterans And The Politics Of Memory

In the next few weeks I have to put together a brief presentation for a roundtable discussion on Civil War soldiers which will take place at the AHA in January.  The panel is made up of five co-authors from the recently released The View From The Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers.  We have been instructed to prepare some brief comments about methodology and questions that need to be addressed for future research.  My contribution to the book is a chapter from my Crater manuscript which analyzes postwar debates between Virginia veterans of the battle and their former comrades from Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolinians.  ["Is Not the Glory Enough To Give Us All a Share?: An Analysis of Competing Memories of the battle of the Crater"] The debates centered on which unit could take responsibility for the victory on July 30, 1864. Here is the central argument of the essay:

Over the past few years, historians
such as David Blight, Fitzhugh Brundage, and David Goldfield have led the way
in explaining the process by which national reconciliation came to shape the
way the nation understood its Civil War at the turn of the twentieth
century.  In Blight’s view the veterans
on both sides of the Potomac chose to assign
the deepest meaning of the war to the heroism and valor of the soldiers on the
battlefield. The shared experiences of
soldierhood was a theme that could bring former enemies together peacefully on
old battlefields.  Such an analysis tells us much about the
general trend toward reconciliation. Debates
between one time enemies over the meaning of the war, however, masks the extent
to which former comrades in Confederate ranks continued to wrangle over
specific questions related to both defeat and victory on the battlefield.  Perhaps the best example of this can be found
in the postwar debates among the Confederate veterans of Virginia
and North Carolina over which state could
claim the deepest penetration of Union lines during “Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.  The disagreement left lasting scars that
continue to fuel heated debates among the members of Confederate heritage
organizations from the two states.

Continued interest in the battle of the Crater easily approached the level of interest in Gettysburg if for no other reason than that the
battle constituted the last significant Confederate victory in Virginia before their surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.  The continuing sectional tension between
Confederate veterans over who would control the public memory of battles such
as Gettysburg and
the Crater solved the problem of which units would shake hands with their
former enemies as blue and grey reunions became more popular. More importantly, veterans utilized their
memories not only as a way to maintain pride in their individual units, but
with the former Confederate nation.  Strong feelings of nationalism could not be set aside even as the men in
the ranks returned home to rebuild and decide when or if to take the loyalty
oath to the Union. Recounting their
heroics on the battlefield allowed some veterans to begin to make the
psychological shift that involved redefining themselves as Americans.  The tendency for veterans to focus on
individual regiments and larger units associated with their respective states
may have reflected a need for self-identification somewhere between Confederate
and American
.  For others, the
concentration on the past simply provided a means to avoid thinking about
defeat in a post-emancipation world. Regardless of the reasons, the steps taken
early on in the postwar years by Virginia’s veterans to celebrate and
commemorate their valor and sacrifice on battlefields such as the Crater only
served to isolate their former comrades from outside the Old Dominion and
to diminish their service and sacrifice for the Confederacy. (pp. 227-28)

The overall goal in this chapter is to demonstrate that Confederate soldiers utilized their memories of service for a number of different purposes throughout the postwar period.  The interesting aspect of this story, which I explore in a different chapter of the manuscript, is that Virginia veterans not only competed with fellow veterans from outside of the Commonwealth but with one another during the four years of Readjuster control under William Mahone.  Veterans of the Virginia brigade battled one another depending on their political affiliation (Readjuster v. Funder) and Mahone was caught in the middle.  Supporters of Mahone defended their former commander from attacks which challenged his own claims to the title of "Hero of the Crater" and his most vociferous critic was none other than Brig. Gen. David Weisiger who aligned himself with the Funders.  In other words, one way of challenging his politics was by attacking his war record.  And the problem for Mahone was that he worked hard throughout the first decade following the war to shape his war record to benefit both his business and poltical career.  Confederate veterans in Virginia were highly political and their memories were shaped by the controversy surrounding the Readjuster Movement.  I will share additional thoughts as I organize the presentation.

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A Plea To My Readers

I highly value the comments of my readers; however, I ask that you stop using the phrase ‘politically correct’ since I have no idea what it means.  It seems to be a quick way of stating some kind of disagreement, but as to its more specific content I admit to being clueless.  So I suggest that instead of referring to it you explain your position clearly and concisely. 

As many of you know I am very interested in questions relating to how public spaces have been used by various groups to maintain political control as well as control of the way we remember as a nation.  There is a very rich literature on this and I hope to add to it with my work on postwar commemorations and memory of the battle of the Crater. 

Feel free to voice your informed opinion, but if you expect me to respond make sure that you have an argument, and that means a set of assumptions followed by a conclusion.

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Update on N.B. Forrest and Middle Tennessee State University

By now most of you are aware of the recent move by a group of students at Middle Tennessee State University to remove the name of Nathan B. Forrest from one of its buildings.  Here is a letter to the editor of the Murfreesboro Post from the Vice President of Student Affairs. 

To the Editor:

Much has been written about the appropriateness of the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest on the Military Science Building on the campus of MTSU. I would like to clarify one or two points and elaborate on what the university’s position is on this issue.

The university annually receives numerous resolutions from the Student Government Association. While non-binding on the university, these resolutions are an expression of the sense of the Student Government Association and the students represented by that body. The administration values these resolutions and takes seriously its responsibility to review them. The university also reserves the right to take action, or to take no action, based upon the administration’s best understanding of state law, Tennessee Board of Regents policy and university policy.

The university has never taken a position on the appropriateness of the name Nathan Bedford Forrest and whether it should remain on the building in question. The building in question houses the Military Science Department and was named to honor the military accomplishments of Forrest. The original program for the naming of the building said, in part, “It is appropriate that the instructional unit devoted to military science and tactics be named in honor of the intrepid Confederate cavalry leader who won fame with his brilliant raids.” In every military conflict there are great generals who accomplish great things, but who are not necessarily great men. The original resolution by the SGA has been rescinded, which means there is no pending request for action.

When the matter first became an item of public discussion, it was my recommendation to President McPhee that we view this as an opportunity for a public airing of the issues. We have argued that issues being raised on both sides have legitimacy and are matters for open discussion. A university is supposed to be a “Marketplace of Ideas,” where competing notions can be considered through rational discourse. We believe that the best response to a situation like this is to provide a forum through which accurate information can be disseminated and opposing views heard.

As a result of the primary arguments voiced in a variety of forums, a group of faculty, staff and students has identified three basic issues for our initial discussions. Those issues include, but are not limited to: (1) the history of how the name and image of Nathan Bedford Forrest has been used on campus; (2) the development of the Ku Klux Klan and Forrest’s involvement with the organization; and (3) a discussion of the battle of Fort Pillow. I believe we will also want to discuss the wisdom of changing names of public buildings based upon current politics.

We expect to engage recognized scholars from across the South for these discussions. We expect these forums to be open to both the university and local communities. We will identify places in the community where we can host these discussions in order to make them more accessible. Because we expect that new issues for discussion will be identified throughout this process, these forums may extend over several semesters. They will be widely announced and publicized.

As we work to develop these discussions, we will appreciate the patience of everyone on both sides of the issues. While we know this may not be the resolution for which either side was hoping, we believe it is a good university response. You are always welcome to share your thoughts and opinions. My office will act as a conduit throughout this process.

Robert K. Glenn, Ph. D.
Vice President for Student Affairs and
Vice Provost for Enrollment Management
Middle Tennessee State University

Short Comment: I am pleased to see that the school is going about it in this way.  If we can’t have an intelligent discussion about issues relating to history and the representation of the past on our college campuses than we might as well close down the doors.  And no this is not another example of the liberal elite knocking down another pillar of our sacred American heritage.  Some people seem to think that the shaping of our public memory through the naming of sites at the turn of the century and so on was somehow a sacred act that must be forever etched in our collective memory.  We need to see that these earlier acts of identification were rooted in the social, political, and even racial assumptions of the time.  These assumptions inevitably evolve and therefore it is reasonable to expect that these challenges will continue.  Keep in mind that many of the names of these sites would have been challenged had certain groups been allowed to vote and take part in public debate. 

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