I’ve been following with great interest Ralph Luker’s recent series of posts over at Cliopatria on the myth of slave quilts. I am interested in this mainly because I don’t know anything about it. Apparently there is a long-standing myth that slaves were guided north by following signs that were stitched into quilts. This myth was accepted in 2005 by a graduate student and his advisor at UNLV who encouraged his student to pursue this story even after it was revealed that it could not be verified based on the available evidence. The advisor posted a notice on H-Net for help in finding evidence:
The original quilts have by now disintegrated, and apparently there are very few
first hand accounts of how quilts were used in practice. What I’m looking for,
then, are references to quilt-use in popular literature. Do you know of any
novels, short stories, poems, essays, etc, from the antebellum period that in
some way mention quilts in association with the underground railroad or the
abolition movement in general?
In response historians such as David Blight explained why there is no evidence, buts still the thesis went forward. Blight and Paul Finkelman offer additional comments on all of this at H-Net and according to the former the quilt story is going to be incorporated into a planned monument to Frederick Douglass to be placed in Washington, D.C. That is very disappointing.
At one point Luker asks why we need to believe this nonsense even after it is shown that the story lacks credibility. Fellow Cliopatria blogger Oscar Chamberlain offers his own response to this question. I was particularly intrigued by one of his suggestions:
7. Unlike some fields, physics, for example, the lines between the professional
and the non-professional historians and the history they produce is extremely
blurry. There are fine—or at least accurate—people who do history outside of the
profession as well as some jokers. And there are many people on both sides of
the line who do good work much of the time but not all the time. And then there
is the well-produced muck. We often complain about this blurring when we discuss
what students learn (the student says,“I love the History Channel"), but we
rarely talk about what we learn, not always consciously, from popular sources
that don’t seem like muck.
I think Chamberlain’s point here is particularly appropriate for Civil War studies. That "blurry" line is both a blessing and a challenge.
The blogosphere is heating up over Keith Olberman’s commentary last night about the proposed "surge" of troops planned for the new year and on the president’s repeated calls for "sacrifice." The Daily Kos call it an "11 minute piece of brilliance." I watched it this morning on the MSNBC website and thought it was on par with previous commentaries. This was clearly meant as a direct attack against the president. Overall I find most television news shows to be more about entertainment than about actual news. While I agree with the substance of Olberman’s commentary it is too little, too late.
First, I should say that I never supported the war in Iraq. As someone who lost a relative on 9-11 I supported the president’s decision to go into Afghanistan 100%, and I thought he did a very good job in the days and weeks following that horrific day as a rallying point for a grieving nation. I was hoping that we would find and either capture or kill Osama bin Laden. From day one I though that the talk of Iraq was a distraction from what was clearly a legitimate target. I never believed that we would find WMD or that we could somehow bring democracy to Iraq. And as most conservatives will tell you that shouldn’t be the goal of this nation’s foreign policy to begin with. [See Francis Fukuyama’s America at the Crossroads] What is so disturbing about the recent round of books on the lead up to the war and the occupation is that our intelligence community in fact did do their jobs. There were plenty of doubts expressed by intelligence services re: WMD and what would happen in case of an extended occupation. They were ignored. I’ve been reading and highly recommend Michael Isikoff and David Corn’s Hubris and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City.
From day one the job in Iraq was botched, but the American people, including our elected officials didn’t question any of it. [We couldn’t even execute Saddam Hussein properly.] Worse than that we demonized those people as anti-American who did question the administration. Even Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son in Iraq was labeled a political opportunist and a disloyal American. Large protests were seen as peripheral by most mainstream news agencies. This is the sickening part of the entire story as far as I am concerned. Even with this country’s recent history we allowed the situation to get out of control. The president has asked the American people to sacrifice for this so-called "War on Terror" from the beginning and yet I look around and struggle for the evidence of national sacrifice on the home front. I suspect that the reason we never engaged in serious dialog about this war is because sacrifice was never really necessary. Most of us have no direct connection to the men and women who are risking their lives or who have lost their lives in this senseless war.
As bad as things are they will get worse unless the American people stand up and demand that it stop. It was appropriate for Olberman to refer to Lincoln’s words in the Gettysburg Address. My only disagreement is that if these soldiers do die in vain it will not simply be on the hands of the president. I fear that they already have died in vain. Olberman’s commentary was flashy and emotional, but what does it matter if that is both the beginning and end of the opposition to all of this nonsense. The more I think about it the more I am convinced that Olberman’s anger should not have been directed at the president; it should be directed at the American people. We allowed this to happen. Our public officials in Washington are only accountable if we demand it.
In the end I have to conclude that we got what we deserve.
One of the places where the distinction between those interested in "heritage" as opposed to history comes into play is the question of Southern Unionism. In recent years historians have explored the complexity of what William Freehling calls "the many Souths." On the other hand those with an interest in "southern heritage" find it difficult to talk about the history of the Confederacy without talking about white loyal Confederates in the Lost Cause tradition. Race may be a difficult topic to broach (as it is for most Americans) but the presence of pockets of Southerners who remained loyal to the United States is perhaps even more troubling. Think about the postwar scene and what happened to Confederate generals such as James Longstreet and William Mahone who for one reason or another decided to back political views that were perceived to be a threat against conservative southern slaveholding values. Longstreet and Mahone were not Unionists, but their treatment following the war reminds us of the influence of the Lost Cause tradition which laid out a unified white Southern face during secession and the war.
Two bloggers (Richmond Democrat and Slantblog)in Richmond are supporting steps to honor the state’s Civil War Unionists. From the Richmond Democrat:
A few days ago I proposed that the time had at last come to honor Virginia’s
Unionists — Virginians who had stayed loyal to the United States during the
American Civil War. My proposal is based on the simple premise that Virginians
who render heroic service to the United States are deserving of some recognition
in the form of a monument or monuments…
I bring this to your attention not because I am an advocate or because I am convinced that this blogger’s intentions have any chance of succeeding. I am much more interested in what the proposal does to the way most of us think about the South. Can "heritage" incorporate Southern Unionists?
My local PBS station recently aired a short documentary about the debate surrounding the Arthur Ashe monument on Monument Avenue in Richmond. A few Confederate reenactors were interviewed who tried to make the point that they were not necessarily against a monument to Ashe, but the placement of it in close proximity to Lee, Stuart, Jackson, and Davis. Let’s assume that this had nothing to do with Ashe being black, but a matter of wanting to preserve Monument Avenue for Virginia’s Civil War heroes. If that be the case could we expect opposition to the placement of a monument honoring Elizabeth Van Lew, Major General George H. Thomas or Sergeant Major Christian Fleetwood of the 4th USCT? All of these figures are important parts of Virginia’s rich Civil War history and can be considered to be heroes because of their actions.
I am convinced that in the end most people tied to "Virginia heritage" desire to maintain a white only interpretation with "others" fitting in in ways that do not threaten certain preconceived notions such as secession and slavery. Evidence for this can be found in the opposition to the placement of the Lincoln and Tad statue a few years back. The idea that a portion of the Richmond population (both white and black) welcomed Lincoln to the capital of the Confederacy in its final moments was simply too much to ask.
I am still thinking my way through the question of whether heritage and history are mutually exclusive ways of looking at the past.
Is Heritage History?
Is Heritage History? (Part 2)
Looks like the Museum of the Confederacy has uncovered a real artistic gem. From the Richmond Times-Dispatch article:
A rare portrait of Robert E. Lee will be showcased at the Museum of the
Confederacy in January to celebrate the Confederate general’s 200th
birthday. "If you look at all the books about Robert E. Lee, this painting is not in
them," said Waite Rawls, the museum’s president and CEO. "I think it’s that
mystery that is so intriguing. When was it painted and under what
The owner of the painting, who does not want to be identified, purchased it
at an estate sale in Richmond in February. Since then, he’s been researching its
past, with help from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, libraries and the
Internet. Still, questions remain. "We don’t know if Lee sat for the painting or whether it was painted from a
photo," said the owner, a Henrico County resident who typically displays the art
in his living room.
Another mystery surrounds its age. It dates to at least 1868, when artist
Thomas B. Welch showed it in a juried exhibition in Paris. "We don’t know where it’s been since then," the owner said. "It’s
frustrating. I want to know." One thing he is sure about is his good fortune. "I went to the estate sale, and there it was hanging over the fireplace," he
said. "I wasn’t going to pass it up."
The owner of the painting has allowed the MOC to make copies for sale ($300) in hopes that the proceeds will help its financial situation. It might be worth purchasing as it is a limited printing and it will benefit the MOC. Click here to see the image.
Last week I chose Armstead Robinson’s posthumously published Bitter Fruits of Bondage: The Demise of Slavery and the Collapse of the Confederacy, 1861-1865 as the best Confederate study of 2006. Check out Ervin Jordan’s very thoughtful and insightful review of the book over at H-Net. The two were friends and colleagues here in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia. Jordan is an archivist at UVA’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections and specializes in the Civil War.
Armstead Louis Robinson (1947-1995) was a colleague, friend, and mentor; we discussed our respective books-in-progress on many occasions. As the
University of Virginia special collections’ research archivist and Civil War specialist, I am currently processing his papers (70,000 items) which include several groups of _Bitter Fruits of Bondage_ manuscripts and research material; these are not yet available to the public but once they are, his dedication to the historian’s craft will be deservedly appreciated. As a teacher, Black Studies advocate, Civil War historian, and founding director of the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for Afro-American and African Studies, Robinson was widely respected among his peers. One monograph of African-American intellectuals included him among a pantheon of nearly two hundred exceptional minds including W. E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, and Cornel West. Colleagues familiar with Robinson’s academic career as a student and teacher maintain he was a genius born to be a historian; as a history undergraduate his maturating skills were acknowledged by mentors such as Eugene Genovese who quoted Robinson’s unpublished honors thesis in his peerless _Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made_ (1974).