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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Abraham Lincoln At The National Constitution Center

A couple weeks ago I mentioned that I am helping to put together an interactive exhibit at Monticello that will focus on Thomas Jefferson’s ideas.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my experience thus far.  It’s given me a chance to think about how history is presented in a completely new context in comparison with the classroom.  The exhibit will give visitors a chance to explore the evolution, contradiction, and legacy of Jefferson’s ideas through a touchscreen.  The most difficult transition for me has been in maintaining focus on the needs of the average visitor as well as the practical issues of time and access.  We are now figuring out the content and in about a week we meet with one of the designers and computer programmers.  The work has given me a new set of questions to ask and a desire to move into an area where I can reach more people.

I’ve been reading more reviews about exhibits to get a clearer sense of what is out there.  There is a review in the latest issue of the Journal of American History by Randall M. Miller on a Lincoln exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania .  The exhibit is titled "Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War" and will continue until early February when it moves to Oklahoma City National Memorial in Oklahoma City, OK (opens Feb. 12, 2007).

The exhibit focuses on the issues of secession, slavery and emancipation which constituted the three principal constitutional crises of Lincoln’s administration.  Visitors enter the exhibit as they listen to a series of questions: "Were we truly committed to liberty and equality for all?" and "Are we truly committed to liberty and equality for all?"  The questions continue in different sections of the exhibit: "Were we one nation?"; "Are we one nation"; Were our civil liberties safe?" during the Civil War era; "Are our civil liberties safe?"  The questions correspond to wall panels that depicts contrasting images from the Civil War and today.  For example, the question about national unity includes a map of the 1861 presidential election results and a map with the same breakdown from 2004.  I often worry that you run the risk of watering down the past when you make these types of connections, but I now think that you are more likely to have visitors leave with a richer sense of the past if a connection with the present is established. 

Visitors interact through trays of flip-cards that allow you to make crucial decisions for Lincoln at critical junctures in his public career.  You can decide what should happen to radical Copperheads such as Clement Vallindingham for supposedly mobilizing anti-Union subversion.  You can try the idea out online and while it is more like a game you might be able to make some use of it in the classroom.  The exhibit also includes roughly 100 artifacts, including a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Pen of Liberty used in 1862 to sign the bill freeing slaves in Washington, D.C., and an inkwell used in the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

One of the issues that the team I am working with has to figure out is how to utilize the space designated for the exhibit.  It turns out that this is quite important since the arrangement of an exhibit can help create a certain effect: do you want people huddled together for a specific reason or is it necessary for individuals to have space to reflect alone?  Curators for the Lincoln exhibit chose to "force visitors to gather in knots of interest at the stations much like people at a political rally or a protest."  I don’t think I will have an opportunity to visit the museum before the exhibit leaves, but if you are in the area make sure you check it out.

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Civil War History For M.B.A.’s

A couple of years ago a book was published that purportedly offered leadership lessons based on Robert E. Lee’s generalship.  If I noticed it on the bookshelves I probably just stared at it with a blank look on my face or perhaps let out a slight chuckle.  Now we have a business professor from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who is using Lee’s decision making at Gettysburg to analyze what author Michael Useem calls a "go point."  What is a go point you ask?  According to the author it is "that decisive moment when the essential information has been gathered, the pros and cons are weighed, and the time has come to get off the fence." In the course of the writing of this book the author took 33 mid-career managers from major companies to Gettysburg: "As they gazed across the now sacred ground of the battlefield, our mid-career managers and M.B.A. students were reminded of the importance of seeing ahead, of thinking strategically, of appreciating the full picture before reaching big decisions," Useem writes.  According to Useem there are five go points connected to Lee’s decision ordering the "Pickett-Pettigrew" assault at the Union center on July 3, 1863.

1. The decision by the Confederate leadership, at Lee’s prodding, to take the war to the North and try to force a political accommodation with the Union.

2. President Lincoln’s decision to make Gen. George Meade the commander of the Army of the Potomac, replacing Gen. Joseph Hooker.

3. Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell’s failure to attack Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill when they were still vulnerable, depriving Lee’s army of a chance to outflank the Union forces. Ewell, who replaced Stonewall Jackson after Jackson was mistakenly killed by his soldiers at Chancellorsville two months earlier, did not act, because Lee’s order left him too much discretion and because he was unprepared for that level of decision-making. [The price of not knowing the literature]

4. Union brigade commander Strong Vincent’s decision to take his 1,500-man brigade to Little Round Top and defend that vital high point, although he had not been ordered to do so. Vincent recognized the strategic importance of Little Round Top and took the risk. [Thank you Michael Shaara]

5. Meade’s decision to confer with his nine top generals on whether to maintain their positions and defend or to attack, and if to attack, when – contrasted with Lee’s decision to attack the Union center, made without seeking the advice of Gen. James Longstreet and others who opposed the attack. [Is he serious?]

And what are the business lessons that can be pulled from all of this?  Among other things business leaders need to embrace the strategic offensive along with an appreciation of the limitations of others in the chain of command, and the importance of consultation. 

At some point I am going to write a self-help book for families and couples that are dealing with some kind of serious trauma that prevent them from reuniting.  I will use the stories of reconciliation and reunion from Appomattox to make my points.  Now that’s sure to be a best-seller.  What do you think?

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