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 The original resolution by the SGA has been rescinded, which means there is no pending request for action.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. 


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.


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?


The Price Of Forgetting: New Biography of Albion Tourgee

One of the more disturbing consequences of our tendency to interpret the Civil War and the postwar period along the lines of reunion and reconciliation and void of any references to emancipation is our failure to give credit to those who continued to push for civil rights. Even Frederick Douglass tends to be forgotten by the end of the Civil War though he continued to remind the nation of the service and sacrifice of black Americans in the Civil War until his death in 1895.  Rather than waste time and ponder counterfactuals about Gettysburg I often find myself wondering what our national memory might have looked like had we decided to highlight the work of those who concerned themselves with civil rights issues rather than stories that concentrated on the mythology of the "Old South", silly tales of Christian Warriors and narratives that watered down military service to a set of innocent virtues that all Americans could identify with.  Perhaps we would be able to see the modern Civil Rights Movement more as a continuation of steps taken earlier rather than as a reaction to conditions following the Second World War.  Better yet, perhaps the Civil Rights Movement would not have been necessary at all.  Some of the most exciting historical scholarship is now focused on uncovering the lives of Americans who worked tirelessly in the postwar period on issues related to race.  Historian Mark Elliott’s Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgee and the Quest For Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy v. Ferguson (Oxford University Press, 2006) tells the story of one of the most important civil rights advocate, lawyer, and author of the latter part of the nineteenth century.  From the book description:

Civil War officer, Reconstruction "carpetbagger," best-selling novelist, and relentless champion of equal rights, Albion Tourgee battled his entire life for racial justice. Now, in this engaging biography, Mark Elliott offers an insightful portrait of a fearless lawyer, jurist, and writer, who fought for equality long after most Americans had abandoned the ideals of Reconstruction.

Elliott provides a fascinating account of Tourgee’s life, from his childhood in the Western Reserve region of Ohio (then a hotbed of abolitionism), to his years as a North Carolina judge during Reconstruction, to his memorable role as lead plaintiff’s counsel in the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson . Tourgee’s brief coined the phrase that justice should be "color-blind," and his career was one long campaign to made good on that belief. A redoubtable lawyer and an accomplished jurist, Tourgee wrote fifteen political novels, eight books of historical and social criticism, and several hundred newspaper and magazine articles that all told represent a mountain of dissent against the prevailing tide of racial oppression.

Through the lens of Tourgee’s life, Elliott illuminates the war of ideas about race that raged through the United States in the nineteenth century, from the heated debate over slavery before the Civil War, through the conflict over aid to freedmen during Reconstruction, to the backlash toward the end of the century, when Tourgee saw his country retreat from the goals of equality and freedom and utterly repudiate the work of Reconstruction. A poignant and inspiring study in courage and conviction, Color Blind Justice offers us an unforgettable portrayal of Albion Tourgee and the principles to which he dedicated his life.

I just picked up a copy and look forward to reading it over the winter break.


Hitting The Wall Of Civil War Entertainment

I read with great interest Mark Grimsley’s most recent post over at Civil Warriors which discusses his recent involvement in a History Channel documentary that focused on "terror" during the Civil War.  One can easily feel for a professional historian who goes out of his way to ensure that a popular documentary will present an interpretation that is grounded in the best current historical interpretations.  Anyone familiar with Grimsley’s Hard Hand of War knows that he is well qualified to comment on the distinction between the myth and historical reality behind Sherman’s 1864 "March to the Sea."  That this event was even included in a documentary about terror reflects the clash between history and historical entertainment.  Perhaps Mark should have known beforehand that the producers would be concerned as much (if not more) with the traditional story of Sherman’s March that includes countless rapes and pillaging by the "yankee hordes."  Their primary concerns are in pushing a narrative that viewers find entertaining, and what unfortunately qualifies are the colorful stories from "Lost Cause" and reconciliationist history.  From his post:

I haven’t seen the whole thing [Hist.Channel Doc], but I did view the chapter on Sherman’s Marches (which included a couple of other historians, among them William C. “Jack” Davis, in addition to myself). It was very interesting to see. On the one hand, we talking heads all made the point that Sherman’s Marches overwhelmingly targeted property, not people, and that assaults and rapes were surprisingly rare. On the other, our commentaries were interspersed with lurid reenactments of the few instances in which people were targeted, most notably a man partially hanged to extort from him the hiding place of his money (see the upper left part of the poster), and a Union soldier leering at a comely young white Southern lass, grabbing her by the arm, and pulling her off camera, presumably to suffer The Fate Worse Than Death.

Which scenes do you suppose made the biggest impression on the audience: me doing my patented “interplay of severity and restraint” routine or folks getting hanged and (by implication at least) raped?

I still applaud Mark for taking the time to contribute to this documentary.  Yes, there will be plenty of viewers who brush his segments off as another piece of so-called revisionist history, but professional historians have a responsibility to take advantage of opportunities to educate the general public.  Too many have ignored their responsibilities in this area in favor of narrow audiences that rarely include those from outside academia.  Civil War historians like Mark Grimsley have a unique opportunity to engage wide audiences through the publication of books, interviews, etc. 

1 comment