A Few Final Thoughts About Thomas Lowry

Altered Lincoln Pardon

This morning I lectured about Benjamin Butler and slave contraband in the comforts of my classroom in Charlottesville.  By the middle of the afternoon I was walking around Fortress Monroe for the first time.  Now I am ensconced in my comfortable hotel room getting ready to give a talk tomorrow morning.  Before I do so, however, I’ve got a few thoughts to share about the Lowry scandal.

Thomas Lowry will now take his place on the wall of shame next to Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Bellesiles, and Joseph Ellis.  [I highly recommend Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect for a thoughtful analysis of these recent examples of unethical behavior.] It’s an impressive list of some of the strangest transgressions in the field and yet there is something about Lowry’s deed that up til now I’ve had trouble coming to terms with.  It’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach that somehow won’t go away and that begs for explanation.

One the one hand the decision to alter the historical record makes little sense.  As my wife pointed out to me yesterday, it’s not as if it changes anything we can claim to know about Lincoln’s attitude toward military justice.  And even if the date was correct it’s not as if Lincoln knew that he would be dead by the next morning.  It’s a cheap and meaningless thrill at best.

I actually have less trouble coming to terms (even sympathizing) with the list of characters mentioned above.  Yes, they deceived their families, friends, as well as the general public, but the damage was corrected and the guilty parties were punished and forced to come to terms with the consequences of their actions.  Lowry will have to face all of this, but his actions went further down that moral road that is clearly marked, “No Return.”  In tampering with this piece of history Lowry treated the document itself and the parties involved as a means to an end.  As historians we have a moral responsibility to do our best to get the story right because in practicing our craft we establish a moral relationship with those who came before us.  That’s right, we have a moral obligation to treat historical figures as ends in themselves and not as a means to an end.  Whatever biases we bring to the table and regardless of whether we get it right we intend to tell a true story about the past.  When Lowry altered this document he wasn’t thinking about Lincoln or Murphy.  He was thinking about himself.

This is what the slightly darkened number five represents to me.

Historian Thomas Lowry Alters Lincoln Document

From the acknowledgments section of Don’t Shoot That Boy!: Abraham Lincoln and Military Justice: “As always, any errors, omissions, or ill-founded opinions are the sole responsibility of the author.” [You said it.]

Update from the Washington Post: In an interview Lowry claims that Archive officials pressured him to confess to the document tampering.

What can I say other than I am speechless.  From the National Archives website:

Washington, DC…Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero announced today that Thomas Lowry, a long-time Lincoln researcher from Woodbridge, VA, confessed on January 12, 2011, to altering an Abraham Lincoln Presidential pardon that is part of the permanent records of the U.S. National Archives. The pardon was for Patrick Murphy, a Civil War soldier in the Union Army who was court-martialed for desertion.

Teaching Who Won the Civil War

Charlottesville's Civil War Soldier at Courthouse Square

This week I will be working with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers as part of a Teaching American History workshop on the Civil War and historical memory.  This time around I am teamed up with historian, W. Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina, who will take care of the morning session with a lecture that provides an overview of some of the major themes of postwar narratives of the Civil War.  My job is to provide teachers with a foundation of content and skills that can inform the way they teach history.

I have a two-hour slot in which to work so my plan is to divide the time between two activities.  During the first hour I am going to introduce the group to documents related to the recent debate in Virginia surrounding Confederate History Month.  No doubt most of these teachers will be familiar with the controversy, but this activity should give them a chance to think further about many of the points made in Brundage’s opening lecture.  I recently completed a lesson in my Civil War Memory class in which we analyzed the very same documents; the lesson concluded with students writing their own proclamation.  The results were quite interesting and perhaps at some point I will share a few excerpts.

The next lesson will explore the question of who won the Civil War through a close reading of a collection of primary sources.  I teach the Civil War and Reconstruction as part of the same unit and I try to provide as smooth a transition between the two as possible.  In other words, I want my students to see the period following 1865 as an extension of a war that raised fundamental questions about the place of African Americans within this nation.  In doing so, we move beyond the overly simplistic image of Appomattox as a symbol of reunion and even reconciliation.  The challenge of how the nation would be reconstructed raises the obvious question of whose vision of reconstruction would prevail and within what particular time frame.  I ask my students to think about these questions to reinforce the importance of acknowledging perspective and the open-ended nature of certain historical questions.  Here is a taste of the kinds of documents that we will explore together.  Continue reading “Teaching Who Won the Civil War”

Noah A. Trudeau’s Black Confederates

Andrew and Silas Chandler

Yesterday I posted on the Civil War Memory Facebook page an NPR interview with Noah Andre Trudeau that focused on Robert E. Lee and recent commemorative events of the Civil War.  I didn’t listen to it straight through so I missed this little gem of a comment on black Confederates.  It’s a bit disappointing given his work on black Civil War soldiers that I used throughout the research phase of my Crater study.

This is from Jim in Birmingham: I’ll celebrate my ancestors in north Alabama who joined the First Alabama Cavalry USA and fought the slaveholders in Alabama and served with Sherman on the march to the sea.

And Andy Trudeau, that reminds us: This is not a simple conflict.

Mr. TRUDEAU: No. There are so many complex threads involved here. You cannot say something never happened. And right now, I’m a little concerned that there’s a polarization and that there’s groups that claim it was only about states’ rights.  There’s another group that’s saying that it’s absurd to think that a Southern African-American would even consider doing anything to support the Confederacy. And they just block any effort to make mention of that, when, in fact, I don’t think you can deny that some of that happened.  We’re talking small numbers, but clearly, this is a very complex community. There are bonds of intertwining trust and friendship between black and white that carry forward into the war. And it’s not unusual, I think, especially in some small units, to find African-Americans serving with their white – I guess you’d have to call them their masters. But it happened – not a lot, but it happened.

It’s difficult to know where to begin with this brief comment.  First off, I can’t discern whether Trudeau is referring to slaves or soldiers; this confusion is all too common in this debate.  If he is referring to slaves than we are talking about large numbers that were present with Confederate armies throughout the war.  Kent Masterson Brown suggests that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia included thousands of servants and impressed men in the summer of 1863, who performed an array of jobs.  As for “bonds of intertwining trust” I think it is safe to say that we are on much shakier ground.  I have no doubt that the war probably brought master and slave together in close contact and I have no doubt that certain bonds were formed.  The problem for any historian researching this, however, is that there is almost nothing available to help fill in the blanks.  It should come as no surprise that I have yet to see a wartime account from a slave that references how he felt about his master while in the army.  Working on my article on Silas and Andrew Chandler it is easy to imagine the two conversing about how much they miss being away from loved ones, but I don’t have access to one shred of evidence that might help me to better understand Silas’s perspective.  If Trudeau is referring to soldiers than he is simply misinformed, which is unfortunate.  I would have him talk to Robert K. Krick about the presence of black soldiers in Lee’s armyContinue reading “Noah A. Trudeau’s Black Confederates”

David W. Blight on Civil War Memory

You will notice a short interview with David Blight at the top of the sidebar on the right that I recently posted.  Below you can listen to parts 2 and 3.  In part 3 Blight talks about his current project, which is an exploration of the Civil War Centennial and the writings of Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, and Bruce Catton, as well as the sesquicentennial.  In addition to this study I’ve heard that he is at work on a biography of Frederick Douglass.  I do hope that is true.  A few weeks ago my friend, Keith Harris, posted a short review of Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which in my mind is still the place to begin in the field of Civil War memory studies.  Keith’s own scholarship challenges some of the central assumptions of Blight’s work, specifically the ease with which white Northerners abandoned an emancipationist narrative of the war for reconciliation and reunion.  My own forthcoming study of the Crater and historical memory complicates Blight’s interpretive framework by showing that reunion was not a simple process for former Confederates, especially for those veterans who fought under Mahone at Petersburg.  More importantly, Confederate veterans of the Crater were not unified in terms of how they chose to remember and commemorate the war because of deep political differences, especially during the four years of Readjuster control in Virginia.  Blight’s book has spawned a growing literature that complicates the postwar narrative of how Americans chose to remember the war.  A few of my favorite studies include, John Neff’s Honoring The Civil War Dead: Commemoration And The Problem Of Reconciliation, William Blair’s Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, and, most recently, Benjamin G. Cloyd’s Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory.

At the same time I think it’s important to acknowledge Blight’s book because of the studies that it generated.  I think that’s the mark of a seminal book.  Although Blight wasn’t the first person to explore this topic, he did offer students of the Civil War a rich interpretation of the various political and cultural forces (with apologies to PC) at work following the war.  For me the book continues to offer fresh insight every time I open it up and it proved to be invaluable in helping me to think about my own narrow project on the Crater even though I ended up disagreeing with some of Blight’s central assumptions.  In other words, it’s one thing to disagree with a book, but another thing entirely for that very same book to help steer you in a different direction.
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