Category Archives: Memory

Lee for Sale at Mount Vernon?

bob-leelargeOne of my readers came across this little item in the Mount Vernon gift shop.  He thought it would make for a wonderful Hanukkah present for me and I couldn’t agree more.  It’s never too early to think about showing your appreciation for your favorite Civil War blogger.  At first I was confused as to why Mount Vernon would offer for sale a Lee bobblehead.  Well, maybe not too confused.  So, what’s the connection?  According to the description on the bobblehead box:

Robert Edward Lee, a West Point graduate, was the first to graduate with no demerits during his four years at the Academy. After his graduation he married Mary Custis, the daughter of George Washington Parke Custis. As a General of the Confederate Army his achievements won him a high place amongst the great generals of history. Even after his surrender to General Grant, he was an example of how southern gentlemen should behave by taking action to rebuild the south and urging on his own people to accept the new conditions of the nation. This boxed Robert E. Lee Bobblehead is made of resin and is approximately 7.6” tall.

That’s not very helpful since the supposed connection between Washington and Lee is thought to have been much more substantial.  I thought it might be an opportune moment to recycle an old post on just this question.  The following was posted last May as I was finishing up Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (Viking 2007).  This book is a must read.

One of the early chapters in Pryor’s book deals with the supposed influence of Washington’s memory on Lee’s life.  Most of us take it for granted that Lee idolized the first president and even some historians have assumed a “mystical bond between the two men.”  Pryor argues that most of these stories surfaced following the Civil War as part of a broader push on the part of white Southerners to justify secession and connect the Confederate experience to the “untarnished greatness” of Washington.  Of course there is a great deal of history to work with in forging this connection given Lee’s marriage and his early years which were spent in large part at Arlington and in the shadow of Washington’s memory.  Pryor does not ignore any of this evidence, in fact she agrees that the memory of Washington did play a role in shaping Lee’s career and personal behavior.

Readers will appreciate Pryor’s attention to detail, especially in her grasp of the relevant secondary sources.  She does not attempt to build a strawman argument here, but cites directly those historians who have pushed this connection to the extreme.  The best place to start is with D.S. Freeman’s excellent biography of Lee:

His ideals had their embodiment, for unconsciously he was a hero-worshipper. He viewed his father not as “Light-Horse Harry” was in the tragic years of his speculation, but as he might have been if the promise of his Revolutionary record had been fulfilled. Above his father and every other man he had always placed Washington. The Father of his Country was no mere historical figure to him, great but impersonal and indistinct. Through Lee’s long years of association with Mr. Custis, who knew Washington better than did any man alive in 1850, Washington was as real to him as if the majestic Virginian had stepped down nightly from the canvas at Arlington and had talked reminiscently with the family about the birth of an earlier revolution. Daily, for almost thirty years, whenever Lee had been at home, his environment had been a constant suggestion of the same ideal. He had come to view duty as Washington did, to act as he thought Washington would, and even, perhaps, to emulate the grave, self-contained courtesy of the great American rebel. The modesty of his nature doubtless kept Lee now from drawing the very obvious analogy between his situation and that of Washington in 1775, but the influence and the ideal were deep in his soul. He would not have shaped such a question, even in his own mind, but those who knew him as the inheritor of the Mount Vernon tradition must have asked if he was destined to be the Washington of the South’s war for independence. [Interestingly Freeman does not cite any sources for this claim.]

More recently, Pryor references Richard McClaslin’s book-length study, Lee in the Shadow of Washington.  Most of the following commentary can be found in Pryor’s endnotes.  McClaslin’s evidence includes letters from Lee’s father on paternal guidance, but they do not mention Washington and there is no evidence that Lee ever read them.  In addition, McClaslin cites Henry Lee’s memoirs, but again there is no evidence that he actually read it until after the Civil War or if he did that it had any influence.  (fn60, p. 497)  Additional footnotes further challenge claims made by McClaslin in reference to the Mexican War and Lee’s decision to continue to improve Arlington for the purposes of displaying Washington relics.  In the case of the latter, Lee did indeed add a parlor room in 1855, but the room was filled with Lee family portraits and other items.

One of Pryor’s guiding interpretive assumptions is that our understanding of Lee’s personal side is based on little documentary evidence.  We have yet to collect all of his correspondence and while collections of wartime correspondence are available much of the rest of what we believe about Lee is based on fragmentary evidence – especially his early years.  In the case of Washington’s supposed influence on Lee, Pryor concludes with the following:

In ten thousand letter pages Robert Lee mentions Washington fewer than two dozen times.  He remarks on the public’s interest in its leader; mentions that he looked over a popular biography was sent to him by a friend; notes that celebration of his birthday.  Most of these comments are quite casual.  In his most enthusiastic writing on the subject, Lee, like others of his day, points to Washington’s wisdom and integrity, and particularly praises his valedictory address to the American people, which, ironically, cautioned against growing sectionalism.  But even in his most fulsome expression, the remarks are general, steeped in the national pride of the day, rather than personal feelings.  Never does Lee say he idolizes Washington, or that he hopes to emulate him.  The closest Lee came to a conscious association was after the war, when he struggled to come to terms with his decision to join the Confederate cause, and cites Washington’s change from British to American allegiance as an example of an earlier crisis of loyalty.  But this was after the fact.  During those terrible days of 1861 he used Washington’s name quite differently–as justification for maintaining Union. (p. 52)

I think it is important to remind the reader once again that Pryor is not arguing that memory of Washington did not influence Lee, but that the extent of that influence suggested by historians and other commentators is not borne out in the primary source material that is currently available.

Abe and Me

08I‘ve never quite understood the vehement anger expressed by some for Abraham Lincoln. Yes, I get the libertarian concern that Lincoln’s policies reflect a fundamental shift in the size and scope of the federal government. Funny that they rarely express the same concern for Jefferson Davis who went just as far in suspending civil liberties as well as increasing the size of the federal government in Richmond. More prevalent, however is the view that has been shaped by generations of white Southerners who see Lincoln as the man who unleashed the likes of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan on an innocent southern populace that only wanted to be left alone to govern themselves and preserve their “way of life.” The agendas of both constituencies – one economic and the other emotional/scar-ridden – end up with an interpretation of Lincoln that resonates very little with me as a historian and as a citizen.

One of the first books I read when I first discovered the Civil War back in the mid-1990s was David Donald’s Lincoln. Lincoln had never appeared on my radar screen before, but he has occupied a central place in my reading on the war and nineteenth-century America ever since. I’ve devoured well over 100 books on Lincoln and even with everything I’ve read I can still read more. No other historical figure comes close to challenging my appetite for Lincoln studies. There were a number of things that stood out in those first few books that caught my attention. I was fascinated with his early life, his apparent ambition and concern for his own future, which revealed itself early on, and most importantly, his struggle with depression. At the time I was struggling with it myself along with a lack of direction in my life. I don’t remember learning anything about Lincoln’s personal life in high school, but this aspect of his personal profile struck a chord with me and perhaps even provided me with a little strength. In short, I felt I had a connection with the man.

That said, my interest in Lincoln has never come close to hero worship. The realm of history has never provided me with a forum for developing those kinds of connections. [The only person in my life who deserves that kind of respect and admiration is my own father.] Rather, I’ve embraced the study of history as an intellectual exercise, one that involves bringing to bear my limited analytical abilities and love for a good story. I am not trying to protect or defend a preferred interpretation of any one aspect of the past nor do I see it as a stage where good battles evil. Those who do “take sides” inevitably simplify and cherry pick their narrative to suit their own personal agenda. There is very little that I believe about the Civil War compared to when I first started reading about it fifteen years ago. I hope that fifteen years from now my understanding of Lincoln and the Civil War have progressed to a similar point. There is nothing sacred in my understanding of the past; it’s all open to reinterpretation and it is something that I actively pursue.

That being said, it would be dishonest to suggest that my view of Lincoln is entirely objective – whatever that might mean. In the end, I approve of the outcome of the war, including Lincoln’s decision as commander-in-chief to begin the process of emancipation, which eventually led to the end of slavery. That said, I am under no illusions regarding Lincoln’s racial outlook, though I am struck by the difficulty of so many in distinguishing between his moral view and the specific policies he supported as president during a civil war.

More importantly, however, my outlook on Lincoln and the war stems from my pride as a citizen of this country. The union that Lincoln helped preserve is the nation that I live in and call home. I must assume that this is what undergirds most people’s understanding of Lincoln at some level. With this in mind, it seems strange to ask why Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee’s recent bicentennial failed to attract the same level of enthusiasm around the country. Even in the South you will find plenty of programs to honor the memory of Lincoln throughout the remainder of this year. If we accept the assumption that the South is one of the more patriotic regions of this country than it should come as no surprise that Lincoln’s life and legacy would be honored this year. The bicentennial celebrations of Lincoln seem fitting as a celebration of the history of this great nation, even if I tend to look on more as an observer rather than as a participant when it comes to its more emotional and hagiographic moments.

For me, Abraham Lincoln will always be a subject open to further study and contemplation as well as the president who helped bring an end to slavery and worked to secure the future of this nation – warts and all. And yes, I find myself falling deeply in love with the man.

Civil War Memory: Final Projects

I‘ve got 55 exams to grade as well as end-of-the-trimester comments to write over the next few days.  But for now I am enjoying the final projects from my students who spent this past trimester studying Civil War Memory.  This was one of the most rewarding experiences for me to date.  I had a wonderful group of motivated and curious students who thoroughly embraced the subject and who pushed me every step of the way.  For their final projects I gave them a wide range of options, but encouraged them to come up with their own ideas.  I wanted them to reflect a bit more on some aspect of the course or contribute in some way to the memory of the war.  In the end, their projects covered a broad spectrum.  One student analyzed the song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band, while another student did a thorough analysis of the Dixie Outfitters website.  Two groups of students made documentaries based on our trip to Richmond while another group did a survey of the school community on issues related to the Civil War and memory.  Two students chose to reflect on how their own memory of the war has evolved over the course of the trimester.  They were quite moving and attest to the continued influence of the Civil War on even the youngest generation.  A couple of students chose to write their own commemorative speeches on some aspect of the war; they were accompanied by slides to give the audience a sense of time and place.  The photos below constitute just a small sample of what was done.

One student decided to do a couple of sculptures.  The one pictured above is titled, “Confederate Bushwhacker Hides from Pro-Union Jayhawker.”  Two students sketched their own idea for a Civil War monument accompanied by an essay which outlines its theme and purpose.  The first one is titled, “Battle of the Wilderness, May 5th -7th, 1864.”  Here is a brief excerpt from this student’s essay:

The monument itself depicts Grant atop his horse with a soldier to his right and another flanking his left side.  The horse is slightly prancing, made nervous by the commotion, fire, and lack of visibility.  Grant sits erect, holding his hat behind him to urge his men to keep moving forward.  There is a bush both directly in front and behind the monument, again giving the sense that these soldiers were fighting in a thicket and  had to maneuver around such obstacles.  Their muskets are raised, ready to fire, and their bayonets are in place and ready for the hand-to-hand combat and bloody fighting that they faced.  The monument is dedicated to the remembrance of Grant and his army, especially the soldiers that sacrificed themselves to make the necessary push forward against Lee’s army, leading the Union to victory.

The next sketch is titled, “Unification, After the War” and features Lincoln, Lee, and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts:

In the center, President Abraham Lincoln stands strong and composed.  He is dressed in his dignified black suit along with his unmistakably famous top hat.  I included Lincoln in my monument because he is the reason why the United States survived and was unified after the Civil War.  Before the war, Lincoln stated that, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  Therefore, he stands in the middle of General Robert E. Lee and a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment to emphasize just how right he was.  General is placed to Lincoln’s right on my monument.  He was the heart of the Confederate Army and fought bravely for the South.  His placement besides Lincoln represents the unification of both sides after the war in 1865.  To the left of Lincoln I placed a brave soldier from the 54th Massachusetts commanded by Colonel Robert G. Shaw.  This soldier symbolizes the start of change in America after the war.  Even though laws were not equal for black Americans after the war, victory for the North was the beginning of the transformation of the United States….This monument symbolizes the rebuilding of the United States of America after the war.  Each man represented on this monument had a part in this war; therefore they are equally commemorated on it.

I’ve got some ideas about how I can improve the class if I choose to offer it next year.  For one, I would like to make it much more hands on for students and allow them to work on more detailed projects.  My guess is that this is the first high school elective ever offered on the Civil War and memory.  Now that’s pretty cool.

CFP: Historical Tourism in the American South

n36619244_35369672_232My friend and fellow historian, Karen Cox, has issued a call for papers for a proposed collection of essays on tourism in the American South.  Karen already has a number of historians involved in this project, including yours truly.  I am going to contribute an essay on Arlington House and the evolution of the NPS’s discussion of slavery on the grounds.  Over the past few years I’ve collected some information on this subject so it will be nice to be able to finally do something with it.  Karen is already in contact with a publisher and has been given an advanced contract so it is likely that the collection will see the light of day.  What follows is the CFP as well as Karen’s contact info. if you are interested.  [oh...and I stole the image from K's Facebook page.]

This is an invitation to submit proposals for essays to join others in a book (now under advance contract) that explores historical tourism in the American South.  Historic sites, for the purposes of this volume, are those places that have been restored and/or adapted for the purpose of preserving some aspect of southern history and interpreting that history to the public. This volume will be divided into four sections each exploring a different aspect of tourism to sites of southern history and memory and proposals should fit into one of the following categories:

People and Places:  will examine individual southerners and the historic sites preserved to tell their story.

War and Remembrance: will examine Revolutionary, Civil War, Spanish-American sites in the region.

Race and Slavery: will examine historic sites that interpret slavery or civil rights.

Landscape and Memory:  will examine tourist sites that are concerned with the physical environment.  Suggestions include cemeteries, Rock City, the Virginia’s Natural Bridge or the Florida Everglades.

Final essays will be 20-25 pages in length and will be accompanied by illustrations.

For consideration, please send a brief CV and a 1-page abstract by April 1, 2009 describing your topic to: Karen L. Cox, Editor, Department of History, UNC Charlotte, kcox@uncc.edu

Cotton: The Fabric of Our Lives – Just Not the Lives of Slaves

The other day I came across the “Cotton Campus” website, which is an interactive website for teachers and children on the history of cotton and sponsored by Cotton Inc. As someone interested in how the history of slavery is remembered (and often ignored) I was curious as to how the people who brought us Mary Matalin and James Carville frolicking in bed would handle what is still a very sensitive issue for many.  Needless to say, I was stunned. The only mention of slavery on their website includes a few brief references on their interactive time line.  They mention that “slavery was relied on heavily in the 1800s” and a bit later the emancipation is referenced.  As for their seven pages of lesson plans (pdf files), the word ‘slavery’ is not mentioned once.  Let me give you a sense of what I am talking about.

Consider their fifteen true/false questions: (1) A famous cotton farmer named George Lincoln was called “King Cotton”; (2) In 1607, the first English settlers planted cotton at Jamestown; (3) Eli Whitney built the first cotton gin, a machine that could separate 50 pounds from the seed in one day.

They also give students ideas for “Essay Starters” on various aspects of the history of cotton.

Colonial America: Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in North America.  One of the imported crops the first English settlers planted was cotton, to make clothes.   During the following, 150 years, cotton became an important crop in the Southern colonies, such as Virginia and the Carolinas.  England passed laws that required cotton growers to ship all their cotton to England, where it was manufactured into clothes.  England then sold the clothing in Europe and to North America at high prices.  In defiance of the English law, some cotton was kept within the colonies and used to make clothes called homespun.  Homespun was rough and not very fashionable.  Clothes imported from England were expensive and only fairly wealthy colonists could afford to buy them.  But during the American Revolution patriots wore homespun to their loyalty to the American cause.  Even George Washington wore homespun during the Revolution.

Eli Whitney and Other Inventors of the Late Eighteenth Century: In 1790, Eli Whitney, a recent graduate of Yale College, moved from New England to Georgia to become a teacher.  In Georgia, Whitney saw how hard it was to separate cotton fiber from cotton seeds by hand.  It took about 10 hours to get 1 pound of cotton.  To help, Whitney invented a machine, called the cotton gin, that could do the work much faster.  The cotton gin cold produce 50 pounds of cotton fiber in one day.  With the new manufacturing machine, cotton became so important to the American economy that it was called, “King Cotton.”

It’s hard to imagine too many teachers utilizing this website.  On the other hand, it is interesting to see how this company handles its own history.  After all, their entire marketing scheme is built around ideas of comfort and softness.  Their website is as much about creating new customers as it is about education – more of the former, I suspect.