Perhaps I’ve spent too much time studying how Americans have used public spaces to commemorate and remember their past, but I don’t get overly emotional around statues and other such sites. My first thought is almost always about the people – including the profile of the individual/group – who chose to shape a particular landscape with some kind of commemorative marker and the values that they hoped to impart to the public. In addition to the intentions of those who established the site there is the history of how the space is interpreted and consumed by subsequent generations. In all honesty, I rarely think about the object being commemorated. In short, for me public spaces of historic remembrance are almost always about the living. In most cases the objects themselves have little to do with shaping public behavior, especially if they sit atop pedestals. You can have a barbecue, play chess, or engage in polite conversation without ever considering the namesake of the location. Continue reading “Why Are We Forgetting To Order the Pedestals?”
The following commentary by Shelby Foote comes at the tail end of Ken Burns’s The Civil War
“We think that we are a wholly superior people – if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war. But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times. And our generals were the greatest generals of all time. It’s very American to do that.”
This is the final week of my survey course on the American Civil War. One of the subjects we’ve been looking at is the introduction of what Mark Grimsley describes as “Hard War” policy by the United States in 1864. The class was assigned a section of Grimsley’s book, Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians, 1861-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 1995), which allowed us to take a much closer look at Sherman’s “March to the Sea”. Rather than see the campaign as a foreshadowing of warfare in the twentieth century, Grimsley provides a framework that situates it within the history of warfare stretching back to the Middle Ages. [It’s always nice to be able to read and discuss the best in Civil War scholarship with my high school students.] He also speculates that this may account for why Grant, Sherman and the rest of the Union army did not regard the campaign as inaugurating a new kind of warfare. I’m not sure I agree with that, but nevertheless, Grimsley’s analysis does provide students of the war with a framework with which to analyze as opposed to our popular memory of Sherman and the campaign that is bogged down in strong emotions that tell us very little about the scale of violence and overall strategy. Continue reading ““The Mythology of Hard War””
One of the sessions that I attended at last week’s SHA was a roundtable on Civil War Memory and the Sesquicentennial. It was an excellent panel consisting of Gaines Foster, Suzanna Lee, John Neff, and Robert Cook. The presentations were short which left plenty of time for conversation. The question of how to attract African Americans to sesquicentennial celebrations received a great deal of attention from a number of the panelists, especially Prof. Cook, whose study of the Civil War Centennial highlights the extent to which this particular group was ignored. Prof. Cook suggested that what is needed this time around is a much more inclusive commemoration that does justice to the “Emancipationist Legacy” of the conflict. Well, who would disagree with that? Here in Virginia we’ve already held one major conference on the eve of the Civil War. Panelists touched on questions of race and slavery throughout the various sessions and future conferences will focus even more on the end of slavery in Virginia and its aftermath. There will be no shortage of talk about slavery, race, the home front and every other subject under the sun.
I‘ve been following this story out of Tennessee [and here] involving a local chapter of the UDC and SCV and their plans to honor 18 so-called black Confederates. I was actually contacted by the author of this article for my position on this issue, which you can read. The author does a pretty good job of presenting the various perspectives. There is always the danger that the reporter will take something out of context or simply fail to follow a line of argument. In this case the author, Skyler Swisher, does a pretty good job. The only thing I take issue with is having my view juxtaposed against Wood’s as two competing interpretations. Simply put, Wood and the UDC are doing poor history. There is really no interpretation to take issue with since it is fraught with basic factual and interpretive mistakes.