Category Archives: Memory

“Looking for Lincoln”

abraham-lincoln-statueI am pleased to see that the new PBS documentary, “Looking for Lincoln” is available for viewing on their website.  I’m not sure if this is the complete broadcast, but enough is included to give you a sense of the scope as well as content.  The program is divided into relatively small sections, which makes them ideal for classroom use.  My Civil War Memory class is getting ready to shift to Lincoln and memory so this video will be extremely helpful.  I was very impressed with the documentary.  Henry Louis Gates does a good job of sifting through Lincoln mythology in order to come to terms with a complex and sometimes contradictory man.  Gates utilizes Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Blight, Harold Holzer, Allen Guelzo, Drew Faust, and Louis Horton to sketch out salient themes in Lincoln’s life.  From there Gates explores the ways in which Lincoln continues to be remembered in our popular culture and political sphere.

A few moments stand out.  I was quite impressed with Gates’s interview with Lerone Bennett who is best known for his critical interpretatio of Lincoln on race and emancipation.  I’ve read some of Bennett’s writing and while I appreciate his much-needed corrective to understanding Lincoln’s racial outlook, he often picks and chooses evidence to help make his broader case surrounding his understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation.  As a way to challenge the mythology surrounding Lincoln and race, Bennett noted that for thirty years prior to the Civil War white Americans had defiantly spoken out against the institution of slavery.  His point was to question why they are not remembered as opposed to the excessive myth-making that has defined popular perception of Lincoln.  I think he makes an excellent point and it is one that I often wonder about.

Another moment that stands out is a short interview with a very wealthy Lincoln collector by the name of Louise Taper.  Viewers will see that her collection is quite impressive and includes a number of very personal items that Taper believes defines a loving relationship.  I only point this out because we are so often told by male historians that their marriage was an unhappy one or that Lincoln never truly got over his first love, Ann Rutledge.  Not too long ago I touched on this in a post about an article that I had my Lincoln class read by Jean H. Baker.

Finally, Gates visits with members of the North Carolina SCV duirng their annual convention.  At some point it gets tiring having to listen to the extreme vitriol that emanates from these people in reference to Lincoln.  They betray very little understanding of the past when they couch their analysis in terms of “tyrant” “dictator”, etc.  It’s all so boring and uninformative.  Interestingly enough, he is there during the ceremony to honor Weary Clyburn for his “service” to the Confederacy as a black Confederate – an event I covered in detail on this blog.  Gates doesn’t ask the obvious questions when confronted with the historical assumptions that are implied in the ceremony, which is unfortunate.  It’s not surprising given that his goal is not to be critical but to catalog the way various groups go about commemorating and remembering.  Gates simply admits that he never knew that blacks fought for the Confederacy.  My guess is that Gates must have had his suspicions given his professional training and understanding of the history of race and slavery.  After interviewing some members of the Clyburn family Gates concluded by saying: “They simply wanted to admire their ancestor’s courage.”  I couldn’t agree more.

All in all this is a first-rate documentary that should appeal to a wide general audience.  The website includes schedules for your local PBS affiliate so check it out.

The Pervasiveness of Reconstruction Mythology

Yesterday I caught an interesting program on C-SPAN’s “In-Depth” which featured Frank J. Williams and Howard University historian, Edna C. Medford discussing Lincoln’s legacy.  I don’t remember how it came up, but at one point early on in the broadcast the two guests discussed Reconstruction and the political in-roads made by African Americans in southern state legislatures.  Williams made it a point to emphasize that most newly-freed slaves could not read or write or had no training for the demands of political governance.  This is a very sensitive point that was emphasized by white Southern “Redeemers” who worked vigorously to overturn Reconstruction governments and reimpose white supremacy.  Recent scholarship has successfully challenged this important narrative thread of the Lost Cause.  Historians such as Eric Foner have documented the wide range of legislation that benefited both poor black as well as white Southerners.  On the other hand there it is indisputable that most newly-freed slaves could not read or write.

Professor Medford immediately countered by pointing out that white men had been voting, regardless of their capacity to read and/or write, since the 1830s.  By the 1830s qualifications such as property had been overturned as the country continued to push west and in turn challenged traditional notions of privilege.  Most white men were eligible to vote and just about all presidential electors were chosen directly by the people.  With this in mind it is curious to me that we continue to feel the need to point out that blacks were illiterate at a time when literacy ceased to be a factor in determining the suffrage as well as the right to run for office.  We tend to think of the expansion of the franchise in the 1830s as an important step in the evolution of American democracy so why do we continue to feel a need to point out that recently-freed slaves could not read or write?

Obama Reminds Alfalfa Club Members of Robert E. Lee

Last night Barack Obama attended the annual Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington, D.C.  It’s one of those private/elitist dinners where members celebrate themselves and poke fun at one another.  Much is being made of the president’s comments in reference to the origin of the group and the timing of the dinner.  The organization was founded in 1913 and was meant to honor the life of Robert E. Lee.  On the face of it, not a big deal, but according to Tommy Christopher at the Political Machine the Lee connection has been almost entirely ignored by the press as well as by Obama’s White House Staff in the days leading up to the dinner.  Somehow word of this got to the president who chose to reference the connection in his opening remarks:

I am seriously glad to be here tonight at the annual Alfalfa dinner. I know that many you are aware that this dinner began almost one hundred years ago as a way to celebrate the birthday of General Robert E. Lee. If he were here with us tonight, the General would be 202 years old. And very confused.

No doubt, the reference garnered a laugh or two from the audience, but how many members scratched their heads in confusion?  Apparently, the connection with Lee has slackened in recent years according to a 2007 Washington Post article:

It is such an obscure factoid that an informal poll of some of last night’s revelers produced none who’d ever known this to be true — and who apparently would rather not have been asked, judging by the defensiveness that ensued.   “I don’t think that has any meaning today,” Sen. Norm Coleman (R- Minn.) said of the Confederate connection. “I will be sitting across the table from Kenneth Chenault, the African American chair of American Express.”   Jack Kemp hadn’t heard of the Confederate connection either.

The irony of our first black president reminding a predominantly white audience (I assume) of their connection to Robert E. Lee must be savoured like a fine wine.

Following in Their Footsteps

Professor Stephen Berry was kind enough to send along this wonderful letter after reading yesterday’s post.  In the following 1930 letter, Lexington lawyer and Lincoln-historian, William Henry Townsend, responds to the cranky “posts” of  Mary Carter, who has charged Lincoln with the usual tyrannies and abuses.  Apparently, angry “Lady Rebs” have been unleashing their venom in defense of the “Lost Cause” for a long time.  It’s nice to know that I am in such good company.  Enjoy

Dear Miss Carter:

I have your letter…. Thank you very kindly.  You will pardon me, however, if I say that a careful reading of your lengthy letter fails to disclose much that I had hoped to find in it….  Although it was time for a rebuttal, I find that you abandoned the argument as to all of the…issues…and in lieu thereof, dumped into the hopper of our discussion a putrid mass of undigested vituperation.  Really, my dear Miss Carter, let me say in all good temper that you apparently have run into the same error that the “old tyrant” Lincoln once admonished against when he said: “One ought never plead what he need not, lest he be compelled to prove what he can not!”…  Lincoln once said that “a mathematician could hardly disprove Euclid by calling Euclid a liar.” Yet, you fall into this error also. Dr. Cravens is a liar! Allen Clark is a liar! Mrs. Pickett, the widow of a brave Confederate soldier, is a liar! Mrs. Davis is a weak, unstable creature with traitorous inclinations!! Everybody is either a traitor or a liar who has a good word for poor old homely, kind, tragic Abraham Lincoln!…  I have carefully read the enclosures….  I am sorry to say that they are all alike—bald, blatent assertion, vituperation and abuse, dripping with prejudice and a black, stifling heat that sheds no light….  You say that you will “cease firing” when Lincoln the man is divorced from Lincoln the myth. Why, bless you dear lady, you do not need to do that if it is any sport you. Abraham Lincoln is as far removed from blank cartridges as Mount McKinley was from the “Big Berthas” on the Western Front. If Lincoln himself were here, he would smile and say, in that slow Kentucky drawl: “Will, it don’t hurt me any, and it does her good, so let her alone.”…

Miss Carter, are there really any enemies of the south, or do we see only windmills which prejudice and bias have distorted into pugnacious knight errants of old? Who, at this time, are the traducers of Davis and Lee in the south? What organization of the north is now engaged in vicious propaganda against our southland and its heroes? I have traveled through the north and east extensively, and if we have any enemies, any persons who possess a settled hostility to the south, I have neither read nor heard of them. Name me, please, any man or set of men who are today flooding the mails with defamatory matter concerning any southern soldier or statesman….  Miss Carter, if the tone of this letter has been too emphatic, I confess that I was somewhat nettled at first by the accusation of “posing” in my respect for Lee and Davis and the rather surprising reference to “men of your ilk.”  I had hardly supposed that my two courteous letters merited such an appraisal of me, but I waive these small matters in deference to a southern gentlewoman, doubtless quite sincere, though sadly misguided, who will frankly and candidly, as becomes her breeding, take it all back when she meets Abraham Lincoln in heaven.  With very best regards and many thanks for writing me, I am, sincerely [W.H. Townsend, to Miss Mary D. Carter, August 29, 1930]

A Short Comment About Your Comments

Some of you have no doubt read the colorful comment left by a reader who refers to herself as “JosephineSouthern.”  Here is a short excerpt:

Oh how trashy you are. You have no sense of decency or honor. If you did you would know in your heart of hearts that what Grant did to VICKSBURG was atrocious evil. Shame on them and Shame on the USA. War on women and children, Grant and Butler the Beast I would spit on today! It is obvious your people didn’t suffer and die through Lincoln’s War and afterwards. So what do you care. We tried getting along with you people, but you just won’t let us.

You may be surprised to learn that I receive these types of comments quite frequently.  Most of them never see the light of day and end up being deleted.  Still, regardless of the content it’s not easy to hit the delete button.  After all, this is a site where interested readers can explore the way in which the Civil War has been commemorated and remembered as well as its continued hold on our culture.  Many of the comments left on this site reflect this continued interest and influence.  Without getting to meta on you, I would like to think that this site itself has become a window into the rich legacy of Civil War memory.  Perhaps at some point in the future researchers will peruse this site’s archives to analyze how various subjects were analyzed by me as well as the response from a broad audience. 

At times it is necessary to delete comments and even ban readers entirely to maintain a certain level of discourse.  I’ve thought about creating a page where I could isolate comments such as the one above.  It is a comprise, however, as this would preserve the comment but remove it from the life of the blog post.  There is an argument for maintaining uncensored discourse on a site such as this.  Finally, I also make it a point to double-check the links which you provide in the comment form.  I maintain the right to delete links that I believe provide false or misleading information.  Again, the same concerns apply.

I would love to know what you think.  What are the alternatives when trying to achieve the right balance between informed/mature discourse and preserving the kind of site that will reflect our continued interest in the Civil War?