Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial is Off and Running

2While other states are still in the beginning stages of organizing sesquicentennial commissions Virginia is getting ready to host a major event on Wednesday, April 29 at the University of Richmond’s Robins Center.  This is the first of a series of Signature Conferences that will be held throughout the sesquicentennial.  This first conference is titled, “America on the Eve of the Civil War” and will include four sessions, which will place participants in a position where they must take stock of the nation following John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and anticipate its consequences as a presidential election loomes on the horizon.  The participants make up a who’s who list of Civil War historians.  They include, among others, David Blight, Gary Gallagher, Manisha Sinha, Nelson Lankford, Charles Dew, and Ed Ayers.  Well over 1,700 people are registered to date, coming from all over Virginia plus 23 other states.  Registration is still open, though I urge you to reserve a seat now as it looks like it will eventually sell out.

I will be live blogging throughout the day.  In fact, I will be located in a special section with the rest of the media – should be a blast.  In addition to blogging, I will be hosting a luncheon for educators, the goal being to give teachers a chance to network and discuss the session topics.  I do hope that additional states can muster the political will and organize commemorative committees to better our understanding of this crucial period in American history.  For now, sit back and watch as Virginia sets the standard.

Update: The Q&A sections of the panels will include questions submitted electronically. It looks like you will be able to submit a question to me through the blog that I can relay to the Question Manager. I will provide more details as we get closer to the conference.

Alabama Honors Reconstruction Era Lawmakers

From the Associated Press:

The Alabama Legislature has passed a resolution honoring black lawmakers who served during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. The resolution by Democratic Rep. Alvin Holmes of Montgomery says black Alabama residents played an integral part in the Legislature from 1868 to 1878. At the height of Reconstruction in 1874, there were 33 blacks in the Legislature.  Holmes’ resolution received final approval Thursday when the House went along with changes made by the Senate. The resolution now goes to Gov. Bob Riley for his approval.  The resolution calls for the names of the black lawmakers to be placed on plaques located in the rotunda of the state Capitol, on the grounds outside the Capitol and inside the entrance to the Alabama Statehouse.

White Southerners Have Always Loved Lincoln

Barry SchwartzIhighly recommend Barry Schwartz’s new book, Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic Era: History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2009).  There is an interesting section on the image of Lincoln during the Depression, which is a moment where, according to Schwartz his reputation had peaked only to decline following WWII.  Schwartz not only surveys popular or institutional representations of Lincoln, but also tries to uncover the views of ordinary Americans.  One of the more interesting sections is his analysis of how white Southerners viewed Lincoln from the turn of the twentieth century through the New Deal.  Along the way, Schwartz mentions Thomas Dixon, D.W. Griffith, and Mary R.S. Andrews and a host of lesser-known writers.

I learned that on February 12, 1928, the Virginia House of Delegates rose for the first time in respect for Lincoln’s memory and adjourned “in honor of…the martyred President of the United States, whose death was a distinct blow to the South, resulting in a national calamity.”  Not surprisingly, a number of public figures, including Lyon G. Tyler (son of of the president) and Reverend Giles B. Cook (Lee’s staff) offered a request to “to Repeal the Resolution of respect for Abraham Lincoln, the Barbarian…” and an eleven-page resolution.  At least one newspaper editor encouraged its readers to “put aside old animosities.”

What I found most interesting was a 1929 survey of 4,658 boys and girls in Alabama living in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham done by David Spence Hill.  Hill asked the following: Of all persons whom you have heard, or read about, or seen, whom would you most care to be like or resemble”?  One third of the boys and 60% of the girls named a relative or personal acquaintance; however, when it came to historic and public figures their answers were quite telling.  Of the boys, 26% chose Washington while both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee came away with 5% each.  The girls also overwhelmingly chose Washington, but Lincoln earned 3% while Lee only earned 2%.  Schwartz’s analysis of the data is worth repeating in full:

Hill’s survey shows Lincoln’s prestige to have been feeble among school children, but he also documents the decline of the Confederate tradition.  That Lincoln and Lee are named by virtually the same small percentage of respondents is surprising, given the belief about the South’s lingering resentments.  No longer can negative Southern attitudes toward Lincoln be attributed to nostalgia for the Confederacy and its heroes.  Moreover, Alabama children were discovering ideals in the present as well as the past.  Boys ranked Charles Lindbergh (22 percent) just below George Washington.  Girls also mentioned Lindbergh, along with film stars Clara Bow, Billie Dove, and Ruth Elder.  Not the Confederate hero but George Washington and contemporary entertainers were competing against Abraham Lincoln for Southern children’s attention and respect. (p. 55-56)

One of the most popular publications of Confederate nostalgia was Tyler’s Quarterly Magazine and in 1939 one of its contributors complained that “praises for Lincoln emanate in almost equal fervor from practically every section of America.”  Not too long ago newspapers inquired as to why Southern states were not taking part in Lincoln Bicentennial events.  Of course, anyone who bothered to look would have noticed that there are numerous events throughout the South which acknowledge in one way or another his importance to American history.  In fact, Lincoln is getting much more attention than both Lee and Jefferson Davis.  My guess is that the author of the piece was driven more by popular perception than any serious understanding of Lincoln’s place in our national memory.  One of the reasons why I find the study of memory to be so intriguing is that it has the potential to surprise.  I am constantly struck by the extent to which our assumptions about the past or the ways in which previous generations interpreted the past deviate from our own.  We should be careful not to use those who came before as a means to our own ends.  So, if you are a white Southerner who respects and admires Lincoln, it turns out that you are in very good company.

Civil War Monuments and Virginia Politics

confederate_monument_500pxThere is an interesting article in today’s Washington Post on the place of Civil War statues in a changing Virginia political landscape.  It’s a fairly balanced look at how these sites are interpreted by different constituencies and it directly addresses the connection between political power and how our public spaces are used to remember the past.  John Coski explains that connection in pointing out that, “A monument always testifies to power — to who was in power at the time.”  The Civil War statues that dominate Monument Avenue in Richmond and the soldier statues that populate local court houses serve as a reminder of white supremacy and a commitment to imparting to the general public a memory of the war that reinforced its preferred view of the past.  Such a view worked to reinforce political dominance through much of the twentieth century.  One wonders what the landscape of memory would look like if between 1880 and 1920 black Americans were able to take part in the decisions over who and what to remember.  How might Monument Avenue appear today under such changed circumstances?

I welcome the debate about how utilize our finite public space in commemorating and remembering the past; however, I worry about the tone that it has taken and will likely take as we approach the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  My biggest concern is the language of “tearing down” Civil War monuments that are deemed to be antiquated or even racist. Consider the recent controversy over a prominent Civil War statue in Raleigh, North Carolina involving a columnist who called for the newly-elected governor to tear it down. [Click here for the original column and here for a follow-up.]

I must remember that I approach these questions from the detached perspective of a historian interested in memory and public history and as a teacher who believes these sites need to be properly interpreted.  In other words, I understand that people are passionate about these issue.  The problem with the language of removal is that it fails to address some of the underlying issues that drive the discourse.  It’s ultimately a veiled attempt at covering up the problem rather than working to better understand it or, more importantly, working toward meaningful reconciliation over what the Civil War was about.  In the case of J. Peder Zane, however, it seems to me that all he managed to accomplish was to cause the various parties to dig in their heels even more firmly.  It leads to defensiveness and suspicion and renders it that much more difficult to engage in meaningful discourse.

3217946367_2796191d71I recently took 30 students to Richmond to explore its Civil War heritage through monuments.  This was a fairly diverse group of students who have very different opinions as to what the war was about and how it should be remembered.  As we walked around the Lee and Davis monuments in Richmond and walked through Hollywood Cemetery we discussed and analyzed the sites and tried to better understand both the time in which they were constructed and their continued place on the public landscape.  Even with a diversity of opinion not one of my students suggested that the solution was to remove them from public viewing; in fact, most of them acknowledged in one way or another that it is important for them to remain where they are.

Public spaces are not static.  To understand this point is to acknowledge that they reflect the changing dynamics of the people who must live within their midst and, in many cases, maintain their integrity through tax dollars.  If that is the starting point than it is incumbent on the community to discuss in as open and as honest a way how these sites should be maintained.  I’ve tended to support at least two approaches in those situations when a monument or other structure no longer reflects the values of a substantial portion of the local population.  The most common approach is to add to the landscape as in the case of the Arthur Ashe monument in Richmond, but the approach taken in Louisville, Kentucky is also instructive.  In 2002, the University of Louisville announced plans to add civil rights monuments around its Civil War statue as part of a new development to be called “Freedom Park”, which will include structures commemorating the Civil Rights Movement.  Another way of bridging the divide between the commemoration of a statue and the present is to place interpretive markers that educate the public about the origins of the structure.  These do not have to be overly intrusive and can go far in placing the site in its proper historical context.  What I like about this approach is that it does not prevent members of the public from attaching their own preferred interpretation or meaning to the structure.  Perhaps the best example of this approach is the placement of an interpretive marker at the Heyward Shepherd Marker at Harpers Ferry, which was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1931.  [Click here for an excellent overview of the history of this monument and also see Caroline Janney’s recent essay in Civil War History (June 2006).]

I am not overly confident that rational discourse about how to remember and commemorate the Civil War in public spaces is possible.  Our culture is much too comfortable with a language of polarization that includes “Red States v. Blue States”,  “Capitalism v. Socialism”, etc.  Ultimately, we have to want to talk to one another or perhaps we must first learn how to do so.

“Is This the Union That Lincoln Was Trying To Save?”

I’ve been playing around with an elective idea on conspiracy theories in American history.  It provides an opportunity to explore issues of epistemology in historical studies as well as the ease with which myth and outright lies can be disseminated and, in some cases, become part of our cultural lexicon.  One of the projects that I’ve considered assigning would allows students to develop their own conspiracy theory using video or some other social networking program.  This would allow the general public to consider it and make a decision as to its veracity or as a means to gauge some of the biases that shape those judgments.  Consider the following short video that attempts to draw a connection between Lincoln, his legal activities with the railroads in the 1850s and the supposed purpose of the American Civil War.  Of course, the individual who put this together believes the content of his video to be true:

It’s not a very convincing video, but please take notice of the comments that follow.  It suggests that for my students to create a convincing interpretation they would have to have a sufficient command of the relevant literature.  So, what would be the goal of such an exercise?  Well, in a class on conspiracy theories it might provide students with some insight into the general public’s ability or interest in discerning truth from fiction.  It would also reinforce one of my top priorities, which is to encourage healthy skepticism and strong analytical skills in my students.  It may lead to some interesting psychological and/or cognitive observations concerning our ability to engage in critical analysis in a society that thrives on suspicion and distrust of power.

Of course, there are a number of ethical considerations involved in such a course/project.  Essentially, I would be asking my students to intentionally lie to the general public.  While the deception would not be carried out in the name of this school there is an obvious connection that cannot be severed or minimized.  What is paramount for students to keep in mind is that the end goal is not the deception, but what we learn about the extent to which the public can be deceived.  Consider a recent class at George Mason University where the students created a fictional character and utilized Wikipedia, blogs, and other social networking sites to test the ease with which their interpretations could be successfully filtered through the Web.

I am nowhere near proposing such a course, but it is an idea that I keep coming back to, which means that it is very likely that I will act on it at some point in the not too distant future.  What do you think?