Category Archives: Memory

Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Civil War: Part 2

Last year I blogged about Jesse Jackson Jr.’s opening remarks at the NPS’s "Rally on the High Ground" conference which took place back in 2000.  The conference resulted in a book that included the various presentations.  I spent last night rereading Congressman Jackson’s remarks and this morning I emailed his office to see about conducting an interview as part of a final chapter for the Crater manuscript which I discussed yesterday.  I’ve already been in touch with a number of people; all have been supportive and are willing to sit down for interviews.  One individual that I talked to yesterday described interest in the Civil War and the NPS within the black community of Petersburg as one of "apathy" as opposed to the city of Richmond.  If this is true I want to better understand why this is the case.  I suspect that much of what needs to be explained will be done by looking closely at the recent history of the city of Petersburg. 

Following Congressman Jackson’s remarks is a question and answer section.  I found one particular question and response to be quite intriguing.  The questioner was apparently with the NPS and asked Jackson what made him qualified to "impose" his views of the Civil War on the NPS given that he admitted to having no experience in historical interpretation and had only come to an interest in the Civil War four years previous. 

Answer: I don’t quite see my views as an imposition on the National Park Service, but consistent with what one of the directors of one of the sites shared with me–the will of the people, an act of Congress.  So now that we have an act of Congress, that is the will of the people.  At one level or another, the will of the people is at the site to interpret its broader implications and put it in historical context.  That is much broader than left and right obliques.  An act of Congress created the Department of the Interior and an act of Congress created the National Park Service.  Furthermore, an act of Congress created your job and an act of Congress decided that local as well as state municipalities would not encroach upon this space because an act of Congress determined this space to be sacred.  So, acts of Congress, long before I got to Congress, created these sites and made determinations about how these sites would be shaped to keep local governments and state governments from encroaching upon these sites.  Acts of Congress also are responsible in one way or another for the interpretation.

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the supposed tension between the NPS and Southern heritage groups as a result of Jackson’s legislation.  I may, however, have exaggerated the extent of the disagreements.  In a phone conversation the other day with a NPS historian he suggested that problems arise only when the question is debated abstractly.  This individual said that there are very few complaints about some of the changes that can currently be seen at NPS battlefields.  And why is that?  I suspect that there are few complaints because most people who visit battlefields don’t know to complain.  They are looking for a solid interpretation that helps them understand what happened on a particular battlefield and how that site fits into a larger context. 

By the way in browsing Congressman Jackson’s website I came across a list of books that cover the Civil War, slavery, Lincoln, and race.  He describes the list as follows: "Books that have greatly influenced the decisions and arguments I make on behalf of the people of the Second District of Illinois." I have to admit to being quite impressed with the range of books cited.

A Few Additional Thoughts About Robert Krick, Lee, and Historians

Last night I caught Bob Krick’s SCV talk "Lee and Historians in the Age of the Anti-Hero" on CSPAN.  I blogged about this talk a few weeks back, but only had a newspaper article to work with.  Viewing the talk in its entirety, however, did not add much to my previous observations. 

I actually enjoyed listening to Krick.  He’s got a great sense of humor and is clearly a well-read individual beyond the confines of Civil War history.  He started off on just the right note, by commenting on the ways in which memory often comes to distort the past.  In the context of memory of the Civil War Krick outlined the general view made popular by David Blight and others, which highlights the impact that reconciliation and reunion had on popular perceptions of the war.  He referenced this view as a point of departure in noting that not all postwar observations were distortions or exaggerations. 

Krick’s central observation is that historian’s claims that Lee’s reputation was constructed during the postwar era are reflective of a general trend of conspiracy theories and "anti-Confederate" writings.  Now if there ever was a strawman argument this is it.  Before proceeding I should note that Krick frames the issue correctly: the question is not whether one ought to view Lee as an icon, but whether people at the time did.  Krick quotes from three texts to make this point, including Thomas Connelly, Alan Nolan, and Michael Fellman.  Only three historians are referenced in the entire talk, which doesn’t make for much of a historiographical analysis.  At one point he suggests that these writers are mainly academics, but of course, Nolan is an attorney.  Later in the talk he quotes approvingly from Charles Roland’s short text on Lee and he is an Emeritus Professor from the University of Kentucky so clearly not all academics are problematic on his view.  On the other hand, Krick’s criticisms of Fellman’s study of Lee focus not on his central question but on the author’s use of psychological categories such as "manic depression."  While I agree that psycho-history can be misused it is not clear to me that Fellman is anti-Lee or anti-anything.  He may be wrong about his claims, but Krick has little interest in critiquing those claims.  Vague generalizations and mischievous minds seem to be the order of the day.

The problem as I see it for Krick is that while his conspiratorial claims about recent Lee literature barely include anything constructive his preferred approach to history is one that many historians have come to appreciate.  Krick believes that the way to approach Lee is by looking at the way he was perceived at the time and not after the war.  He quotes from E. Porter Alexander and a civilian who I am believe is Catherine Edmundson.   Here Krick is on solid ground and on target as an implicit response to Nolan and Connelly.  The problem here is that Krick doesn’t cite one historian writing today who has adopted such an approach and there are many.  He presents himself as a lone cavalier out to save the reputations of the great Confederate chieftain.  To drive the point home Krick asserts that only Lee has been the victim of such attacks while Lincoln and Grant have been largely untouched.  This last point is patently absurd as anyone who follows Lincoln historiography knows.  In fact, if ever there was a "historian" whose conclusions followed from an agenda and little understanding of how to conduct research about Lincoln it is none other than Thomas DiLorenzo who was one of the panelists at this conference.

Krick is right about one thing that is there is a great deal of bad Civil War history out there.  However, basing one’s observations on bookss published 15 to 30 years ago does not help us understand more recent historiographical trends in the field. I understand that Krick’s next book on weather in Virginia during the Civil War is due out soon with the University of Alabama Press.  No one has a better grasp of Confederate military sources, so as always, I look forward to his next book.

I Am Not Interested In You, I am Interested In the Past

One of the lessons I’ve learned as a result of blogging is just how emotional people can get over the Civil War.  Of course I knew this before blogging, but when that emotion is directed at you it provides a whole new perspective on things.  It is almost cliche to say, but it is true that many are still "fighting the war."  Perhaps Brooks Simpson is experiencing the same thing in reference to memory of Grant and the war in the West.  While our subject matter differs our responses are similar.  In this case I will let Brooks speak for me:

I’ve always been interested as to the extent to which certain people take the Civil War personally. You can say what you want about honoring one’s past, one’s heritage, and one’s ancestors, and yet it still surprises me that so many people can’t draw distinctions between past and present, between “them” and “us,” “they” and “we,” or exhibit a passion for (or against) a particular historical figure to the extent that they project their own way of personalizing history on others (you can come across this characteristic if you examine some comments posted in response to blog entries here)….

Let me simply suggest that when people confuse past and present and their ancestors with themselves that they are not practicing history, but a form of identity politics, and, in some cases, are responding to something best found within themselves, whatever that may be. “We” did not fight that war; “we” did not respond to something that happened nearly 150 years ago; “we” did not own slaves, and “we” did not fight to free them, or to save the Union, or whatever. We are trying to understand what they did and why, how they saw and understood the world around them, how and why things happened as they did … in part by appreciating the “pastness of the past,” as it were.

Most of the responses to my posts are sent to my personal email.  I rarely respond, but I am struck by the number of people who actually believe that I have a personal agenda or have taken a moral stand in connection to my research.  You can find numerous statements on message boards where I am labeled "anti-Southern" or my personal favorite, "hater of the South."  While I typically laugh in response to such accusations I am hard pressed to understand the motivation behind it all.  Such accusations tell me nothing about the past, but about the ignorance of the accuser.  Much of the mail I receive stems from the assumption that we should equate Southern history with the white South and/or the four years of the Confederacy.   

I am willing to admit that I am personally invested in one outcome of the war and that is the end of slavery – regardless of how it happened.  Of course I have my personal views of certain individuals, but they are working assumptions that are not invested with much emotion at all.  In other words, I am perfectly willing to step back from the way in which I understand the past.  My assumptions about the past are based on what I’ve read and since I am constantly reading I would hope that my understanding continues to evolve.    I constantly reference books when making specific claims.  While some interpret this as condescending I see it as acknowledging a basic fact that apart from the quality of the books we read no one has an independent connection to historical truth.  My voracious appetite for historical studies is a function of wanting to know better. 

I grew up on the beaches of Ventnor, New Jersey and didn’t read my first Civil War book until my mid-20s.  My ancestors arrived in this country after the war so I have no personal connection to the 19th century.  As difficult as it might be for some people to believe this I have absolutely no personal feelings one way or the other about the people who fought the war.  Often times I find that my readers have failed to distinguish between the perception of an emotional interest with a focus on how Americans remember the war.  The implication is that because I ask questions or draw certain conclusions that I must be personally invested.  In the case of my numerous posts about "Stonewall" Jackson or Robert E. Lee the failure on the part of of my readers is to distinguish between criticisms of historians who write about such subjects and the individuals in question.  How could I possibly have such strong emotional convictions about individuals that I’ve never met?  Since my primary interests center on memory and race in the Confederacy and the postwar South the typical response is to inquire why I don’t write more about the racism of Northerners.  The implication is that I am treating the South "harshly" or that my narrow focus is a sufficient reason to conclude that I am "covering up" other areas of history.  I don’t know how to respond to such criticisms, but to say that I have my interests which I will continue to pursue.  Part of it is that I tend to write about the areas where I live, which is of course Virginia for now.  In a few years I will move and more than likely will take up subjects that bring me closer to my new community. 

Brooks hit the nail on the head in the passage quoted above: I’ve never considered myself part of a "We" in any context whatsoever in regard to the Civil War.  I used to find that personal connection to the Civil War to be somehow endearing, but now I find it distracting and annoying.  It’s annoying because it wastes a great deal of time and conversations with such people are usually not about history, but about themselves. 

I am not interested in you, I am interested in the past.

Clyde Broadway’s “Trinity”

One of the most effective and enjoyable ways of studying Civil War memory is by looking at the various images produced at different times.  I tend to look at images not simply for what they are purported to be about, but as reflective of the artist and the time in which they were produced.  There are no better examples of this dynamic than from the Civil War.  Contemporary images, especially those produced by mainstream-popular artists tend to give me a good laugh.  They include Troiani, Kunstler, Gallon, etc.  Gary Gallagher recently completed a book-length study of images of the Civil War so keep an eye out if that kind of thing interests you.

One of my favorite images of late is titled “Trinity” by Clyde Broadway (copyright, 1994 Clyde Broadway). I’ve used this image on two occasions and both times I failed to credit the artist. The original can be found in the permanent collection of the Ogden Museum of Art at the University of New Orleans.  Mr. Broadway emailed me to remind me of my failure to credit both the artist and the museum in which the painting is located.  Along with a justified mild scolding he mentioned that the painting includes a gold border, which was absent from the image I utilized.  The image is included in Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s new study of R. E. Lee, which I’ve commented on over the past week.

The way in which Broadway depicts religion and Lee stands in sharp contrast with what you will find in Civil War magazines.  There is a highly critical quality in this image that forces you to think rather than revel in the unspoken assumptions that define our popular beliefs about the South and religion.  Broadway seems to be poking fun at our tendency to equate Jesus and Lee (and perhaps all things Southern) almost exclusively to the rest of the country.

Just When You Thought You Were Getting To Know Someone: R.E. Lee’s Washington

I am steadily making my way through Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s new book about Robert E. Lee and am learning a great deal.  One of the early chapters 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 publics 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 currently available evidence.