Category Archives: Public History

“Mystic Chords of Memory”: How Americans Have Commemorated and Remembered the Civil War

I am pleased to announce that registration is now open for the 13th annual Civil War conference hosted by the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  I was honored to be asked to take part by historian and conference organizer Mark Snell.  The conference will take place between June 21-24.


"Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn."  Most Americans don’t give a damn about the Civil War either, but many who do have a manufactured memory of what has been called the "crucible" of American history.  How has popular media manipulated, portrayed, or romanticized the Civil War?  How did the war’s veterans, post-war politicians, and interest groups remember the war or reconstruct its memory?  Why does the Civil War still conjure sectional, class, and racial tensions?  Why has a red, white, and blue flag, garnered with stripes and stars, evoked such emotion through the years?  This fascinating period of history still inspires debate and consternation, as well as admiration and respect.

During this long weekend of study and learning, we will focus on the forces which interacted to develop modern memory of the American Civil War.  Expert historians will help us to examine how perspectives have been shaped over more than 140 years of input and adaptation by various groups and schools of thought.


John M. Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, and author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, will be with us for the entire weekend to guide the learning process and contribute his expertise during talks and tours.  In his keynote lecture, he will identify and elaborate upon some of the variables that account for conflicting memories of the Civil War — using the battle flag controversy as the primary case study for that analysis.  John will also chair Sunday’s ever-popular panel discussion, during which much insight and wisdom flows, some questions are settled, and others are ignited.

Kevin M. Levin teaches history at the St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia, and hosts a blog called Civil War Memory.  His extensive background in history and philosophy has given him searing insights into the idiosyncrasies and the implications of Civil War history and memory.  In his talk, "The Battle of the Crater, William Mahone, and Civil War Memory," Kevin will examine the ways Southerners reinterpreted this pivotal episode during the Battle of Petersurg throughout the postwar.  Memories of the Crater and Confederate Major General William Mahone proved flexible enough to encompass multiple meanings relating to issues surrounding postwar state politics in Virginia, the contentious issue of race, and the drive towards national reunion.  By analyzing the various and often contradictory interpretations of important Civil War battles, we more clearly can understand how history is frequently mixed with various elements of public memory and myth.

William Blair is Director of the Richards Civil War Era Center and Professor of American History at Penn State University.  Blair’s presentation, "The Politicization of Memorial Days," places the development of memorial holidays, Emancipation Day celebrations, and other remembrances in the context of Reconstruction politics and race relations in the South.  His research examines these civic rituals and demonstrates that the politics of commemoration remained far more contentious than has been previously acknowledged.  Blair’s analysis shows that some festive occasions that we celebrate even today have a divisive and sometimes violent past as various groups with conflicting political agendas attempted to define the meaning of the Civil War.

Thomas Clemens is a renowned expert on the Battle of Antietam and the editor of the Ezra Carmen papers, a post-war compendium of recollections by the soldiers who participated in the battle.  Leading the tour of Antietam National Battlefield, Tom will combine his knowledge of the battlefield and the memories of the battle’s participants to comment on the formation of battle legacy, commemoration, and interpretation.

G. Kurt Piehler is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee.  During his presentation, he will recount American efforts to commemorate wars by erecting monuments, designating holidays, forming veterans’ organizations, and establishing national cemeteries.  Kurt’s experience with history and memory is extensive, having worked previously gathering more than 200 interviews with military veterans for the Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II.  He is author of Remembering War the American Way.

Click here for the Registration Form

The National Park Service’s Lincoln: A Response to Professor Schaefer

Professor of Political Science David Lewis Schaefer just published an online article over at the National Review titled, “Deconstructing the Lincoln Memorial.”  He is apparently upset with what he discovered about Lincoln and his legacy on the National Park Service’s website for the Lincoln Memorial.  His concern centers specifically on a link that provides a very brief explanation of why and under what conditions the memorial was built.  I will leave it to you to read the full entry, but here is a brief passage:

The period between 1865-1909 was a period marked as a time of incredible technological advances, rapid industrial growth, and imperialistic expansionism; of enflamed patriotism during and after the Spanish-American War; and a continuance of Jim Crow laws, the exploitation of the working class, and Tammany Hall-style politics. Perhaps it should come as little surprise that the predominately white, classically minded and university educated, upper-middle class generation of architects and engineers that built the Lincoln Memorial would stress the theme of National Unity over that of Social Justice.

Schaefer takes this brief passage and characterizes the NPS’s website as anti-Lincoln and politically tainted with a “liberal” bias.  According to the author: “What we really need to know, according to the National Park Service, is that the United States was nearly as evil, in its own way, as the anti-liberal forces it defeated, from the Confederate States to the Soviet Union.”  The problem with Schaefer’s argument is that he takes a rather brief overview of the motivation behind the design, construction and 1922 dedication of the memorial and makes a sweeping generalization about the content of the site as a whole.  I have no problem if Schaefer wants to argue that the historical explanation of the memorial is problematic; unfortunately, he provides no such explanation.  His article betrays a lack of any serious understanding of what public history involves or why it is sometimes important to distinguish between a memorial and the event/ideal/individual it represents.  Even worse, Schaefer’s piece is intellectually dishonest.

Does the website provide an overall negative view of Lincoln as suggested by Schaefer?  On the opening page of the site there is a passage that reads: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” Beneath these words, the 16th President of the United States—the Great Emancipator and preserver of the nation during the Civil War—sits immortalized in marble. As an enduring symbol of Freedom, the Lincoln Memorial attracts anyone who seeks inspiration and hope.”

Click the link for “Lincoln the Man” and you will find the following: “For many Americans the Lincoln Memorial is a secular sacred space or temple commemorating the nation’s savior and first assassinated president. Having led the country through the long night of civil war, Abraham Lincoln would not live to see the dawn of “a new birth of freedom” he spoke of so eloquently. This freedom would take two tangible forms: freedom for the thousands of emancipated slaves or the legacy of Social Justice and the freedom found in a reunited country or the legacy of National Unity, with a fully restored federal government under the Constitution, ensuring the continuance of participatory democracy.”

And finally, here is a short passage from “The War Years“: “During his term in office, his thinking evolved from reestablishing the Union as it was, to remolding the Union into what it could be. His evolution, some have argued, signaled a true revolution within the American Republic. Abraham Lincoln-war president-miraculously transformed this nation during its most “fiery trial,” preserving the integrity of the Federal Union while accelerating within it the extirpation of antebellum culture, society, and thought.”

Perhaps Professor Schaefer had to meet a deadline for the National Review and didn’t have time to do an extensive survey of the material on the site.  I tend to think, however, that Professor Schaefer went in with a conclusion about the politics of the National Park Service and looked for those passages that would support his assumptions.

Moving The Museum of the Confederacy: Follow Up

A couple of readers have shared their thoughts on recent reports that officials at the MOC are considering a move to Lexington.  It’s impossible to infer anything from the comments of a few people, but I assume that there is a sizable population out there that would like to see the museum move out of Richmond.  Let me say that I agree with those people who argue that the city of Lexington would make an ideal home for the museum as it would enjoy easy access off of Rt. 81 and would compliment the other attractions in the area.  That is not the issue for me.

I believe that museums are not simply repositories of the past but serve the interests of the communities in which they are located.  Their overall responsibility is to preserve the past in a way that allows local communities and visitors to better understand the causal relationship between the present and the past.  In short, museums serve to provide a context in which those interested can better understand the way in which current debates often connect with issues or problems long gone.    There is no better example of this than the Civil War.  We are still dealing with its aftermath and unresolved problems on so many different levels and given its current expansion Richmond is an ideal place to come to terms with the history of the South and the changes that it has gone through over the past few decades.  Those changes have raised issues that link to its Civil War past including the display of the Confederate flag and the numerous challenges to the make-up of its public spaces.

The MOC has a vital role to play in providing the space to discuss these and other issues in a meaningful way.  It can do this by sharing a sophisticated history of the South and the Confederacy in a place that has been and will continue to be engaged in an emotional debate over the memory of the war and the tough issues of race.  And as I pointed out the other day the fact that the museum does not pander to a narrow Lost Cause interpretation is absolutely essential to bringing interested parties together.  In my review of the new Civil War museum at Tredegar I mentioned how impressed I was with the structure of the exhibit, including the final section which explored the various legacies of the war.  It’s as wonderful space in which I can easily imagine being used in a number of ways to educate the local community.  The MOC needs that kind of space.

Everyone is aware of the declining number of visitors to the museum in recent years, but few people have commented on the number of African-American visitors.  I don’t have any numbers available, but I would guess (and I suspect that this is true for most Civil War sites) that few black Americans visit in large part because they don’t identify with the issues.  How is it that an event that not only ended slavery, but also involved the recruitment of roughly 200,000 black Americans into the Union army does not figure into the collective memory of this nation’s African-American population?  Well, those of you who read this blog know the answer to that question.  Moving the museum to Lexington will make it more difficult to address the tough questions of the Civil War.  It will also place the museum in a location that caters more to those who are tied to heroic images of Lee and Jackson and other Lost Cause themes.

Museums help those in local communities and beyond make sense of time and space.  One of the comments to the last post mentioned that “Richmond has grown, by leaps and bounds, into a very ugly and inaccessible city.”  We can debate the specifics of this reader’s assessment, but I continue to believe that the MOC can help us to better understand this change in all of its forms.

Civil War Memory 101

Since this site has experienced a very sharp increase in the number of visitors over the last few weeks I thought it might be helpful to introduce the overall focus of this blog with a series of questions that I am preoccupied with.

Robert Penn Warren: “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”

1. How have Americans at different times chosen to remember the Civil War and how has that collective memory been shaped by a need to forget certain aspects of the war?

2. What are the important lessons to be learned about our Civil War and how should those lessons be taught in our schools and other public spaces?

3. Why might it be important to step back and analyze the way nations have chosen to remember their history?

4. What is the relationship between history and political power?

5. What is it about the Civil War that explains its continued presence in our culture and its strong tug on our imaginations?

6. What was the Civil War’s most significant result?

7. What explains the continued popularity of Lost Cause themes throughout the country?

Abraham Lincoln At The National Constitution Center

A couple weeks ago I mentioned that I am helping to put together an interactive exhibit at Monticello that will focus on Thomas Jefferson’s ideas.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my experience thus far.  It’s given me a chance to think about how history is presented in a completely new context in comparison with the classroom.  The exhibit will give visitors a chance to explore the evolution, contradiction, and legacy of Jefferson’s ideas through a touchscreen.  The most difficult transition for me has been in maintaining focus on the needs of the average visitor as well as the practical issues of time and access.  We are now figuring out the content and in about a week we meet with one of the designers and computer programmers.  The work has given me a new set of questions to ask and a desire to move into an area where I can reach more people.

I’ve been reading more reviews about exhibits to get a clearer sense of what is out there.  There is a review in the latest issue of the Journal of American History by Randall M. Miller on a Lincoln exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania .  The exhibit is titled "Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War" and will continue until early February when it moves to Oklahoma City National Memorial in Oklahoma City, OK (opens Feb. 12, 2007).

The exhibit focuses on the issues of secession, slavery and emancipation which constituted the three principal constitutional crises of Lincoln’s administration.  Visitors enter the exhibit as they listen to a series of questions: "Were we truly committed to liberty and equality for all?" and "Are we truly committed to liberty and equality for all?"  The questions continue in different sections of the exhibit: "Were we one nation?"; "Are we one nation"; Were our civil liberties safe?" during the Civil War era; "Are our civil liberties safe?"  The questions correspond to wall panels that depicts contrasting images from the Civil War and today.  For example, the question about national unity includes a map of the 1861 presidential election results and a map with the same breakdown from 2004.  I often worry that you run the risk of watering down the past when you make these types of connections, but I now think that you are more likely to have visitors leave with a richer sense of the past if a connection with the present is established. 

Visitors interact through trays of flip-cards that allow you to make crucial decisions for Lincoln at critical junctures in his public career.  You can decide what should happen to radical Copperheads such as Clement Vallindingham for supposedly mobilizing anti-Union subversion.  You can try the idea out online and while it is more like a game you might be able to make some use of it in the classroom.  The exhibit also includes roughly 100 artifacts, including a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Pen of Liberty used in 1862 to sign the bill freeing slaves in Washington, D.C., and an inkwell used in the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

One of the issues that the team I am working with has to figure out is how to utilize the space designated for the exhibit.  It turns out that this is quite important since the arrangement of an exhibit can help create a certain effect: do you want people huddled together for a specific reason or is it necessary for individuals to have space to reflect alone?  Curators for the Lincoln exhibit chose to "force visitors to gather in knots of interest at the stations much like people at a political rally or a protest."  I don’t think I will have an opportunity to visit the museum before the exhibit leaves, but if you are in the area make sure you check it out.