Category Archives: Southern History

Museum of the Confederacy on YouTube

It’s nice to see the Museum of the Confederacy taking advantage of YouTube as a form of outreach. A few months ago they started a series of short videos on various subjects that feature their talented staff as well as the museum’s extensive collection of artifacts. This video focuses on Turner Ashby and includes interviews with Robert Hancock, Teresa Roane, and John Coski.

Click here for the other videos.

Discovering Reconstruction

reconstruction_congressI am doing quite a bit of reading over this holiday break. One of the books I am making my way through is Capitol Men by Philip Dray. The book tells the story of the principal black leaders in Congress during Reconstruction. It’s well written and does a thorough job of explaining both the backgrounds of the individual subjects as well as the tumultuous times in which they lived. Actually, I’ve been reading quite a bit about Reconstruction and the postwar years generally, and there is a great deal to choose from. One can’t help but be impressed by the selection of books on Reconstruction that have been published over the past few years. [Click here for Ed Blum's overview of this literature.] Just a few years ago you would be lucky to find the abridged version of Eric Foner’s magisterial history of the period. But the recognition of a spike in interest in the subject also begs for explanation. This influx of new books couldn’t have come at a better time given the election of our first black president. That said, this welcome change probably has little to do with the recent election.

I don’t claim to be an expert on the historiography of Reconstruction. I’ve read a bit of U.B. Phillips, and others who studied under William Dunning at Columbia; Dunning reinforced a rather narrow view of Reconstruction as a failure and one that reinforced white supremacy at the height of Jim Crow in the early twentieth century. It’s important to keep in mind that although this school of thought was challenged by scholars beginning in the early 1950s, and even more so in the 1970s, these debates were largely confined to the academy. To the extent that Americans know anything about Reconstruction, my guess is that they learned it from movies such as Gone With the Wind as well as other popular cultural forms. Scores of books and journal articles slowly chipped away at an interpretation, which viewed Reconstruction as an example of unjustified intrusion by the federal government, corruption in state legislatures at the hands of newly-freed slaves, and a dismissal of the black perspective generally. However, it was not until the 1988 publication of Eric Foner’s Reconstruction (and shortly thereafter, the abridged edition) that a broader audience was offered a readable account that synthesized much of this scholarship. In addition to winning a number of academic awards it also received a great deal of attention in the pages of popular magazines and newspapers. It’s hard to say how much of an effect Foner’s book had on our popular perceptions of the Civil War and Reconstruction – probably little to none, but it is difficult to deny his importance to this new crop of recent historical studies. Most of these authors acknowledge Foner’s scholarship as invaluable in their own quest to better understand the period.

But if Foner’s work constitutes perhaps the best example of a scholarly reconfiguration of our understanding of Reconstruction than it is the war in Iraq, which has introduced that scholarship to a broader demographic. It should come as no surprise that a resurgence of interest came at a time when the public discourse was centered around the reconstruction of Iraq. Historians such as Ed Ayers chimed in with op-ed pieces, which highlighted the challenges of such a venture and reminded the American people of an earlier attempt at trying to reconstruct a deeply-entrenched political, social, and racial hierarchy. Following a list of lessons that one should take away from that “First Occupation”, Ayers concludes with the following:

A hard paradox lies at the heart of all reconstructions: the reconstructor must transform a society in its own image without appearing selfish or self-righteous. An effort at reconstruction, our nation’s history shows us, must be implemented not only with determination and might, but also with humility and self-knowledge — and with an understanding of the experience of defeat that attention to Southern history can give us. Otherwise, America risks appearing as the thing it least wants to be, a carpetbagger nation.

It is not a stretch to imagine scholars and writers of various sorts following up their reading of these editorials by taking a more in-depth look at what went wrong with the federal government’s earlier attempt at Reconstruction, even as our public officials struggled to explain to the America people why there was so little progress in Iraq. For those of us who had an understanding of the difficulties involved in reconstructing a society, the president’s declarations, which reduced the challenge down to the conviction that all people desire freedom seemed grossly naive and even reckless.

The street fighting in Baghdad and Falujah echo those that took place in New Orleans, Memphis, and elsewhere, and while Americans were shocked at the indiscriminate killing among religious sects the postwar terrorism against newly-freed slaves rivals anything to be found in the Middle East. Recent studies of postwar violence include Stephen Budiansky’s The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War (2007) and Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2007). Two books, one by Charles Lane and the other by LeeAnna Keith, explore the Colfax Massacre of 1873. This does not include the numerous scholarly of Reconstruction violence against African Americans, and even newer editions of older studies, that have been published over the past few years. Collectively, these books can be seen as a vindication of Ayers’s warning that a nation engaged in so difficult a project as the reconstruction of another country ought to proceed with “humility and self-knowledge.”

If there is a silver lining in this resurgence of interest it is that a much larger audience now has access to books that present Reconstruction in a much more sophisticated light, one that takes seriously the steps that Americans took to extend and protect basic civil rights regardless of race. It not only involves moving beyond the overly simplistic language of scalawags and carpetbaggers, but involves giving voice to black and white leaders who worked to extend the franchise and other political rights to former slaves and even the vast majority of poor whites who had been excluded from the polity. Recent book include Garrett Epps’s Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America (2007), Eric Foner’s Forever Free, as well as Dray’s Capitol Men. American Experience’s recent documentary on Reconstruction also reflects this newfound interest.

Finally, this could not have come at a better moment in the history of this country. With our first black president set to take office in a matter of weeks it is comforting to know that a solid body of historical scholarship is available for those who are interested in placing Barack Obama’s candidacy within a broader historical context. It is important for us to understand the struggle that led to this moment in our history, and in doing so, we should acknowledge that while it is a momentous step in a new direction, it is but one step on a long road that involves appreciating the extent to which race has shaped this nation’s political, social, and economic hierarchy. We should ask the tough questions related to the timing of Obama’s candidacy, why it didn’t or perhaps couldn’t happen sooner, and why so few African Americans have served in the federal government since Reconstruction. We should ask these questions not with the goal of self-hatred, but because we are all part of this larger national narrative, and because Democracy is a constant struggle. I am under no illusion that large numbers of Americans will flock to the bookstores to purchase these recent titles; however, the fact of their availability suggests to me that our society is in a much better place to ask some of these tough questions that at any time before.

What Do You Get When You Combine a Singer from Michigan, a German Audience, and a Song About Alabama?

[Hat Tip to Charles Lovejoy]

You get a celebration of Southern heritage. I assume most people will watch this video with a sense of pride as the South’s favorite son brings the Confederate flag and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” to stages around the world. What they probably don’t know, however, is that Kid Rock was born in Romeo, Michigan in 1971. Even more interesting is the fact that a native of Michigan is singing a song composed by an Alabama-based band, which was written in response to Canadian, Neil Young, and his song, “Southern Man” – a song critical of race relations in the South.

Since I think Kid Rock pretty much sucks, I thought I might provide a link to the real deal.

3 Easy Installments of $33.00

I came across this little tidbit in today’s NYT’s Media and Advertising Section. Apparently, American Heritage’s special issue on Abraham Lincoln includes an advertisement for the Bradford Exchange’s Civil War ring, which features a Confederate flag. I’m not quite sure what the editor finds so troubling about this or why it was necessary to include commentary from James McPherson and Eric Foner.

“It’s a little uncomfortable,” Edwin S. Grosvenor, the magazine’s editor in chief, said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Grosvenor said he became aware of the advertisement, placed by the Bradford Exchange collectibles company, just before the magazine’s deadline and that he had to walk a fine line between generating revenue and maintaining editorial tone.

Perhaps it’s been a slow week in this particular department as a cursory glance of history magazines, especially Civil War, reveal a wide range of advertisements for Confederate-inspired products, from bras and bikinis to beer mugs, and bed sheets. The article alludes to, but never explores, the apparent conflict between a magazine devoted to Lincoln an an ad for Confederate schlock. Unfortunately, the opportunity to comment on the reasons for the pervasiveness of Confederate imagery, or the popularity of the Lost Cause was missed, even though both McPherson and Foner are qualified to discuss it. Instead, the two draw the reader’s attention to the controversial nature of the Confederate flag, while McPherson suggests that he would have spoken out had he known about this particular advertisement. Does McPherson really not know that most of the articles he has published in the pages of popular Civil War magazines are littered with such advertisements? That’s is a truly remarkable comment.

Anyway, stock is limited, so order now.

Civil War Memory Syllabus

This coming trimester I will be teaching two sections of a course I am calling Civil War Memory. This is the first time that I’ve taught an elective course on the subject, and, as you can imagine, I am very much looking forward to it. Most of the students who are taking the course just completed a trimester elective on the Civil War while the others took either my survey or AP course in American history last year. Although the syllabus is not finalized I have enough that I can share it with you. You will notice that I have not included any assignments or a description of the final project as I am still working on it. Please keep in mind that this is a high school elective course.

Course Description:

“The Civil War is our felt history—history lived in the national imagination” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1961. Indeed the Civil War occupies a prominent place in our national memory and has served to both unite and divide Americans. This course will explore the various ways in which Americans have chosen to remember their civil war through literature, monuments and memorials, histories, film, art, as well as other forms of popular culture. We will examine how memory of the war changed over time as well as the political implications for Civil War memory. Specific subjects to be addressed include the role of reunion and reconciliation in shaping memory of the war, the place of slavery in our national narratives of the war, public disputes over the display of the Confederate flag, changing perceptions of such notable figures as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as other controversies surrounding the way in which the war has been remembered in public spaces. We will pay particular attention to the way in which the war has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville in such places as the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia, Lee and Jackson Park, and Courthouse Square. Additional field trips may include the Museum of the Confederacy, American Civil War Center at Tredegar, and Hollywood Cemetery – all in Richmond, Virginia. Students are encouraged to take the Civil War course, which will be offered in the first trimester.

Books:

David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History With Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’ Press, 2004). [Please note that much of the course is structured around this book.]

Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Vintage, 1999).

Week 1: Introduction to the Course

Questions: What is memory? Why do we find a need to remember and what is the difference between individual and collective memory? Why are Americans interested in their civil war and where can we find examples of civil war remembrance?

Readings: In Brown, read pp. 1-15; Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Woodrow Wilson’s Gettysburg Address (1913); In Blight, read pp. 6-15.

Week 2: Monuments and Soldiers – analysis of the evolution of civic monuments, including their designs, and inscriptions. Why were they built, where, by whom and for what purposes?

Readings: David Blight article on soldiers and memory from North and South Magazine; William Henry Trescott, Inscription on South Carolina Soldiers Monument, 1879, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Soldier’s Faith, May 30, 1895

[We will take our first field trip to observe and analyze Civil War monuments in the Charlottesville area.]

Week 3: Contemporary Commemorations – Analysis of recent debates surrounding the legacy of Civil War soldiers and battlefield interpretation. Students will search the news for examples of controversies surrounding the Confederate flag.

Readings: NAACP resolution on Confederate flag (2000); Charley Reese editorial (1997); Fredericksburg commemoration talk by Kevin Levin; John Coski article on the history of the Confederate flag from North and South Magazine.

Week 4: Women of the War – Analysis of the roles that women played throughout the postwar period from grave dedications to textbook oversight.

Readings: In Brown, pp. 57-74; Primary sources by Clara Barton, Howard M. Hamill, and Laura Martin Rose; in Fahs and Waugh, read James McPherson’s “Long-Legged Yankee Lies: The Southern Textbook Crusade”.

Week 5 and 6: Confederate heroes and the Lost Cause – Analysis of the evolution of the memory of Lee and other notable Confederate figures. We will pay particular attention to monuments, including the Lee equestrian statue in Richmond.

Readings: Primary sources by John W. Daniel, Abram J. Ryan, Charles Francis Adams Jr., as well as commentary from both white and black newspapers. In Brown, pp. 79-105 and Blight selections from Race and Reunion.

[We will take our second field trip to Richmond to tour Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery.]

Week 7: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment – Analysis of the most famous black regiment from the Civil War, including the monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Readings: Primary sources by Anna Quincy Waterston, Frances E.W. Harper, William James, Booker T. Washington, Paul L. Dunbar, Robert Lowell; read chapter 9, “Black Memory and Progress of the Race” in Blight’s Race and Reunion.

Week 8: Lincoln Legacies – Analysis of the evolution of Lincoln’s place in American memory and culture with particular focus on recent comparisons with Barack Obama and Lincoln.

Readings: Recent newspaper articles and editorials; primary sources by Henry M. Turner, Frederick Douglass, F. Wellington Ruckstull, George B. Shaw; In Brown, pp. 139-65 and article by Harold Holzer and Gabor Boritt, “Lincoln in ‘Modern’ Art” in Gabor Boritt, ed., The Lincoln Enigma.

Week 9: The Civil War in Contemporary Culture – Analysis of reenactments and other forms of popular Civil War memory.

Readings: Selections from Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic and Gary Gallagher’s Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War. We will also watch scenes from Gods and Generals, Cold Mountain, Shenandoah, and C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

Week 10: Final Projects (TBA)