RIP Marc Ferguson

Union Soldier in Forrest Hills Cemetery by Milmore

Over the years I’ve come to consider a small number of you as part of my online family.  I read your comments with great interest and I’ve learned a great deal as a result.  Our online communities are all too often shaped by the worst elements in our society such as ignorance, hatred, and  dishonesty.  I like to think that Civil War Memory is a place where you can exchange ideas and engage one another in a thoughtful way.

With that in mind I am sad to report that over the weekend Marc Ferguson passed away.  Marc was a frequent commenter here going back almost to the beginning. I could always count on Marc to leave a thoughtful and challenging comment in response to my posts.  During the research phase of my Crater project he emailed links to online collections and other resources he thought I should check out.  Marc was incredibly helpful when I moved to Boston.  He suggested places to visit and even offered helpful advice once I began to look for employment.

I knew Marc was sick, but we still talked about getting together.  Unfortunately, that did not happen.  I am going to miss having Marc around as I know many of you will as well.  My thoughts today are with his family.

300 Comments and Not a Word to Read

I love writing for the Atlantic, but I have learned to hate the comments section.  My last post on changing attitudes surrounding the public display of the Confederate flag is now pushing 300 comments, but I would venture that 98% of them are worthless.  It should come as no surprise that the post has been co-opted by a few select voices, who clearly have way too much time on their hands.  One woman apparently spent a sleepless night and the better part of a day writing and monitoring the post.  The level of vitriol and pettiness now being expressed is quite impressive and I have no doubt that they will get at least another 100 comments out of it. I did my best to respond to the few comments that actually touched on points in the post, but they are now lost in a sea of narcissism.  The comments thread is a perfect example of why I moderate discussion here.

The comments included the standard litany of accusations that I am anti-Southern/Confederate and that I am part of a broader conspiracy that wants to remove all reminders of the Confederacy, including the flag.  This is silly.  In fact, the post in question was an attempt to challenge the standard narrative that paints Southerners as one-dimensional and makes a few descriptive claims that may or may not be true.

  • Southerners (white and black) do not speak with one voice on what is acceptable surrounding the display of the Confederate flag.
  • A growing number of Southerners (white and black) acknowledge the complex history of the flag from its use as a battle flag to its role in the resistance to desegregation.
  • Over the past few years the flag’s visibility on high-profile public and private sites has waned.
  • Organizations that have challenged the removal or absence of the flag from such places have met with little success.

Those are four descriptive claims that, like I said above, may or may not be accurate.

I do believe that the visibility of the Confederate flag will continue to suffer owing, in part, to the people who claim to be its staunchest defenders.  This all or nothing attitude is simply not a workable strategy if the points I made above are accurate.  Despite what my detractors say, I do not want to see the Confederate flag completely removed from our historical landscapes because it is part of our history.  It has an important story to tell.  The only question remaining is whether moderate voices will emerge from various constituencies to lead a discussion about what is and is not acceptable.

What is clear is that the status quo is untenable and even the most creative insults that you can hurl in my direction is not going to change that.

Sick From Freedom Makes for Strange Bedfellows

Jim Downs’s new book, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, is making somewhat of a splash in the mainstream media.  Articles have recently appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian Observer, and Daily Mail.  I am reading it now and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It tells an important story that not only adds to our understanding of the challenges and consequences of emancipation, but forces us to step back to evaluate how we as a nation remember the Civil War itself.

You might be surprised by the folks who are jumping on the Jim Downs bandwagon.  First, we have the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who reprinted the Daily Mail article in its entirety on their blog.  They no doubt see this book as supporting the timeless Lost Cause chant that slavery as a system was benign and that slaves would have been much better off in the long term under the care of their masters.  And then we have Thomas DiLorenzo at the Lew Rockwell blog, who uses the book to support his view of the Lincoln administration’s ultimate goal of genocide and expansionism on the Plains and imperialism overseas.  Finally, we have Richard Williams, who has built his blog around warnings concerning academics like Jim Downs.  He, apparently, also likes what he sees.

You will not find any kind of analysis of Downs’s actual argument on any of these sites.  In fact, I can guarantee you that neither DiLorenzo, Williams or anyone at the SCV will read it.  Why?  Because they are not interested in historical interpretation.  History is little more than competing narratives that must be attacked or defended.  What they are looking for is support/vindication of broader political assumptions and/or sacred narrative truths.

It’s just hard not to crack a smile when that vindication comes from the community that is regularly condemned by these same individuals.    With that, do yourself a favor and read the book.

Turning Likes and Followers Into Sales

A good friend of mine recently set up a Facebook page for her forthcoming book on the role of Christianity in shaping the concept of race in early Virginia.  She asked friends on Facebook as well as her Twitter followers to go ahead and “like” the page and within a couple of days had reached 100 fans.  Pretty good showing, but creating a Facebook page or Twitter account for a book is the easy part.  The challenge is in turning those social media connections or virtual clicks of support into sales.

Now I am certainly no Chris Brogan, but over the past few years I have learned a little bit about turning likes and follower into sales.  Of course, whether what I’ve learned actually pans out will be seen in the next few weeks.  Here are a couple of suggestions.

Read More

Memory and History at Ground Zero

There is a wonderful article in yesterday’s New York Times on the challenges of commemorating and interpreting the tragedy of 9-11 at “Ground Zero” in Manhattan.  Back in January I wrote on some of the parallels between 9-11 and Civil War memory at the Atlantic.  As someone interested in public history and interpretation and as a family member of a 9-11 victim I certainly appreciate the competing interests and emotional investment that animate many in this debate.

  • How should the terrorists be interpreted in the museum?
  • What should be done with the remains of 9-11 victims and how should they be memorialized?
  • How much influence should 9-11 families have on interpretation?
  • What artifacts should be included in the museum?
  • How should the politics of 9-11 be handled, including subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

There are no easy answers nor should there be at this stage.  I was struck by the issue of how to handle the most emotionally sensitive materials such as voice recordings and images.  The designers of the museum have sectioned off certain exhibits and made it possible for visitors to exit at certain points if the experience becomes too much.  As someone who is personally invested in this story I can appreciate the steps taken here, but the historian in me is concerned.

If we are going this far to protect visitors from certain sights and sounds than perhaps it is too soon to even consider a museum.  Perhaps the site should remain a memorial for the near future and perhaps the museum would have been better placed in NYC, but away from Ground Zero.  The people in charge of interpreting the site may have achieved a certain level of detachment, but the general public may still be far behind.

Just a few thoughts.