Visualizing Charleston’s Memorial Landscape

It is somewhat amusing to listen to people who have suddenly awoken to the fact that there are monuments to Confederate politicians, generals and common soldiers in their own communities. Many have chosen to voice their outrage by calling for monuments to be torn down and/or removed from public land. Since my recent trip to Europe I’ve become more sensitive to these concerns, though I still maintain that the preferred course ought to be the addition of signage that explains the relevant history of both the object of commemoration and the monument itself. More importantly, a number of communities have already moved to add to their memorial landscapes. Such is the case in Richmond, Virginia. Continue reading “Visualizing Charleston’s Memorial Landscape”

When a Monument To John C. Calhoun Was Torn Down

Calls to take down the Confederate flag battle flag have quickly extended to monuments to the Confederacy, most of which dot local court houses, parks, and other public spaces. Many have been vandalized with the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter”. The only city that has moved to take down a Confederate monument is Birmingham, Alabama, which did so last night. Other cities, including Baltimore, Memphis, and St. Louis will take up the issue in the coming days and weeks.

My position has remained consistent on the removal of Confederate monuments. Others like Karen Cox, Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts have staked out their positions, which are well worth reading. Although I tend to resist removal I do not believe that monuments are timeless. Certainly, few Americans take issue with the symbolic gesture surrounding the pulling down of a statue to King George III at the very birth of our Revolution. No collective act more powerfully signaled a break with the past in 1776 short of war? Continue reading “When a Monument To John C. Calhoun Was Torn Down”

The United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Curious Silence on the Confederate Flag Debate

We have heard quite a bit from Sons of Confederate Veterans over the past week in response to the debate over the Confederate flag on the state house grounds in Columbia, South Carolina and beyond. Members claim a direct ancestral connection to Confederate soldiers, which they believe translates into some kind of privileged status regarding all things heritage.

Silent on these issues has been that other venerable Confederate heritage organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, founded two years before the SCV in 1894. [The best history of the organization is Karen Cox’s Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture.] Their silence surrounding the Confederate flag debate is curious given their consistent position limiting the display of the battle flag. The UDC’s position was born out of a concern that any use strictly apart from carefully orchestrated ceremonial events in honor of the soldier would distort its meaning. Continue reading “The United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Curious Silence on the Confederate Flag Debate”

54th Massachusetts Called to Duty Once Again

Update: I totally called it. The Confederate flag was intended to honor the men of the 54th Massachusetts and was not a pro-Confederate statement.

Late last night a Confederate flag was discovered displayed on the Shaw Memorial on Beacon Street across the street from the Massachusetts State House. The flag remained displayed for a couple of hours before police arrived. While it is unknown who placed the flag on the monument or for what purpose it does not appear to be a pro-Confederate flag message. The flag is clearly dangling from Colonel Shaw’s sword. It certainly does make for a powerful image.

Most people know the story of the 54th Massachusetts from the movie “Glory”. The movie’s narrative ends with the regiment’s failed assault at Battery Wagner, outside of Charleston, South Carolina in July 1863. What often goes unnoticed, however, is the crucial role the regiment – along with its sister regiment, the 55th Mass. – played during the immediate postwar period. Both regiments were stationed in South Carolina from April through August 1865. Their responsibilities included managing relationships between former slaves and owners to ensure the arrival of a new crop and safeguarding government buildings and supplies. Most importantly, the two regiments played a vital role in protecting former slaves from their former masters who hoped to rebuild white supremacy on a new foundation. Continue reading “54th Massachusetts Called to Duty Once Again”

Historians Help a Nation Understand Charleston and Civil War Memory

Last week I attended the Civil War Institute’s annual conference at Gettysburg College. At the end of the first evening Peter Carmichael sat down for a conversation with James McPherson. Pete chose to open with questions about the recent shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and about its implications for how we think about the Civil War and our nation’s long painful history of race. I don’t know if McPherson was entirely comfortable with the questions and I certainly didn’t anticipate such a move on Pete’s part, but I couldn’t be more pleased that he did. It is one of the things that makes CWI such a unique experience.

Pete understands that historians have an obligation to weigh in during moments of national crisis, especially when those moments are tangled up in our collective past. The conversation served as a reminder that when it comes to our civil war it is often difficult to delineate between the present and the past. And even when we can pinpoint that past, coming to terms with its complexity can be a daunting task. In the wake of the Charleston shootings Americans sought out some of our best historians to help untangle the past from the present and provide some sense of meaning. Continue reading “Historians Help a Nation Understand Charleston and Civil War Memory”