Monthly Archives: September 2012

Hope you weren’t planning on doing research at the Georgia State Archives

As of November 1, the Georgia State Archives are closed to the public.  Open access hours aren’t being reduced, mind you—they’re being eliminated entirely.  You’ll need an appointment to use a state’s main archival repository.  Appointments will be limited, of course, based on the availability of the remaining staff.

I don’t know the ins and outs of Georgia’s fiscal situation, but I’d imagine $30 million would go a long way toward helping the public servants at the archives keep their jobs.  That’s the amount Delta Airlines got in tax breaks authorized by Gov. Nathan Deal last year.  Two weeks after Deal signed off on that, he and his wife received preferred customer benefits from Delta worth some $8,000 consisting of “free upgrades when seats are available, Sky Club membership, bonus miles, priority check-in and boarding, fee waivers and more,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  A spokesman called the perks a “contribution to the state of Georgia.”  Deal will only utilize his seat upgrades and priority check-in while traveling on official business, you see.  Georgians who are unable to access their public records can thus take comfort in knowing that the governor’s check-in at the Delta counter has been expedited.

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The pale horse

Not long ago I screened a copy of Death and the Civil War, which premieres on PBS Tuesday, Sept. 18.  Based largely on Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, the show explores the implications of the tremendous loss of life (to the tune of over 700,000 dead) during the costliest war Americans have ever fought on their own soil.

One of the most salient facts about this bloodshed was the degree to which the country was unprepared to deal with it.  Nineteenth-century Americans had particular notions about what constituted a “good death,” but the war forced men to come to terms with the prospect of a sudden, horrific, and ignominious end to their lives.  Neither of the two contending governments were adequately prepared for the number of losses either, lacking standardized policies or an infrastructure to handle the identification, removal, and burial of the corpses.  Nor was there a systematic effort to ensure the provision of prompt and accurate information about their fate to loved ones back home.  This absence of a comprehensive official effort in the war’s early days forced private organizations and individuals to fill these roles, seeing to the burial of dead comrades and writing letters to their relatives.

Confederate dead collected for burial after Antietam. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (Call number LC-B811- 557)

There was improvisation and change on many levels.  On an immediate and practical one, embalming grew in popularity to answer the desires of families to have soldiers’ bodies shipped home for burial.  The horrific death toll exacted by the war’s larger battles prompted the creation of national cemeteries.  Congress began authorizing the acquisition of land for burials near major battlefields in 1862, but with the establishment of a national burial ground at Gettysburg the following year, the issue of soldiers’ internment became a matter of civic responsibility and public sentiment.

In fact, the growing awareness that the public owed something to the war dead and their families contributed to important changes in conceptions of the proper scope of federal activity.  In some cases it took the advocacy of private individuals to accomplish this; after losing his son to the war, Henry Bowditch called for the creation of a proper ambulance service, and Clara Barton worked to locate information on the missing at the request of distraught families while advocating for greater government attention to the dead and their loved ones.  This growing sense of national obligation, along with a fear that Union graves would be neglected or desecrated by hostile Southerners, led Montgomery Meigs to call for a comprehensive survey of U.S. war burials, many of which had been haphazard affairs conducted by comrades as circumstances permitted.  Official requests for information on graves brought forth a deluge of written testimony, and surveyors eventually located and documented thousands of Union interments across the former Confederacy.  The national government oversaw the relocation of over 300,000 of these bodies to national cemeteries, one of the largest federal programs undertaken up to that time.  The war had changed the relationship between the government and its soldiers and citizens as the scale of bloodshed led to a developing notion of a debt owed by the nation to those who gave their lives for it.

This official effort did not encompass Confederate dead; instead, Southern women responded to federal neglect of their soldiers’ graves by organizing their own volunteer efforts.  They tended to the graveyards of Rebel soldiers in Richmond and saw to the repatriation of Southern bodies to their native soil.  Both North and South developed postwar traditions to perpetuate this sense of obligation to the war dead, but there was thus a sectional difference in the level of government aid available in seeing to the disposition of bodies.

Death and the Civil War covers additional topics not discussed in this review, such as the manner in which Lincoln gave meaning to the war’s dead in his dedication speech at Gettysburg, the loss of life in contraband camps, and Alexander Gardner’s photographic exhibition of battlefield casualties.  (The photos themselves are utilized to chilling effect throughout the program.)  It’s a documentary that manages to be comprehensive and intimate at the same time, conveying something of the scale of death created by the war while offering glimpses of the ways individual Americans lived out the experience in their own words.  By making connections between the battlefield and the home front and by exploring the war’s impact on religion, race, and memory, it brings some of the questions of the new military history to public attention.  It’s both informative and sobering, offering us an utterly unromanticized look at a war which resolved important issues at the heart of American history, but only at a fearsome cost.  It’s well worth your time, so tune in Tuesday night if you get the chance.

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NPS battlefield report is ready for your comments

The report, which examines Civil War battlefield preservation over the past twenty years and offers some recommendations for the future, went online today at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/battlefields.  The NPS will be taking comments until October 12, so take a look and sound off.

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Confederate descendants carry on the work of their forefathers

…by seceding from their SCV camp.

It seems some members of Florida’s General Jubal A. Early Camp No. 556 (of ginormous Confederate flag fame) wanted to devote more of their efforts to historic preservation and education.  Their compatriots preferred to focus on charitable work and PR, so twelve of the historically minded gents accordingly took their leave and formed a new camp, named for Judah P. Benjamin.

When members of a Civil War heritage group can’t persuade fellow members to engage in Civil War heritage activities, I think you’ve got a case for secession that even the most radical of nineteenth-century Republicans would support.

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The ultimate Gettysburg souvenir

The original, honest-to-goodness Electric Map is up for grabs at a government auction site (with a tip of the hat to Brooks Simpson).

Need the perfect gift for that Civil War buff who has everything? Look no more. He’ll be the envy of all his fellow CWRT members. Oh, Bob, I heard your kids bought you another Kunstler print. Here, step into the living room for a minute and I’ll show you what the wife picked up for my birthday.

But wait, there’s more! During the holiday season, the Electric Map doubles as a festive lawn decoration! With a simple bulb reconfiguration, Longstreet’s July 2 attack on the Union left transforms into two elves dancing atop the words JOY TO THE WORLD.

All joking aside, think about this for a minute. On several occasions we’ve noted how an individual’s personal memories sometimes intersect with collective historical memory. When you’ve been visiting a site for many years and it’s become the locus for many fond recollections, you come to regard it as much for its personal nostalgic value as for its objective historical significance.

Now, consider how the Disney parks cater to hardcore fans. Some Disney rides stay in operation for decades, acquire enthusiastic followings, and become venerable institutions in their own right. A few years ago, the folks at the Mouse introduced a line of commemorative pins which contain tiny pieces of the actual attractions themselves, removed during refurbishment or when a ride is dismantled. They’re like little pop culture reliquaries.

Thus Disney enthusiasts get to have a tangible connection to something that’s dear to them, and the parks make a little money. Maybe historic sites are missing out on the nostalgic market. The uproar over the Electric Map and the Cyclorama building indicate that we’re a pretty sentimental bunch.

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Reputations and rankings

A few days ago Tom Clemens stuck up for George McClellan during a Department of Defense lecture.  Little Mac’s reputation, he argued, has suffered unfairly due to contemporary political meddling, unclear orders, and the towering stature of the men he opposed.  The 150th anniversary of Antietam seems like a good opportunity for public historians and popular writers to offer people a more positive portrait of McClellan than they’ve been accustomed to, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

On a much weightier note, online forum users are discussing the only presidential ranking method that really counts: Which chief executive would prevail in a mass free-for-all knife fight?  Jackson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt are the obvious odds-on favorites.  On the other hand, Washington was 6’2″, ripped, and long-limbed.  I think he’d hold his own with the best of ‘em.

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Has America neglected the Indian Holocaust?

One commentator seems to think so, and suggests that we might need a museum to remind us of it:

Americans are no strangers to willful denial of the past. American presidents have called for forgetting the past, not investigating wrongs of prior administrations, insisting that America is only and always the “good guy” on the planet. Indeed, this is a core ingredient of assertions that America is “exceptional.”

It is strange that there is a Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., to commemorate what the Nazis did in WWII, but no museum to acknowledge what a long series of United States governments did in the anti-Indian wars that are inextricable from American history. There is no American Indian Holocaust Museum, even though there are documented incidents in which mass killings, not just mass arrests, occurred across the continent over decades.…

If the U.S. wants to take the high ground in the 21st century as a bulwark against state atrocities, it will need the credibility that can only come from admitting one’s own faults, one’s complicity in the evils that one now wishes to prevent. In short, there must be an atonement for wrongdoings to give foundation to a commitment to do the right thing.

There’s much here that merits agreement. Nobody with an iota of humanity should dismiss or justify this country’s terrible record when it comes to its first inhabitants. At the same time, though, I think the author is overstating his case.

I’m not sure which sector of American society has been engaged in “willful denial” of the U.S. government’s slaughter and displacement of Indians.  Certainly not the academy; there are reams of solid studies documenting the terrible treatment of Indians, and any introductory course in American history worth its salt will devote substantial time to the topic.  The subject has also become a staple of popular history books by authors like Dee Brown and John Ehle and of film projects such as Dances with Wolves and the 2005 miniseries Into the West.  Nor can we charge the federal government with totally ignoring its ugly treatment of Native Americans in its selection of important places to conserve and commemorate: Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Washita Battlefield National Historic Site, Nez Perce National Historical Park, and Trail of Tears National Historic Trail all interpret chapters in the dreadful story of America’s persecution of Indians.

I don’t say any of this to minimize the horrors of the past; those horrors were very real, very numerous, and very grievous. But in the past few decades, they’ve been studied, written about, and commemorated to a much greater degree than is indicated in the piece quoted above. There’s probably no such thing as an “ideal” state of American historical consciousness when it comes to the Indian past, but we’re certainly at a much healthier point now than we were when my parents were kids, when Native Americans (if they figured in historical memory at all) were either the bad guys or stock characters in Westerns.

A museum devoted to Indian genocide, removal, and suffering is a compelling idea, but I’m not sure it’s the best approach to preserving and teaching Native American history. We need to understand the American Indian experience in its totality. It’s as much a story of adaptation and determined resistance as it is a story of victimization, and thankfully it’s a story that’s being told more often than it used to be.

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