Monthly Archives: November 2013

Fort Sanders sesquicentennial for Black Friday

In 1863 Nov. 29 fell on a Sunday instead of a Friday, but it was a pretty black day nonetheless, at least for the hapless Rebel soldiers who launched a disastrous assault against Fort Sanders at Knoxville.  Those twenty bloody minutes ended Longstreet’s effort to re-take the city for the Confederacy, following its occupation by Burnside that September.

The attack on Ft. Sanders was neither a particularly big battle as far as Civil War engagements went nor as consequential as what was going on down in Chattanooga.  But it’s a pretty big deal for history buffs here in my neck of the woods, so here’s another anniversary link-fest for you.

  • Knoxville’s own historical columnist Jack Neely on the assault
  • The Knoxville News-Sentinel‘s sesquicentennial coverage of the war in East Tennessee
  • If you haven’t seen the McClung Museum’s exhibit on Ft. Sanders, you should definitely check it out.  They have fossils, too!  (By the way, that new Edmontosaurus is now called “Monty.”)
  • The East Tennessee Historical Society has some nifty Civil War displays of their own, and they’re commemorating the Ft. Sanders anniversary with a free admission day.
  •  Need to read up on the contest for control of Knoxville?  I recommend The Knoxville Campaign by Earl Hess, Lincolnites and Rebels by Robert Tracy McKenzie, and Divided Loyalties by Digby Gordon Seymour.  For additional background, try Noel Fisher’s War at Every Door and W. Todd Groce’s Mountain Rebels.
  • Last year we paid a virtual visit to the site of the battle.  The fort is long gone, but there are still a few landmarks from the Knoxville Campaign around.  Click here to book a guided tour, or stop by Longstreet’s headquarters and the Mabry-Hazen House.
  • Watch the battle reenacted at a replicated Ft. Sanders, constructed for a documentary produced in conjunction with the McClung Museum’s exhibit.
  • And finally, here’s a depiction of the attack by Lloyd Branson, the same Tennessee artist who did the painting of the Sycamore Shoals muster at the top of this blog:

Wikimedia Commons

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Does nobody want to be a Confederate anymore?

When asked which side they would’ve taken in the Civil War, only 10% of Americans responding to a new poll picked the Confederacy.  That’s less than the number of respondents who said they would’ve tried to be neutral.  Republicans were more likely to say they would have supported the South, but would-be Confederates still made up a mere 20% of GOP respondents.  I don’t know about you folks, but I would’ve expected the percentages to be higher, especially among those on the Right.

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Fifty years since Dealey Plaza

Twentieth-century American history has never been my thing, but I’ll admit that the flurry of assassination anniversary coverage over the past couple of weeks has piqued my interest.

I’ve never put much stock in conspiracy theories, and what I’ve read of the events in Dallas has only reinforced my conviction that Kennedy’s death was the work of one man. Most Americans disagree, although belief in a conspiracy seems to be declining. I was curious to see what my students’ opinions were, so on Wednesday I conducted an informal poll in one of my classes. Out of about twenty people, only three believed Oswald carried out the assassination himself. The rest thought there was some sort of conspiracy, except for two or three students who abstained because they weren’t sure one way or the other.

Of course, this week marks the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address, too. Bill Mauldin tied Lincolnian imagery to JFK’s death in a famous 1963 cartoon, but I’m not aware of any major attempts to connect this year’s dual anniversaries. That’s a little surprising to me, given that both presidents met the same fate.

Anyway, here are a few links I found interesting.

  • Three hours’ worth of original CBS coverage from 11/22/63
  • Access plenty of primary source material via the Mary Ferrell Foundation
  • The house where Oswald’s family stayed is now a museum operated by the city of Irving, TX
  • Fascinating interviews with Oswald’s brother, older daughter, and younger daughter
  • An interactive timeline of JFK’s Dallas trip
  • A list of things Oliver Stone’s movie got wrong
  • Explore the collections at the Sixth Floor Museum, the National Archives, and the JFK Presidential Library and Museum
  • Take a virtual trip to Dealey Plaza, or view the scene from the webcam in the sixth floor of the former Texas Schoolbook Depository
  • Finally, Oswald’s wedding ring fetched $108,000 at auction last month. Accompanying the ring was a note from his widow, reading in part, “At this time of my life I don’t wish to have Lee’s ring in my possession because symbolicly [sic] I want to let go of my past that is connecting with November 22, 1963.” Since she’s spent five decades with the memory of that day—on which she found herself in a strange country, a frightened young mother of two children, and married to an abusive man who had just been accused of the crime of the century—I think she deserves some peace and quiet.

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Lincoln and the Founders’ “new nation”

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

I didn’t really start taking the Gettysburg Address seriously until one day when I was in grad school, trying to figure out how to finish a paper while eating a roast beef sandwich.  I was enrolled in a seminar on the early national period, and my professor had told us to write an essay answering the following question: Who was more prescient, Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson?  Of these two men who had very different visions of what America should be, which one saw the country’s future direction more clearly?

My instinct was to go with Hamilton.  In terms of policy, he was probably the most forward-looking of all the Founders, envisioning a United States with a vigorous, centralized government and a modern, diversified economy.  The overall course of American history has been in this direction, especially since the late nineteenth century.

At the same time, in terms of ideology and values—what Americans have believed about themselves and their country, and what they have wanted to believe about their role in the world—Jefferson casts a long shadow.  If the overall trend of the operation of government and economics has been Hamiltonian, Jefferson’s ideals have been the ones espoused most frequently.  In fact, it’s in terms of equality that Hamilton and the other Federalists look most antiquated, committed as they were to older ideas about elitism and deference.  ”America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,” according to G.K. Chesterton.  ”That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in The Declaration of Independence….It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.”

A rare photograph of Lincoln at the Gettysburg dedication ceremony on Nov. 19, 1863. (Wikimedia Commons)

I knew that I’d probably end up hedging a little, noting that while Hamilton was more prescient in terms of the way America has operated, Jefferson was more influential in terms of Americans’ self-definition.  But that answer seemed a little wishy-washy.  I wanted to come up with some sort of definitive answer.

So I was sitting at an Arby’s restaurant, trying to knock out an outline for the paper while getting a bite to eat, when I figured out how to give both Hamilton and Jefferson their due.  Neither man was totally correct.  It was Abraham Lincoln who understood America most clearly, because at Gettysburg he reconciled these two different visions of the nation so that each one supported the other.  Lincoln oversaw a Hamiltonian war—a war of national consolidation, and a war that would result in a more commercial nation with a more vigorous central government—but he did it to achieve Jeffersonian ends.  Indeed, he did it while invoking Jefferson, chapter and verse.

In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln tied the birth of America to the promise of liberty and Jefferson’s 1776 “proposition” that all men are created equal.  ”The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society,” he had claimed shortly before his presidency.  Lincoln praised Jefferson because his Declaration of Independence did not merely justify the Revolution.  Jefferson had used that document to set down “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

In 1863, the American experiment to work out this “abstract truth”—an experiment only “four score and seven years” old—would either survive and vindicate government of the people, or it would collapse and call the whole enterprise of popular government into question.  If a minority could dissolve the Union due to the outcome of an election, democracy by majority rule was unworkable.  To Lincoln, secession was therefore an existential threat to democratic government itself.  The stakes in the Civil War were breathtakingly high.  The survival of popular government was what the men buried at Gettysburg had given “the last full measure of devotion” to defend.

Lincoln thus believed that the Hamiltonian tools of a consolidated Union and an active national government were necessary to secure the Jeffersonian principles of liberty and equality.  These tools would also be the means to extend these Jeffersonian ideals to the enslaved.  The war would not only secure what the Founders had gained, but finish what they had left undone by resolving the great American contradiction of slavery in a nation dedicated to freedom.

Rather than merely dedicating a cemetery, Lincoln explained the meaning of America, defined the purpose of the war, paid tribute to the dead, exhorted his audience to continue their struggle on behalf of freedom, and reconciled the two seemingly contradictory American impulses of Union and liberty.  And he did it in less than three hundred words.

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“Equal parts P.T. Barnum and Huey P. Long”

The East Tennessee History Center has launched a new exhibit on early Knoxville television in conjunction with the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound.  One of the artifacts on display is the original backdrop from Cas Walker’s TV show.  Doing the history of Knoxville TV without Cas Walker—self-made grocery magnate, broadcaster, populist, politician, and one-man Knoxville institution, referred to by one writer as “equal parts P.T. Barnum and Huey P. Long”—would be like doing the Jacksonian era without Old Hickory.

Born in Sevier County in 1902, Orton Caswell Walker spent his early years working jobs at mills and coal mines in North Carolina and Kentucky before opening his first Knoxville grocery store in 1924 with $850 he had managed to save.  In a few decades, he turned this initial investment into a multi-million-dollar chain of establishments in three states.

Walker owed his success to a knack for self-promotion.  No advertising gimmick was too outrageous, whether it involved dropping coupons from airplanes, tossing chickens off the roof of his store, or burying a volunteer stuntman alive.  His image as an unpolished, uncultivated hick who enjoyed a good raccoon hunt served him well with working-class customers.

Walker leveraged his popularity into a role in local politics, winning a seat on the Knoxville City Council in 1941 and a short term (ending in a recall election) as the city’s mayor in 1946.  In office and in his self-published newspaper he railed against higher taxes, the consolidation of Knoxville’s city and county governments, flouridation of the municipal water supply, and the local elites who considered him a backwards embarrassment.  Reveling in his persona as a rough-and-tumble champion of the little guy, he denounced his opponents in what he called the “silk-stocking crowd.”  A demagogue he may have been, but he endeared himself to the same working-class voters who had patronized his grocery stores.

The highlight of Walker’s political career came in 1956, when a dispute with J.S. Cooper during a city council meeting erupted into a full-fledged fistfight.  I consider this the most delightful moment in Knoxville’s political history since the Sevier-Jackson showdown of 1803, and thankfully a newspaper photographer was on hand to preserve it for the ages.  The image appeared in Life magazine, putting Knoxville’s contentious local politics in the national consciousness.

Walker, at left, winds up for the punch. (Photo by Tom Greene, from the McClung Historical Collection via Wikimedia Commons)

The centerpiece of Walker’s promotional efforts was his self-hosted TV program, the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour, which ran for three decades and offered him a platform to plug his stores, showcase regional musicians, and pontificate.  From a purely historical standpoint, the show is most notable for giving a young Dolly Parton one of her first breaks in the entertainment business.  But for sheer entertainment value, none of the musical acts could top Cas himself, holding forth in his own rambling and occasionally profane style.

Here’s Cas discussing the subject of store security (mildly NSFW language):

And in this clip, he shares some advice on professionalism with his musical guests:

You can enjoy more of his televised antics here; his political career is discussed in detail in Dr. William Bruce Wheeler’s history of Knoxville.

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What exactly is the SCV’s problem with a new Olustee monument?

So there’s an effort underway by the Sons of Union Veterans to set up a monument at Olustee in order to “balance the cultural representation” on the battlefield, and some folks in the Sons of Confederate Veterans are opposed to the idea, calling it “a large black Darth Vadar-esque [sic] shaft that will disrupt the hallowed grown [sic] where Southern blood was spilled in defense of Florida, protecting Tallahassee from capture.

“I am altering the battlefield. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” (Image via http://www.jedipedia.de)

My opinion has always been that older monuments have intrinsic historical and artistic value, but when it comes to setting up new ones, I’d rather see these groups spend their money on something else, like buying endangered battlefield land, conserving artifacts, and so on.  I’m not opposed to new battlefield monuments on principle; I just don’t see the need to make sure every historical constituency involved with a site is represented with a slab of granite.

But having said all that, I don’t really get the SCV’s logic here.  Indeed, I’m not sure there’s any logic to be had.  There are Union monuments on countless battlefields across the South, just as there are Confederate monuments at Gettysburg and Antietam.  If this new monument is going to disrupt the site’s historic integrity, then fine, but I haven’t seen anybody make that case.  What the heck is the issue?

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Check out the National Park Electronic Library

If you’re into NPS history, you’re going to love this website.  Tons of old handbooks, official reports, brochures, you name it.  Here’s some more info on the project.

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The exceptional Solomon Northup

I saw 12 Years a Slave the other day, and it’s a darn good movie—certainly the most visceral onscreen depiction of the peculiar institution I’ve ever seen, rivaling the harrowing slave ship scenes from Amistad.

One reason the film is so powerful is because Solomon Northup makes for an especially relatable protagonist. Anyone who’s thought about the history of American slavery has probably sympathized with the people who were victims of it, but sympathy for someone is not the same as identification with them. Identification requires you to be able to see yourself in a character, and living your whole life as someone else’s property is so foreign to the experience of most modern Americans that it’s difficult to put yourself in that place.

Northup wasn’t born into slavery; he had his freedom, a home, and a family before losing it all when he was abducted. You can see yourself in him. And in the movie, he’s thrown into this brutal new reality at the same time you are. You’re on his journey alongside him, and that lends the experience a special kind of impact.

Of course, if Northup’s exceptionalness makes him a useful surrogate in approaching the subject of slavery, it also means that we have to remind ourselves of how atypical his story is. Most slaves were born into bondage, lived their entire lives in that condition, and died without publishing their stories. Peter Malamud Smith explains the dilemma:

It’s just so hard for us to identify with “the regular slaves,” in whatever form they may take. 12 Years a Slave is constructed as a story of a man trying to return to his family, offering every viewer a way into empathizing with its protagonist. Maybe we need a story framed on that individual scale in order to understand it. But it has a distorting effect all the same. We’re more invested in one hero than in millions of victims; if we’re forced to imagine ourselves enslaved, we want to imagine ourselves as Northup, a special person who miraculously escaped the system that attempted to crush him.

In other words, this individual’s story can’t take the place of millions of other slaves’ untold stories. But it more than compensates by reminding us, as few other slave narratives can, that behind each of those untold stories was an individual.

Northup as depicted in his book, via Wikimedia Commons

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Spend an evening at John Sevier’s

Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN is getting ready for its first annual fundraiser.  We’re calling it a “Sevier Soirée.”

It’s on Saturday, Nov. 23 starting at 6:30 P.M.  For $50 you can enjoy hors d’oeuvres prepared on an open hearth, dinner, wine, live music, nighttime tours of the historic buildings, and a silent auction.  If you’ve been to Marble Springs before, this is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the site in a fashion you’ve never experienced.  And if you haven’t been, this is the perfect chance to do it in style.

For more information, visit the Marble Springs website or call (865) 573-5508.

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Ender’s Game, Catton’s war

A lot of people think Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is the best science fiction novel ever, or at least one of the top contenders, so I decided to read it before seeing the new movie adaptation.  I enjoyed it, although it didn’t have the impact on me that it seems to have had on thousands of other readers over the years.  The movie’s not bad, either.

A story about children training to fight space aliens is just about the last place you’d expect to find anything relating to popular Civil War historiography, but in his introduction Card identifies the work of Bruce Catton as one of his main influences:

I remembered so well the stories of the commanders in that war–the struggle to find a Union general capable of using McClellan’s magnificent army to defeat Lee and Jackson and Stuart, and then, finally, Grant, who brought death to far too many of his soldiers, but also made their deaths mean something, by grinding away at Lee, keeping him from dancing and maneuvering out of reach. It was because of Catton’s history that I had stopped enjoying chess, and had to revise the rules of Risk in order to play it–I had come to understand something of war, and not just because of the conclusions Catton himself had reached. I found meanings of my own in that history.

I learned that history is shaped by the use of power, and that different people, leading the same army, with, therefore, approximately the same power, applied it so differently that the army seemed to change from a pack of noble fools at Fredericksburg to panicked cowards melting away at Chancellorsville, then to the grimly determined, stubborn soldiers who held the ridges at Gettysburg, and then, finally, to the disciplined, professional army that ground Lee to dust in Grant’s long campaign. It wasn’t the soldiers who changed. It was the leader. And even though I could not then have articulated what I understood of military leadership, I knew that I did understand it. I understood, at levels deeper than speech, how a great military leader imposes his will on his enemy, and makes his own army a willing extension of himself.

Card thus takes the Civil War (at least the war in the East) primarily as the story of an army in search of its commander.  Framing the war with this narrative is not at all uncommon, but is it accurate?  And is it possible to draw such broad general lessons about the nature of war and the human experience from the study of one particular conflict?

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