Category Archives: History and Memory

I’ll take “Slightly Anachronistic Phrases” for $400, Alex

Well, it’s official.  “War Between the States” is a legitimate name for the Civil War, at least as far as the judges on Jeopardy! are concerned.

I don’t really care what people call it, but the term “War Between the States” wasn’t all that common during the war itself.  It didn’t really come into common use among Southerners until after the whole thing was over.  If “Civil War” was good enough for Davis, Lee, and Forrest, you’d think it would be good enough for the UDC.

In some European countries, the common name is “War of Secession” (Guerra de Secesión, as the Spanish put it).  Maybe we should start using it here in America; I think everybody could agree that “War of Secession” is pretty accurate.

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Libertarians and the Civil War

WaPo examines the different ways libertarians interpret the Civil War, from those who embrace neo-Confederate ideology to those who are embarrassed by it.

My main complaint with neo-Confederate libertarians who vent their rage on the Lincoln administration is their failure to follow through on their arguments.  Sure, the Union government became more centralized and invasive in order to fight the war, but so did the Confederate government.  Governments usually become more centralized and invasive in wartime as a matter of course, simply because a war requires nations to marshal their resources and suppress dissent more effectively than in peacetime.  That was the case for the Union, and it was certainly the case for the Confederacy.

And if you’ve got philosophical problems with the Union’s attempt to block secession, shouldn’t you support independence for Unionist majorities in East Tennessee who tried to stay out of the Confederacy?

I’m uncomfortable with any attempts to moralize history by trying to identify who was on its right side and wrong side, but if you’re going to go down that road, at least be consistent about it.

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Glenn Beck presents a history exhibit

Glenn Beck hosted an exhibit of historical artifacts called the “Independence Through History Museum” at the Grand American Hotel in Salt Lake City over the July 4th weekend.  The museum was only one part of Beck’s “Man in the Moon” event, which included conferences, lectures, and a live performance that (as far as I can determine) was an attempt to combine historical pageantry with Cirque du Soleil.

More info here and here.  Note that the exhibit featured Arnold Friberg’s painting of Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge.  Since it’s doubtful the incident in the painting ever happened, it’s highly fitting that David Barton helped select the items to be displayed.

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“We’ve had vicious kings, and we’ve had idiot kings…”

As we recover from all the Gettysburg and Vicksburg festivities, The Connectivist gives us something else to argue about with a list of the TV characters who most closely resemble figures from the American Revolution.

They’ve matched George III up with Joffrey Baratheon from Game of Thrones, which seems…well, pretty darned unfair to George III, when you get right down to it.

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The big one

Several years ago, when I was in the museum business, we decided to do a temporary exhibit on the Gettysburg Address. I e-mailed the NPS to see about borrowing a few artifacts, and they graciously obliged us with some fantastic material. Somebody had to drive up to Pennsylvania to pick it up.

I had never been to Gettysburg, and I was always looking for an excuse to get out of the office anyway, so I booked a rental van to haul the artifacts and got a good friend of mine to tag along, and off we went.  Both of us had been on a Civil War quiz bowl team in high school, and everybody on the team had talked vaguely about making a collective trip to Gettysburg over the years, but it had never worked out so that all of us could go at the same time.

Some history road trips get added value from the landscape along the way, and this was one of them.  It was a beautiful drive northward through the Shenandoah Valley along I-81.  The background music, unfortunately, was ill-suited to the occasion.  This was the year that Nelly Furtado’s song “Promiscuous” was released, and for some reason it seemed to be playing incessantly on every single radio station during the drive up.  To this day, I associate that song with Gettysburg.  (Weird, I know, but your brain is gonna do what your brain is gonna do.)

We got there just after sunset, with just enough daylight left to make out some monuments and wayside markers.  There are football towns and college towns and music towns; Gettysburg was a history town.  The restaurants were named after generals, the stores sold Confederate t-shirts, and our hotel had Troiani prints in the lobby.  It seemed like there was a museum or attraction on every corner.  The place had this irresistible mixture of historic architecture and landscape alongside examples of tourist kitsch, a combination I’ve never encountered in the same way anywhere else.  It sounds jarring, but it worked; it had an appeal all its own.

The old visitor center was still open then, but many of the artifacts had been moved out in preparation for the opening of the new building. We watched the electric map show and checked out the exhibits, case after case after case full of rifles, swords, and bullet-riddled doors.  Then it was out onto the battlefield itself.

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We did the “must-see” highlights, the high-water mark and Little Round Top and all the rest of them.  All those places mentioned in books and labeled on maps were really there, not as ink on paper but as soil and rock and vegetation.  It was like meeting a celebrity and realizing that behind the magazine covers, movie posters, and TV appearances is a real live human being who is standing right in front of you.  Right there was the stone wall, and over there was the copse of trees, and there was that hill, all of them instantly recognizable and looking like they hadn’t aged a day since Gardner had taken his photographs.

Like a lot of historic sites, this one had a personality all its own, with its open fields framed by hills and mountains.  It looked the way Gettysburg should look, an appropriate arena for a great contest, as if the landscape had known that two armies would be meeting there and had been arranging itself for the occasion.  Maybe not for the war’s most decisive battle, but certainly its definitive one.

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Did conservatives save the American Revolution, and were they “conservatives” in the modern sense?

David Lefer appeared on the Lou Dobbs show a few days ago to talk about his new book, The Founding Conservatives: How a Group of Unsung Heroes Saved the American Revolution. Here’s part of the jacket copy:

According to most narratives of the American Revolution, the founders were united in their quest for independence and steadfast in their efforts to create a stable, effective government. But the birth of our republic was far more complicated than many realize. The Revolution was nearly derailed by extremists who wanted to do too much, too quickly and who refused to rest until they had remade American society. If not for a small circle of conservatives who kept radicalism in check and promoted capitalism, a strong military, and the preservation of tradition, our country would be vastly different today.

In the first book to chronicle the critical role these men played in securing our freedom, David Lefer provides an insightful and gripping account of the birth of modern American conservatism and its impact on the earliest days of our nation.

To say that extremists nearly derailed the Revolution seems rather ahistorical to me; it assumes that there was a “right” outcome to the struggle all along. There were many constituencies involved in the Revolution, and each one had its own hopes and aims for the outcome. It’s good that Lefer recognizes this, and maybe his book will help readers understand that the American Revolution was not just about Americans/Whigs vs. British/Tories and that there was a contest to determine what the Revolution meant and how radical its implications should be.

But who are we to say which constituency was conducting the “real” Revolution, or that the eventual outcome was the “right” one? From a conservative standpoint, perhaps it does appear “right,” but if your inclinations are more liberal, maybe the “settlements” which resolved these struggles among the revolutionaries look more like lost opportunities than happy endings. Indeed, from the perspective of the Anti-Federalists, or of the radical or populist groups, the “heroes” were actually the ones who hijacked the Revolution. We understand the past by looking backward, but we have to keep in mind that at the time, people were living it forward and without benefit of hindsight.

I’m also unsure what to make of Lefer’s claim that modern American conservatism can trace its ancestry back to the American Revolution. If you define conservatism as opposition to radical change, then the label fits somebody like John Dickinson. But if we’re going to associate conservatism with decentralized government, it seems odd to refer to a guy like Robert Morris as a conservative. Modern political concepts just don’t transfer smoothly from one century to another.

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Lowry claims Lincoln for conservatives, DiLorenzo responds to Lowry, Godwin’s Law kicks in

In his new book and recent National Review piece, Rich Lowry argues that the American Right has a friend in Lincoln.  I haven’t read the book, but based on the NR article I’d say he makes some valid points, overstates some things, and understates some others.  None of that is surprising, since it’s generally the pattern when people try to shoehorn nineteenth-century political figures into modern categories.

Lowry’s NR piece prompted this response from Thomas DiLorenzo.  While he never really refutes any of Lowry’s points, DiLorenzo does manage to mock Lowry’s physical appearance, criticize his writing style, and label the late William F. Buckley a fascist.  All that in about 350 words.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

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Some assembly required

In case you were wondering what might have befallen us if the Confederacy had gotten its hands on the Super-Soldier Serum, here it is.  I’m guessing the next installment will have Horace Hunley as Tony Stark and Belle Boyd as Black Widow.

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PBS features story of Loreta Velazquez, a reinvented Rebel

If even half of her controversial autobiography is true, then Loreta Janeta Velázquez led one of the most fascinating lives of the nineteenth century.  She’s the subject of Rebel, a new documentary airing Friday, May 24 to open this season of Voces on PBS.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez, in and out of disguise

According to her 1876 book The Woman in Battle, Loreta was born in Cuba in 1842 to  a prominent Spanish official.  Sent to New Orleans as a young girl, she displayed a rebellious personality from a young age, dressing in boys’ clothes and eloping with an army officer at the age of fourteen.  Deciding to see something of combat, she was one of hundreds of women who disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War.  Calling herself Harry T. Buford, she experienced some of the war’s most famous battles, including 1st Bull Run, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh.  After her exploits as a soldier, she took up spying, enjoying a remarkable career as a double agent.

That, at least, is the story she told in her memoir.  How much of it is true has been a subject of debate ever since its publication.  Jubal Early, who met her in Virginia after the book’s publication, denounced her as a fraud.  Some historians have likewise found her claims hard to swallow, although researchers have found enough documentation to verify a few parts of her story.

Rebel doesn’t spend much time separating fact from fiction.  Instead, it focuses on the outline of her story as she told it herself, using it to examine the role of Hispanics in Civil War America, gender in the nineteenth century, and contested historical memories.  The concern here isn’t really whether her account is true, but why its accuracy was a matter of such concern to her contemporaries.  The program suggests that her autobiography offered a challenge to the society in which she lived, not only because she stretched the truth but also because of who she was—a Hispanic woman involved in the business of war and espionage who was determined to go public with her exploits.  It’s a fascinating story, and I enjoyed watching it.

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Movie protagonists and the past as a foreign country

I’ve taken as one of my creeds novelist L.P. Hartley’s oft-quoted statement: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  As I’ve said before, I love it when historical films manage to convey this “otherness” of the past.  The tricky part is that audiences are supposed to identify with a movie’s protagonists, and it seems like underscoring the differences between historical characters and moderns would only make that more difficult.  So how do you depict the “otherness” of a historical film’s protagonists without undermining an audience’s sympathy for them, especially when that otherness consists of attitudes and practices that are morally repugnant here in the twenty-first century?

The easiest approach is to cheat and eliminate the otherness altogether.  If your hero is a prominent landowner in eighteenth-century South Carolina, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that men of his stature, place, and time tended to be slaveholders.  The makers of The Patriot sliced through this Gordian knot by making Benjamin Martin a remarkably forward-thinking guy.

It’s a simple solution, but it also leaves a lot to be desired.  Whereas the movie shows the British dragoons tearing free blacks away from their homes, the reality was in many cases the reverse, with many slaves escaping their Patriot masters to make a bid for freedom behind British lines.  Ironically, Benjamin Martin’s fictional military exploits are similar to those of a real South Carolina officer named Thomas Sumter, who paid his recruits with slaves confiscated from Tories.

The makers of 300, by contrast, didn’t try to gloss over the unsavory aspects of their historical protagonists.  The Spartans leave weak infants to die of exposure, they savagely discipline their own children to turn them into hardened soldiers, they cherish the idea of death on the battlefield, and they slaughter their wounded enemies and desecrate their bodies.  And the audience is expected to accept the characters for what they are—even to celebrate them for it.

The movie not only gives us the Spartans in all their ruthlessness, but makes us empathize with them.  You probably wouldn’t want to live among them, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be a wounded Persian falling into their hands, but it’s fun to root for them for a couple of hours.  This solution seems more historically honest than the approach taken in The Patriot, and it works pretty well when you’re telling a story in which there are obvious good guys and bad guys.

Of course, 300 tells the story entirely from the Spartans’ perspective.  Can filmmakers tell the story of some historic event holistically—that is, from a variety of perspectives—while conveying the past’s “otherness” and still make audiences empathize with all the characters involved?  Can they do on film what David Hackett Fischer did in his book Paul Revere’s Ride, approaching “both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect” even though the main characters act in opposition to each other?  I think one movie that handles this really well is John Lee Hancock’s 2004 film The Alamo.

As this scene demonstrates, the movie presents the Alamo’s defenders as heroic.  Indeed, for some critics, they come across as too heroic.  A number of reviewers accused the filmmakers of whitewashing the story.  What struck me about the movie when I saw it, however, was its remarkable frankness about the protagonists’ shortcomings.  Early scenes establish that David Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis have all experienced some sort of disappointment or disgrace, and Texas represents a second chance for them.  A short but sympathetic side plot involves a very young solider marching in Santa Anna’s army.  Most notable, though, is how upfront the film is about the relationship between its heroes and their slaves—fittingly so, since the peculiar institution was one of the points of debate between the Texians and the Mexican government.

In one scene, Travis assigns two slaves named Sam and Joe the task of digging a well within the fort’s walls.  “Ain’t bad enough we got to fetch ‘em the water,” Sam complains, “now we got to find it for ‘em too.”  Later, Sam tells Joe that when the Mexicans storm the mission, he should worry about saving his own life and let his master to fend for himself.  (Travis did indeed own a young slave named Joe, who was wounded when the Alamo fell and escaped to freedom one year after San Jacinto.)    These scenes establish that the enslaved members of the garrison have their own interests at stake, interests at odds with those of the protagonists with whom we’re supposed to identify.  Contrast this with earlier depictions of black characters in Alamo movies, which tend to employ the familiar “faithful slave” narrative.

At the same time, though, the film’s revisionism doesn’t extend to demonizing the Alamo’s white defenders.  We sympathize with Sam and Joe’s predicament even as we admire the courageous last stand of the men holding them captive.  As prejudiced slaveholders of another time, Bowie and Travis seem foreign to us, but we also become invested in their confrontation with their own impending death.

As I said, the movie’s approach didn’t go over well with everybody.  The essay linked above, for example, notes that “the realistic portrayals of Joe and Sam may be to the credit of the filmmakers, but ultimately the film does little to question the ideological values inscribed onto the Alamo battle, which have gone largely unchallenged for the last 175 years, even if it does alter aspects of the story prevalent in its cinematic representations.”  In other words, the 2004 version is more frank about its main characters’ slaveholding, but it somehow manages to leave their bravery and heroism intact.  The movie leaves these contradictions unresolved.  It’s messy, complicated, and ambiguous, as history often turns out to be.  It didn’t work for many critics and historians, but from a purely historical standpoint, I was impressed.  Your mileage may vary.

Anyway, The Patriot and 300 grossed $113 million and $456 million respectively, but The Alamo flopped.  Maybe audiences prefer their historical heroes to be as straightforward as possible.

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