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.
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.“
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?
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
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?
Thomas Watson of Georgia began his political career in the late nineteenth century as a Populist champion of small farmers and opponent of powerful railroad companies. As a congressman, he was instrumental in implementing Rural Free Delivery by the postal service.
By the early twentieth century, however, Watson was lending his voice to prejudice rather than reform with his virulent denunciations of Catholics, blacks, and Jews. His condemnations of northern and Jewish influence in the wake of Leo Frank’s 1913 trial for the murder of Mary Phagan contributed to the anti-Semitic feeling against Frank that resulted in his August 1915 lynching.
There’s a statue of Watson on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol, but as of this month it’s slated to be moved across the street to make way for a renovation project. The statue’s removal apparently has nothing to do with Watson’s bigotry and everything to do with the prohibitive cost of moving it back once the renovations are done, but it’s prompted an interesting discussion about historical memory and one political figure’s very mixed and quite troubling legacy.
Here’s a story about a woman whose investigations into her family’s history uncovered the true story behind a 1926 shootout in southwestern Virginia. Newspapers dismissed the incident as just another violent hillbilly squabble; turns out they were wrong.
This bit of genealogical research is sort of a microcosm of Appalachian history in general. The more you study it, the more the stereotypes and assumptions start to give way to fascinating and complex realities.
I finished reading Sharyn McCrumb’s novel King’s Mountain night before last, and I’ve got to say that I’m pretty impressed at how much Overmountain Men lore she managed to pack into it. The gang’s all there, even fairly obscure characters like Enoch Gilmer. McCrumb is obviously passionate about the subject, and she’s done her homework.
The book’s not totally free of historical slip-ups. McCrumb indicates that Ferguson’s posting to the Carolinas was essentially a banishment to a backwater of the war, but the South had become the seat of Britain’s major offensive efforts by the time Ferguson arrived with Clinton’s Charleston expedition. At one point she says in passing that Light-Horse Harry Lee was an Overmountain Man, which is an error I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. Finally, her characterization of James Williams as a first-rate scoundrel traces back to questionable statements found in Col. William Hill’s 1815 memoir. Hill’s account is like Super Glue—it’s handy to have around, but you’ve got to be extremely careful when using it. It’s the work of an old veteran nursing a grudge, and some of his charges against Williams just don’t hold up in light of other sources. (For a detailed discussion of the whole Williams/Hill kerfuffle, I recommend William T. Graves’s new book. I’m not as inclined to exonerate Williams as fully as Graves does, but he makes an excellent case for taking Hill’s memoir with a generous dose of salt.)
When it comes to matters open to novelistic license, my only complaint is that McCrumb’s Ferguson is a pretty humorless, embittered guy. Although Ferguson endured repeated disappointments during his military career, his letters also indicate an endearing charm and wit, and they don’t really come across in the novel.
These caveats aside, I enjoyed the book and I hope it sparks widespread interest in the battle. If you like the Southern Campaign and early Tennessee history as much as I do, you’ll get a kick out of it. McCrumb employs John Sevier and Virginia Sal as dual narrators, and as much as I’m drawn to Sevier as a historical figure, I found the Virginia Sal chapters the most compelling. We know so little about Ferguson’s purported lover and the other women who followed the armies that they’re among the voiceless participants in the Revolution; McCrumb effectively lends them a voice of their own. Reading the story in fictional form as told by the people who lived it reminds you that they didn’t have our benefit of knowing how things would turn out, and they endured the pivotal autumn of 1780 with all the hopes and fears of flesh-and-blood human beings.
It’s worth noting that the novel is a distinctly Appalachian story, written by an author who specializes in the region. This is an interesting modern example of Appalachians claiming King’s Mountain as their own American Revolutionary moment, a process that began with regional historians and antiquarians of the nineteenth century. If you’re interested in how this regionalized memory of the battle emerged, you might enjoy my article on that subject in the Fall 2009 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly.