Tag Archives: Civil War memory

Is Lincoln to blame for America’s empire?

Some observers see Lincoln’s presidency and the outcome of the Civil War as the point when America got off-kilter, sort of like a national equivalent to the Fall of Man.  At some point between 1860 and 1865, so this line of thinking goes, the country went off the rails and abandoned the legacy of the Revolution and the Constitution, leaving us with the centralized, interventionist, and industrial nation in which we now live.

There’s a nugget of truth to all this, but it’s hidden among a lot of overstatement and moralization.  The Civil War did contribute to the creation of a stronger and more vigorous central government, Lincoln’s use of presidential authority was broader than many of his predecessors, and the Union’s victory did accelerate the creation of a more consolidated and economically modern America.  At the same time, though, you can’t attribute America’s transformation entirely to the Civil War or to Lincoln’s presidency.  The war was a critical step down that road, but it wasn’t the only one—and the road itself was circuitous, since the exertion of federal authority has expanded and contracted at various times between 1865 and today.  Lincoln did a great many consequential things, but he didn’t sucker punch the whole country into the modern age single-handedly.

Abraham Lincoln portrait by William F. Cogswell, 1869 (The White House Historical Association via Wikimedia Commons)

In an interesting and provocative essay, Thomas DiLorenzo takes this notion of the Lincoln presidency as something akin to America’s moment of original sin and applies it to foreign policy.  He argues that Lincoln abandoned the Founders’ desire for neutrality and friendly commerce in favor of “imperialist fantasies about perfecting the entire planet as the bedrock of American foreign policy ideas.”  Lincoln, he states, believed that it was incumbent upon Americans to impose democratic ideals on other countries, and so our subsequent foreign entanglements and interventions follow from this misguided conviction.

DiLorenzo thus uses an interpretation of the past to critique the present.  As far as his criticism of American interventionism goes, I’m inclined to agree with him, at least to a considerable extent.  What I don’t agree with is his diagnosis of the historical origins of the problem.  Like the larger concept of which it’s a part—the notion that the Civil War is the point at which the country somehow went wrong—I think his argument contains a kernel of historic truth hidden in a matrix of serious oversimplification.  DiLorenzo makes Lincoln out to be a far more influential figure than he actually was.

He’s certainly correct that Lincoln believed the U.S., as an experiment in popular government, had an important role to play in the world.  Indeed, that’s one reason why he took secession so seriously.  If the nation collapsed in civil warfare, he thought, then the whole notion of a nation governed by the people themselves was in doubt.  Hence his argument at Gettysburg that America was a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition of equality, and that the war was a contest to determine whether any such nation could survive.  If the Union prevailed, self-government would be vindicated and would have the opportunity to take root elsewhere.

But I don’t think DiLorenzo is accurate in equating Lincoln’s brand of American exceptionalism with a zealous support of foreign intervention.  Ever since the Revolution—since earlier than that, actually, if one takes the Puritans into account—Americans have believed they could instruct the world, but not all of them have believed they must do so by force.  I don’t really see any reason to assume that Lincoln’s American exceptionalism was necessarily of the militant kind or to lay the blame for America’s status as a global policeman at his feet.  True, the interventionist and expansionist U.S. of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries probably wouldn’t have taken the form it did if it weren’t for the creation of a consolidated and industrial nation with a vigorous government, which the Civil War made possible.  But that’s not to say that it wouldn’t have become an interventionist and expansionist country at all.  The agrarian, slave-based economic interest that was so influential in antebellum America was something of an imperialist engine in its own right, spurring on conflict with Mexico and sparking filibustering expeditions in other parts of Latin America.  Indeed, well before the Civil War, America had been practicing a form of internal imperialism with regard to the Indians.  It’s therefore entirely possible that an America without a Lincoln presidency or a Civil War might have become an interventionist world power anyway, albeit an interventionist power of a different kind.

I have no idea how Lincoln would feel about modern America’s willingness to spend blood and treasure policing the world.  Maybe he’d endorse the extension of American ideals and institutions to foreign countries by force of arms, at least under some circumstances.  Or maybe not; after all, he was a vocal critic of America’s war with Mexico in the 1840’s.  Whatever the case, I think he’d be quite surprised that anyone would draw a direct line between his readiness to use force to suppress what he considered an internal rebellion and the deployment of American forces across the globe a century and a half later.

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Paranormal investigators add gravity, scholarly rigor to Antietam commemoration

Staff rides and ranger walks are great, but there’s just no substitute for the insight of an experienced ghost hunter:

Among the stories told was one about a re-enactor who was re-enacting a battle at one point and thought he had been “killed” by another re-enactor. However, after the battle was over, nobody else saw the “killing” re-enactor, and Riley implied it was the spirit of an actual dead soldier who took part in the battle re-enactment, thinking it was real.

A subsequent investigation by four adolescents and their dog revealed that the “spirit” was actually a local con man in disguise.  When reached for comment, the malefactor stated, “I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids!”

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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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Another Civil War heritage controversy, coming right up

When all else fails, you can always count on a Nathan Bedford Forrest monument to stir up a mess.  This one’s in Selma, AL and got vandalized back in March.  Now it’s about to get repaired, but there’s a petition going around asking the city council to take the whole thing down.

The thing is, neither the monument nor the land on which it sits belong to the city.  It was on public property when first erected in 2000, but a ruckus ensued which resulted in its relocation to a plot owned by the UDC following year.  What do the petitioners expect the city council to do about a monument on private land?  Your guess is as good as mine.

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Principles of historical punditry #107

For the purposes of writing an op-ed, any form of dissonance—be it political, cultural, or sectional—portends that we are either (a) in the midst of a metaphorical Civil War or (b) on the brink of another literal one.

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Sometimes a vampire is just a vampire

Is it a parable about social justice?

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is traditional progressive storytelling. It uses an axe-swinging superhero, Abe Lincoln, to retell the Left’s primary mythos – a parasitic few live off the misery of the people.

An attempt to grapple with dark chapters in our nation’s history?

The idea of America as a nation secretly created and controlled by vampires actually builds on a long history of popular “subversion myths” in which Freemasons, communists, or other conspiracies have secretly taken control of an otherwise good nation and threaten its social order. Like vampire stories, subversion myths frame good and evil in clear, unwavering terms. As nocturnal creatures who attack unseen, the vampires of folklore represent one of the oldest forms of subversion myth.

A “White Guilt Fantasy“?

When Abraham starts in on his vampire-hunting career, the movie still takes time to drop plot cookies that illuminate how awesome and pro-abolition he is, and how this fact makes him beloved by all good people. Such as the moment when Mary Todd, his future wife, gets all interested in him after he says something vaguely anti-slavery. Or the time when he and the black boy from the first act (Will Johnson) end up in jail for fisticuffs against some men who are determined to cart Will away as a slave.

And here I thought it was just a gimmick.

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A Lexington counterfactual

Those of you who follow the Civil War blogs are probably aware of the SCV’s recent legal defeat.  Those of you who don’t can get up to speed by clicking here.

I’m afraid I can’t give you my opinion on the city’s ordinance or the judge’s ruling because I don’t really have an opinion about either one.  As I’ve said before, the sight of a Confederate battle flag doesn’t offend me; I have about the same reaction to it as I would to the flag of Argentina.  On the other hand, a law against the flying of any flags on municipal poles except those of official government entities doesn’t offend me, either.  It sort of seems like common sense, actually.  So whether the SCV won or lost this one, I’d be cool with whatever.

Let’s indulge in a counterfactual exercise with this very recent bit of Civil War history.  Suppose the law had been overturned.  What then?

What would the SCV have gained from the effort?  They would’ve gained the right to fly the Confederate battle flag from municipal poles in Lexington, VA.  Would it have been worth it?

Sure, Lexington has symbolic value to devotees of Confederate heritage, since it’s the final resting place of both Lee and Jackson.  But anybody who wants to go to Lexington and wave a Confederate flag, plaster a Confederate flag sticker on their car, or march around in a Confederate flag t-shirt can still do so.  Your right to display a Confederate flag in Lexington is as secure as it was before the ordinance, if I understand the situation correctly.

I know the SCV’s raison d’être is to maintain the legacy of the Confederacy, and that perpetuating the display of the Confederate flag falls well within those limits.  And, again, I’ve got no problem with the display of the flag, so long as it’s not done with blatant insensitivity toward the feelings of people who might legitimately be hurt by it.

But when I think of all the causes that the SCV might take up—battlefield preservation, monument restoration, scholarships, etc.—I can’t help but wonder whether this was time well spent.

Then again, it wasn’t my time.

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Everybody cut footloose!

The latest heritage skirmish, from right here in the Volunteer State:

Gibson County High School senior Texanna Edwards was — like many of her classmates — looking forward to her prom last Saturday.

But Edwards didn’t get to attend because of her attire — a knee-length red dress decorated with bright blue stripes and white stars inside the stripes. The school’s colors are red, white and blue, but the dress resembles the controversial Confederate battle flag.

Edwards, 18, said she wasn’t allowed inside the prom after school officials told her the Confederate flag prom dress was “offensive and inappropriate.”

Before taking up pitchforks and torches against the school officials, note that Texanna didn’t exactly get blindsided when she showed up for the big dance.  The prom sponsor told her she might want to check with the principal ahead of time:

School officials said a teacher warned Edwards about two months ago that the dress might not be acceptable. The teacher, who served as prom sponsor, expressed concern and suggested to Edwards in February that she should clear the idea with the principal, but Edwards did not do so, said Eddie Pruett, director of schools for the Gibson County School System.

Pruett said there have been race-related issues at Gibson County High School in recent years and that Principal James Hughes thought Edwards’ dress could have caused a problem.

I doubt that any of that information will mollify Confederate flag proponents, just as I doubt that they’ll stop to ask themselves whether a prom dress is an appropriate use of the banner they profess to defend.

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If a Confederate monument falls in Reidsville, does it make a sound?

Yes, it does.  In fact, it raises quite a ruckus.

REIDSVILLE, N.C.—Mark Anthony Vincent says he was tired and distracted as he drove his van through this city early one morning last May to deliver auto parts, and dozed off. Mr. Vincent says he looked at his GPS just before 4:47 a.m., when the 1999 Chevrolet ran off the road and slammed into a 101-year-old Confederate veterans monument in Reidsville’s central roundabout.

The van struck the 32-foot-tall granite pillar, jostling a 6-foot marble statue of a Confederate soldier, which toppled onto the van and broke into at least 10 pieces. The soldier’s head slammed through the van’s hood, crushing the engine.

Example #28476193 of why cars and monuments don’t mix.  Watch where you’re going, people.

Many in Reidsville thought insurance would pay for a replacement and that would be that. Instead, two groups with different views of what the monument symbolized are squaring off in a debate over the statue’s future. The fight reflects the South’s continuing struggle over how to commemorate the Civil War.

No, it doesn’t.  It reflects the continuing struggle between heritage groups over how to commemorate the Civil War.  The other 100 million people in “the South” have other things to worry about.  Read on.

The statue’s owner—the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which collected $105,000 in insurance money for the piece—plans to repair the base of the monument, replace the statue and move the whole thing to a cemetery away from downtown. The statue’s broken pieces now lie in the city’s public-works yard.

City officials, who say they have no authority over the statue, applaud the UDC decision. “Once it’s down, I think it sends the wrong message to put it back up,” said James Festerman, the 69-year-old white mayor of a city that is 42% black. “I don’t want industries that might want to move here to think this is a little town still fighting the Civil War.”

Too late for that, dude.

The Historical Preservation Action Committee, a local organization that backs keeping the statute at its former site, has led numerous protests at the roundabout, with members and supporters often dressed in Confederate uniforms. It has gathered almost 3,000 signatures of support. A “Save the Reidsville Confederate Monument” Facebook page has more than 1,900 “likes.”

“How sad that the City is attempting to eradicate the history and memory of those that sacrificed so much,” one fan wrote on the Facebook page.

Look, if municipal authorities had ordered the monument torn down, then it would be a case of the city “attempting to eradicate the history and memory of those that sacrificed so much.”  The UDC claims ownership of the monument, they want to repair it and relocate it, and the city agrees with them.  Not exactly a case of eradicating history.

 The HPAC—which contends that either the city or the state owns the statue—joined with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a national heritage group, to hire a lawyer to press the state to intervene. The state refused. Now the HPAC has started raising money for a possible lawsuit against the city or the United Daughters. The threat of legal action has left the statue’s repair and replacement in limbo.

The SCV is pitching in to call for government involvement to thwart a decision by the UDC.  There are so many levels of irony here that I’m getting dizzy.

Wait, it gets even more bizarre.

Conspiracy theories abound that Mr. Vincent, who is black and lives in Greensboro, about 22 miles from Reidsville, wrecked the statue on purpose, even though it almost killed him and destroyed his van. Police found no basis for such theories, Mayor Festerman said. Mr. Vincent has an unresolved traffic citation for the crash.

Yes, they’re accusing a distracted driver of a kamikaze attack on a monument.  Heritage controversies—the cure for all those occasions when life makes too much sense.

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