Tag Archives: Civil War memory

Messy endings

The Center for Education and Leadership at Ford’s Theatre opens this month, and The New York Times paid a visit (hat tip to Brooks Simpson).  This article merits quoting at length.

After you leave a reproduction of the deathbed in the Petersen House, you enter the new building, as if emerging into the Washington streets the morning after Lincoln’s death. Church bells are tolling; broadsheets are plastered on walls. The panel text makes the atmospherics even more vivid. We learn that when Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor, heard what his brother had done, he said, “It was just as if I was struck on the forehead with a hammer.”

Mary Todd Lincoln was so mad with grief that White House pallbearers went barefoot, so sounds would not distress her. She neither attended the Washington service nor accompanied the coffin on its 1,700-mile railway journey to Springfield for burial.

That journey is evoked in a gallery space resembling the train car that carried the coffin. And touch-screen monitors give us the details: seven million people viewed the body where it was shown along the way, or congregated along the tracks; 300,000 in Philadelphia alone. There were hints of Lincoln’s legacy in the tributes, and signs of unfinished business too. In Washington the 22nd United States Colored Infantry headed the procession; in New York the City Council refused to allow blacks to march at all. Its ruling was overturned by Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

In counterpoint to the funeral train, we get a survey of Booth’s flight through the Virginia marshes. Parts of his diary are transcribed onto touch screens. Booth was bewildered by the manhunt: “I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.” He is tracked to a tobacco barn that is set ablaze and is shot by an overzealous soldier; his co-conspirators are hanged. Reconstruction begins, falters and ends.

In a panel about Lincoln’s vice president, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, we see how quickly the world Lincoln opposed oozed back into place. As president, Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation, approved of “Black Codes” limiting the freedom of former slaves, and wrote, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.”

Was Booth, then, ultimately triumphant? He certainly altered the shape of Reconstruction. As a result, the exhibition points out, by the 19th century’s end, Lincoln was recalled differently from the way he had been just after the war. At first he was remembered as a liberator, undermining the culture of enslavement; later memorials emphasized instead his devotion to the Union.

But we also learn of Lincoln’s afterlife and nearly universal appeal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower kept a complete set of Lincoln’s writings in the Oval Office. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “it was time” for Democrats to “claim Lincoln as one of our own.” The only portrait that the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen kept in his home was one of Lincoln, while Mao directed his followers to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Here too is Lincoln’s popular heritage, in Lincoln Logs, cartoons, knickknacks.

This is a radically different approach than the cabin-to-coffin exhibit at the ALPLM in Springfield, which ends on a note of somber resolution—the war won, Lincoln’s place in national pantheon secured.  The narrative at Ford’s is less reassuring.  This exhibit starts with Booth’s bullet, and then takes the visitor through the post-war debates over the changes Lincoln implemented.  The story meanders through an America still dealing with the ripples of Lincoln’s presidency, a nation taking steps both forward and backward, both toward the transformations wrought by Lincoln and in the opposite direction of Black Codes and the collapse of Reconstruction.

And the way in which people remember Lincoln, in this narrative, is not set in marble in April 1865.  Instead, the world contests his legacy down through the years, finding multiple meanings and dropping the ones that become inconvenient.

It seems to paint a messy, complicated, and often ambiguous picture of history and historical memory.  In other words, it sounds like it’s worth a visit.

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The changing face of Civil War museums

USA Today looks at the ways Civil War museums are changing with the times:

For some museums, that means more displays on African-Americans or exhibits on the roles women played as combatants and spies. For others, it means adding digital maps and electronic displays to attract tech-savvy youth for whom the war holds no memories. Or it may simply mean adopting a wider, more holistic approach to the war — without taking sides.

Inclusivity, technology, and objectivity have been on the rise in history museums of all kinds, not just those devoted to the Civil War.  What’s interesting is that Civil War museums in the South have a particular hurdle to overcome.

Still, the feeling that southern museums dedicated to the war are racist is a lingering problem, said President and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., Waite Rawls.

“It’s still one of the greatest challenges Confederate museums face, and we are all working on it,” he said. “Unfortunately the Confederate flag was used as a symbol of white supremacy in the civil rights era. We got hit with a double whammy of the 1860s and the 1960s.”

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Nineteenth-century paternalism redux

If you haven’t already read it, let me direct your attention to a post over at Dr. Brooks Simpson’s blog, in which he highlights a few recent examples of heritage-driven kookery at its finest.  My favorite: “… what past sins of slavery are you referring to? Slaves had free housing, free food, free clothing, free medical care, free child care, free old age care, and free job training. All they had to do in return was work 9 hours a day with Sundays off to attend church.”

Faced with criticism, a commenter offered up this interpretive gem: “There were isolated incidentces of rape and abuse by employers in Northern cities. The difference was, they received unfair and low wages while living in unhealthy conditions with the rats and sewers. Now regarding, the Slavee [sic] and servant help, they, in many ways were treated with much better living and working conditions……one of the draw backs, they could never leave the plantation……”

Sound familiar?  It should, because just a few days ago we noted an 1863 textbook from North Carolina which justified chattel slavery in exactly the same terms.  The more things change…

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Have a holly, jolly fratricidal war

Hightstown, NJ boasts a Civil War monument dedicated (in the words of its inscription) to the memory of local men “who gave their lives as a sacrifice for their country and humanity.”  This year the local dignitaries have decided to jazz it up with some Yuletide cheer.

The project, called Lights on the Square, calls for strands of garland lit with different colors to be draped from the top of the monument and anchored on the ground, mimicking the shape of a traditional Christmas tree and establishing Monument Square as an additional town center and holiday celebration site.

The project will start Nov. 25 with a lighting ceremony that will include additional lights in surrounding trees.

Sounds about as classy as a Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer sweater.

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Confederate monument vandalized in Missouri

It’s just spray paint, and some industrial-grade cleaner should take care of it, but still a pretty ignorant thing to do.  Those folks in the Show-Me State are really getting into this stuff, aren’t they?

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The Velociraptor-Chamberlain effect

Check out Gary Gallagher’s list of five overrated Civil War officers (with a tip of the hat to John Fea).  One of them is Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, not because he was a poor commander but because fiction and film have elevated him into the stratosphere of popular memory.

I call this the Velociraptor-Chamberlain effect.  It happens when a work of fiction or film sends a previously obscure subject into the stratosphere of popular imagination.  There were plenty of brave and talented field officers at Gettysburg, but only one got top billing in The Killer Angels and the movie adaptation.

Likewise, up until the 1990′s, Velociraptor was just one of many little carnivorous dinosaurs that rarely got any press.  And with good reason—other than its svelte form (the name means “quick robber”) and formidable claws, there wasn’t anything particularly impressive about it.

Clever girl! Velociraptor mongoliensis compared to a human, from Wikimedia Commons.

Then Michael Crichton came along.  Dinosaur artist Gregory Paul had assigned a larger relative, Deinonychus, to the genus Velociraptor, and Crichton adopted this classification in Jurassic Park.  The raptors in his book were therefore substantially bigger than their real-life counterparts, and formidable enough to take on his human characters.

Steven Spielberg evidently thought that even the beefed-up raptors in the novel were too puny for the big screen, so by the time the raptors made it to Hollywood they were about three times as tall as they had been in the fossil record.  Ironically, after the book came out, scientists identified yet another large relative of Velociraptor, as big as the ones in Spielberg’s film.

I’ve drifted off-topic, haven’t I?  Sorry; I’ve got this thing for dinosaurs.

Anyway, the point is that works of fiction often have a much greater impact on the way people remember the past than the interpretations of the people who study it.  How many monographs on Gettysburg do you think it would take to equal the impression made by Shaara’s novel?  I’d say quite a few.

The other thing that struck me about Gallagher’s piece is the reaction it elicited from readers.  Take a look at the comments; some readers assumed that because Gallagher takes issue with certain evaluations of a few Confederate generals, he must be politically correct and have an anti-South agenda.  Never mind that he included Union commanders in his list, and never mind that he didn’t say one word about the Confederacy itself.  Perhaps the online defenders of True Southronness should set aside the Confederate flag; a doctor’s reflex hammer seems like a much more appropriate emblem for them.

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The Irritation Proclamation

Plenty of historical bloggers have weighed in on VA Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proclamation of Confederate History Month and his subsequent apology for omitting slavery from it: Kevin Levin, Brooks Simpson, Robert Moore, and Richard Williams, for instance.  

The last meeting of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, two eminent Virginia Confederates, on May 2, 1863. From Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park's website.

 

These historical dust-ups normally don’t spill over into more general-purpose news sites, but this one has done just that.  The Washington Post‘s Virginia Politics blog has devoted several posts to the subject.  

Even more interesting is this post from the same paper’s political analysis blog, on whether McDonnell’s gaffe will cost him a position on a national ticket.  The blogger plays it down, but the fact that people are raising the question at all tells us something about the way we’re remembering the Civil War nowadays.  Confederate history, it seems, is quite the political liability.   

This item on the Post blog states that the Sons of Confederate Veterans requested that McDonnell issue the proclamation, and notes that an SCV spokesman “said the governor’s stamp of approval would help the group publicize the month and aide [sic] tourism efforts in the state.”  I didn’t know the SCV was in the tourism promotion business, and I don’t see why a proclamation of “Virginia Civil War History Month” wouldn’t have accomplished the same thing.  In any case I don’t see how a gubernatorial proclamation of any sort would increase visitation to museums and historic sites.  This sort of thing strikes me as a case of giving lip service to promoting historical awareness and heritage tourism with nothing to back it up.   

Having perused a list of the governor’s official proclamations on his website, I’m not convinced that being the subject of one is anything to write home about.  For instance, in addition to naming April Confederate History Month, McDonnell has also proclaimed the same month to be Financial Literacy Month.   

March is pretty busy, with Mediation Month, Kidney Day (note the stirring section following the first “WHEREAS” on that one), Governmental Purchasing Month, and Tornado Preparedness Day.  Rest assured that if by some remarkable coincidence a tornado had struck Virginia on March 16, 2010, her citizens would have been thoroughly ready for it.   

And Virginians of all ages were no doubt wetting their pants in anticipation of Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week back in February.  

If the SCV is so concerned about promoting Virginia history, then let them lobby their state officials to beef up funding for historic sites, the state historical society, and so on.  That would take good deal more effort than convincing the governor to issue a simple proclamation, but it would do far more good.  

Similarly, if the governor wants people to visit his state’s many wonderful historic destinations, he’s in an excellent position to do something about it—but I think a proclamation will do very little toward that end.  Let him take active steps to strengthen historical interpretation and preservation  in the state which he runs.  Let him present a budget to the legislature with robust allowances for the state agencies which serve as caretakers of Virginia’s history.  Let him pledge not to lay off the people who work for these agencies, as so many state executives have done.  Let him implement sincere measures to make Virginia’s historic destinations the centerpiece of the state’s tourism initiatives.  

I don’t think the proclamation of Confederate History Month did either harm or good to the cause of promoting Virginia’s Civil War past.  In fact, I don’t think it has done much of anything, except make a lot of people very upset.

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A sample of Neo-Confederate historiography

Ladies and gentlemen, I submit for your edification a few selections from the catalogue of The Confederate Reprint Company.

  • The Genesis of Lincoln by James Harrison Cathey.  This startling tome informs us that “the man known to the world as Abraham Lincoln was actually the offspring of an illicit relationship between Nancy Hanks and a married man named Abraham Enloe, in whose western North Carolina home she worked as a servant in the early years of the Nineteenth Century.”  Given the well-documented links between an out-of-wedlock birth and a willingness to trample on the Constitution, this could very well change everything we think we know about the Union war effort.
  • The Eugenics of President Abraham Lincoln by James Caswell Coggins.  This enlightening volume explains how “the science of eugenics forever disproves the myth of the sixteenth President’s descent from the near imbecile Thomas Lincoln.”  Eugenics, in case you didn’t know, is the science of improving mankind’s genetic stock by encouraging selective breeding and by weeding out the less-desirable.  (Coincidentally, this book first appeared in 1941, when the German government stepped up their own endeavors in this fascinating field of study.)
  • Why Was Lincoln Murdered? by Otto Eisenschiml.  Eisenschiml “suggests that several top-level Government officials in Washington, particularly Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, may have played important roles in the crime and later covered up their involvement.”  This explains all those mysterious meetings between Stanton, the CIA, Cuban expatriates, and the Dallas mob.
  • The Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan by Stanley F. Horn.  The rousing tale of how “the Klan quickly evolved into an institution of ‘Chivalry, Humanity, Mercy, and Patriotism’ and spread throughout the Southern States to counter the aggression against their people by unscrupulous Carpetbaggers and their vicious Union League cohorts.”

And finally, my personal favorite.

  • A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery by John Henry Hopkins.  An 1864 classic which “proves conclusively that Abolitionism is at odds with, not only the entire history of mankind, but also two millennia of Christian theology.”  What Would Jesus Do?  Apparently nothing.  He’d make somebody else do it.

Operators are standing by!

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