Appalachia and the atom bomb

Today we mark a noteworthy anniversary in the history of the world—and in the history of Appalachia, although I don’t think we really associate the two as we should.

Lots of people know that the enriched uranium in “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima seventy years ago, came from the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge here in East Tennessee.  At the very least, they know that Oak Ridge was involved somehow in the Manhattan Project.  But while plenty of people know of East Tennessee’s connection to the atomic bombing, I suspect they don’t really “get” it.  “Appalachia” connotes backwardness; people think of the mountains as a place of log cabins and hardscrabble farms, not the advent of the atomic age.

Even here in East Tennessee, it seems to me that we tend to see Oak Ridge’s wartime experience as somehow set apart from the rest of our history, as a kind of singular, brief moment in time when we suddenly became relevant before slipping back out of the mainstream.  Because we’ve let ourselves be convinced of our isolation and exceptionalism, we don’t really “own” this instance that proves how wrong those notions of isolation and exceptionalism are.  But Oak Ridge’s history, and thus the history of the atomic bomb and the world it made and unmade, is a part of Appalachian history.

Part of the job of Appalachian historians, I think, is to figure out how to integrate these aspects of the region’s past that don’t fit people’s expectations into a more comprehensive narrative.  Maybe this would help erode some of the simplistic stereotypes that continue to define popular notions of what the region is, and what it isn’t.  East Tennessee’s role in the creation of the atomic bomb might be a good entry point for this sort of thing, but that won’t happen as long as we see it as some singular development in the region’s history that has little to do with the rest of it.

With that out of the way, here are some links in recognition of what happened seventy years ago today.

Shift change at Y-12 in 1945. Department of Energy via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under Appalachian History, History and Memory, Tennessee History

Have public history degree, will travel

One of our Marble Springs staff members is moving on to a position at a Civil War-related site, the T.R.R. Cobb House in Athens, GA. Cobb was a lawyer who figures prominently in Georgia’s legal history, but he’s best remembered as a member of the Confederate congressional committee responsible for drafting the CSA’s constitution and as the organizer of the Georgia Legion.  His military career didn’t last long; he bled to death from a mortal wound received at Fredericksburg, but the Legion went on to serve in many of the war’s bloodiest battles.  I don’t know if he was any relation to Wilbur Cobb of Ren & Stimpy fame, but I desperately hope so.

Anyway, we had a little send-off for our colleague (who we were very sad to lose) a few days ago, and she mentioned that she’s about to start studying up on Cobb’s life and times for her new job.  After years of working on the Tennessee frontier, it’ll be quite a change.

It occurred to me that this is one of the differences between public historians and their academic counterparts.  Academic historians have the tremendous luxury of specialization.  They spend years immersing themselves in the literature and primary sources of a particular field, and their success depends on how well they can navigate within it.  Of course, they’ll end up teaching courses that fall outside their specialization.  When it’s their turn to teach the survey course, they’ll have to have a working knowledge of a tremendous swath of historical knowledge.  And the academic who can rework his or her specialization to fit a particular department’s strengths and expectations will be at a great advantage on a job search.  But if they’re lucky, academic historians will spend much of their time on whatever it is they’ve chosen to study.

Public historians, on the other hand, have to learn to adapt.  Their reading and research will depend much more heavily on the job they find themselves in than on their own inclinations.  Again, the differences aren’t absolute; some public historians will be fortunate enough to find a position that suits their particular interests and expertise, just as some academic historians will find it necessary to adapt quickly to meet the needs of a department looking to hire new blood.  But adaptation is more likely to be a fact of life for the public historian.

A change of job doesn’t just mean a change of zip code and getting to know a new city.  It also means getting acquainted with a new mental geography: new contexts, new historiographies, new themes.  It might mean a crash course in World War I for your first job, labor history for your second, the antebellum South for your third.  One of my former bosses has worked at museums specializing in subjects as varied as the Trans-Mississippi West, the history of firearms, and Abraham Lincoln.  I know people who have been posted at sites dealing with the pre-Columbian Southwest and the Kentucky frontier, Jacksonian canals and the Civil War, twentieth-century education and eighteenth-century Appalachia.

On top of all this, remember that public historians have to be generalists in another sense, too.  They have to be familiar with the tenets of historical research as well as all the practical know-how required to manage a museum or a site: preservation, exhibits, budgets, pedagogy, and so on.

Adaptability and versatility just might be the two most important qualities for the aspiring public historian.  It’s not a career choice for the faint of heart, but if you like learning new things, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

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From women’s history to Ripperology: museum mission creep

From New York magazine:

A former Google diversity head decided he wanted to build a museum dedicated to women’s history in London’s East End, so he submitted a proposal outlining his goals last October. But after the proposal was approved and construction on the museum began, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe promptly switched tactics, and instead decided to build a museum dedicated to the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who exclusively targeted female sex workers. His excuse? Jack the Ripper is less boring than exploring women’s history and accomplishments.

I’ll grant that Jack the Ripper is “less boring” than the social history of women in England, but holy cow.  This is like setting out to do a documentary on the decline of the American auto industry and making Transformers 5 instead.

Opening a museum entails more than hanging a sign out front with the word “museum” on it.  Not every building with immersive galleries, mannequins, a few artifacts, and a gift shop is actually in the historical interpretation business.  There are museums, and then there are what we might more properly call “historical tourist attractions.”  Such attractions are common at gunfighter-related sites in the American West, and they’re all over the place at Pigeon Forge here in East Tennessee.

The Jack the Ripper Museum opens on Tuesday, and then Londoners will be able to see if the exhibits really do interpret the Whitechapel murders in their historical context, or whether this is another of those museums in name only.

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American writers on the road in Appalachia

Atlas Obscura has a really neat feature up that’s well worth your perusal.  It’s an interactive map of famous American literary road trips from the late 1800s to today.  The map traces the journeys of twelve author-travelers across the U.S., with pinpoints for the locations identified in their books.  Click on a point, and you’ll get the writer’s description of that place.

I decided to see what these folks had to say about my own neck of the woods.  William Least Heat-Moon, author of Blue Highways, almost spent the night in my hometown on his way east from Oak Ridge:

I should have stopped at Tazewell before the light went entirely, but no. It was as if the mountains had me.

On his way to Clinch Mountain he would’ve driven right past the Frostee Freeze, a venerable drive-in that’s been serving burgers and milkshakes for almost sixty years.

Least Heat-Moon’s description of Morristown sounds less like the town I know and more like the setting for Dickens’s Hard Times:

Across the Holston River, wide and black as the Styx, and into the besooted factory city of Morristown, where, they say, the smoke runs up to the sky.

He took in some regional history while visiting Tennessee’s oldest town:

The fourteenth state in the Union, the first formed after the original thirteen, was Franklin and its capital Jonesboro. The state had a governor, legislature, courts, and militia. In 1784, after North Carolina ceded to the federal government its land in the west, thereby leaving the area without an administrative body, citizens held a constitutional convention to form a sovereign state. But history is a fickle thing, and now Jonesboro, two centuries old, is only the seat of Washington County, which also was once something else—the entire state of Tennessee. It’s all for the best. Chattanooga, Franklin, just doesn’t come off the tongue right.

And speaking of eighteenth-century history, Blue Highways also has an account of Least Heat-Moon’s tour of Ninety Six, site of a Rev War siege in the South Carolina backcountry.  No passages from that visit on the Atlas Obscura map, though.

Peter Jenkins on the Volunteer State and those of us who live here:

We were grateful to be in green, clean Tennessee. A lot of the natives were shaped just like their state, long and lean.

Thanks, I guess?

Bill Bryson, of whom I’ve never been a big fan, on southwestern Virginia:

I drove through a landscape of gumdrop hills, rolling roads, neat farms. The sky was full of those big fluffy clouds you always see in nautical paintings, adn [sic] the towns had curious and interesting names: Snowflake, Fancy Gap, Horse Pasture, Meadows of Dan, Charity. Virginia went on and on. It never seemed to end.

John Steinbeck and his dog passed through Abingdon, where William Campbell’s Virginians mustered before heading to Sycamore Shoals and the march that led to King’s Mountain.  By that point, Steinbeck was evidently ready to get home:

My own journey started long before I left, and was over before I returned. I know exactly where and when it was over. Near Abingdon, in the dog-leg of Virginia , at four o’clock of a windy afternoon, without warning or good-by or kiss my foot, my journey went away and left me stranded far from home. I tried to call it back, to catch it up—a foolish and hopeless matter, because it was definitely and permanently over and finished.


Filed under Appalachian History, Tennessee History

German America: A colonial counterfactual

Today’s historical thought experiment comes to us courtesy of the eminent diplomat and accomplished ladies’ man Henry Kissinger.

In his massive (but engrossing) history of diplomacy, Kissinger describes how Cardinal Richelieu, that most pragmatic and unsentimental practitioner of seventeenth-century statecraft, redirected European political history.  Richelieu successfully sought to magnify French power at the expense of the Holy Roman Empire.  As Kissinger states, the cardinal “feared a unified Central Europe and prevented it from coming about.  In all likelihood, he delayed German unification by some two centuries.…As a result, Germany developed no national political culture and calcified into a provincialism from which it did not emerge until late in the nineteenth century when Bismarck unified it.”*

Germany, then, did not enjoy the same political unity and economic vigor that other European powers were beginning to enjoy in the early modern period.  One consequence of this, as Kissinger notes in passing, is that Germany “missed the early wave of European overseas colonization.”

Since he’s more concerned with the impact of Richelieu’s statecraft on later European diplomacy, Kissinger doesn’t explore the implications of this notion that delayed unification knocked Germany out of the running as a potential colonial power.  But if you’re an early American historian, it provokes some interesting counterfactual speculation.

Ephrata Cloister, a German religious community founded in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. By Bestbudbrian (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

European political history isn’t my specialty, so I don’t know if a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century German unification was as likely as Kissinger makes it out to be.  But if German unification hadn’t been delayed, would Germany have created its own American empire alongside the New World colonies of the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English?  And if so, what would that German America have looked like?

I’m not sure it’s possible to answer questions like this constructively.  In order to describe a possible German-founded American colony we have to draw on what we know of early modern Germany, but a unified Germany capable of planting American colonies wouldn’t be the early modern Germany we know.  This Catch-22 makes it hard to imagine what the relationship between the colonies and mother country would’ve been like, or what sort of political and economic order would’ve characterized the German colonies themselves.

Of course, a great many German migrants did settle in colonial America, which might offer a basis for thinking about the cultural life of these hypothetical colonies.  But they did so as minorities and latecomers to the English colonies.  Perhaps their experiences would have been quite different had they arrived earlier and lived in settlements founded under German auspices.

Many of the Central Europeans who did settle in colonial America were members of Protestant sects who maintained their distinctive religious identity in the New World, but it seems likely that a more unified Holy Roman Empire would have been able to enforce more religious conformity within its territory.  Religious divisions, after all, contributed to the empire’s lack of cohesion.  A politically unified Germany would probably have necessitated a more religiously uniform nation.

Then again, a religiously uniform Germany might have foisted its religious dissidents off on its colonies.  Perhaps German America would have served as a haven for nonconformists in the same way that English America did.

That’s the thing about these broad historical counterfactuals.  You have to make so many adjustments and account for so many possible variables that it’s easy to strain your tether to the actual history to a point where it snaps, and then you’re not engaged in a historically useful exercise anymore.

And in the end, maybe the presence of German colonies in early America wouldn’t have made that much difference.  The demographic and economic power of English America was considerable, so maybe German colonies would have gotten gobbled up anyway, becoming the cultural, religious, and linguistic enclaves that the eventual German settlements actually were.

*This post is a lot more entertaining if you read this excerpt aloud in your best Kissinger voice.  Go on, try it.


Filed under Colonial America

Battle flag backlash?

Something really unusual happened this afternoon.  I was headed back to my apartment when I met a pickup truck going the other direction with two ginormous banners fluttering from its back: Old Glory and a Confederate battle flag.  I’ve been running around Knoxville for a few decades now, but that was a first.

Come to think of it, I’ve basically spent my entire life in the South, and that was probably only the second or third pickup truck flying a ginormous Confederate flag I’ve ever seen, period.  People whose knowledge of the South is limited to pop culture and what they get from the news probably assume that pickup trucks flying big Confederate flags are ubiquitous down here, but my experience has been otherwise.  Pickups decked out with Confederate flag bumper stickers, novelty plates, decals, and the the like aren’t that uncommon, I guess, but huge, in-your-face flags on poles mounted in the bed are another matter entirely, especially in an urban setting like Knoxville.  Yet today somebody was driving around town with a pretty big Confederate flag flapping in the wind, in the midst of a national debate over that flag’s display.

Of course, one such sighting doesn’t amount to much, but there are other indications that the Confederate flag is becoming really popular all of a sudden.  I’ve always said that most southerners I know are neither strongly in favor of nor strongly opposed to the flag.  It’s just not the sort of thing that comes up in the day-to-day lives of most people.  It would therefore be really ironic if the recent groundswell of support for taking the flag down only ended up prompting a backlash, reversing what would have otherwise been the continuation of a long, slow, gradual decline in regional attachment to Confederate iconography.

Or maybe the uptick in sales noted in the article linked above is just so much statistical noise against a general backdrop of indifference or hostility to the flag on a regional or national scale.  Your guess is as good as mine.

In any case, my question for people who are suddenly rushing to defend southern heritage by buying Confederate flag merch is the same as it was a few days ago.  Wouldn’t southern heritage be better served if you devoted that energy and money to preserving historic sites and objects?


Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

Flags, monuments, and a proposal for proponents of Confederate heritage

While I was on the road the past couple of weeks, a heck of a brouhaha erupted over historical memory, specifically the place of the Confederate flag, Confederate monuments, and the Confederacy generally in contemporary American life.

I was getting snippets of all the arguments on Twitter, but I didn’t really have time to make my usual rounds of the historical blogosphere.  In fact, over the last few weeks, I haven’t been thinking about American history or historical memory as much as I usually do.  Instead, I’ve been enjoying the company of old friends, gorging on good food, visiting places oriented toward non-historical subjects, and going to the movies.  (Well, I’ve actually been going to the same movie, over and over again.)

To tell you the truth, I was pretty glad I had other things to distract me, mostly because I was already weary of the whole thing as soon as I got wind of it.  If you follow the intersections of history, politics, culture, and current events long enough, then you can usually predict the lines along which arguments of this sort are going to run.

The only thing that’s surprised me about this latest Confederacy kerfuffle has been the speed at which it became so widespread.  Usually these debates play out within the context of one particular town or organization trying to figure out what to do with a monument or a flagpole, and the only people who take an interest are the local media, a few heritage groups, and those of us who blog about historical stuff.  With this round, though, it seems like everybody’s in the fray.

Well, for whatever it’s worth, here’s my take.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be uncomfortable about seeing a Confederate battle flag on the grounds of a state capitol, or any other space where it’s implied that a sitting government is wholeheartedly endorsing the ideals on which the Confederacy was founded.  The secessionists were quite explicit about why they were doing what they did, and they did it because they felt slavery was threatened if they remained in the Union.  Slavery was simply the Confederacy’s raison d’être.

This is not to say that every Confederate soldier enlisted or fought to uphold slavery, still less that the desire to preserve slavery and white supremacy lay behind every thought and action of white southerners in the Civil War era.  Nor is it to say that descendants of Confederate soldiers have no business remembering and honoring their ancestors.  But it is to say that without slavery, there would have been no Confederacy.

It is therefore not at all inappropriate to keep statehouse flagpoles Confederate flag-free.

Am I, then, opposed to the display of Confederate flags in any context other than the exhibition of artifacts in museums?  No, I’m not.  I don’t see anything wrong with using the battle flag to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers, or in certain other commemorative settings.  Indeed, I thought the W&L students’ demand to remove the flags from Lee Chapel was a bit much, and I said so at the time.

Nor do I agree with every position that supporters of Confederate de-flagging have taken in the recent brouhaha.  As a preservationist, I’m generally opposed to moving longstanding Confederate monuments.  To me, monuments are more of a historic preservation issue than anything else.  We maintain old structures and works of public art because they have intrinsic historic value, not because we agree with the statements made by their creators.

I think my opinion on old Confederate monuments squares up pretty well with Andy Hall’s post from yesterday, which I heartily commend to your attention:

While I adamantly support the authority of local governments to make these decisions, I’m not sure that a reflexive decision to remove them is always the best way of addressing the problems we all face together. Monuments are not “history,” as some folks seem to believe, but they are are historic artifacts in their own right, and like a regimental flag or a dress or a letter, they can tell us a great deal about the people who created them, and the efforts they went to to craft and tell a particular story.

I think we need to be done, done, with governmental sanction of the Confederacy, and particularly public-property displays that look suspiciously like pronouncements of Confederate sovereignty. The time for that ended approximately 150 years ago. But wholesale scrubbing of the landscape doesn’t really help, either, if the goal is to have a more honest discussion about race and the history of this country. I’m all for having that discussion, but experience tells me that it probably won’t happen. It’s much easier to score points by railing against easy and inanimate targets.

Furthermore, I’ll go ahead and state that I think some of the actions taken in response to this latest round of controversy have been downright asinine.  Banning Civil War video games because the pixelated Confederates are carrying Confederate flags?  That was like something out of The Onion.  (What are video game Confederate troops supposed to carry?  A banner with the Cobra emblem?)

I’ll also happily go on record to denounce vandalism aimed at historic monuments in all cases whatsoever.  It’s not that I don’t understand why these monuments can still arouse strong feelings.  It’s just that, as a preservationist, I cannot get behind any effort to deface historic structures, property, or artworks.

But, as I said, I think it’s eminently reasonable to remove the Confederate flag from state capitols.  And to self-professed defenders of Confederate heritage who are rushing to keep those flags flying, to set up new flags on private property, or to buy up Confederate flag merchandise just to prove a point, I have a proposal.  It echoes an argument I made on this blog five years ago.

Why not direct that energy and money elsewhere and really preserve some heritage?  Instead of defending reproduction flags and buying Confederate emblem merch, use your time and money to preserve actual Civil War land and artifacts.

Sure, you can start a petition urging legislators to keep a piece of synthetic fabric flying from a pole on the statehouse grounds…or you can start a petition urging them to pass legislation keeping historic ground intact, and to fund the facilities where actual relics are conserved and treated.

You can spend thousands of dollars setting up ginormous Confederate flags on private land just to give de-flaggers the middle finger…or you can give that money to an organization that will purchase endangered battlefield land where real Civil War soldiers fought and died.

You can hold a rally to demand that a historic symbol be displayed out of reach and free of any context whatsoever…or you can support museums and archives where genuine historic artifacts are kept in stewardship for all of us and our descendants to enjoy.

Let me submit that the stuff of “heritage” isn’t flying from a modern flagpole or emblazoned on the roof of a toy car.  It’s on battlefield land that’s threatened by development, and it’s sitting in underfunded museums and archives that need money to keep it in intact.

As someone born and raised in the South—someone who loves the South and the people who live here, someone would not live anywhere else—I’d much rather see our historic sites and artifacts preserved so that Americans of all ages, sections, races, backgrounds, and political persuasions can enjoy them and learn from them than see a reproduction flag hanging from a pole.

Wouldn’t you rather rally to keep the real, raw material of history around?

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Filed under Civil War, Historic Preservation, History and Memory