Tag Archives: Reconstruction

Reconstructing ‘Free State of Jones’

The reaction to Free State of Jones among movie critics has been pretty lackluster, but most of the historians I’ve heard from seem to have liked it.  (I liked it, too, for whatever that’s worth.)  I suspect this has to do with the fact that the film’s narrative structure doesn’t adopt many of the conventions of storytelling.

Critics have taken the film to task because the plot meanders, because it seems to lack focus, because it tries to do too much, and because the story just sort of tapers off—it “fizzles out long before it ends,” as one critic put it.  From a filmmaking standpoint, these criticisms make sense.  Narratives aren’t supposed to meander and then fizzle out.  Storytellers are supposed to keep things rolling along until events reach a dramatic crescendo and a full resolution.  In Jaws, when Chief Brody detonates that air tank and sends chunks of great white shark into the stratosphere, you know the movie’s over.

Some historical stories conform to these conventions of dramatic narrative.  Gettysburg establishes a few important characters at its outset, then adds in more and more narrative threads, intensifies, and finally reaches a grand climax of resolution.  That happens to be the way the battle played out, so in that case the filmmakers could follow dramatic convention and be faithful to the events they were portraying.

But that’s generally not the way history works.  One of the writers of the musical 1776 once quoted someone as saying, “God writes lousy drama.”

Free State of Jones hits its crescendo near the middle, as Newt Knight’s struggle against the Confederacy becomes an outright war.  After this comes a long, dispiriting declension, in which much of Knight’s work is undone by the retreat from Reconstruction and the return to power of the same people he fought against during the war.  The movie doesn’t end with an exclamation point or a period, but an ellipsis followed by a question mark.

Having read a lot of reviews of the film, I think critics would have reacted more positively if it had been a more straightforward Civil War film, a story of an insurgency culminating in the Confederate flag coming down in front of the Jones County Courthouse and the Stars and Stripes going up.  True, that narrative would’ve been less choppy and rushed, and it wouldn’t have “fizzled out.”  But Gary Ross made a deliberate decision to take a longer view of the Civil War era, one that includes the reversals of Reconstruction. Regardless of whatever liberties Free State of Jones takes with specific incidents or characters, that decision took guts.

And that, I think, is one reason why historians have reacted to the film more positively than movie critics and audiences.  When you’re dealing with history, you don’t always get a story that conforms to narrative convention.  With history, the story sometimes meanders.  It moves in fits and starts, it doubles back on itself, and it tapers off into uncertainty.  That’s exactly what happened in the case of Reconstruction.  If you consider Appomattox to be the end of the Civil War, then the story makes good narrative sense.  It all gets wrapped up in a neat package, with the various narrative threads resolved, the slaves freed, and the Union back together.  But when you take the long view of the Civil War era—as historians often do and as Free State of Jones does—it’s a story of reversals, marked by lulls in the action.  And it’s a story that does indeed fizzle out, just as the nation’s commitment to the war’s gains fizzled out in the 1870s.

Maybe that story isn’t as emotionally satisfying as the ones people are used to hearing about the Civil War.  But I’m glad we got a movie that told it, even if it hasn’t caught on with critics and audiences.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War, History and Memory

UTK historians are making news

We’re wrapping up another semester at UTK, and our history faculty (both current and emeritus) has been making headlines.

With all the brouhaha over the $20 bill, Jacksonian scholar Dan Feller has been in the news quite a bit lately (like here, for example).  A few days ago he talked to NPR about the tumultuous presidential election of 1824 and how it helped make our modern party system.

Stephen Ash, author of a book about the bloody racial episode in Memphis in 1866, lent his expertise to another recent NPR story, this one about an effort to erect a state historical marker dedicated to the massacre and paid for by the local chapter of the NAACP.  The Tennessee Historical Commission, which oversees the state markers program, approved text for the signage that referred to the massacre as a “race riot.”  Historians and members of the community objected to the phrasing, so the NAACP decided to erect its own signage rather than go through the THC program.  Personally, I much prefer the language on the NAACP’s private marker.  In this case, I think the phrase “race riot” carries connotations that would obfuscate what happened in 1866, whereas “massacre” more accurately conveys the nature of the actual event.

Julie Reed, who taught one of my all-time favorite grad courses, has a new book out.  She examines the Cherokee Nation’s social welfare efforts during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and their influence on U.S. government policy.

Finally, Shannen Dee Williams, whose seminar I had the privilege of taking this past semester, has been appointed to the Organization of American Historians’ Distinguished Lectureship Program.

We’ve got fantastic professors.  I’m lucky to get to learn from these folks!

Leave a comment

Filed under History and Memory, Tennessee History

On the lack of NPS sites devoted to Reconstruction

The National Park Service is undertaking an effort to identify appropriate sites for commemorating and interpreting the history of Reconstruction.  Two participants in the study note that, as of now, the NPS “has not a single site dedicated to that vital and controversial period.”

There’s no denying that Reconstruction is a critically important period that doesn’t get much public attention.  The issues Americans grappled with during Reconstruction are both fundamental and timely.  As the article notes, they include “debates over the meaning of equal protection of the law, over the right to vote, and over the limits of presidential and congressional authority, both in peacetime and in war.”

Over the years, especially during the sesquicentennial, I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan the fact that the Civil War gets a lot more attention than the messy, unglamorous period that followed it.  The drama of the war years has a lot more inherent sex appeal than Reconstruction.  And Appomattox provides a kind of narrative closure that you don’t get with the unfinished business of the 1870s.

But I submit that it’s not just the prejudices of popular memory that have given us so many Civil War parks without a single Reconstruction one.  The thing about agencies that are charged with preserving and interpreting historic sites is that they’re inevitably going to devote most of their resources to those aspects of history linked to specific points on a map.  This is not a shortcoming of such agencies; it’s just a by-product of what they’re set up to do.

Wars, after all, tend to turn ordinary pieces of ground into battlefields, and battlefields are the kinds of historic sites that are naturally suited to preservation, interpretation, and commemoration.  There were plenty of Reconstruction-era developments that were as significant to American history as the Battle of Shiloh, but it’s harder to find sites associated with those developments that you can point to and be able to say, “This is where it happened.”

I can’t think of too many locations where you could tell the Reconstruction story in a holistic fashion, along the lines of the comprehensive approach to the Civil War you get at the new Gettysburg visitor center.  One such site would be Andrew Johnson’s home in Greeneville, TN, which is already under NPS stewardship.  The site of the Colfax Massacre might be another ideal location, but I don’t know how much is left there to preserve and interpret.

Ultimately, I think the fact that there’s been no Reconstruction national park until now has as much to do with these practical issues as it does with Americans’ predilection for forgetting the messy and discouraging chapters of their history.  The NPS isn’t an all-purpose historical interpretation agency.  Its historical activities are linked to places, and some events are just naturally more suited to this sort of location-specific interpretation than others.

Leave a comment

Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

Reconsidering Andrew Johnson

Dr. Paul Bergeron probably knows more about Andrew Johnson than anyone else does, so his newest book ought to be well worth a read.  Check out this article on Bergeron’s work in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

1 Comment

Filed under Civil War, Historiography, Tennessee History

Hess on Lincoln Memorial University and Bergeron on Andrew Johnson

Let me direct your attention to two of this year’s books from the University of Tennessee Press, both of which I’ve eagerly awaited for some time.

First up is Lincoln Memorial University and the Shaping of Appalachia by Earl Hess, which will place the early history of LMU within the context of what was happening in Appalachia during the crucial late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and of the Lincoln apotheosis that peaked around the time of the centennial of his birth.

As regulars of the blog know, LMU is my alma mater, and Dr. Hess is one of the people most responsible for setting me on a path toward a career in history.  Most readers know him for his acclaimed Civil War studies.

Another book to anticipate is Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction by Paul Bergeron, who spent more than a decade editing and publishing Johnson’s papers and is probably the country’s foremost authority on him.  This book promises a more nuanced and balanced appraisal of Johnson than what many histories provide, and may lead to a thorough reassessment of his place in American politics.

2 Comments

Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historiography, Tennessee History