American Civil War

History Majors Make the Civil War “Legible and Searchable” for the Future

“What is a gabion?”

“Where are the Bolivar Heights?”

“What does ‘N. f. r. A. G. O.’ stand for?

“Is that word ‘gout’?”

These kinds of questions were asked every Friday afternoon around 2:30 in Professor Hugh Dubrulle’s office this semester. Why? Four student research assistants—history majors Caitlin Williamson ‘19, Gregory Valcourt ‘19Lauren Batchelder ‘18, and William Bearce ‘19 (from left to right in the photo above)—prepared materials for the research project that will be assigned in History 352: The American Civil War and Reconstruction which Dubrulle will teach next semester (Spring 2018). This project will require students in the course to do research on the 5th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry and write papers explaining the degree to which the regiment’s experiences match up with what current Civil War historiography claims about a variety of topics. These topics will include studies of the regiment’s participation in various battles and biographies of its leading officers. Other papers will look at topics such as desertion, politics, discipline, leadership, recruitment, medicine, and so on.

Why choose the 5th New Hampshire? Dubrulle says there are several reasons: “First, it lost more combat fatalities over the course of the Civil War than any other unit in Federal service. We ought to remember and honor this distinction, but it also raises the following question: what made it possible for this regiment, which was a typical product of its time and place, to compile such an outstanding service record? Second, much primary source material is easily available in local archives or online. Third, there are some excellent secondary sources about the unit in print, particularly Mike Pride and Mark Travis’ My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth (2001).”

Williamson, Batchelder, Valcourt, and Bearce assisted Dubrulle with a number of important tasks, including transcribing letters and entering information from regimental service records into a searchable database. As Valcourt put it, their job consisted of making “the past legible and searchable for the future.” Williamson and Batchelder first transcribed the letters (34 of them) of Pvt. Miles Peabody (born and raised in Antrim, NH) who enlisted in Co. K of the 5th New Hampshire in 1861 at the age of 21. Williamson and Batchelder then moved on to transcribe selected portions of Lieut.-Col. James E. Larkin’s correspondence. A coach painter from Concord, NH, Larkin was mustered in as a 1st Lieut. when the regiment was organized in October 1861. He eventually became the commander of the unit in June 1864.

Both Batchelder and Williamson enjoyed getting to know Peabody and Larkin through their letters. Williamson commented that “I became really attached to the soldiers while reading their correspondence! I felt for them and found myself really invested in their stories that were told over a century ago.” Batchelder also felt an affinity for the men whose letters she read. On occasion, however, she was startled by what they wrote: “A lot of people assume that the Northerners were ‘the good guys,’ but there were times when I transcribed the letters and I would see these people fighting for the Union making a racist comment or saying something completely unexpected.” Such moments made her realize that while she shared a common humanity with these soldiers, they lived in a very different world.

Although Batchelder noted that “some people have the messiest handwriting,” Williamson pointed out that reading handwriting was actually affecting: “There is a lot of emotion in these letters, and much of it is expressed in the handwriting.” Not only that, Williamson felt that reading the letters helped illuminate Civil War history in a striking way that other sources could not. As she put it, the correspondence allowed her to study the conflict more broadly than one might have thought. The letters show “what they [the soldiers] were eating, what they were doing with their time, how they slept, what the weather was like, their experience on the battlefield—along with other important moments, all seen from different perspectives.”

Meanwhile, Bearce and Valcourt scoured Augustus D. Ayling’s Revised Register of the Soldiers and Sailors of New Hampshire in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1866 (1895) for the abbreviated service records of all the men who served in the 5th New Hampshire during the war. They then transferred this information to an Excel spreadsheet that is both searchable and sortable. Arrayed in this fashion, the data can yield all sorts of interesting patterns. For instance, Bearce quickly noticed that substitutes and foreign-born soldiers seemed much more likely to desert than volunteers and the native-born. Valcourt was stunned by the large number of casualties the regiment lost in the last days of the war at the Battle of Farmville (otherwise known as the Battle of High Bridge)—a fight he’d never heard of. Both research assistants recognized that intriguing trends in the data could prove very useful to students writing papers on any number of topics. At the same time, Bearce also saw that the “the quantitative information [from the database] complements the qualitative data from the transcription of letters.” Among other things, “one can use the service records to contextualize the letters and vice versa.” Valcourt was struck by the strange stories “and colorful cast of characters” that seemed to emerge from the spare notes of the abbreviated service records. His favorite person was Oliver Grapes, an original volunteer in the regiment who deserted in July 1863 and, using the alias Oliver Vine, volunteered the next month as a Wagoner in the 3rd Maryland Volunteer Infantry. As Valcourt explained it, “you learn about the ‘small’ people in order to understand ‘big’ people and events.” At the end of the day, though, through the exercise of data entry, Bearce learned how “quantitative history can be, and how the quantitative aspects of history comes to be.” And, of course, both Bearce and Valcourt brushed up on their Excel skills.

Throughout the semester, all of the research assistants were intrigued with finding out “the rest of the story.” Batchelder and Williamson were crushed to learn that Peabody died of illness in November 1864 near Alexandria, VA. They were relieved to learn, however, that Larkin survived the war. Unfortunately, as a result of his military service, he suffered from ill-health, particularly rheumatism, for the rest of his life. Larkin floated between a number of jobs before dying in 1911. From his very different perspective of having dealt with the service records, Bearce was interested in finding out what happened after the war to the soldiers he studied. Noting that Ayling’s Revised Register had addresses for many veterans who had survived to 1895, Bearce stated, “I would really like someone to take on the challenge of doing research using the post office addresses listed in the registry for some purpose. These just seem absolutely tantalizing to me, and I think a paper trying to find out how people adjusted after the war would be very interesting.” One can only hope that future students working with these sources will take on that challenge as well as some of the others presented by the material.

And by the way, what are the answers to the questions above? A gabion is a wicker basket filled with earth and used to shore up fortifications. Bolivar Heights overlooks the town of Harper’s Ferry in what is now West Virginia. “N. f. r. A. G. O.” stands for “No further record Adjutant General’s Office, Washington DC.” And yes, the word in the letter was “gout.”

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

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Grant as the American Ulysses

Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (New York: Random House, 2016).

Scholars have recently sought to rehabilitate Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation. This reputation had suffered from attacks both during and after Grant’s lifetime. His military genius was underestimated and seemed to pale in comparison with the imaginative Sherman and the wily Lee. At worst, the story went, he was a butcher, at best he was a practitioner of attrition, that most repulsive of strategies. There were the stories and rumors about his drinking that seemed to dog him through much of his career. Then there was the widespread corruption associated with his presidency. In the last few years, though, a number of historians have dwelled on his military and political strengths. White’s book is the culmination of these latter efforts.

The best part of White’s biography traces Grant’s pre-war path. The reader encounters some old chestnuts (Grant was an excellent rider) and some new stories (Grant was a voracious reader of novels at West Point—particularly those of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of “dark and stormy night” fame). What White seeks to do in this part of the book is show what Grant learned in these years and what this period did to prepare him for what was to come. It is in this part of the biography that the idea of Grant as a 19th-century American Odysseus is most patent—he traveled, witnessed a great deal, and grew as a person. For instance, during the Mexican War, as a regimental quartermaster, he learned about the significance of logistics, and having served under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott during the conflict, he made a close study of their leadership styles (Grant preferred Taylor). The biography has an intimate feel here that it loses once Grant becomes a historical figure through the captures of Forts Henry and Donelson during the Civil War. To name several examples where this intimacy is most evident, Grant’s relationship to his father and his courtship of Julia Dent are both interesting, not only for what they reveal about these people and the period, but also because of what they show about his character.

White’s coverage of the Civil War years is adequate but it does not always clarify Grant’s special contribution to Union victory. White seems better at describing Grant’s direction of operations (e.g. the Overland campaign and the Siege of Petersburg) than analyzing Grant’s conception of strategy (e.g. his vision of the best route to Union victory, which included, eventually, making war on the Southern nation). It is in this part of the book that T. J. Stiles’ criticism—that White “details mistakes, but not flaws”—becomes particularly apposite.

That problem continues with White’s recounting of Grant’s time as president, especially since he does always provide the necessary context for understanding politics during the late 1860s and early 1870s. Grant is portrayed as a man of good intentions—particularly in relation to Native Americans and African Americans—but White does not always explain how these intentions, particularly in the former case, manifested themselves in policy (although he is quite clear about how Democrats and centrist Republicans held Grant back on Reconstruction policy). In other cases, White is not always clear about the paradoxes of Grant’s policy, particularly in regard to the annexation of Santo Domingo or his attitude toward the gold standard and inflation. According to White, if Grant had flaws, they were tragic ones; for example, as an honorable and decent man, he had difficulty recognizing the possibility that those around him could be dishonorable and indecent (see his relations with Orville Babcock or Ferdinand Ward). Of course, many of Grant’s finest qualities were on display as he lay dying of cancer and wrote what is widely considered a great American autobiography.

A main asset of this book is its recognition that Grant was an extraordinary man who resembled an ordinary one. What White tries to convey to the reader is that Grant’s strength was not merely a matter of intelligence. It was a moral strength that was founded on his honesty, modesty, justness, and moderation (as well as an often overlooked religiosity). This power, often, but not always, allowed him to take the true measure of the world and what it ought to have been far better than many of his contemporaries. If White does not always provide the necessary background or explain all the details, he is nonetheless on the mark when it comes to understanding the subject of his biography.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

New Orleans and Its Disappearing Confederate Statues

One Thing after Another has noticed over the last several months that national politics has crowded just about everything else out of the news. Stories about history’s contemporary relevance or impact are sometimes difficult to find these days. So if you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed the saga now taking place in New Orleans.

In July 2015, in the wake of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, asked his city council to remove four monuments from the city. Five months later, after much public debate, the city council voted 6-1 to do so. Three of the monuments celebrated Confederate heroes: Jefferson Davis (president of the Confederacy), Robert E. Lee (commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia), and P.G.T. Beauregard (a prominent Confederate general born outside of New Orleans). The fourth, the Liberty Monument (erected in 1891), memorialized the so-called Battle of Liberty Place (1874). This armed struggle pitted the Crescent City White League, which sought to settle a disputed election by seating a Democratic governor by force, against the metropolitan police (along with elements of the state militia) which fought to defend a Republican regime associated with racial equality. An inscription added in 1932 explicitly celebrated the battle as a step in the direction of white supremacy.

On Monday, April 24, the Liberty Monument was disassembled. Over two weeks later, on Thursday, May 11, the statue of Davis was removed. The workers who took away the Davis statue wore flak jackets for protection and masks to conceal their identity. Such precautions should come as no surprise; the whole exercise has been incredibly controversial, and the statues have been the scenes of protests as well as counter-protests.

What position should one take on the removal of these statues? One Thing after Another believes that the following interview of Professor David Blight (an expert on the history of slavery and the American Civil War who teaches at Yale while directing the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery) in Slate contains a great deal of good sense:

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/interrogation/2017/05/should_new_orleans_remove_its_civil_war_monuments_historian_david_blight.html

Yes, One Thing after Another understands what its readers have come to expect—that this blog usually refers to articles only to criticize them. This case, however, is different. Blight makes a number of thoughtful points throughout his interview. Anybody who has read this blog’s discussion of Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic will be familiar with several of the ideas that emerge from this exchange. The three most important and relevant ones are as follows.

First, the Confederates fought valorously (much—if not all—of the time) but for a bad cause that was inextricably tied to slavery. One Thing after Another ought to remind readers that such is not merely the verdict of contemporary historians. This blog recalls Ulysses S. Grant’s verdict in his Memoirs (1885), which describes the preliminaries preceding Lee’s surrender at Appomattox:

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

Blight argues, then, that those inclined to defend the memorials ought to admit that the Confederate cause was “deeply flawed or terrible.” However, they ought to also realize that the contemporary South should feel neither shame nor pride for what Southerners did over 150 years ago. As Professor Randy Sparks (a scholar at Tulane University whom the interviewer refers to and with whom Blight agrees) asserts, Confederates were “men of their time and place.”

Second, people need to see, as Sparks argues, that now “is our time, and our place.” We cannot change what our ancestors did, but we can influence the world that our descendants inherit. Much of the controversy surrounding the removal of Confederate statues really has to do with contemporary issues (an argument that Horowitz also makes). For sure, a number of these issues are rooted in the legacies of slavery and the war (e.g the underprivileged position of African Americans today). Still, when people argue about, say, the Confederate battle flag, more often than not, they are projecting today’s concerns on the past. Such debates are often truly about present-day disputes concerning inequality, race, economic opportunity, identity, the basis of community, the limits of government authority, and so on. We ought to have conversations about these issues without making inapt, ahistorical, or anachronistic references to the Civil War.

Third, having recognized these points, we can’t and shouldn’t destroy every Confederate memorial. Attempting to stamp out such memorials would pose to communities questions that admit no easy solution (e.g. Is this or that a memorial? What does it commemorate?). Such a policy would also come to feel oppressive as localities fell under the shadow of a memorial police. As Blight points out, iconoclasm is dangerous because no one quite knows where it will lead. American history without Davis, Lee, and Beauregard would be incomplete, so we cannot erase them from the past. But we can, as Blight suggests, erect “tasteful, important, meaningful new memorials” that show how history has moved on from the Lost Cause fable. In this fashion, we can bring memory and history closer together, an achievement that would prove a public service. Blight refers to the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Memorial on the edge of Boston Common (a patinated plaster cast of which is pictured above) as a possible model for future monuments, and rightly so. If we are compelled to remember Confederate leaders like Davis, Lee and Beauregard, justice demands that we do a better job of representing the complexity of the American Iliad. That task involves publicizing the stories of those who have been pushed to the margins by traditional memorialization of the war (e.g. African Americans, poor Southern whites, and women) but who played such an important role in the conflict.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: Slavery and the 1.6%

The 1.6% and Slavery

The following is a tale of memes, bad history, poor logic, and misleading statistics. It is also a story about how information on Facebook can come unmoored from its original context and find itself applied in startlingly different directions. Above all, this narrative has to do with the way in which parts of the internet have helped perpetuate a culture of partisanship and intellectual sloppiness.

The meme above has circulated on Facebook for some time. One Thing after Another has traveled throughout the internet to find its origins—alas, without success. Like many other images, videos, messages, and memes on the internet, it has metastasized to the extent that it is impossible to locate where this tumor began.

What is clear, though, is that this kind of meme is a product of social media. Social media place a premium on concision, that is, the short, snappy expression of ideas. That is probably why wit, attempts at wit, or what passes for wit, seem to dominate posts on Facebook and, of course, Twitter; as we all know (or should know), brevity is the soul of wit. At the same time, the disposable nature of posts on platforms like Facebook (and particularly Snapchat) make for an environment that is not conducive to real discussion, mindfulness, or thought.

In their sober moments, most people probably understand these problems instinctually. And perhaps one can even realize how the nature of the social media world makes it particularly susceptible to hoaxes and other stupid gambits. Remember that one about how Mark Zuckerberg was going to give away $4.5 million to Facebook users who shared a “thank you” message? But why not latch onto a concrete example that involves history—such as the meme above that has aroused One Thing after Another’s ire?

The meme above is not particularly special. In fact, it is exemplary. It is a product of Facebook. It seems incisive, it sounds authoritative, and it appears relevant. It even cites a source in an official-sounding way. Only the dullest or most uninformed person could fail to catch the progressive message that makes an analogy between the 1.6% of 1860 and those who have been labeled the “1%” today. The rich, so the message seems to say, used us for their own purposes then in just the way that they use us now. Yet, like much else on Facebook, this meme is manipulative when it isn’t misleading. Its facts are wrong, its reasoning is faulty, and the analogy it makes is specious. And yet, when you look at the public’s reaction to this meme, you find that nobody is critical or educated enough to call it out.

We should begin by explaining what is wrong with this meme. Let us start with the 1.6% figure which was supposedly obtained from the Census of 1860. If one divides the number of slaveowners by the total free population of the United States, the figure is actually closer to 1.4%, but that’s not the main problem. Calculating the figure in such a way at all really minimizes the proportion of people who had a stake in slavery. First, determining the number of slaveowners relative to the number of “U.S. Citizens” is beside the point. Slaveowners did not “convince” all Americans “to fight a civil war.” Rather, they ostensibly convinced “the majority of southerners” to take up arms (more about why that statement is problematic later). For that reason, the number of slaveowners should be compared to the number of Southerners. But this issue brings us to a second distortion. If we want to figure out slavery’s true heft in the South, we really ought to establish how many families owned slaves. Doing so would show us how many white Southerners had an immediate interest in slavery. After all, the head of the household was not the only member of the family to value slavery. His wife, his children, and any other dependents had a stake in the institution. Indeed, as his children grew older, they too, in all likelihood, would become slaveowners themselves.

Figuring out what proportion of Southern families owned slaves is really quite simple. The University of Virginia has a Historical Census Browser that allows one to search, map, and calculate figures associated with various censuses (the calculator for the Census of 1860 is here). One Thing after Another has run the figures, but for convenience’s sake, we refer you to Andrew Hall at Dead Confederates: A Civil War Era Blog who has presented them in a tidy table. As you can see, about 31% of the families in the states that seceded owned slaves. The range runs from 49% of families in Mississippi to 20% of families in Arkansas. In some ways, these figures don’t even begin to capture slavery’s centrality to Southern social and economic life. Let us push to the side that slaves were responsible for producing the South’s main cash crops or that slaveowners often rented out slaves to those who did not have them. Let us just focus on the fact that almost a third of families in the Confederate states owned slaves. That figure gives one a much better sense of slavery’s gravity than “1.6%.”

Given these figures, a great number of these slaveowners could not have been “rich plantation owners.” In fact, according to the Census of 1850, half of all slaveowning families owned between one to four slaves. There were great plantation owners with over 100 slaves, but there were fewer than 8,000 families in this position in 1850 (compared to the almost 175,000 families that owned between one and four slaves). Clearly, slavery’s strength did not rest on the power of a few rich men. Rather, its strength was grounded in its distribution among a great many middling men.

This point is confirmed by Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. A very high proportion of men who volunteered to serve in the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia were slaveowners, belonged to families of slaveowners, or had some connection to slavery. “Rich plantation owners” did not need to convince such men to fight; they were already willing to fight. And that fact completely undermines the point of our unfortunate meme.

Such a picture of slavery makes nonsense of the claim that slavery “reduced the value of their [Southerners’] own labor and pay.” Starting with Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974), which was the first work to subject the economics of slavery to serious study, it has become increasingly clear to historians that slavery was very lucrative. That is why so many Southerners bought slaves. If Southerners did not invest in railroads or factories, that was because investment in slaves who could grow cotton was much more profitable. That fact accounts for the enormous amount of Southern capital tied up in slaves during the antebellum period. Confidence in the profitability of slavery was reflected by the fact that the price of slaves was skyrocketing up to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Some of you might read this post and think to yourself, “Congratulations One Thing after Another, are you proud of yourself for destroying a dumb meme?” No, One Thing after Another is not proud. The problem is that you can search the internet far and wide without locating a refutation of this meme. In fact, wherever you find this meme posted, you are sure to see that it has elicited a variety of comments that reveal the degree to which the ideas of historians and the beliefs of the public are separated by an enormous abyss. In other words, the meme seems to evoke historical lunacy and delusions among commenters.

Not only that, but the misinformation associated with this meme has spawned other inaccurate memes that repackage the “facts” in a very different interpretive framework.

The 1.6% of whites

If our initial meme was progressive in outlook, its offspring leans in a very different direction which is just as mistaken and just as dangerous (if not more so). What further memes will this meme generate? Where does it all end? How can academia counter the rapidly pullulating mass of memes that apparently pass for education on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest? By writing a blog post?

History Majors from the Passages Program Remember Gettysburg

Passages Program Gettysburg

This summer, three incoming history majors got the opportunity to travel to Gettysburg, PA with other incoming students and several upperclassmen as part of Student Activities’ Passages program.

One Thing After Another sat down with freshman participants Jacob Bass, Drew Collins, and Tim Siracusa, as well as senior Kristen Van Uden, who led the trip along with senior Liliana Kane, junior Mike Schmidt, and Dr. Karlea Joiner, Assistant Dean of Students.

The students’ busy itinerary began with a battlefield tour led by two enthusiastic park guides, highlighting the major points of the battle.  “My favorite part of the trip was definitely touring the battlefield. Standing on the ground where one of the most important events in American history took place [was] such a surreal feeling” said Tim. The battlefield is extensive, and so the tour could not be entirely comprehensive, but the group focused on Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge, and the site of Pickett’s charge. Seeing the grounds of these famous events provided the students with a more authentic understanding of the battle. “We were able to connect with the actual place in a way that cannot be achieved through any amount of reading or study” Kristen observed. “One of the most interesting parts was when we were driving through a field that was filled with about 50 vultures. Our guide explained that in the days after the battle, the entire area would have been flooded with vultures, just like we were seeing right in front of us. It makes sense, but you don’t often think about disturbing facts like that when contemplating the more military side of the battle.”

The group then returned to the retreat center where each night they cooked family-style meals as a group, went swimming, relaxed on the porch, and played games on the lawn.

That night, they went on a ghost tour of downtown Gettysburg. The guide lit the way through the narrow streets with a lantern, accentuating the eerie atmosphere. There was even a full moon. . . .  So did you see a ghost? The students apparently could not come to a consensus.

The next day the group traversed three states in one hour to see Harper’s Ferry, the site of abolitionist John Brown’s famous 1859 raid. The buildings Brown seized have since burned down, but the students saw the arsenal where he was captured by J.E.B. Stuart who was then only a first lieutenant. In addition to information about the raid, the living history site educates its visitors about 19th-century economics. It is also a little-known fact that there was actually a Civil War battle around the town in September 1862. There were several museums in Harper’s Ferry detailing the stories of the main players in the site’s colorful history. Jacob remarked that these personal stories, as well as the ones featured at the Gettysburg museum, helped him to really connect with the people involved and made him wonder about the stories of his ancestors who fought in the Civil War.

The students finished the day with a lazy tubing trip down the Shenandoah River.

On their last day in Pennsylvania, the group explored the downtown Gettysburg area, spending time shopping and trying to meet the challenge the battlefield guide had set out for them: to locate all nine artillery shells that were still lodged in buildings. They toured the David Wills house, where Lincoln stayed after he delivered the Gettysburg Address. They later visited the cemetery where the Address was given. Kristen describes the impact of visiting the cemetery: “The number of graves, especially of unknown soldiers, was almost incomprehensible. Then you learn that the Union army refused to bury Confederate soldiers in this cemetery, so multiply that number by at least two. It forces you to really come to terms with the scope of the battle.” Some of the students were able to see the grave of Jennie Wade, a young woman who was killed by a stray bullet while baking bread at a friend’s house in downtown Gettysburg. She was the only civilian killed in the battle.

Tim originally signed up for the trip to see new places and learn more about his favorite subject. “The main reason I was interested in the trip was that I am a history major. As much as I enjoy American history, my knowledge of the Civil War era is somewhat weak, so I thought it would be a good learning experience.” What started as a potentially fun adventure and an opportunity to travel and meet new people quickly became an unforgettable and cherished experience. Jacob says that the best part was “being able to meet new people, including one of my best friends.” These shared memories have translated into daily life on the Hilltop.

Having had an encounter with experiential learning has definitely kept these students’ love for history alive. Classes are going great so far, and they are excited for what the semester brings.

Memory in the Former Confederate Capital

Jackson Honor Guard

After our last post about memory and the Confederate battle flag, Casey Breslin ’11, one of our history majors, who has recently moved to Richmond, Virginia, offered to write a post about what he discovered there when he contemplated the town’s history. One Thing after Another was happy to accept his submission–and his photograph above of Confederate re-enactors patrolling around the Jackson monument on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.


Richmond, Virginia, is a city on the rise. Young people flock to it because the cost of living is cheap, the job market is decent, and the atmosphere is everything a young twenty-something could want in a city to start a career. Whether it is a locomotive factory that has been converted into a movie theater or a developer who has transformed an old feedbag factory into an apartment building, Richmond has a unique strain of entrepreneurship that seems to incorporate the past by repurposing it for current ventures.

It is an artistic and musical city (the metal band Lamb of God is based in Richmond) and according to NBC news, it is the third most tattooed city in America with 14.5 tattoo parlors per 100,000 people. Many of the younger residents sport the hipster look and could easily be cast as extras in IFC’s Portlandia. Luckily, they remain and thrive in this diverse southern city. Trade publications and consumer reports consistently rate Virginia’s capital city as one of the most business-millennial-friendly cities in the United States.

Yet, within this cosmopolitan and forward-looking environment, there are many reminders of the four bloody years when the states were not united under one flag. The state capitol of Virginia once served as the capitol for the Confederacy. Its capture, along with that of the Shenandoah Valley (the Confederacy’s bread basket), was the operational goal of the Federal Army of the Potomac. Few other areas in the continental North America were more affected by war than the 100-mile radius surrounding Richmond. To commemorate the Virginian lives that were lost, the city is littered with monuments, museums, and memorial plaques—to the Confederacy.

I recently moved to Richmond and had visited it every weekend for almost a year before that. When I got to know the city, I barely noticed the monuments at first. I was excited to be closer to many of the battlefields but didn’t notice the men being commemorated at first. Sure, they are quite large and often have infuriating traffic circles around them, but Monument Avenue is flanked on either side by historic multimillion-dollar homes and townhomes. In effect, Monument Ave is somewhat of a sensory overload, and the monuments, however impressive , do not command the full attention of one driving by in a car.

I first took real notice of the monuments during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in 2015. While walking along, I saw Confederate soldiers, with fixed bayonets I might add, marching around the perimeter of the Stonewall Jackson Monument.

I did a quick Google search and realized that I was down in Richmond on Lee-Jackson Day Weekend. This Virginia state holiday is celebrated on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Established in the late 1880’s to commemorate Robert E. Lee’s birthday, Jackson’s name was added to it for his birthday in 1904, and then it was merged with Martin Luther King Jr Day in 1983. In 2000, they were formally split, and have since been celebrated separately, but on the same weekend.

The obviously awkward juxtaposition of legacies demonstrates a perfect conflict, once again, the various levels of city, state, and federal government. The legislature in the state house located in Richmond instituted these holidays celebrating the lives of two of the finest Confederate generals, yet Richmond as a municipality declines to celebrate it: no parades, no wreath laying, no services. Many other municipalities in Virginia have elected not to observe it as well. Any commemoration in Richmond proper is done by private citizens like reenactors in the picture. Virginians from across the state meet in the capital building to write laws, yet the city government has since declined, or if I want to be really cute, nullified that potential political football. Imagine that! It appears that in the last few years, Richmond residents are aware of the tensions this holiday can inspire and have chosen to ignore the state’s intention.

Given the tragic event in Charleston, South Carolina, last month, non-observance of the Virginia state holiday on Richmond’s party is the right choice. Once again, state governments must decide how to remember the Civil War in a way that accounts for all of the human suffering that constituted the Civil War. Richmond, as a city, has struck the correct balance as of late.

As mentioned earlier, the 100-mile radius around Richmond was changed forever, and many of the young men who lived there never returned home. I can say with charity and sincerity that it must have been more difficult to accept the outcome of the war living this city, because the reminders were everywhere. On the other hand, a printer from Concord, NH could go home to a similar life. A sensible person can realize this, even while keeping in mind the vile peculiar institution which ended as a result of the war and those who fought to codify and preserve it forever. Memory has blended in with the fabric of this city, much the same way as historic buildings have been renovated to fit current commercial needs.

The monuments in Richmond are large and impressive, but at the same time they are only really visible to people who are actively looking for them and want to remember. Not everyone who comes here is a Civil War buff like me-it’s just a city that has a big Wells Fargo building downtown. In the hustle and bustle, monuments are easily lost. Like so many of the historic parts of Richmond, the monuments are there if you look, but blend perfectly in if you do not—even if some of them have traffic rotaries near them. Many are placed on grass dividers that separate the sides on Monument Avenue, and college students from Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond are often found there playing corn hole and engaging in various types of open container violations. Clearly they aren’t active Confederate sympathizers, and from what I can tell, no neo-Confederate forces have mustered to stop them.

The Confederate battle flag is not near or attached to the monuments, unless people bring it there—which has happened. There are also people who have used the battle flag to protest the lack certain memorials and plaques in part of the city. The feeling towards these people is that they are the dying embers of a far less polite generation. I am not prepared to level charges of racism because I do not know any of them. However, some of these protests are regularly held in an area not far from a synagogue and a historically black church, and I find a certain lack of sensitivity there. A red banner calls attention to itself in a way that violently clashes with the more muted and reserved presence of the monuments.

Richmond still maintains the White House of the Confederacy and the Museum of the Confederacy. These are excellent sites to visit, and they do not wave a politically charged flag for all to see. Rather, they explain to those who wish to know what that flag meant to those who carried it. Everyone benefits from that clear spirit of compromise, and it can hopefully be instructive to similar southern cities who wish to make their streets more welcoming to all southerners.

This is not to suggest that Virginia as whole has no more issues to wrestle with in terms of its Confederate past, or that is has somehow escaped Jim Crow. Far from it, actually. Route 1 is also known as the Jefferson Davis Highway, and this name is currently protested heavily in the more liberal parts of Northern Virginia. Monument Avenue also has a monument to Jefferson Davis, not exactly someone who was on the ground fighting it out with the average soldier. In my Yankee mind, his monument is the hardest to accept. However, in the nineties, one of Richmond’s finest sons, Arthur Ashe, was added to Monument Avenue. The addition of this African-American athlete sparked all the predictable protests and racial tensions. Of course, no monuments have been erected remembering slaves who formed the backbone of the Virginian economy for so many years.

For now it seems, a live-and-let-live approach has the tacit approval of Richmond residents, even if there is a disparity in who exactly is actively remembered. The monuments blend into this busy city, and for the most part, do not disrupt the daily life of your average pedestrian. Those who have waved the Confederate battle flag in protest strike a dissonant note, and when they gather, I can see members of a younger generation view them with embarrassment and annoyance while accepting their right to assemble peacefully. The closest thing to a Confederate soldier these days in Richmond, ironically is the gaunt, bewhiskered peace-loving hipster. He uses his disposable wealth to buy what look like rags, silly felt caps, and he often declines to wear shoes. If you put an Enfield in his hands, however, he’d look like a Confederate private, ready for a forced march around the Federal left flank.

The Confederates in Our Attic: Memory and the Confederate Battle Flag

Digital scan of 4x5 transparency.

As you may recall, on June 17, Dylann Roof, a young, white racist, shot and killed nine African Americans at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Before the murders, Roof had taken photos of himself (posted on Facebook and a personal web site) holding a Confederate flag. In other images, he wore a jacket that had patches of the South African and Rhodesian flags from the apartheid era. The apparent close connection between Roof’s racism, the murders, and the flags led to renewed calls that the Confederate battle flag be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state house where it had been flying since 2000 (before that point, it had flown atop the capitol dome for the previous forty years). After both houses of the state legislature voted to remove the flag and the governor, Nikki Haley, signed the legislation, the banner was lowered for the final time on July 10. The debates in the legislature and discussions in the press revolved around the meaning and significance of the Confederate flag. In other words, this controversy involved history and memory.

For a blog that drones on and on about history and memory (witness our last post), One Thing after Another has been conspicuously silent about this matter until now. This blog usually uses an online essay as a point of departure for its own meditations, but in this particular case, One Thing after Another has not found anything to its liking. This blog suspects that the lack of suitable material has something to do with the shortcomings of modern journalism. For one thing, journalists do not have proper backgrounds and article-length pieces do not provide sufficient space to treat a complex topic of this sort. For another, much journalism has become a matter of point-scoring rather than an attempt to tease out the complexity of various issues.

Fortunately, through a strange conjunction of circumstances, One Thing after Another has found a very useful work that helps make sense of the question: Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998). Horwitz, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, spent a great deal of time overseas covering a series of wars before returning to the United States.  Confederates in the Attic starts and concludes with a meditation on Horwitz’s own fascination with the Civil War (as a child, he painted a mural of the conflict in the attic of his boyhood home—hence the title of the book). Most of the work, however, is a travelogue that describes Horwitz’s attempts to understand how Southerners remember the conflict and what it means to them. Horowitz visited most of the former Confederate states and spoke to a wide variety of people. These included reenactors, museum curators, white supremacists, municipal officials, members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy/Sons of Confederate Veterans, National Park Service rangers, community activists, teachers, and even strangers in bars, to name just a few. For the most part, Horwitz’s interviewees were everyday people, but he did have an eye for the unusual and fantastic. Among others, he spoke to Robert Lee Hodge, a “hardcore” reenactor who, in his quest for authenticity, never washed his Confederate uniform and oiled his beard with bacon grease; Alberta Martin, who was then considered the last surviving Confederate widow; Melly Meadows, a well-known Scarlett O’Hara impersonator who was a favorite among Japanese tourists; and Shelby Foote, a native of Mississippi who wrote a best-selling history of the Civil War and appeared in Ken Burns’ famous documentary on the conflict.

By turns, the book is funny, informative, depressing, and reflective. The beauty of this travelogue is that Horwitz does not tell his readers what to think. For sure, his sympathies are clear (Northern victory was a good thing, and racism has no place in the modern world), and he subtly pushes certain themes to the fore. Nonetheless, he displays a fair amount of empathy with his interlocutors as he allows them to tell their stories. What emerges from this book is a complex picture of Southerners’ relationship to the Civil War. The South is perhaps the most distinctive yet misunderstood region in the United States. It is often referred to as the “Solid South” to describe its political unity, but as Horwitz reveals, the area contains an enormous diversity of opinion; Southerners think of the war and the Confederacy in wildly different ways. As Horwitz encounters everything from members of the Ku Klux Klan to those who would prefer to ignore the war altogether (or who have even forgotten it), it becomes clear that the memory of the conflict frequently has little to do with the conflict itself—indeed, it has everything to do with what is happening now. For white supremacists, the flag is about halting integration and preserving the white race. For businessmen and municipal leaders, the Confederate past represents an economic opportunity. For those left behind by the economy, Confederate heritage is a way of holding onto a distinct identity associated with traditional, community-oriented values in the face of a rapacious capitalism often identified with the Yankee. For reenactors (especially the “hardcore”), the war, crazy as it might sound, is a portal that allows them an opportunity to travel in time. For those interested in genealogy, the knowledge that a great-great-grandfather fought in the conflict provides a thrilling connection to the greatest event in American history—one in which they feel pride as they contemplate the prowess of Confederate arms. For conservative politicians, the Confederacy is about states’ rights and the necessity of halting Federal encroachments on individual liberties. For Southerners fatigued by the way in which the rest of the country caricatures them, the Confederacy has become a kind of ideal that they can use to counter those stereotypes. For those in Fitzgerald, Georgia (you’ll have to read Horwitz’s book), the war’s main meaning is associated with reconciliation. For progressives, the Confederacy is an embarrassment. The list could go on and on. For sure, all of these categories overlap to some degree, but the war’s meaning varies from person to person, and it would seem that the significance of the Confederate battle flag, like any other symbol, is mutable and multifarious.

Of course, when it comes to memory of the Confederacy in the South, the most profound division exists between whites and African Americans. Although, unsurprisingly, African Americans tend to see the Confederacy in a dim light, Horwitz finds a surprising diversity of opinion among this community. One of the things that Horwitz finds most disheartening about this division between whites and blacks, though, is that de facto racial segregation is reflected in mutually irreconcilable interpretations of the war. Up to a point, he argues, there is a “live-and-let-live” stance toward the Confederacy in which each side remembers the past in its own ways but has ceased dialogue with the other. This attitude is reflected in the expression “You Wear Your X, I’ll Wear Mine.” For blacks, “X” stands for Malcolm X and an increasing intolerance of white privilege. For whites, “X” is the St. Andrew’s cross or saltire of the Confederate battle flag.

Paradoxically, in light of this profound division, Horwitz also finds that memory of the war is fading among a younger generation of both Southern whites and blacks. This development is both positive and negative. On the plus side, the baggage associated with the war seems to have diminished, presenting the possibility that one source of division in Southern society might dissipate. On the minus side, this forgetting is part of an increasing ignorance of history that leaves younger people less equipped to deal with contemporary social issues and more vulnerable to the fabrications of various crack-pots. For Horwitz, this forgetting is symbolized by the degree to which malls, box stores, fast food restaurants, and residential developments have encroached upon Civil War battle sites and, in some cases, completely overrun them.

At the end of the day, the big, difficult question that requires resolution is whether the Confederacy or some part of it really can be celebrated. Is it possible that the Confederate experience can provide the South with a usable past? Horwitz himself asks this question without providing an answer. Ulysses S. Grant, who was a sensitive and perspicacious observer, got to the heart of the matter in his Memoirs (1885) when he described the preliminaries to Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox:

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

As we contemplate the Confederacy, then, we must ask ourselves if it is possible to separate a heroic struggle from a bad cause. And that is one of the most important questions we can mull over as we think about the Confederate battle flag.