Historical Memory: Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan

Apparently politicians rarely learn from the mistakes of their fellow politicians.

Take Georgia state representative Tommie Benton, who on Thursday told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Ku Klux Klan “made a lot of people straighten up.”

Like this?


“I’m not saying what they did was right,” he added. “It’s just the way things were.” But he believes that the Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”

On Friday Democratic lawmakers struck back.

If nothing else, Representative Benton’s declaration transforms Hillary Clinton’s comments earlier this week concerning Reconstruction (and the response to them) into a minor kerfuffle.

I can’t wait for the people who whine that I talk too much about historical memory and heritage to protest that I should keep away from those subjects in favor of “safer” topics. The fact is that if this is how people remember the past, they will use those understandings in the present to shape our future … and I for one don’t care for an America in which people say that the KKK’s purpose was “to keep law and order.” Its purpose was to maintain white supremacy through violence and terrorism, and to thwart the promise of emancipation by any means necessary.

That someone characterizes an effort to denounce actual terrorism as “cultural terrorism” stuns me. That the same person also has proposed another bill that “would require streets named in honor of veterans that have been renamed since 1968 [to] revert back to their original names” suggests what a hypocrite he is when it comes to “cultural terrorism.” Clearly 1968 is no accident: it’s the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered.

You bet this is a fight over history and memory. It’s going to say much about us as a society if we celebrate domestic terrorists while mocking the struggle for liberty, equality, justice, and opportunity. And if condemning such behavior leads to critics calling me some leftist socialist Marxist fascist academic, so be it. At least then we’ll know where they are coming from.

Hillary Clinton’s Clarification: More Confusion?

As you might have expected, Hillary Clinton issued a clarification of her controversial remarks about Reconstruction, made in the context of her speculation on what might have happened had Abraham Lincoln not been assassinated:

HRC clarification

Nice try, but strike two.

Ms. Clinton’s statement now indicts the federal government, saying it gave up too soon, and its lack of persistence “led to a disgraceful era of Jim Crow.”

That this was due in part to the behavior of “defiant” white southerners, including terrorist activity, is a link she’s unwilling to make, although one can make it when she reminds us about “racist efforts against Reconstruction.” How exactly a president could achieve “equality, justice, and reconciliation” while protecting black rights — not exactly a good way to reconcile white southerners — remains unanswered. Nor does her response consider the role played by the racism of some white northerners, most of whom were Democrats (that might take more explaining).

We’ve been over this before: it’s rather difficult to envision a policy that would have successfully sought both equal rights for blacks and reconciliation with southern whites. That the federal government Ms. Clinton blames was first headed in the postwar years by someone who led “the racist efforts against Reconstruction” when it came to black rights is also omitted. It’s also wishful thinking to speculate about what Abraham Lincoln would have done (to say that he would not have been Andrew Johnson doesn’t get us very far).

No one expects Hillary Rodham Clinton to be a Reconstruction historian. One could even forgive her verbal fumble and vagueness. Now, however, we have a more considered statement, and it is also problematic.

She would have been smarter to have had Harold Holzer speak for her. Really. No doubt he and others may have learned something from the troubles of Tony Kushner.

Hillary Clinton’s Reconstruction Misstep

As I’ve said before, politicians often mangle history in an effort to show how much the know, only to remind us of how much they don’t know or how willing they are to twist the story of the past to fit present needs.

Here we go again.

Last night, at a Democratic town hall, Hillary Rodham Clinton shared her understanding of Reconstruction in answering a question about which president inspired her most. She responded with Abraham Lincoln. Then she explained how Reconstruction would have been better had Lincoln lived … that is better for “southerners.”

(Someone pointed out that Clinton said “people in the South.”)

It’s clear from the context that she’s confused, because while she mentions Jim Crow and segregation, her reference to southerners/ “people in the South” points to the people who instituted those policies, and not to the freedpeople. Blacks were discouraged. Many whites were defiant.

(Note: blacks were also defiant in defending their rights, but that’s another story.)

It did not take long for people to pick up on the comment and criticize it (this link includes tape of the answer). Among those who did so was Ta-Nehisi Coates, who linked to this blog in offering his answer.

Nor did it take long for that well-renowned friend of presidents and Democratic politicians, Harold Holzer, to jump to the defense of the former senator from New York. This was not entirely unexpected: I recall how Holzer once delivered a banquet address on presidents he had known which sounded more like a talk on the presidents who were fortunate enough to have known him.

Holzer claims: “All she was saying — maybe a bit awkwardly, but, I think, sincerely and justifiably — is that a leader of Lincoln’s extraordinary abilities and patience might well have found the means of empowering formerly enslaved persons, granting them rights, and bringing the defeated white Southerners into alignment with these righteous new policies.” That’s excellent spin.

Just another day in the neighborhood.

Roads Not Taken: Thomas Fleming on American Slavery

Thomas Fleming, author of several books, including an overview of the coming of the Civil War, declares that (white) Americans set aside several paths to end slavery in the United States in a most interesting article.

Among his conclusions:

–(White) Americans missed a great opportunity to get rid of slavery through gradual compensated emancipation followed by colonization, as offered by Lincoln.

–This failure was sue in large part to the sectionalization (and thus concentration) of slavery. As Fleming argues, James Madison “concluded that a national solution to the problem of slavery could be found in one word – dispersion. By allowing slavery in all the new states beyond the original thirteen, the federal government would gradually make it a minority issue, which could be eliminated state-by-state, as it had been in the first round of emancipation in the original northern states.” Thus limiting slavery preserved it where it still existed.

–According to Fleming, “The South’s embrace of slavery was not rooted in greed or a repulsive assumption of racial superiority. Two thirds of the plantations in the South had black overseers – talented black men to whom the plantation owners gave the responsibility of raising and selling their crops. Numerous other plantation jobs that required skilled labor were also performed by black men.”

–Fleming concludes, “If enough Americans – white and black – understand how we created this perfect storm of opposing good intentions, perhaps we can begin the struggle to achieve mutual forgiveness.”


Fumbling the Heritage … and Homer

At Dead Confederates Andy Hall recently highlighted another fumbling of Confederate heritage by its most impassioned advocates. This time the effort betrays an ignorance of American art as well as Civil War history.

Here’s the post, which appeared on the Facebook group “Defending the Heritage”:

DH Homer spoof

I’m sure this post came from the heart. And I’m sure many people actually understand the emotions that drives certain people’s passion for the Confederacy. And I’m sure that someone believes this is all somehow a deprivation of civil rights (Confederate heritage advocates are experts on the issue of depriving people of their civil rights).

But it’s just wrong.

This is not a painting of long-suffering Confederates by an unknown artist. Rather, it’s Winslow Homer’s 1871 painting of Union soldiers in camp, supposedly based on Homer’s observations in the spring of 1862 during the Yorktown campaign.

DH Homer MMA

The painting itself betrays a refashioning of history: although the barrel in the foreground displays a corps badge, those badges were not introduced until later, first by Phil Kearny for his men, followed by a more widespread systematic employment starting in 1863. A closer look at the soldiers (as well as the row of horses in the background) betrays that they are cavalrymen. Moreover, the sketch upon which the painting is based would have to have been made in late April or early May 1862, for the 61st New York, the regiment supposedly related to the corps insignia in question, was transferred to the Peninsula at that time, just before the siege of Yorktown ended (Homer included the regiment and its former commander, Francis C. Barlow, in another well-known painting). While a sketch of the mule survives, one might venture that other efforts to date and place the scene portrayed by the painting are at best suggestive but problematic, and that the trifoil on the barrel is really what one nowadays calls an “Easter egg.”

Perhaps the MMA will have a Civil War art expert examine the painting more carefully.

Homer knew how to paint haggard and hungry Confederates, but he did not do so here. But we must remember that it’s not the only time Confederate heritage advocates have mishandled images in service of their cause, and frankly this is not nearly the most serious case.

After all, it’s heritage, not history.

Erasing History? Monuments and Memory

The year 2015 saw impassioned debates over whether to remove monuments to prominent Americans now deemed to be fatally flawed for one reason or another, as well as other monuments glorifying events now seen to be embarrassing or shameful, such as the monument in New Orleans commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874. There have been impassioned debates for and against the removal or relocation of such monuments, with at least as much heat as light being generated.

One of the claims we hear by people opposed to the removal or relocation of such monuments is that to undertake such actions is to “erase” history. Apparently, the existence of a particular monument is an explanation of history that is timeless. Such a claim betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of history, the relationship between history and memory, and the role monuments play in marking and expressing historical memory.

First, let’s remember what history is … and what it is not. History is not the past: it is a reading of the past that inevitably is also an interpretation of it. That’s right … historical narrative, however expressed, is inherently interpretive, marked by what it includes, what it omits, what it values, and what it emphasizes. There is no such thing as “just the facts” history, nor is that history “objective.” After all, in determining what facts to include, you exclude others, and an honest historian will have to admit that some “facts” are simply not recoverable. Carol Reardon reminds us of this very simple premise in her fine book exploring the Confederate assault on the Union center along Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. What you call that charge is in itself an act of interpretation. Is it Pickett’s Charge, the Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble attack, or Longstreet’s assault … or something else? As Reardon suggests, even simple questions defy easy answers. When did the Confederate artillery bombardment begin? How long did it last? How many cannon participated? What damage did it inflict? Try giving me a “just the facts” answer to any of those questions that goes beyond vague assertions and carefully qualified wording.

History is a creative act undertaken by human beings seeking to understand the past, both on its own terms and for the light it may shed on present issues … and often the questions asked by historians about the past reflect present concerns. This is evident when it comes to battlefield preservation and interpretation, for example. The Gettysburg battlefield is a narrative that’s an exercise in historical interpretation. You can see that in the monuments and markers that populate the battlefield, in the choices of what to preserve and how, and so on. Anyone who ventures there simply to learn the facts will be sorely disappointed, in part because it depends what facts one wants to learn. This became evident two decades ago when people began talking about the need to explain why there was a battle at all and what impact it had on the civilian population, black as well as white. Some people wanted to limit their understanding of “the facts” to the battle itself as an exercise in killing between two groups of organized armed men, as if it was simply a sporting contest. Yet the “sporting contest” analogy sells short one’s understanding of the importance of sporting events: a history of Super Bowl III that simply focused on the game that took place in the Orange Bowl on January 12, 1969, would be poor history when it comes to assessing the importance of that contest.

History is not erased: it is rewritten. Yes, it is revised, and it is revised all the time … because we learn more about what happened (look at the use of archaeology on battlefields such as Little Big Horn), because we have new questions to ask, because we test older interpretations that we now find wanting, and so on. Ranting about “revisionist” history misses the point that all history is revisionist (and people who rant about it do so because their particular understanding of history is now being challenged). There are interpretations fashioned by scholars who do their best to be fair and who employ evidence skillfully, and there are interpretations that are drowning in bias and incompetent displays of the the historian’s craft, so simply to say that all history is subjective simply doesn’t tell us much. It’s a bit more complicated and difficult than that.

And so we turn to monuments. Monuments reflect an interpretation of the past that in most cases meet the creators’ desire to remember a person or an organization or an event in a particular way. Take, for example, the equestrian statue of Winfield Scott Hancock on East Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg. Why is it there, and not somewhere along Cemetery Ridge, where Hancock did much to contribute to Union victory? Why did the sculptor pose Hancock as he did? Answering those questions involve how people wanted in remember Hancock as well as how they wanted to interpret his service (in contrast, few people recall that Hancock is also featured on the Pennsylvania monument not far from his scenes of greatest service on July 2 and 3).

Or take the monuments to Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., facing each other across the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC. The Jefferson Memorial was erected during a time of Democratic resurgence in American politics where Jefferson’s reputation was on the rise, and it celebrates him as a great Democrat as well as a great democrat. Other aspects of his life were slighted or ignored altogether, as Martin Luther King, Jr., might point out. Yet the same is also true of the King Memorial. Erected at a time when Americans chose to celebrate a certain version of King as enshrined in the “I Have a Dream” speech of August 1963, it has much less to say about the Vietnam war that King came to oppose, a war remembered a short walk northwards from his memorial. We want to remember people in a particular way, and that’s that. In the future, other people may disagree, and I have no more right to claim that my interpretation should prevail because it’s “history” and to challenge it is to “erase history” than someone else does to tell me that I can’t challenge what they choose to remember or how they want to remember it because to do so is to “erase history” or is an exercise in “political correctness.” Need I remind you that Stone Mountain and Birth of a Nation are also exercises in political correctness for their time, as are the inscriptions on the monuments erected by several southern states in honor of the service of their state’s Confederate forces at Gettysburg?

Note: ranting about “political correctness” is best read as “I can’t really deal with the merits of your interpretation, so I’ll deride it largely because it doesn’t reinforce my own preferences and prejudices.”

Monuments are primarily commemorations and expressions of historical memory. As such, they are time-bound, not timeless. They are much more about the people who erected and dedicated those monuments than about the people and events they commemorate. As times change, as values change, as perspectives change, and as people change, they will view those monuments differently. In some cases, they will come to question whether those events still need be commemorated, or whether they should be commemorated in the same way. The past does not get to tell the present what to think about the past, and to defend monuments largely because they make the defender feel comfortable about their understanding of history is problematic.  Recall the addition of Confederate flags to the Lee Chapel surrounding the Valentine sculpture. That act was a revision, a re-envisioning, and a repurposing for the people who decided to augment that space. So was the recent decision to remove those flags and to restore the space to its original condition. You can’t criticize one without criticizing the other.

I have no general rule on what to do that would cover all such cases. I do have general principles grounded in the belief that memorials are expressions of the time and people when they were erected, and that they may not reflect the prevailing sentiments of everyone, then or now. They are acts of memory; the story of such monumentation is the history of memory, not of the event or person itself. Removing or relocating such monuments does not erase the history of the event or the person being commemorated; it shows that the history of memory is always evolving. If you removed every single monument at Gettysburg, nothing about the battle itself would change, any more than destroying a battlefield eradicates the history of that battle, however much it may damage our ability to understand it or remember it. But it is time to have a more serious discussion about these matters, rather than the polarizing debate that comes with namecalling and simple-minded claims about what’s at stake of what a monument really represents. Nor is that discussion limited to scholars and historians, or outsiders who want to tell other people what to do at the same time they resent being told what to do. There are far more stakeholders and constituencies involved, and is worth remembering, for example, that if the people of New Orleans put up four monuments, subsequent generations have an equal right to discuss whether they should remain. The earth belongs to the living, Jefferson once said, and past generations do not have the right to bind future generations to comply with what those past generations chose to remember about the past and how they chose to remember it.

C-SPAN in My Classroom

Next Saturday, January 16, at 8 PM and 11:59 PM, C-SPAN 3 will air an episode of “Lectures in History,” featuring my fall 2015 class on the American presidency taught at Barrett, the Honors College at ASU. If you are expecting a lecture when you tune in, however, you’ll be disappointed, because I run my classes in Barrett as discussion classes, with a good deal of student interaction and assessment.