George G. Meade Gets Some Respect

https://www.c-span.org/video/?429297-2/historians-discuss-leadership-general-george-g-meade

At the 2017 Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, institute director Peter Carmichael hosted a roundtable discussion featuring four scholars: John Hennessy, chief historian at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania Military Park; Scott Hartwig, recently retired chief historian, Gettysburg National Military Park; Jennifer Murray, assistant professor of history at UVa-Wise who is engaged in preparing a biography of George G. Meade; and yours truly.

Enjoy.

 

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: The Internet, Social Media, History, and Confederate Heritage Activism

The internet and the digital revolution together have changed how we view the world, in part because they have transformed how we receive and digest information. We have more information (and misinformation) available at our fingertips. Search engines help shape and sometimes control how we discover and extract information (just try using a few different search engines to see what I mean).

For professional historians who happen to teach, the result is a mixed bag. Yes, we have access to far more information than before, and it’s easier to use it. It’s much easier to research the Congressional Globe and the Congressional Record than it once was, for example, and one can read books once deemed difficult to find. We can secure video and images to educate, and we can point students to resources they would not have been able to access easily a generation ago. On the other hand, as teachers we see students (and others) use search enginges and internet resources uncritically, and we have to deal with teaching research methods online to ensure that students can find credible sources and make sense of them. There’s plenty of fake history to go around, especially on certain websites and discussion groups. Take any halfway decent Civil War discussion group, for example, and you’ll find people still refighting the war, mocking scholarship (and scholars) who don’t embrace the poster’s own prejudices, interpreting “evidence” to suit their predilections, falling in love with their heroes and chastising their villains (and their biographers), endlessly rehashing certain questions, and taking the notion of “if it is on the internet, it must be true” to a new level …”if I say it on the internet, I make it true.”

Scholars err in simply dismissing what in truth is a rich source of what they lovingly study as historical memory in other contexts. Simply to say that something isn’t true means little in an age whether “alternative facts” and denigrating authoritative sources hold sway. Time and again those of us who are more comfortable with the internet as a place of discussion, debate, and resources have to remind less-skilled and less-aware users that the net doesn’t discriminate between the good, the bad, and the immaterial, thus allowing such themes as the myth of the black Confederate soldier to flow freely in the minds of the uncritical or the agenda-driven and be disseminated to the unaware and unprepared. In an age where anyone with access to the internet can pretend to be their own historian, the problem intensifies. That people who whine about “fake news” embrace “fake history” and engage in uncritically reposting only that which feeds their already-established prejudices while pretending to host history blogs is part of the joke … and part of the problem. For them “political correctness” means “does not agree with me.”

Failing to engage such folks concedes the argument, and suggests that perhaps some people have abandoned the role of the public intellectual in favor of writing for each other or for a small circle of like-minded folks. When that is the case, historians can look in the mirror when they wonder why people don’t listen to them any more (if they ever did). Yet engagement comes with its own risks, and historians haven’t thought much about that, either. Nowadays the marketplace of ideas has been replaced with the hockey rink of debate, complete with high elbows, stick-swinging, and cheap shots. How to engage in such an environment while maintaining one’s self-respect and scholarly demeanor (and, one hopes, a sense of humor) is a challenge. Yet, unlike, say, the confrontation in a lecture (these rarely happen) or the nasty note (and now nasty email) that remains private, it is the very public accessibility of such misinformation and fake history that presents a challenge to any historian who presumes that educating people about history is an important part of their job, and is indeed more than mere vocation.

Yet historians are not the only people confronting a challenge in the age of the internet and social media when it comes to getting things done. Presenting a somewhat different challenge for Confederate heritage apologists is the interplay of social media, digital technology, and heritage activism. People who employ social media as part of their everyday lives know the problem. Repost something, offer a comment, hit “like” or “share” or “retweet,” and we’ve indicated where we stand on something, as if that in itself is enough. Want to make a more robust statement? Take some pictures … because digital technology has revolutionized photography for the common person. Don’t worry … you don’t have just 12, 24, or 36 precious exposures per roll any more … you can click away hundreds of times and then post the images to your social media outlet. Any Virginia Flagger event will suffice as an example, especially when Judy Smith is present. How many times do you have to see Susan Hathaway rally the troops (or hear her sing)? Or see Barry Isenhour look stern while thinking of his next hot dog? When it comes to graphic design, we have Connie Chastain churning out book jacket after book jacket for books she’ll never actually write (“fake literature,” anyone? … because “fake fiction” is too funny).

Let me kindly suggest that the digital revolution and the advent of social media has been key to the dissemination of the ideas of the Confederate heritage apologist movement … and that it will also be the death of it. For it appears to be true that the more time you spend on social media, the less time (and interest) you have to be a real activist and achieve real change.

You see, just like many other pseudo-activists, many Confederate heritage apologists think that reposting, sharing, liking, and retweeting is a sufficient expression of their activism, because people see it. Attaboy, folks, seems to be the prevailing attitude. It’s not unlike the Virginia Flaggers’ own Facebook page, which once painstakingly celebrated how many people “liked” it (Donald Trump does the same thing when it comes to his Twitter account). Yet the only significant achievement the Virginia Flaggers have to claim for years of “activity” is the erection of a number of Confederate flag-bearing flagpoles throughout Virginia. That’s it. Even that activity has been as productive of mocking humor as it has been of celebrating some ill-defined “cause.” Sure, we have a flood of Judy Smith photographs of “determined” Flaggers … but the photographs and videos shot by Smith and others have provided evidence of some of the people with whom the Flaggers associate (racists, bigots, and the like) and have been used to humiliate Flaggers or make them look foolish (hello, Tripp Lewis!). The blog Restoring the Honor makes its living off capturing Confederate heritage social media as well as using the internet to uncover interesting connections.

The result reminds us that the Virginia Flaggers and other like-minded Confederate heritage apologist groups are what we’ve said they are.

In short, even as social media can be used to mobilize on some minimal level of engagement a number of wannabe activists, the proof is in who shows up to do the real work. How many times have organizers of Confederate heritage events later complained that the turnout wasn’t anywhere near what organizers expected given all those positive responses on Facebook? Memes are cute and easy to produce (even Chastain can meet that low threshhold), but do they accomplish much (and, in certain cases, haven’t they provided ammunition for critics)?

Have the proponents of Confederate heritage done anything more that preventing some defeats and then proclaiming that victory? We see fighting withdrawals, retreats, routs, and the occasional stalemate or preservation of the status quo, but have “the colors” ever actually advanced? The entire struggle for Confederate heritage likes to invoke the spirit of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart, Wade Hampton, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, but in reality the icons of the Confederate heritage movement should be Pierre G. T. Beauregard, Joseph Johnston, and Braxton Bragg. Beauregard always offered plans that could never be implemented; Johnston was good at retreating and procrastinating while claiming that someday he would strike back; Bragg’s quarrelsome nature reminds me of a lot of the ranting within the ranks of Confederate heritage apologists (rainbow Confederates, anyone? Unhappiness with the SCV?).

All this, I suggest, is also the product of social media, which promotes pseudo-activism as a substitute for the real thing. Confederate heritage activities have failed in their efforts to mobilize a movement when someone can simply click a button or type a response as their entire effort to preserve and protect their “heritage.”

Mind you, the very reaction to this post in some corners will demonstrate the truth of the arguments it presents. But the fact of the matter is that offering dozens of photographs of a half dozen protesters outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (and doing so repeatedly) in order to garner likes and supportive comments is testimony to the bankruptcy of Confederate heritage activism … because that’s all it is. Raise another flag, post about it, and then do it again, in part because nothing has really changed (each flag raising has become a sign of the futility of the endeavor, because, outside of a few more photographs, a few more posts, and a few more “likes,” nothing happens) … while the setbacks and defeats keep mounting up.

It truly is the best of times and the worst of times.

Ben Carson Clarifies … Kinda

Ben Carson took a lot of flak for a comment he made about slavery and immigration on Monday. In turn, when I highlighted his comment, some readers of this blog, reflecting their own assumptions, went off on what I conclude was a Rorschach test of reading and reacting to blog posts.

Even Ben Carson understood he had to clarify what he meant. On his Facebook page, he did so:

Carson FB slavery

If only he had stopped there … because, afterwards, in chatting with Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator, Carson observed: “Slaves came here as involuntary immigrants.” That drew renewed criticism in some corners.

I’m inclined to give Carson the benefit of the doubt here, because the modifier represents an important advance. The same could be said of the formulation Barack Obama used, because, contrary to some careless readers (I’m being kind here), he did not simply declare that slaves were immigrants.

In short, Dr. Carson now admits he could have spoken better, and he’s offered observations that ought to be heeded by his defenders here and elsewhere. Let’s see whether they are as big as he is, or whether they wish to go the way of, say, someone who resides in Virginia Whine Country, where heritage correctness and right-wing opinions always trump historical accuracy and objectivity in what amounts to a mindless clipping service of the blogger’s referred political reading pretending to be a blog about history.

Ben Carson, Dred Scott, and Historical Memory

Today is the 160th anniversary of the Dred Scott decision … you know, where Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared in his opinion that African Americans …

had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.

Almost as if to commemorate this event, what did Ben Carson, the incoming Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, tell his new colleagues today?

That’s what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.

Ah, yes. Enslaved people as immigrants looking to come to a land of opportunity for their descendants. They would work longer (and for a long time), to be sure, and harder, and for far less … as in no wages. In many cases, they would be torn away from husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and children, so that they would never know what happened to sons and daughters, let alone other generations down the line. Black women would be raped by white men and offspring would come of such violence.

Yes, these people dreamed of freedom. Recall the folks who wanted to deny them that freedom in 1860 … and how they continued to do so after 1865.

Then again, as we’ve been told by one famous Confederate heritage apologist, slavery was, after all, a choice.

I can’t wait for those whiny blogs that bemoan “political correctness” and proclaim that they are committed to historical accuracy and truth to get on this one. What, you say … those principled folks won’t do that? I wonder why?

Heritage, not history … has gone mainstream.

As for Dred and Harriet Scott, here’s a statue of them outside the very courthouse in St. Louis where they gained their freedom:

DSC05083

Let’s honor the cause for which they fought, and pray that it never becomes a lost cause.

On Civil War Monuments: The Controversy Continues

This weekend the American Civil War Center in Richmond, Virginia, held an all-day symposium entitled “Lightning Rods of Controversy: Civil War Monuments Past, Present, and Future.” Co-sponsored by the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia and The Library of Virginia, the symposium reviewed the issues associated with Civil War monuments in a city well known for them. Christy Coleman of the ACWC offered opening remarks in a presentation entitled “Monuments, Markers, Museums, and the Landscape of Civil War Memory.”

You can find the presentation here.

It is not altogether true that the only controversies about Civil War monuments involve Confederate monuments. Some people were very unhappy with this monument, for example:

Others opposed placing a monument to Union soldiers who fought at Olustee, Florida, as you may recall (you may also recall that many of the US soldiers who fought there were African American). You can refresh your memory here, here, and here.

But you won’t find anything about that in various Confederate heritage apologist advocates’ blogs, especially the ones that rant about fake news and political correctness. What you will hear, however, is how a local community that erected these monuments can’t decide to remove them, lest they “erase history”–when the only history their removal might “erase” is why people chose to put up those monuments when and where they did.

That’s one reason why I think those monuments should stay up–to remind people of their past, sometimes in ways that might not make them comfortable. But I remain amused at people who think that the members of a community should make their own decisions, who protest against meddlesome outsiders and “moral reformers,” who nevertheless have no problem telling other people how to live and what to honor. Get over yourselves or embrace your hypocrisy.

On Museums and History: The Case of Clarence Thomas

Whenever a museum recording the history and culture of its subject opens, we are eager to see the stories they tell, in large part because musums are more than the mere display of artifacts. Museums, like books, tell stories, and all narratives are inherently interpretive and represent choices with consequences.

Not everyone will agree with the result, as we saw at Gettysburg when the new visitors center and museum opened several years ago. I understood and sometimes agreed with the critics of the museum, although I think some of those criticisms were overstated. At the same time, I knew that the museum was tasked to do something more than to recount the events of July 1-3, 1863, and November 19, 1863, in isolation, bereft of any context. Yet I also knew that the context would represent interpretive choices that would be open to analysis and criticism.

So it comes as no surprise that some people are not too keen on everything they’ve seen in the Smithsonian Institution’s new museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Of especial note is the claim made in some corners that the museum more than slights the career of current Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, supposedly, one infers, because of Thomas’s conservative political views.

You know what’s going to follow this report: whining about political correctness and the supposed political agenda of supposedly left-wing academics made by right-wing scholars, buffs, and “observers” (advocates) who claim that their adherance to their own political points of view is an expression of their dispassionate objectivity about the American past. We’ve seen that exercise in projection all too often.

Having not yet visited the museum (I haven’t been to DC since it opened, but it is first on my list for my next visit), I can’t testify as to the particulars of the case. Nor do I know how the museum treats other divisions among African-Americans over time, whether it be Frederick Douglass versus Martin Delaney, Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B. DuBois, or Martin Luther King, Jr., versus Malcolm X, all of which have been traditional (and overused as well as sometimes distorted or misunderstood) ways to view aspects of African American history. And that’s just for starters.

That said, one hopes that in recognizing the diversity of the American past through focusing on the African American past, the museum also embraces telling the story of the diversity within the African American past … and present. Part and parcel of that discussion is an exploration of black conservatism as demonstrating that African Americans are far from a unified bloc when it comes to many issues. At the same time, one should not make more of something than is appropriate … we’ve seen that in the discussion of whether Africans Americans served in significant numbers as soldiers in the ranks of the Confederate army. I note that when it comes to that issue, those gallant defenders of historical accuracy often shed their disguises to suggest that, regardless of what Confederates themselves said at the time, such people were soldiers and should be recognized as such … a position that reflects their own presentist attitudes and political agendas. Others just let that issue go unexplored lest they offend their fellow travellers.

Not that we’re about to hear those storied critics of political correctness hold themselves to the same standards they demand of others. No way. Otherwise we might have heard a reaction to this.

So let’s actually visit the museum before we pass judgment. Otherwise we’re little more than a clipping service bound to our personal prejudices.