Does Rommel Deserve a Statue?

During my travels through northwest Europe last year I came across some very interesting sites that sparked renewed thinking about how we as Americans have decided to deal with the commemoration and memorialization of the American Civil War. One cause for thought was the presence of German military cemeteries in France and elsewhere — for both world wars. Not far from where George S. Patton, Jr., is buried in Luxembourg, for example, one finds a German military cemetery containing dead from the Ardennes Offensive, while one can view the Aisne-Marne American military cemetery from a small nearby German cemetery when exploring Belleau Wood. At La Cambe Military Cemetery, some seven miles from Omaha Beach, some 21,000 German soldiers are buried.

In short, German dead are buried in enemy territory, and those areas are cause for contemplation and reflection. We talk a great deal about honoring military dead regardless of what they believed (even if we often debate exactly what it was that they believed). After all, they fought for what they believed, and for some people, that’s enough.

Statues, we are told, honor service and sacrifice. They are not political statements about the cause for which these men fought. I might disagree with that argument (most war memorials offer at least implicit explanation and affirmation about the cause of the conflict and related political statements), but let’s set that aside. What, then, should stand in the way of erecting a statue to Erwin Rommel as well as the German fighting man near Normandy? Anything? After all, if certain people are willing to remember the Confederate fighting man, complete with the erection of memorials and the raising of historically appropriate flags as symbols of the military effort of the Confederacy, should not the German fighting man and the generals who commanded them be afforded the same courtesy? If so, why? If not, why not, and what’s the difference (if any) between a discussion about honoring the service and sacrifice of World War I and II dead with one about Civil War dead?

You tell me.

On Al Arnold, Turner Hall, Jr., and “Black Confederates.”

There’s been some discussion here and elsewhere about Al Arnold’s tale about the tales of his ancestor, Turner Hall, Jr., and what exactly this all means for historians interested in the role played by enslaved blacks in the Confederate war effort. Andy Hall went to the trouble of reading the entire book, and he offered his reactions here. It’s a discerning response that looks carefully at the paucity of actual evidence to support Hall’s stories, which Arnold accepts at face value. Note that Arnold’s interpretation of Turner Hall’s story relies on a tremendous amount of speculation and inference that finds scant support in the historical record. As usual, plaudits to Andy for his usual skillful treatment of matters of evidence.

I also point readers to the very thoughtful post over at Alan Skerrett, Jr.’s Jubilo! The Emancipation Century. It’s a model of discerning reflection that balances respect and skepticism in a careful consideration of the evidence. Alan’s brought his usual high standards to this piece, and it shows.

Stories about African Americans’ willingness to serve the Confederate war effort serve many modern agendas. Arnold’s story, it turns out, is really about how Al Arnold dealt with a family story that he spent very little effort to verify. What we do know is that Turner Hall, Jr., told these stories about his past, and that white southerners embraced him for the telling, much as Confederate heritage advocates have embraced H. K. Edgerton, Karen Cooper, Anthony Hervey, Arlene Barnum, and now, it appears, Al Arnold, who seems more and more interested in telling the story of black support for the Confederacy. It’s interesting (and revealing) to research the life stories of Edgerton, Cooper, Hervey, and Barnum, all of who seems to have grown bitterly dissatisfied by black leaders and organizations such as the NAACP before veering right … and right into the arms of Confederate heritage advocates who welcome the chance to disassociate the Confederate cause slavery, racism, and white supremacy. Arnold’s personal quest seems to be just that: a personal quest. In the process, he’s become quite a popular speaker among certain people, as this list of events on his Facebook page suggests. He’s also become involved in the debate over the current Mississippi state flag, suggesting that this is no longer simply a matter of family history.

Truly, Al Arnold is following in the footsteps of Turner Hall, Jr.

Or course, Arnold’s rendering of Turner Hall’s life will be treated as fact in some reports by the uncritical, the unqualified, the unwary, and others who just like a good story. People who question it will be dismissed as haters. Arnold himself struggles with criticism, as a recent Twitter exchange with Kevin Levin revealed. Kevin, pointing to the story behind the banner that adorns Arnold’s Twitter account, asked him if he knew the truth behind the tampered image:

LevinArnold OneSimply put, to interpret Union soldiers as servants is a slam against the military service of American soldiers: an unkind critic would say that such a remark shows just how little respect Arnold has for some African Americans. At best, it’s a display of gross ignorance.

The exchange continued:

LevinArnold 2

Somehow I don’t think that citing the Lord in support of my methods is going to satisfy any critics of my work. Indeed, I know some very religious historians who would not dare to make such a claim.

LevinArnold 3

Given the tenor of this exchange, I doubt Mr. Arnold’s willing to engage in the sort of discussions that historians have when discussing evidence. Then again, this was never really about evidence, was it?

For some time the discussion about the service of enslaved and free African Americans in the Confederate armed forces has been one about historical fact and the consequences of those findings for larger interpretations of the war. That tends to be what historians do. However, students of Civil War memory might be better advised to turn to the modern day advocates of a story that places such service at the center of their narratives, and ask why that is. We may better understand Turner Hall, Jr., if we seek to understand Al Arnold.

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.”


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.

Confederate Heritage and Terrorism

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday Americans have again engaged in a discussion about terrorism, including a lively debate over the wisdom and the humanity of admitting refugee populations seeking sanctuary in the United States. It’s a revealing conversation, betraying barely-hidden assumptions about peoples and religious faiths.

At the same time, there is an ongoing debate on college campuses concerning whether the icons celebrated on those campuses deserve their place of honor and remembrance. Today media coverage focuses on whether Princeton University should continue to honor Woodrow Wilson, who served as president of that institution before he became first governor of New Jersey and the the 28th president of the United States. After all, Wilson promoted segregation and endorsed Birth of a Nation. “It is like writing history with lightning,” Wilson asserted after viewing the film, “and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” That the movie freely quoted from Wilson’s own scholarship must have pleased the president greatly.

These are troubling times for advocates of Confederate heritage, because a discussion of the horrors and evil of terrorism reminds us that such terrorist activity was an essential element of how white southerners defeated Reconstruction. Moreover, it stands to reason that many of these white supremacist terrorists were Confederate veterans. If we accept estimates that the Confederacy mobilized some 80% of its white male adult population to serve in the Confederate military, and that a healthy percentage of those who were not mobilized actively opposed the Confederacy, it stand to reason that white supremacist terrorist organizations drew a significant proportion of its membership from the ranks of Confederate veterans. Indeed, it was logical for such people to view their service in such organizations as an extension of their service in the ranks of the Confederate military, because both Confederate independence and the overthrow of Republican regimes and the suppression of black freedom shared the same goals of preserving white supremacy and protecting one’s way of life by making sure that white southerners would be in control of their own lives as well as of the lives of black southerners. One may be able to distinguish between the fight for Confederate independence and the redemption of white supremacist rule, but one is hard-pressed to separate them altogether.

One need not remind Americans that some defenders of Confederate heritage imitate white supremacist terrorists in their behavior. Indeed, some, such as the League of the South‘s Pat Hines, advocate terrorist acts. Other defenders of Confederate heritage honor Confederate leaders who after the war were associated with terrorist organizations, including Nathan Bedford Forrest, Wade Hampton, and John B. Gordon. Indeed, some defenders of Confederate heritage have no problem with their work appearing in antisemitic white supremacist newslettersbut you already knew that.

So, how do we address the call to honor Confederate leaders and soldiers, given these circumstances? Do we ignore what these leaders and soldiers did after the war? Do we recognize that their actions after the war were of a piece with their actions during the war? And what do we make of the warm embrace of these people (including some outright justifications of post-Appomattox white supremacist terrorism) by individuals who sometimes look as if they wished to emulate those whom they celebrate?

You tell me.


A Receding Tide? Flagging Interest in Confederate Heritage

We are coming upon forty days since a person fond of the Confederate flag gunned down nine people in cold blood in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Within days outrage and anger about that event became transformed into a rather testy debate over Confederate heritage and its symbols, with South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from the state house grounds in Columbia marking a important moment.

Of course, the debate did not stop there. People argued about removing the Confederate flag from license plates, famous TV cars, and National Park shops; there were discussions about moving (or simply removing) statues and one pair of bodies. As might be expected, defenders of Confederate heritage rose up in opposition and did their best to suggest that they were making up ground, although several of these protests were somewhat less impressive than their supporters claimed. For example, at its height a protest in Fredericksburg, Virginia, drew less than three thousand hundred dozen people, as this film suggests … and not a lot of people were paying any attention:

By the way, my understanding is that this was not a Virginia Flaggers function … too many people for that. But I also understand that 149 people promised to show up. Desertion remains a Confederate tradition.

By now we have a pretty good idea about what will happen. The once-surging tide will now begin to recede … not because Confederate heritage advocates have prevailed (they have lost serious ground) but because people soon get interested in other things. What happened in Columbia remains the emotional high point of this recent controversy. As many people pointed out, at most it was a first step in addressing far more serious questions. But it did not mark an end to gun violence, as we’ve seen since then; it did not mark an end to racism or to white supremacy; and in fact it remains to be seen whether the discussion that commenced on the heels of the Charleston murders will persist before people grow tired of it or turn their attention to the Kardashians or Donald Trump. Certainly the debates have grown predictable once more (and a little boring); while I expect to see a few more flashpoints in the fight over Confederate heritage in the coming weeks, I think the front is stabilizing, so to speak, as people sort out gains and losses.

This is not to minimize the importance of the discussion, merely its persistence. While the participants may continue to argue, the attention-span of the broader American public, always short, will decline absent another vivid event. Some people swept up in the initial fervor that looked as if it would sweep everything before it will find that there are other things to talk about, and it remains to be seen how many proposals will be acted upon. More will happen than one might have anticipated two months ago, but less than one hoped (or feared) might happen three weeks ago.

What do you think? What really happened over the last forty days? What will persist? What has changed? You tell me.