Editorial: Nathan Bedford Forrest Day: A Failure of Morality, History, and Politics

Editorial: Nathan Bedford Forrest Day: A Failure of Morality, History, and Politics

Today is Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee.

Like many Southern commanders, he enjoys a prominent place in Civil War memory. And however regrettable, the celebration and veneration of Confederate commanders isn’t particularly unusual even today, circa 2019. After all, Tennessee also recognizes Robert E. Lee Day and Confederate Decoration Day.

Yet we cannot divorce military commanders or their abilities from the causes for which they fought, at least not when it comes to deciding who gets a pedestal and who gets a proclamation. Confederate generals chose to renounce their allegiance to the United States to join in a rebellion whose raison d’etre was slavery. They fought for an immoral, terrible cause, the world is a better place because they lost, and they are not worthy of veneration. Why are we still celebrating them?

Read More

Reporting from the SHA: Northern Civilians and the Occupied Wartime Confederacy

Reporting from the SHA: Northern Civilians and the Occupied Wartime Confederacy

In this panel presented at the 2018 Southern Historical Association meeting in Birmingham, AL the panelists focused on the experiences of northern civilians who traveled south into the Confederacy during the Civil War. The panelists were Paul E. Teed (Saginaw Valley State University) and Frank J. Cirillo (New-York Historical Society) with Caroline E. Janney (University of Virginia) presiding. Comments were provided by Michael T. Bernath (University of Miami) ad Paul A. Cimbala (Fordham University).

Read More

Civil War Tourism as City Revitalization: Helena, Arkansas

Civil War Tourism as City Revitalization: Helena, Arkansas

But our guide also expressed great optimism for the future of Helena and a blooming revitalization of the area, including work planned for that Main Street area to renovate some of the empty buildings into new stores and hotels. A key part of this revitalization, I could tell by the end of the day, was the use of historic tourism and highlighting the history (particularly the Civil War history) of the area.

Read More

Hamilton: A Review and Thoughts on Revisionism

Hamilton: A Review and Thoughts on Revisionism

As a spectator I found it masterfully done; as a historian I found it thought-provoking and intriguing. Hamilton is not a historically accurate portrayal of the life of Alexander Hamilton (although the historical context was pretty spot on in most places), and it was never meant to be. The choices made by the writers, production team, and performers sends many layers of meaning about history, race, diversity, and the relationships between people both then and now.

Read More

The Confederate Monument Controversy….in the 1890s

The Confederate Monument Controversy….in the 1890s

Confederate monuments are at the forefront of politics and national debate these days as American society grapples with the legacy of the Civil War and its aftermath. While this debate seems new and is situated in a modern society that is opening many meaningful, and sometimes divisive, conversations about history, race, and society, controversy over Confederate monuments is not necessarily new.

Read More

Mississippi Finally “Bans” Slavery

Mississippi Finally “Bans” Slavery

In February 2013 headlines announced that the state of Mississippi had finally banned slavery.  Now this is not to say that the state had been stuck in an Antebellum/Civil War timewarp for the past century and a half.  But apparently there were a few oversights along the way.

Read More

Material Culture and the Confederate Monument Debate

Material Culture and the Confederate Monument Debate

Thus we also need to remember that the monuments we build, the sites we preserve, and the places we name are never just about history.  They are and have always been about who we imagine ourselves to be in the present and what we want to be, as a community, in the future.

Read More

The South Needs to Commemorate Its Southern Unionists

The South Needs to Commemorate Its Southern Unionists

The historical amnesia of the South regarding its black and white Union soldiers should be rectified. By choosing to selectively remember and honor Confederate soldiers while simultaneously ignoring the many Southerners who fought for the Union, Southerners send clear message that loyalty to region, protection of white supremacy, and veneration of the Confederacy are the only legacies of the Civil War worth remembering. If Confederate monuments continue to be torn down, new ones should go up, celebrating those Southerners--black and white--who remained loyal to the Union and brought about “a new birth of freedom.”

Read More

Why Some Southern College Campuses Cannot Escape their Confederate Past: The University of Mississippi

Why Some Southern College Campuses Cannot Escape their Confederate Past: The University of Mississippi

Ole Miss has been in the news several times in the last couple of years, dealing with its Civil War and Civil Rights legacy. In 2010, the university made headlines when they changed their school mascot away from one that highlighted its Confederate heritage. In 2014, an Ole Miss fraternity was shut down after students placed a noose on the statue of James Meredith, the first black student to enroll in the all-white school. Most recently, the university joined the Confederate flag debate when the students and faculty chose to remove the state flag, which includes Confederate symbols, from the campus.

Read More

Confederate Iconography, The Next Steps: On Shared Authority, Historical Stewardship, and the Role of the Public Historian

Confederate Iconography, The Next Steps: On Shared Authority, Historical Stewardship, and the Role of the Public Historian

As the debate over the purpose and future of Confederate monuments and iconography in public culture continues, discussions concerning the role of the public historian in these debates have similarly intensified.  Central to these debates has been the question of the proper role of the public historian in community-based, emotionally and politically charged discussions about historical memory and contemporary society...it is hardly inappropriate or overstepping for public historians to make suggestions to communities as to what to do with their public memorial landscapes, nor is it at all intrusive and imposing to try to help communities learn about the educational value of their historic monuments and memorials or about the complexities of historical memory.  Additionally, pointing out to communities who are in the midst of debates about the future of memorial landscapes all that is gained AND lost if such landscapes were to be destroyed or removed is hardly “historian-centric” or merely “historians doing historian things.”  Is this not the very nature of our jobs as public historians?

Read More

A Beginner's Guide to Researching Your Civil War Ancestor

A Beginner's Guide to Researching Your Civil War Ancestor

For Americans, history is a personal matter. Whatever we do or don't learn in the classroom, read in books, see in films...Americans stillexperience and understand the past personally. I suspect many public historians are familiar with Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s work Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. The product of a 1994 survey, their book helps confirm and quantify the very personal ways in which everyday Americans experience the past...namely via their families. People feel most connected to the past when gathering with the families, and their most frequent “past-related” activity is looking at photographs with family and friends. Americans place greater trust in family stories than in college professors, high school teachers, or nonfiction books (personal family accounts were second only to museums). And of course, many Americans explore history through their own genealogy. Nothing helps bring history to life more than a personal connection; a realization that your family, your ancestor, lived and participated in the events of another age.

Read More

Romanticizing Myths: the Role of Pop Culture in Civil War History

Romanticizing Myths: the Role of Pop Culture in Civil War History

About a month ago I attended Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede in Gatlinburg, TN - fully expecting to be horrified by what might ensue. But after I left I was hesitant to apply too much criticism to something that advertises itself simply as a dinner show and is very clearly meant to exist in the realm of imagination and exaggeration.

Recent events, however, have convinced me that ending the myths that endure from the Civil War is not simply the job of historians.

Read More

Calls to Arms: "The" Confederate Flag in American Culture

Calls to Arms: "The" Confederate Flag in American Culture

When asked why the American Civil War still holds such power over the American imagination, author Shelby Foote once observed, “because it’s the big one.  It measures what we are, good and bad.  If you look at American history as the life span of a man, the Civil War represents the great trauma of our adolescence.” More recently, at the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox, historian David Blight reflected, “The Civil War is a place we go to ask who we are and what are we becoming…it is our oracle.” The debates that tore the nation apart for four bloody years are eternal questions of the American condition, Blight explained. It is no small wonder then that the symbols of those conflicts remain contested as well, suspended in our national consciousness without a singular definition that holds true over time.

Read More

Editorial: Charleston, America, and the Confederacy's Legacy

Editorial:  Charleston, America, and the Confederacy's Legacy

Last week, twenty-one year old Dylann Roof shot and killed nine people in Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  An act of violence and racial hatred, the tragedy has sparked a nationwide debate over racism and, in particular, the symbolism of the Confederate flag.  The flag of a now-dead nation dedicated to the defense of slavery, the flag that appears in photographs with Dylann Roof, and the flag that today floats free over the South Carolina Capitol grounds.

I suspect, owing to public outcry and political pressure, the flag in Columbia will come down.  The governor of South Carolina has called for its removal, and yesterday Alabama removed its Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds.  Yet while the flag faces greater scrutiny, the current debate cannot merely rest on the Confederate flag. The discussion instead needs to encompass the Confederacy’s legacy in the United States—what the Confederacy stood for, what it means today, and the place (if any) it should occupy in 21st-century America.

Read More