Monday, May 30, 2011

"...never forget what they did here": Memorial Day 2011

As I get ready to head out into town today, for a big parade and the typical festivities here in Gettysburg, I wanted to make sure we put up something special for Memorial Day here.

PD / A Tipton cabinet card layout depicting the National Cemetery in the collection of GNMP

One of my pleasures on this holiday is to buy and place a flag on the monument to the 14th U.S. Regulars in the valley of death. Along the banks of Plum Run, the Regulars held back an onslaught from a pell-mell group of charging Confederates in what would be the final phase of the fight in the Wheatfield and Devil's Den area on July 2nd, 1863. As they retreated back across the swampy lowlands, Confederates hot on their heels, their own gunners on the slopes of the hill had no choice but to fire into the mangled mess of friend and enemy. Canister whizzed through the blue and butternut uniforms alike.

At the end of the day, my Great-Great-Grand Uncle lay dead in that field. William Henry Francis, killed at Gettysburg. We have no photo of him. He has no marked grave in the cemetery. He has no marked grave at home. He most likely sleeps beneath the sod in plum run valley where he fell. That's the only tangible place I have that can connect me to him.

So today I'll be heading down to place a flag there to honor him. He was an average soldier. He had his doubts. Nonetheless, he died that they might be free. He died that we might be free. He died that we might be free.

I'd like to share his words with you today, as he wrote them. This is a letter he wrote home in November of 1862, as the army was changing and the war seemed so uncertain to the men in the field:

Camp near Warrington Nov 13th12th /62
Dear Father
Your letter received to day
and glad to hear your were all
well. but sorry to hear of cousin
death. I feell verry well at
present. I presume you see
by the head of this that
we have changed positions
since I last wrote.
we started from Sharpsburg
the 29th and came here via
Harpers Ferry Snickers Gap
and White plains arived
here on the 9th where our next
trip is for I do not know
I hope it is for Washington
our leader is gone you cannot
immagine the disapointment
of the men by the loss of Mc Clene
all of their trust was placed in
him they fo wouled follow
him through worse than fire
and water. yes through the
regions of lower blacknes.
most of the small Officers
in the 5th group, (ours) are
resigning. what it will
amount to I do not know.
I am afraid I shall be tempted
to shoot Baxter when I get
home. with Martha Rixon I
think she done well. Emma
Gray I think is an equal
mateh, as reopeets your neighbors
I must say you have a splendid
set I wish I was there.
what ails old Stanton he must
be in a bad way.
By the way did you ever hear
whether Aunt Pulia got
that money three or four months
a go I sent you some I never
heard from I will send
more and if that does not
go I will stop sending enny
more I have no more to write
as I think of now
hopeing you will write soon
I remain you
W H Francis

PS I received a letter from
John the same day I got
I have seen the 157th NYSV
Kenyon Gleason and the boys
are well I believe they think
Soldiering is rough.==
send us a paper occationly I
dont care what it is.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Empathizing with the Slave; Empathizing with the Slave-owner

Living inside of the world of the past is often the most difficult thing an interpreter can help her audience to do. But, in spite of its difficulty, it is the most necessary. The adage that before you insult a man, you must walk a mile in his shoes is correct.[1]

But how do you go about feeling the world from another's perspective? Recently I ran across this TEDx talk by sociologist Sam Richards on understanding the viewpoints of someone you might despise, and at very least can't readily relate to. It's 20 minutes but worth watching every second:

Imagine living under the constant threat
of being sold away from your family.
PD / LOC LC-USZC4-2525
So how does this work with the Civil War? Well, certainly we can quite easily see it in an instance where we ask our visitors and audiences to empathize with a slave's perspective. You build the case, placing the audience member in the shoes of the slave and helping them to understand the abject hopelessness of being trapped in a system of oppression. You use a few modern analogies of working hard but not earning a dime for that work. You offer them a moment to feel the uncertainty that at any moment your family can be broken up on the auction block. You try to help them feel the helplessness of being unable to support your family, being subservient and dependent on a master for the smallest details of life.

Feeling the pain of the slave is relatively easy for me to imagine, because I already commiserate with the slave. But how do I feel empathy for the slave-owner? To me, slave-ownership is synonymous with pure evil. How can you wear those shoes?

A friend of mine did it this way: imagine yourself a hard working white laborer in the American South. You work in a hourly job in an industrial center, a larger city. Your wife stays home and minds your household. There is no running water; there is no washing machine. Everyday, she walks to the local water pump and draws pails of water, hauling the gallons of water back to your home to wash the clothes, do dishes and cook the family's meals. She works hard, even though you are a middle class family. She has callouses all over her hands from the back breaking labor.

Slavery could just as easily be found in
the home of a Southern man like this as on
a large plantation or farm.
PD / LOC LC-USZC4-3948
You care about this woman. Your wedding anniversary is coming up and you've been saving away spare cash here and there. It's taken a long time. But now you can buy your wife a meaningful gift. You can buy her something that will make a difference in her life. You can buy her something that says, "I love you." You can buy her a slave: another human being.

Now watch in your mind's eye, as the work she does is cut in half each day. Another pair of hands to chop wood, to haul water, to wash the dishes. And watch the callouses fade from your wife's hands.

My friend Dave used to tell that story, highlighting just how easily normal people could become complicit in an evil system. The process of moral justification becomes shockingly natural. Through this example, Dave helped me to understand just how a good, moral person could become entangled in slavery and could justify it to their own soul.

This one works for me. Dave used it quite often, and it seemed to resonate with many audiences. I'm sure it won't work for everyone. Your mileage may vary.

Still, perhaps we need to take a page out of Sam Richard's book and try to see the world from the shoes of those we perceive as wrong or evil. After all, as George Santayana more than likely first said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I would add that those who cannot understand why evil has crept into the world in the past are doomed to let it creep into their own worlds.

Thanks, Dave, for helping me to see the value of stepping into other folks' shoes. Empathy is perhaps the most powerful tool for historians.


1. This is chiefly so that when you do insult him, you are a mile away and you have his shoes. Sorry, couldn't resist...

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Civil War Conclusions: What PBS' Freedom Riders can teach us

I am going to have a theoretical conversation with my good friend Mr. Strawman today...

Twitter user KismetNu├▒ez draws her own distinct
connection between the Civil Rights revolution
of the 1960s and the banner under which
slavery made its last stand in the US.
We often have a deep problem in the Historical community. We that have gone through training and courses in "real" history, who have been trained in the academy don't know how to react when we get into the "public" history world. We step out on battlefields (or killingfields) and decide we can't trust our audiences to understand our evidence. So, we hit them over the head with a two-by-four of rhetoric. We have this deep impulse to tell people what to think about what they see on our landscapes.

The impulse makes sense. We care about these places. We care about them for specific reasons. So we lay out a brilliant thesis, we build the evidence to support that thesis and then we spring the conclusory trap and tell the audience what they should take away from the resource.

Civil War sites are certainly not alone in this impulse, but they're some of the most typical. I go on tours whenever I visit a battlefield, just as closely watching how an interpreter crafts the tour as much as what they say. Tours are organizied, far and wide on Civil War landscapes held by local communities and on the national level, around a thesis statement. "General Phineas P. Humperdink stopped the Federal assault with a charge and turned the tide of the battle."

But that's not a theme, and certainly doesn't speak to a visitor. It's an academic thesis. A theme is far more broad. We should want people to walk away feeling a site, not necessarily having been slapped in the face by an encyclopedia's worth of facts. A theme is "human suffering," or "heartache," or "pride," or "sacrifice." It is a human universal: understandable by anyone anywhere.

"But," you argue, "they're not smart enough to get it."

I think you're wrong, Mr. Strawman.

I watched American Experience's documentary Freedom Riders on Monday night. As it started, I was browsing Facebook and saw a #hashtag for the documentary: #FreedomRiders

So I watched in my living room, sitting on my couch alongside a racially diverse crowd of thousands. We cried together. We gasped together. We cheered together. Watching on Twitter was like seeing it in a crowded theatre. It was like following along with a Ranger on an interpretive program on a physical landscape.

But the genius of Freedom Riders was its structure. It has no narrator. It has no guiding voice. It is a carefully chosen oral history narrative, without a swift two-by-four of a conclusion.

So, did we get it? Let's judge by the tweets... (after the jump)

Friday, May 13, 2011

How to Sap the Romance: America's National Killingfield Parks

"Maybe they should call them Killingfields instead of Battlefields..."

A quick thought experiment for today...

CC / by Michael Noirot
I was at dinner with a professor at Gettysburg College recently (chatting about Civil War memory and the modern philosophical construction of battlefield parks) and the above concept came up. "Battlefield," inherently places the focus of the visitor on the action of war, the romantic image of men and flags and armies marching. Battlefields can become (and often are portrayed as) sterile landscapes where men marched and paraded. Battle happens on Grecian urns. Battle is a bloodless tableau in a dramatic Don Troiani painting. Battle is a soldier from the 74th Penna. Infantry "dying" in granite from an invisible wound while holding his flag aloft just a few hundred yards from where I now sit.

Would calling these places, "Killingfield," shift the focus upon the carnage of war instead of the romance? Would calling these places Killingfields acknowledge the quite obvious fact that the land is still very much a cemetery? Would it help to quash some of the hokey reenactment impulse to flop around like a comical fish in mock death where men actually died in agonizing pain?

The National Park Service's sites at very least have a moratorium on this type of thing, the blackpowder regulations [PDF] dictating that, "opposing lines, the taking of casualties, hand-to-hand combat, or any other form of simulated warfare, are prohibited in all parks. Battle reenactments generate an atmosphere inconsistent with the memorial qualities of battlefields and other military sites placed in the Service’s trust." The lack of respect in that type of behavior is (thankfully) curtailed by the Park Service. Still, this does not change the fact that many reenactors dream of marching across battlefields and pretending to shoot at each other on the land where men died. "Wouldn't it be so hardcore?" is the question which pops from many folks' mouths in much the same tone of voice I use when I get ready to watch a new episode of Doctor Who: pure excitement. We call that tone a "squee" 'round here in the blag-o-nets.

"...the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet...."

Shelby's all queued up and ready to go.
Just click play.
If we called these places Killingfields instead of Battlefields, would we still be able to talk about romantic images of flags flapping in the breeze and gallant men marching valiantly and honorably, and keep a straight face the whole while? William Faulkner captured an image of the South's romantic fixation with battlefields in his Intruder in the Dust, used by Shelby Foote in a deeply romantic context. Could Foote have used this image as romantically as he does as easily if the place was called a Killingfield? Could he have smirked like that (on "early July day...") if it had been termed a Killingfield?

Imagine a world where we renamed them "Antietam National Killingfield" and "Manassas National Killingfield." Where people hired a Licensed Guide to take them on a Killingfield Tour at Gettysburg. How might that small change in language affect how we think about those places? Interesting thought to ponder...

[EDIT: Scott Manning has a reply/his own reflections at Historian on the Warpath.]

Thursday, May 5, 2011

One Sunday in America: Echoes of John Brown

“So perish all such enemies of Virginia! All such enemies of the Union! All such enemies of the human race!”
-J.T.L. Preston, Virginia Military Institute at the execution of John Brown, 2 December 1859

“In this man's death, there is no sorrowing, no weeping, but the grimmest joy and sternest satisfaction. So perish all such enemies of the Republic, all such enemies of mankind.”
-a prominent Lincoln scholar's Facebook status upon hearing of the execution of Osama bin Laden, 2011

Just go with me on this. It has everything to do with Civil War era America and the echoes that the 19th century has today, I promise...

I had just walked into the house Sunday night and turned on the television, intent on going to bed early for a change. It was a little after 10pm. CNN was announcing that a speech dealing with a grave national security by the President was imminent in just a few minutes. Wolf Blitzer expounded how the Sunday address was unprecedented and telegraphed that it was big news. But no one knew the topic.

I tend to be a apocalypse hypochondriac. My mind raced. Nuclear war? Asteroid collision? I (no joke) punched up the NASA NEO program's close approach table and scoured it for any hint of the bad news (The fact that I know such a table exists and where to find it hints at the way I can get paranoid sometimes).

Then the news broke, first on MSNBC, then Fox, then eventually CNN. Osama bin Laden had been killed.

I felt relief, not that he was dead, but that the earth wouldn't become a Sunday night rerun of a Michael Bay film. Then the pictures on my screen transformed. From 'pebble beach' where the White House exterior remotes are shot, the camera panned to Lafayette Square. I know that fence pretty well. Living close to DC, I sometimes wander down to stand there in awe of that building where, just a century apart, Lincoln and LBJ both signed documents which altered the nation forever and helped it limp toward its promise.

Outside the fence were revelers. College kids running down from GWU, the reporters intoned, had spontaneously broken out in celebration. People were leaping up and down in front of the gates, waving flags and shouting slogans. "U! S! A!" echoed across the square (like some Olympic hockey stadium) where once Lincoln and Seward walked. Then they began singing a very off-key version of the Star Spangled Banner.

My heart sank. It reminded me so much of the celebrations on 9/11 which we saw piped in from around the Arab world. Pockets of distasteful celebration at the loss of a life.

How can one man engender
so much hatred? / PD / LOC
But I'm an historian of the 19th century. My mind slipped quickly from 2001 to 1859. I saw that crowd rejoicing in the street instead wearing sack coats or top hats, wearing militia uniforms or hoopskirts. The drunken reverie of 2011 gave me a glimpse of the Virginian psyche on the death of John Brown in 1859. When Robert E. Lee entered Harpers Ferry, he came upon a scene of drunken reverie. The militia were drinking down their share of the stores of liquor lining the shelves of the town's taverns. Firing shots at Brown's raiders more likely resembled a drunk day at the gun club than a measured military action. In fact, it more than likely looked like that crowd in front of the White House. People were cheering, chanting and shouting slogans as men like Dangerfield Newby fell dead in the streets.

As the week has progressed, I've been following the existential crisis of celebrating death which has cropped up between the stoic and the celebrant. The public comments have been most telling. One commenter named "westTN" on a story asking how we should feel about bin Laden's death professed having, "no qualms about an enemy being killed. My Marine nephew waiting on new legs is happy, my Marine son-in-law preparing to deploy is happy. Me, an old Marine Sgt, happiness is a warm M-16 and a confirmed kill. Semper Fi." Another commenter named "whadaham" queried, "We're supposed to be happy because now the terrorists have another fallen hero they can use as a recruiting tool." As militia were celebrating the success of the Marines at Harpers Ferry, the "old man," as Shield Green called him, was transforming into a symbol. Brown became a fallen hero and a catalyst for Abolitionists in their continued quest for the freedom of four million. Across the North, in churches on the 2nd of December, 1859, men and women prayed and eulogized as John Brown dangled from a rope in Virginia. And with their prayers they reconsecrated themselves to ending the slave system which killed their martyr.

Another commenter on that same story, "3511danny," noted his confusion at one student who, "stated in the article that we don't have a right to kill anyone. Of course we do." "ghintlian," summed their thoughts up quite succinctly: "I hope the CIA put at least 3,000 bullets in bin Laden's body before they dumped him in the ocean, for the 3,000 lives that were killed at Ground Zero!"

Meanwhile, 151 years earlier in the streets of Harpers Ferry, a black man, a former slave lay dead, his throat pierced with a makeshift bullet from a militia musket. His name was Dangerfield Newby. As townspeople rifled his pockets in front of the Armory's gates, they found a bundle of letters. Newby's wife had written him begging him to free her from slavery. The militia was incensed. They left the body in the streets, defiled it. They walked up to the lifeless corpse and fired off their pistols and rifles into the cold flesh. They filled the body with holes in the name of the four dead citizens whose lives Brown's raiders took. They sought vengeance on a lifeless form which used to be a man. But to them, he was a dog, an animal. To them he was worthless.

Is celebration at any death right or wrong? I don't know the answer to that question. I know what my gut tells me and I know what my heart tells me. The dilemma, though, is nothing new. It dates to the genesis of the war. Can we bluntly compare bin Laden and Brown? No. But the feelings they engendered in their fellow man have some striking similarities. The Civil War's moral crises have deep relevance to today.


One final comment from a forum I frequent often, which resonates with the typical neo-confederate argument of why Southern soldiers deserve universal laud (emphasis added). Take it as a word of caution:

"Admittedly, I an overjoyed at his death; Osama has the blood of hundreds of British civilians on his hands, as well as American blood. I will however point out that he died fighting for what he believed in; which is an admirable goal in itself."