Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields...": Altamont and the American Civil War

Yup, more on this flag...

A couple weeks ago, I put up a post about a flag flying at Manassas during the Sesquicentennial commemoration. It elicited a nice response from a friend of mine, Robby, who hails from the great state of North Carolina. Robby loves to play devil's advocate, so I'm always happy to wade further into a friendly conversation:

...When a historian is unable to understand the southern affinity for the men who fought the war, almost to a person you see the slavery straw man emerge. This action is akin to politicians playing the race card, an easy way out of a confusing and hyper complex situation. In the end, most will not understand the paradoxical nature of southern feelings about the war and its outcome. They will denigrate flags, passion, and the oft-mentioned heritage as hallmarks of a society still stuck in the throes of antebellum histrionics. This is a gross simplification cast as philosophical enlightenment that is in reality a lack of such. Group think feeds group think in the end.

OK, so here's the gist - slavery is at the core of the Confederate cause. It lies somewhere wedged in there wherever you look. It is the fundamental difference between the United States Constitution and the Constitution drawn up in Montgomery in 1861. It is Stephens' "Cornerstone." I take J.S. Mosby at his word in 1907 when he said: "The South went to war on account of slavery." Slavery is the heart of the Confederacy's philosophical reason for being.

Now, it is right that where it gets sticky is in the individual motivations. But here's my deal on that: that uniform is a real sticking point. The uniform of an enforcement officer, military or civilian, is a symbol. Put on a uniform and you are representing something. When a police officer puts on his uniform, he is no longer a citizen; he becomes the voice of the municipality he serves. When a soldier dons his uniform in a war zone like Afghanistan, he becomes the emissary and voice of the United States or Great Britain or wherever he is from. By donning that uniform, he either tacitly admits to agreeing with the policies of his nation or vows to hold his tongue to some greater or lesser extent while that uniform is on his back.

The Rolling Stones perform Sympathy for the Devil
at Altamont in 1969.
I liken it to putting on a Rolling Stones t-shirt. That set of lips and that tongue have a lot of baggage which donning that shirt conveys. That symbol says, at its base, "Goats Head Soup is a damned good album." But when you put on that shirt, you need to realize that somewhere, sometime, you are going to have to make peace with Altamont. If you put on that shirt entirely ignorant of the Hell's Angels and knives and pool cues, you nonetheless are making some minute statement about that violence by wearing those lips. By wearing the shirt you still telegraph a message. That means that if I were to ask you, "what do you think of Altamont?" the question would be both fair and germane.

The Confederate uniform, that grey or butternut tunic and pants that men wore; that Confederate (1st, 2nd, 3rd... take your pick) National Flag they carried; that rifle issued from the gates of the armories at Fayetteville or Richmond: all were potent symbols of a nation. Anyone carrying those hard iron symbols, wearing those wool symbols on their backs or marching under their symbolic cotton folds was becoming a voice of a nation through their action, regardless of their individual beliefs. Just as when seeing a set of lips on a t-shirt, it is a fair question to ask, "what do you think of Altamont?" when you see a historical figure in a gray uniform, it is a fair question to ask of them, "what did they think of slavery?" They have already opened themselves to the topic and started making a statement by their decision to put on that wool coat.

The Tongue and Lips first appeared on the album
Sticky Fingers, which featured the hit single Brown Sugar,
itself publicly debuted at Altamont in 1969.
When someone walks in front of me sporting a t-shirt with the classic Rolling Stones emblem emblazoned across their chest, I can ask them. They can answer. Soldiers of 150 years ago are another story. We need to use the evidence they gave us to give voice to their rotten throats and mouldering mouths. In the case of the flag of the 4th Alabama, we have a tangible symbol which the men left behind. They chose to represent themselves with that symbol, which helps to answer that simple question, "what do you think of slavery?" They have writ large their answer with a cotton bale and boll. They say with that flag that they valued the crops it yielded. They say with that flag that they valued the wealth and prosperity the institution brought their communities. They say with that flag that they valued slavery. They say with that flag that their cause was the property, "sold in a market down in New Orleans." It was why they fought.

So, what do I think of Altamont? That was some screwed up stuff, man. It never should have happened. It's really tough for me to listen to Under My Thumb now. The Stones' music isn't inherently violent. But the Angels and the crowd in 1969 were spoiling for a fight. Nothing could have stopped it, not even the entreaties of the Jester prancing across the stage. Altamont was an irrepressible conflict.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A House Where People Lived: The Schriver House of Gettysburg

Recently a couple of my close friends and I were hanging out in downtown Gettysburg, looking for
trouble, err I mean, fun. We were trying to find something in town that we hadn't been to – something new to add to our Gettysburg experiences. When one of them suggested that we give the Shriver House a whirl, I admit, I was a little uneasy at first.

I mean I hate can’t stand house museums with a passion. They’re sooooo boring. Typically, a house museum is little more than a glorified furniture tour. It is the standard, “Look in this room. This is a parlor. Look at the furniture. See the horsehair couch?” If you are into historic furniture, then by all means, house museums are a must for you. But, if you’re not into mid-19th century furniture, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. As we walked in to the Shriver House, though, I figured what the hell – if nothing else the house museum might make for a decent blog post.

When we came out about 50 minutes later, I was mind blown. The Shriver House was easily one of the best house museums I’ve ever visited. Reflecting on the tour, I kept asking myself, “What made the Shriver house so interesting and engaging? What made it work?” Well for one thing, the Shriver House pretty much follows John Rudy’s definition of history – namely that, “History is ideas put into action by people on a landscape.” Our tour guide, Kim, gave us a window by which to see a family, the Shrivers, survive during wartime at home in Gettysburg.

Our tour of the house started with Kim explaining that as we stepped into the house, we were actually traveling back into time to see the house as it was during the battle of Gettysburg. The house was like it was then, when its occupants abandon it for safer quarters outside of the town. We stepped into the dining room and Kim mentioned that we could see all the typical wares a middle class family would have had, but to make sure and notice that the table was only set for three. Hmmm…I looked at my companions as I got all excited. “This might be different,” I thought to myself.

Why was the table only set for three? Well, George Shriver, the man who built the house was not here, for he was off fighting in the war. Kim asked us to imagine what the dinner conversations must have been like with George before he left for war. It seems that as soon as he had finally gotten his own house in order and finished building it, the bigger house, the United States, was falling apart. What was the dinner table like now with Sadie and Molly asking mother when father will come home again? Right there, Kim invited us to be part of the story - to imagine ourselves in the house with the people who lived there. It was interpretive. It made the house come alive.

We walked through the rest of the house, Kim leading the way. She pointed out the kids’ toys that were left right where they had been playing with them before the family left. She invited us to empathize with the family, and what it must have been like to leave everything behind, to leave your home behind, not knowing if you will ever see it again and in what condition it will be in. She cautioned us not to miss the candy the kids had left – Necco wafers, “History you can eat,” she said.

Next up was the attic, just how the Confederates who used the house as a field hospital and sniper position had left it. Torn cartridge papers were lying all about, and you could peak through the bricks that were knocked out of the wall for sharpshooter positions. The Shriver family returned to their house after the battle. It was the same house and the same town that they had lived in their whole lives, but it wasn’t quite the same. The house and town had changed.

Our last stop was in the basement, not set up as it had been, but what might have been. It had been George’s dream to run a tavern out of his basement, and the owners of the house have it set up as George’s dream. It was never to be, though, for George died in a prisoner of war camp in August of 1864. While standing in the tavern, Kim motioned to the street level window that looked out on Baltimore Pike. She recalled the procession that marched by in November of 1863 up to the new Soldier’s National Cemetery. It was at that moment that I looked up and saw a car pass by. For some reason, it was then that it struck me, the scene that was once outside, and what was not to be inside. War has its price. The Shriver family was just one family whose lives were shattered by the Civil War. For them, their house tells their story. It is a home - not of furniture, but of people.

In talking with Kim our guide afterwards, I was amazed. I had enjoyed the tour immensely, and Kim, a stay-at-home mom, had made our day. Kim hadn’t given us just merely a tour of the house, she had given us an opportunity – to empathize, a chance to understand, and a chance to feel what war was like for families. She had helped us connect to the past, to history on a personal level. Kudos to Kim and the rest of the staff at the Shriver House for doing great historical interpretation. They get it. Next time you are in Gettysburg, I say check ‘em out and let me know in the comments what you thought!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Realistic Goals for Civil War Interpretation: What Are They Supposed to Walk Away With?

I was tempted to title this post, "Are we not men? We are DEVO!" but I wasn't sure the reference would read right off the bat...

What exactly did these visitors
walk away remembering?
Before you can begin any task, to some extent, you need to have some target in mind. Even if that target is hazy and indistinct, you need to aim that arrow somewhere before you let the bowstring fly.

So, what is the target that Civil War interpretation aims for? I go on programs and walks with interpreters when I'm out visiting Civil War sites. I love tours.

When I'm on a battlefield, I often witness a deep passion from the interpreter that the detailed actions of the battle are paramount. Their voices usually perk up at the nuts and bolts of battle movements and intricacies of where regiments stood, how many volleys they fired and the mechanics of war. You can't fault this personal passion, but passion alone does not simply catch like a virus. Meanings need to be facilitated, not donated to the visitor.

I went on a personal tour of a western battlefield one time with a deeply dedicated and knowledgeable historian. For two hours, he scrutinized the field as the sun waned, showing me places and describing every intricate detail of the battle occurred. I can't, for the life of me, remember a single bit of the battle action he described as he argued with the air. He held a discussion with every leading historian in absentia on the failures of their understanding of the battle. Still, I can't remember a detail of it. Not a one. I was very appreciative of the time he spent, but it was a wet towel to my appreciation of the battle landscape. That field means nothing more to me now than it did before that tour. I was never given an opportunity to explore what that place might mean to me. The goal seemed, regardless of the visitor's interests, to be imparting knowledge of tactics.

When I've visited house museums, the interpreter's passion usually rises at the mention of spoons or double-hung window sashes. And here, too, you cannot fault someone for what they personally care about. The intricacies of Victorian table manners, the strictures of 19th-century lifeways and the complexities of ornamental decoration over a fireplace often become the most talked about subject on a tour of a home. Jacob has a great story of a house museum which bucks this trend coming up soon, but in general it's all been about spoons when I've walked into a dining room of an historic home, and little about the conversations that happened over that table. The goal seems, regardless of the visitor's interests, to be imparting knowledge of the spoon.

All of this begs the question: what is history? I think every historian at some point in their career needs to wrestle with this one. If you've never done so, then you risk wandering through the profession with no bearings. So, what is it?

To me, history's definition is short and sweet:

History is ideas put into action by men on a landscape.

These four key elements all are present in any historical event. Take Seneca Falls in 1848: a Declaration of Sentiments for equality was signed by 68 women and 32 men in the Wesleyan Chapel. Or take Utah Beach in 1944: an assault on Fortress Europe by average men to topple the oppressive Nazi regime and ensure freedom in Europe. Whether the action is a grand military expedition or the flick of a pen on paper, mankind acting out ideas and ideals on a landscape encapsulates history in my mind.

But the passion for tactics or the passion for the spoon fails this test quite handily. Spoons or molding or curtains alone have no people and no ideas, and thereby little relevance. Tactics taken alone have no ideas and only faceless, shapeless groups of bodies, and thereby little relevance.

Who marched across this landscape?
Men or Armies?
So what is our goal in a Civil War era landscape? Is it to impart a raw fact dump? If so, then tactics and spoons are fine. But ask a visitor after a tour of Antietam what happened and they'll give you broad tactical strokes where you gave them minute detail. Ask them what they remember most after a program and I'll guarantee 9 times out of 10 that it's not the intricacies of tactics. People don't care about the 20th Maine at Gettysburg because they swung like a gate, with a pivot off of the colors at the regiment's center (a textbook military maneuver).

No. They care about that spot because an academic, an aloof professor of rhetoric, against what we might expect from a college professor, ordered his men to charge down the slope of Little Round Top, helping to ensure United States victory at Gettysburg and thereby a nation preserved and freedom for 4 million in bondage.

The tactic is only the context. The story and route to broad relevance lives within the man and the ideas / ideals his actions embodied.

In the end the question is simple: do we want the American public to know about these places or understand them? Knowing is being able to repeat rote fact. It is memorization of faceless facts and figures, the recitation of lists of dead white men in specific orders, the rattling off of cold and motionless dates. In short, knowing is the reason why every student in high school who hates history hates it.

Understanding is feeling and processing the place, the ground and the men who acted there, then caring about that place for your own personal reason. Certainly, tactical discussion is important, but its primary function is as a framework inside of which the men of a battlefield lived. The experiences of those men are what resonate with a modern visitor. Don't believe me? Just ask a fellow visitor what moved them most after you attend a program.

We often hear admonitions to sprinkle in human interest stories into programs and interpretive products. But this is, IMHO, the wrong impulse. Tactics are what should be sprinkled in; the core is human interest, where the personal relevance of the American audience is to be found.

Jake quoted a great piece of Freeman Tilden's Interpreting Our Heritage recently, which works as an excellent coda here:
The battlefield of our great fratricidal American war is not merely a place of strategy and tactics: not a place where regiments moved this way and that like checkers on a board; not merely a spot where something was decided that would lead to another decision. It is a place of the thoughts and acts of men, of their ideals and memories... a place of people, not armies.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

How can we make Digital History Sites Personal?

Or, are they already personal?

It's a question I've been asking myself alot recently. Digital public history sites are springing up all over the web. There are snazzy ones with great content like The Antebellum Project, which showcases Bowdoin College's role in the coming of the Civil War. There are information and resource dumps like that allow its users to see tons of different historical sources. There sites that use GIS like WhatWasThere and allow users to collectively document the world around them. Then there are websites that are digital exhibits built to accompany an actual physical exhibit - one of my favorite examples is this one by the Met on paintings that feature scenes from everyday life in America.

Each one of these websites presents a great learning opportunity. But...does each one of these websites present a similar ability for its users to find meaningful connections with historic ideas, objects, artifacts, events, and people? It seems that so much of interpretation at museums and historic sites relies on experience. You can see the artifacts in the museum and image the hands that made the uniform, or the persons who drank out of that cup and canteen. To use my favorite example, by visiting battlefields, you not only see the ground over which Pickett's Charge occurred, but also the farmhouse of the free African-American family who owned just a few of the fields that the Confederates charged over and died upon.

Can you have the same experience online? Does watching a video or uploading a picture create the same opportunities as talking to an interpreter? On one hand, it's probably good news that a video can never replace an actual human being. But what then of digital public history? Does the sense of 'discovering' history on your own, in your own home, and at your own pace make up for this lack of experience?

I think it does (or at least it does it for me). Digital history sites democratize history. They allow anyone with an internet connection to experience the thrill of research, the telling of a great story, or connecting with a physical site, even though its through a computer screen and keyboard. Is that, in of itself, personal interpretation? I don't know yet. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Yep, I know - short post this week, but I'm moving! By the end of the month I'll be settled into my new apartment in Washington D.C. - the capitol of public history. As such, expect to hear my adventures and critiques of public history sites in the area. Before hitting up Washington D.C. I have some unfinished business with Gettysburg next week as I get back to the Civil War here on the blog...

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Manassas: Why They Fought Here

Replica of the flag of Company G, 4th Alabama Infantry at Manassas' 150th Celebration

Another quick observational post on the Sesquicentennial event at Manassas last month. This time, it all revolves around the Confederate living history camp adjacent to the Henry House, and more directly to the exhibit there which the reenactors entitled, "Flags of Manassas." Curiously, the flags of Manassas were only rebel banners, with nary an American flag in sight. But that's another discussion completely.

Near the end of the row of flags was the one pictured above, a first national flag with a large image of a cotton bale emblazoned across its stripes. One of the reenactors informed me it was a replica of the banner carried by the 4th Alabama, company G. The flag later became the regiment's colors. The flag was presented to the men of the 4th Alabama by the ladies of Marion, Alabama. The original is in the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

But what did the flag mean? What was that cotton bale and the large cotton plant on the canton intended to represent?

The ladies of Marion presented the proud banner to their brave men recruited from across Perry County, Alabama. Thanks to some keen numbers crunching by rootsweb user Tom Blake, we can start to get an image of what Perry County looked like on the eve of the war as men joined the army which would fight on the fields of northern Virginia. Perry County had a total of 1,045 slave owners, who held 18,206 humans in bondage. Over half of those slaves were owned by masters with 34 or more humans beings listed as their property. Perry county was a land of plantations and production farming. Commodities flowed from the fields of Perry County, picked by black hands. The flag was simply a, "beautiful device which illustrat[ed] so aptly the product of our lovely country."

So, when the regiment decided to adopt this flag as their regimental banner, what type of statement was that choice making?

To add another plot thickening and tantalizingly juicy detail to the tale, the flag purportedly flapped in the breeze near Thomas Jackson as he received the appellation, "Stonewall." There he stood, like a stonewall, fighting under a banner touting the primacy of the quintessential slave crop. What was this war all about again?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Interpreting Controversy: The Atomic Bomb and the NPS

I’m going to step a little outside of our purview today to comment about the recent developments and media reactions to the proposed Manhattan Project National Historical Park. You can read the National Parks Conservation Association’s press release, and the NPS resource studies at their respective hyperlinks. John and I discuss our wider views of public history here pretty often, so I think the issue at hand is still pretty relevant.

Michael Lynch has a great run down of the media reaction to the proposed park, much of the press being negative, over on his blog, Past in the Present. It is a great post and well worth the read. I agree with Lynch on several points, and I thought I would offer a couple more on why we, the United States, need a Manhattan Project National Historical Park. We need a public history park dedicated to the atomic bomb for several reasons, reasons I’m calling controversy, engagement, and democracy. These ideas are all pretty interconnected, so let me explain.

One of the biggest reasons that critics have argued against the project is the fact that they don’t want to glorify the atomic bomb and the human tragedy associated with it. But that, my friends, is exactly why we need a park dedicated to the Manhattan Project. The aim is not to glorify, but to interpret the controversy, the decisions, and the consequences associated with that world-changing event. We need a tangible place that can engage us and remind Americans of the great controversy, power, and responsibility that comes with atomic power. What better place than a National Park? What better than a place that is owned by all Americans, that is for all Americans, and that was created by all Americans and their chosen representatives? That’s democracy at work. That’s some of the greatest ideas of our country at work.

Furthermore, the story of our National Parks and public history sites are not the stories of inanimate objects, war torn landscapes, and historic buildings. As Dayton Duncan, the research historian behind many of Ken Burns’ films, says, “there is no history, only biography.” The story of the Manhattan Project is not just the story of a simple killing device. It is the story of the people who made it, the people who used it, the people it affected (both victims and victors), and the consequences of that decision that we as people have to live with today.

It’s the same with all of our National Parks and public history sites. The great battlefields of the Civil War the NPS and other organizations preserve are not preserved solely because of the landscape itself. It is what happened upon that landscape, and who made that event happen that is the reason the land is preserved. The hope being that future generations, through one of the few tangible connections we can preserve for posterity – the place it happened - can use those sites to remember and to forgive, to struggle with the decisions that were made and the events that happened, and to find meaning for themselves today, and the future as well.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Manassas: Consumer Time Machine

Only a quick post this week, as I'm preparing for a few busy days in Dulles at a conference.

One of the interesting bits of interpretation I found at Manassas' Sesquicentennial event was a rarity in my book.  Oftentimes, living history volunteers place the contents of a haversack or a bedroll out on a gum blanket and simply name off the items for visitors.  Beyond this laundry list, the conversations rarely reach into the realm of drawing personal connections with the visitor's daily life or personal experiences.  The intellectual connection is well lain out, but an emotional connection is often fleeting.

But one of the living historians at Manassas hit an interpretive home run.  Look at the exhibit pictured above.  Under the right side of a fly were some original period food containers.  Then, on the left side, was the spread pictured above.  They are modern brands which find their lineage in the Civil War era.Some were regular consumer goods.  Others made their first fortunes from war.  The gentleman who was interpreting the setup was making connections for visitors.  It didn't take a leap to imagine how many of these goods sat on my shelf at home, artifacts of the Civil War in my kitchen cupboard or on my refrigerator shelves.  The connection between the past and the present was palpable in those simple bags of Eight O'clock Coffee and Lea & Perrins Sauce.

Knowing the soldiers and civilians of the 19th century ate some of the same foods I appreciate, the Civil War was alive in the supermarket of my mind.