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Confederate Monuments. What to do, what to do?

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Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia

You won’t get any great revelations or meaningful insights here today folks, but since you’ve asked, I have a few things to say…just to open up a discussion.

Readers of this blog will probably not be all that surprised, but guess what –  I am no fan of the Confederate States of America. Despite my family connection to the Deep South (Alabama) and my  Confederate ancestry (my ancestors fought in the 16th and 26th Alabama Infantry Regiments), there is no love lost between me and the boys in gray. They fascinate me to be sure, and I have spent a lifetime studying them – their motivations and their country…however short lived it might have been.

And of course the reason for my, shall we say, distaste for the “glorious cause” is simple. It boils down to why the Confederacy existed in the first place: to indefinitely perpetuate the institution of slavery.

This is where the Confederate apologists will check out (surely after a dramatic eye roll). Fine, if you don’t believe me, just read any contemporary newspaper, the secession documents, Alexander Stephens, etc, etc. To anyone with sense, the evidence is irrefutable. It was slavery, stupid.

And yet, all throughout the South (indeed, throughout the country) there are monuments to those who fought to ensure Confederate Independence and establish a slave-holding republic. How we got these monuments is an enthralling story, quite worthy of our investigation. While I will not digress, I can offer at least one recommendation to get you started: Ghosts of the Confederacy by Gaines Foster.

Now, these days there is a powerful movement to destroy public Confederate symbols, citing how they are offensive to a good number of residents – constantly reminded of the generals, politicians, and yes…soldiers who endorsed the white power structure and fought to maintain slavery. They have made a good deal of progress including the recent removal of monuments in New Orleans and elsewhere. Rather than me discussing the specific details of these removals, have a look at the work of Kevin Levin and others who have eloquently chronicled the events and offered their take.

Quite a few on the usual socials have been asking where I stand on the destruction of these symbols. Brace yourself…I think that Confederate monuments are very useful educational tools. As such, like any historical document, we should preserve them for posterity.

Well now, I bet you didn’t see that coming. But bear with me for a minute…there’s more to my story. And to my Confederate apologist readers that are still with me here, stop grinning. I’m not on your side. Not by a Confederate mile.

While would-be Rebels might think that these symbols preserve Confederate history, I think that they are confused. What they DO preserve is a history of oppression. Further, they perpetuate the memory of a romanticized Confederacy enshrined in the Lost Cause narrative. So why keep them around? Because that is a history worth knowing. I do not believe in the destruction of any historical documents, regardless of the form in which they come, and regardless of their power to offend.

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Yours truly and students at the monument to the Lost Cause in Los Angeles

First, I think that when we do this, we set ourselves up on a dangerous path. If we destroyed everything in this country that brushed up against oppression some way or another, be it racist, sexist, or whatever, well then…we would not have much left would we? Second, understanding what these monuments really mean in context (not of the war, but of the post-Reconstruction era) SHOULD make you uncomfortable. If they don’t, you might be missing a sensitivity chip. Discomfort challenges us to investigate and to understand. When I take my students to Confederate monuments (we have one in LA) that is my focus. We talk about the Lost Cause, the redeemers, reconciliation, and of course, Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement. The monument provides the setting and it leads my students to profoundly important questions.

But there are, naturally, problems. Most of the monuments offer no context. They are simply there and more often than not, in prominent public settings and maintained by tax dollars. To a great many of our citizens, they are powerful reminders of a past wedded in every conceivable way to slavery.

So if we should not destroy them, then what should we do? Well…some folks with very good intentions suggest that historians, better known to Confederate apologists as revisionist libt—s, should come together and create appropriate contextual plaques to place near monuments, explaining what these things are all about. I have offered to do this at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, where our local Confederate dead rest at the foot of their monument. Side note: they have not taken me up on my offer.

But even if this were to happen the monuments would still be there, looming over all of us  – and they would still be offensive. So others have suggested relocating them to museums or to private property far removed from heavily trafficked public areas. Not such a terrible idea, but a logistical nightmare. If you have ever visited Monument Avenue in Richmond, you will quickly note that many of these things are enormous…nearly as big as Confederate defeat itself (but not quite).

So in short, while I really really really don’t like Confederate monuments,  I do not think destroying them is the answer. To be honest, I am not really sure what we should do with them. So I am open to reasonable discussion (emphasis on reasonable) in the comments section. Until then…

Peace,

Keith

A Poem

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-6-28-25-pmI have many talented colleagues – some of whom do much more that one might think…like write poetry.

One such individual shared this with me yesterday…

 

The End

by Jeremy Shine

 

If I had to choose a way to die,

I think I would like to go

In the form of a house-fly,

Who meets his end

By way of the hard-cover

Of a well-read and much liked

History, one whose prose

Could sweep you into

A world long past, and yet

With clear relevance to our own;

Continuity being of the essence.

And the comforting thought

That life goes on, the Future assured.

As it is written:

Just as we are now and those that were are to us,

So we will be then to those to be.

(On the other hand,

Maybe a newspaper would be best.)

 

 

 

 

Office Hours – the Latest

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 9.07.32 AMGreetings all!

The Office Hours series is clicking along at a good clip – and doing well…strangely, not so much on Youtube, but most definitely on Facebook. Go figure. At any rate, here are my two latest episodes: One on counting the Civil War dead and the other on the Teapot Dome scandal. Hey – students ask – so I answer, which means…if you are dying to know about something concerning United States history, just ask. I might feature your question on Office Hours.

In other news, I have a podcast in development set to launch by fall. I’m asking the tough questions. So stay tuned. Anyway, enjoy the videos 🙂 Oh…and by the way, I am shooting one today explaining Alexander Hamilton and the assumption of state debts. Because Hamilton.

With compliments,
Keith

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Gettysburg for Young Readers

Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 6.23.07 PMI am quite certain that one or more Civil War aficionados with a leaning toward bibliophilia has catalogued the number of books dedicated to the Battle of Gettysburg. The number must reach into the tens of thousands: general histories, books that focus on command, strategy, and tactics, books that single out particular days of the three-day battle, books that emphasize specific details, or that follow the campaign with particular regiments or even individuals. And the number of books, articles, essays, even movies about Gettysburg seems to inexorably grow.

I wonder…how many of these books are accessible to young readers? Having spent a good deal of time engaging many of these sources, my guess is not that many. The cynics among us might ask why we  bother reaching out to kids with the written word. Young people engaged with the Internet and its trappings: seconds-long sound bytes, rapid fire information, and the easy access of social media posts are certainly appealing to kids who are plugged in to the outside world at all times. I do not disapprove. Social media and the Internet has been the greatest advancement in education since the printing press…at least in my estimation.

But does that mean we should give up on the idea of young readers picking up a history book and engaging its contents? I think not. Success will come with striking a balance. Visual imagery, relevance, and an exciting narrative style is essential when the goal is to inspire a kid to read history. They can take what they learn and go interactive – turning to social media armed with information and an inquisitive spirit.

I am acquainted via Twitter with the author Iain Cameron Martin, who has put together what I think is an ideal introduction to the Battle of Gettysburg for young readers – Gettysburg: The True Account of Two Young Heroes in the Greatest battle of the Civil War. His easily accessible narrative style, accompanied by beautiful illustrations and contemporary images and accounts of the battle’s participants, follows the campaign from June, 1863 into Southern Pennsylvania for a detailed investigation of the battlefield drama as it played out between July 1-3. He explores the battle’s aftermath and legacy and what’s more, interjects the first-hand testimony of two young residents of Gettysburg who witnessed the battle: Tillie Pierce and Daniel Skelly.

Martin writes out of the shadow of modern controversy. Rather, he takes an even-handed approach to the battle narrative – simply telling the story of two armies struggling for their respective causes and what was at stake.  But at the same time, he makes clear the issues forming the foundation of those causes.

When I visit Gettysburg, as I do frequently enough, I am always struck by the number of young people exploring the rock formations in Devil’s Den, climbing Little Round Top in search of the spot of Chamberlain’s famous charge, or recreating Pickett’s doomed assault on Cemetery Ridge. I am sure these kids would benefit greatly form Martin’s work. We might quibble with his details or analysis. But any well-conceived history should make us think – and Gettysburg certainly succeeds at that.

With compliments,

Keith

American Civil War Web-Course

ACWtitlecardHi all,

My web-course, The American Civil War, is now live. Please have a look HERE for a free preview. Be sure to scroll down the page to see all that the course offers. Readers here at Keith Harris History will receive a special discount (YAY!). Created especially for students, but open to anyone with an interest in the Civil War, the course includes over forty video lectures and other interactive activities covering all aspects of the conflict: military, political, social, and economic. In addition, each lecture features downloadable primary documents to facilitate a better understanding of the material. I encourage you to join in the conversation on Twitter – I will address all questions personally.

With compliments,

Keith