So there was an interesting blog post from a few days ago by Gettysburg seasonal ranger, University of West Georgia graduate student, and public historian Emma Murphy. She has begun a study of the use of Confederate memory in the Georgia state flag, but in a very personal blog post admits that she grew up romanticizing the Confederacy because of a lifetime of indoctrination in the Lost Cause. Yet when she got to college, she reveals, the facts presented to her about the causes of secession did not jibe with what she thought she knew. Rather than resist this enlightenment, she became curious instead. “Why was I so in love with this ‘rebel cause’ growing up? Where did that begin?” These questions led her down her current research path on Civil War memory, but I have to wonder why more people that grew up with the Lost Cause do not prove as willing as Emma to let it go once they learn more. Charles Dew’s Apostles of Disunion was enough to convince her (such a small little book, with such a powerful wallop!) I always assign it to my graduate students (most of which are high school history teachers working on a masters degree) for that purpose, and yet many of them still resist and cling to “state’s rights.” And trust me, it is still being taught in many classrooms all over the South, including community colleges (I know this firsthand). Of course many tomes have been written on the enduring power of the Lost Cause, but it is still perplexing.
We know that much of the revival of Confederate symbolism and distortion and praise for its cause came as a result of white resistance to Reconstruction and then later to the Civil Rights movement, but now the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent study has convincingly quantified that. A college professor and the work of an academic historian were enough to change Emma’s perspective, but a large segment of the population is not as receptive or as exposed to those things. They ARE exposed, however, to the 718 rebel monuments and 109 public schools named after Confederate leaders (not to mention a lot of bad history being taught in many schools), and when we point out, contextualize, and seek to correct their distortions people cry out, “political correctness!” Previous generations that put those things up HAD to be right, and any new scholarship that questions their facts and motives is “politically correct.” Why the resistance to the idea that people before us had it wrong and/or had their own political agenda? Maddening. Do other fields besides history have this problem to such a large degree? (Well, maybe so, climate change deniers, anti-evolutionists, etc) Civil War memory, public history, and pop cultural history matter, and I wish more universities offered more coursework in those areas, and graduated more students going into public history. (Especially in light of this disturbing news). It is in those realms that the Lost Cause was largely created, and so that’s where the ultimate defeat of it will come. We’ve got to keep researching memory, contextualizing those monuments, and getting those flags down, and we must greatly expand our interpretation of slavery at Civil War battlefields and historic home sites, and promote and champion movies and TV shows like Free State of Jones, Mercy Street, and Underground. Oh, and we’ve got to keep doing more things like this, and this.
Speaking of being willing to revise our thinking: Have you ever visited the James Monroe house near Monticello? It turns out that what has always been presented there as a portion of his home, is actually the remnants of a guest house he had built on his property. Oops. They try to put a positive spin on it in this article by arguing that it a good lesson in how we sometimes have to revise what we think based on new evidence. Well, that IS a pretty good point. Too bad this is going to kill their visitation though.
And speaking of historic sites and new interpretations: Colonial Williamsburg has made some strange choices lately, but their latest move is a good one (although a bit too long in coming). Anyone that has visited there knows that Bill Barker has long done an amazing job in his first person interpretation of Thomas Jefferson, but as time goes on, he has aged and thus his Jefferson does not exactly fit in the colonial-era environment that Williamsburg recreates. So I’m very happy to see that they now have a “young Jefferson” who will begin showing up there this summer. Here, he introduces himself, his background, and what led him to and prepared him for such a demanding job. I look forward to seeing him roaming the streets, pontificating on politics and life, and perhaps playing the fiddle down at the Raleigh Tavern.
Wow. As if we needed more proof that legendary basketball coach Bobby Knight has some screws loose, he just introduced Trump to a crowd as “the most prepared man in history to step in as president of the United States.” WHAT? He then went on to describe him as the most “honest” politician in history. Folks, the amount of historical ignorance on display in this election is mind boggling, but you already knew that. This circus that is the 2016 election just added a new clown.