Monday, April 20, 2009

"Take These Pistols to My Father"

As the semster ends, my intro to U.S. history students are quickly approaching the Civil War. Last week we looked at two Mexican War-era lithographs depicting the death of Lt. Col. Henry Clay, jr. of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry at the battle of Buena Vista. I asked my students to think about these two images in light of 1) the potential political implications of each and 2) how warfare is depicted. They drew out some fantastic points, including:

- The most common reaction was to the American flag flying above the scene. It seems "extremely patriotic," one wrote.
- Continuing on this nationalist theme, some noticed that "American troops are in straight line & seem more organized, [with] more intricate uniforms." They linked these lines advancing under the flag to themes of the constant and "always advancing" progress of Manifest Destiny.
- Like many of the young men in uniform in Mexico, the students saw this image as a depiction of the heroism and glory of military service. "It shows the great leader dying an honorable death on the battlefield giving an inspiring quote to his officers, handing over his pistols." The inspiring quote, for those who can't make it out: "Leave me, save yourselves. Take these pistols to my father and tell him I have done all I can with them and now return them to him."
- Many linked Clay's drive to acquit himself well on the battlefield to the expectations of manhood and honor, some even to Clay jr's attempt to "fill the shoes" of Clay sr. by "dying fighting for" the family reputation.

Discussion of the second image focused on the "otherization" (my word, not theirs) of the Mexican enemies. The enemy is "hostilely [sic] killing the man with little emotion/remorse." It tries to depict "defeat not by a noble enemy but by [a] barbaric people." They concluded that this encouraged Americans to fight against Mexican "barbarity," justified by God's providential designs for the U.S. carrying its civilization to the entire continent. ...or so Jimmy Polk might say.
- Discussions about the depiction of war in the second image versus the first were insightful, too. In contrast to the first lithograph where "the battle continues in the background...while the figures in front look peaceful," and Clay's grapeshot wound in the thigh is "unreal" "sanitized violence," the second image shows "disarray," and "chaos." Most concluded that the second image was more "blunt," even more "realistic," and shows warfare with "very little honor" indeed. In our class discussion we talked about how movies today serve many of the same purposes as these images did in the 1840s.
- Looking toward exam time, I was quite pleased to see the students pick up on some irony in the very fact of Clay jr's death. One noted that the Col. died "because of a border dispute [of which] Henry Clay [sr] didn't want to be a part...he felt it was unnecessary." Another found it "ironic b/c [ah, the age of text-speak!] Clay is always being defeated (1844 by Polk) & his son is portrayed being defeated." (That one's for you, Chris!)

All in all, a useful little assignment that the students got into. I asked them to relate these themes -- both the political implications of the debate over the spread of free soil/slavery into the West and the impact of images of war on young men of military age -- in relation to why men would enlist to fight in the Civil War. And we'll be there in just a couple weeks!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rainy Post-Shiloh Days

As I sit in cooped up in my office on this dreary April day, I am reminded that 147 years ago tens of thousands of men were doing precisely the same. After the excitement of battle had faded, the survivors were given ample time to reflect on their experiences as movement ground to a halt. Maj. Ben Buckner of the 20th KY (U.S.) felt much the same as he wrote home to Helen.

Although I have written you two letters in the last days, I dont know how I can better spend an hour or so this gloomy rainy miserable evening than by writing to you again, feeling assured that you will receive any thing I may write with pleasure, however uninteresting it might be to others; and as you are so very good about writing as indeed you are about every thing else, I would have no excuse for not having written should by time during the next week be so occupied as to make it impossible to do so. But dearest though I may write you never so long a letter you must not expect any thing of interest. The battle with all its horror as well as points of interest you have learned all about long since, and we have no incident in camp worth relating. We are stuck fast in the mud, and as it rains here every day I dont know when we will move, as it would now be utterly impossible to drag our artillery over these horrid roads. The rebels are somewhere, I dont know where, though if they were only five miles distant I would not know it as the movements of the rebels and indeed of our own army are kept profound secrets from both officers and men. ...
You dont know how very much I want to see you. Do you know that the day of the battle, I thought of you again and again , that during the terrible scene that I thought not of mother & father or self only you. God bless you darling you are so good, true, and noble. ... Write me a long letter dear Helen, tell me every thing about you. ...
As ever yours

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Parks, the Public Sphere, and Preservation

I had a thought during a discussion last week on the contentious issue of mountain top removal coal mining (MTR) when someone mentioned that the Romantic views of sweeping mountain vistas that were the backdrop for an anti-MTR film looked like something out of a National Park Service site video. "Ha," I thought, "true enough." But it also got me thinking about the symbolism of the National Parks, specifically the seal and patch I have emblazoned on a sizable percentage of my clothing: an arrowhead inverted with a buffalo grazing in the foreground in front of a majestic redwood and a mountain rising in the background.

Does the NPS identify itself with things lost or vanishing, Indians, indigenous plant and animal species, and geological formations, all of which have found themselves the target of modernization? Is the NPS to be the curators of America's zoo-of-the-past when we have finally rid ourselves of these beautiful inconveniences? Does the government preservation of space only encourage the exploitation of places not designated sacred, beautiful, or otherwise special?

And here's where I think Jurgen Habermas' idea of the public sphere, a space outside formal politics where citizens can communicatively debate issues concerning the body politic, is so vitally important to a new role for the NPS and for Americans generally. I attended the National Council on Public History conference this weekend where Dr. James Brewer Stewart's keynote address, “Abolishing Slavery in Lincoln’s Time and Ours: The Legacies of American Slavery and the Challenges of Human Trafficking,” envisioned a new -- but at the same time very old -- role for historic sites. Speaking specifically about those that dealt with slavery in the past, Dr. Stewart encouraged sites to use their roots in historical slavery as a platform to launch discussion about modern day human trafficking, to smash the concept that slavery ended in 1865 (a concept that Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement cast into doubt anyway) by showing that ending only American slavery did not end the phenomenon worldwide. He encouraged, too, a dialogue between the public and interpreters about how the issues of the past continue to affect our world today.
As public land, why should a National Park site not be the site of public sphere debate among concerned citizens?It seems to me that NPS sites have always been tied to public debate. To whit: Chickamauga or any other Civil War battlefield was the site of a debate over the meanings of citizenship, freedom, equality, race, class, gender, and a host of other issues when the armies met there in 1863. Perhaps 34,000 casualties was not Habermas' ideal of communicative action, but it nevertheless is an extreme example of debate over vital issues outside of formal politics. Later, in the 1890s and onward, the battlefield became a site of commemoration and (white) North-South reconciliation. Themes of shared sacrifice and valor were played up, while the "emancipatory" legacy of the war was largely redacted. The monuments on the field attest to this revisioning of the war as an unfortunate but glorious national Iliad. This understanding continued through the 1960s commemoration of the war's 100th anniversary, which employed Confederate memory as a banner to rally anti-Civil Rights support in the white South. With the 150th anniversary of the war approaching, the NPS has a chance to use its Civil War sites in a new way, as a public free space to encourage civil dialogue (Incidentally, this is the reason I was at the conference, participating in a panel of public historians discussing themes and strategies for the CW 150th). There will be resistance from many, saying that entering "politics" could bias the site. But by recognizing and discussing the fact that these places have -- in one way or the other -- always been spaces for social-political debate, how is employing that space for the same purpose today any different? That legacy of debate, being a bandbox for the playing out of the politics of memory, is the very reason these spaces have become places invested with cultural meaning.

In my opinion, the parks-as-free-space model of use will have to take hold if we are to positively preserve Civil War battlefields. As the country moves farther away from the Civil War being a "felt history," as the Civil War becomes a shrinking part of America's historical consciousness, and as general public interest in history declines, continuing the tradition of civic dialogue in these spaces will demonstrate to a new generation of Americans the continuing lessons that can be drawn from these places, these memories. It will increase public awareness of these sites as important, as relevant, as vital to our national identity. By demonstrating that relevance and usefulness we can create a new set of "stakeholders," people emotionally invested in the continued preservation and appropriate use of these places, and thereby -- hopefully -- preserve their lessons for another generation.

Monday, April 6, 2009

T'was the 6th of April about the break of day...

Just a quick note to mark the 147th Anniversary of the Battle of Shiloh. The first battle for the Army of Mississippi, soon to be known as the Army of Tennessee. It is interesting to note that in the last few years Shiloh has finally been given its share of printed attention, due in large part to fromer NPS staffer, Tim Smith. In a few weeks, the University of Southern Illinois Press will be releaseing the first in a series of essay books on the Western Campaigns, edited by Dr. Stephen Woodworth, it is fitting that the first volumne will be on Shiloh, and contain a contribution from Tim. Hopefully, all of this will lead to more works on the Western Theater in general.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Civil War Preservation Trust Park Day 2009

Just a reminder for everyone that tomorrow, April 4th, is Park Day, the Chickamauga and Chattanooga NMP is participating as are other sites around the country, so if you can check with your local site and help out.

Also, for those in the Atlanta area, Sunday is the Free talk at the Atlanta History Center on Gen. J.C. Vaughn, if you can please go as the more participants they have the more money the History Center receives.