Assignment 1, Part 3

Please complete the following assignment in time for class on Friday, January 14. Please be sure to share your thoughts in the comment section below, and also be prepared to discuss these readings in class.

Thread 3: Civil War Memory & Commemoration

Assignment: Read the following online documents and respond to the questions below.

Katharine Q. Seelye, Celebrating Secession Without Slaves

Seelye presents a good, cogent overview of the most recent controversy surrounding the observance of the Civil War sesquicentennial. What is your impression of the competing perspectives she outlines? Do you think that they are influenced by present-day politics? If so, how?

E. J. Dionne, Getting the Story of the Civil War Right

What are the Dionne’s major points?  How do they compare to the NPS’ as represented by Dr. Sutton’s article that you read in Part 1 of this assignment?

Be sure to scroll through the comments that follow Dionne’s article. Judging only the demographic of those who choose to respond online to newspaper articles such as this one — and in light of Seelye’s article — how would you describe the reception to Dionne’s article? Is this surprising to you? Why or why not? What, if anything, do these comments tell you about approaches to our project?


About Greg Shine

Adjunct faculty in the History Department at Portland State University, where I teach historic site interpretation. Former Chief Ranger & Historian at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site.
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10 Responses to Assignment 1, Part 3

  1. Laurie Pentz says:

    I have an interesting experience in education about the Civil War. Though born in Philadelphia, we moved to Texas when I was very young. My entire public school education was carried out in Texas, most notable for their views on creationism and the fact that the Civil War was about state’s rights. Now, I’m not speaking for the whole of Texas, just my experience in public schools in Houston. Katharine Q.
    Seelye very adequately outlines the controversy surrounding the Civil War, at least from my own perspective. As a child I was taught that the war was about states’ rights and that the abolition of slavery was used as a tactic by the Union to economically cripple the South. My college education has been exclusively in the more liberal Pacific Northwest, an advantage that allowed me to experience both sides of the controversy. While Seelye outlines specific controversies, I think she outlines a pervasive theme. The Civil War was a difficult period in our nation’s history, one filled with wrongdoings and violations of basic human rights that are astounding. It is difficult to find a way to commemorate such a tragedy in our nation’s history effectively. We want to celebrate the sacrifices that men and women made for their causes while at the same time acknowledging those causes might not be just according to modern sensibilities. Many southerners have family members who died in the Civil War and 150 years is not so long ago that they have forgotten. To them, establishing the unjustness of even one aspect of southern culture that was being defended (slavery, specifically) effectively invalidates the sacrifices of their ancestors. If we
    choose to focus on positive aspects instead, such as the ending of slavery, we cannot do so in a vaccuum. We must also acknowledge that though technical freedom was given to the slaves, many African Americans suffered under the implied shackles of sharecropping and the fact that they were still not equal members of a society, no matter how free they were under the law. Absolutely these views of the Civil
    War are influence by present-day politics. Libertarians in general and the newest form of the Tea Party specifically advocate for state self-governing and have a built-in model for demonstration of this political ideology in the Civil War. At least, if they ignore slavery. History is all about context, however, and slavery cannot be excluded from any discussion about the Civil War. Another part of this article that really stood out for me was at the very end, when Seelye writes, “The conflict has been playing out in recent decades in disputes over the stories told or not told in museum exhibits and
    on battlefield plaques.” When it comes to history, sometimes the untold stories are just as important as the familiar and famous ones. I think that’s one of the things that this project is really going to be focused on, particularly after reading Sutton’s lecture and some of the information on interpretation. The desire is to link some of these unknown and untold stories to the history of the Civil War and bring about a better
    understanding of the themes surrounding it.

    In Dionne’s article, one of the major points he makes is that we tend to focus on the mechanics of the war without attributing much thought to the reasons behind it. He relates a tale of a conversation that focused on the battles and the major players, but left out consideration of “why.” Dionne also points out that several leaders in the Confederacy literally stated their reasonings behind secession as the value of their slaves, understood as property, but after losing the war they rephrase their motivations to exclude slavery. Dionne believes it is important to get the story straight because so much of later history (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement) depends upon consequences of the Civil War. It is an important and defining part of our history that cannot be ignored or denied. Sutton, in his lecture from part 1 of the assignment,
    also pushed for a focus on the reasons behind the war. Like Dionne, Sutton also believes that events in the Civil War defined how later history would play out. The title of his lecture was “Civl War to Civil Rights” to put it bluntly. Sutton uses the example of our first African American president to illustrate how important the Civil War was in defining our current society. “Without the Civil War …” Sutton writes,
    “Barack Obama likely would not be president… .”

    The comments section didn’t really surprise me, but that’s most likely because I’m from Texas. Many of the sentiments espoused in the comments, at least those done articulately, are reflected by Texans across the state as well as other Southerners. What struck me is that a significant portion of these comments are likely from the generally liberal Seattle, I-5 corridor. That really stands out in my mind because, though these Seattlites might be transplants, the identity of the South may not be exclusively geographical. What I mean by that is that some people might identify with the causes of the South though they have never set foot outside of Washington. It really gave me a new perspective in trying to identify the audience of our podcast. I though that in Union battlefields or historical sites (Lincoln’s birthplace for example) we might find more liberal views. Now that I’ve written this down and read it, that seems like an incredibly naive notion and I’m kind of embarrassed that I felt that way. I think that’s an important part of historical analysis, though, understanding your own personal biases. It was also enlightening to me how deeply political the context of the Civil War was within the comments section. There was heated commentary linking modern party practices with scenes from the Civil War. It really helps to define who our audience will be for the podcasts not only from a North/South dichotomy, but also from the perspective of political lines.

  2. Mary C says:

    Seelye’s article addresses the competing arguments that the Civil War was fought to preserve slavery and that it was fought to defend states’ rights. I find it interesting that these arguments are being presented as mutually exclusive when it is more realistic to say that the war was fought for many reasons and that slavery and states rights are a large part of those reasons. I find it interesting that those who argue that the war was fought to preserve states rights ignore the repeated references to slavery in the Articles of Secession, and that those who argue that the war was fought over slavery perpetuate the idea that the south was full of plantations where whites owned hundreds of slaves. They fail to mention that 66% of whites in the South did not own slaves and that only 12% owned more than 2 slaves. They also fail to mention that Whites were not the only people to own slaves in the South. There were several well-known African-American or Mullato slave owners, particularly in cities such as Charleston, SC that are rarely mentioned. This is something that would be useful for us to address in our podcasts.

  3. Melissa Swank says:

    Obviously, the story has two sides or it would not be a controversy. Seeyle introduces the controversy surrounding the minimization of the role that slavery had on/in the Civil War. The Sons of Confederate Veterans obviously want to minimize the role, and NAACP obviously will not. It’s sad and disheartening to see the way people will dismiss the facts of history to their own “meaning” and “purpose.” Dionne on the other hand questions why the role of slavery in the War is being minimized – and rightly so.

    The responses to these type of articles and opinion pieces never surprise me. Anyone has access and “right” to write whatever they please, no matter how ignorant or uninformed. For us, I think we need to be aware of the political factors that are playing heavy upon the commemoration and rely on historical sources and documentation regardless of what popular society is saying. As Sutton wrote, as chief historian, slavery played a huge, primary, and pivotal role in the Civil War. Historical sources show it. It is true. Interpretation should never be based on what makes someone “feel” good. Interpretation needs to be based on where the sources lead. We should not allow political forces or popular influences to inform the view of the past, that is UPSTREAMING. We cannot impose current-events on the past. It’s sloppy history, it’s sloppy scholarship. And likewise, you cannot CHANGE history to keep from offending someone. You interpret based on available sources, you make meaning for your audience based on this information, and if someone leaves with a conclusion that is inaccurate you will have the assurance that you practiced sound historical methodology and did not tip-toe around a sensitive subject. To me, this is not an issue of should we address slavery or not, it’s an issue of whether or not to practice accurate historical methodology.

  4. Makenzie Moore says:

    Well, personally, I’m a bit unnerved by some of the celebrations laid out in this article, namely the Secession Ball which sounds rather glamorous way to remember the start of a pretty violent, bloody, and tragic event. And then when you add slavery (or the conspicuous lack thereof) to the equation it just seems weird. But I’m not from the South, and neither were any of my ancestors, so I don’t know if I can completely contextualize what this event means to the people of South Carolina.

    Dionne’s article, similar to the NPS article, was concerned with establishing slavery as the underlying factor leading up to the Civil War. Both articles acknowledged that there is substantial debate surrounding the cause of succession but both named slavery as the chief motivation for the conflict. I do think the Sutton article is more thorough in its dissection of the complexities of the war. I’m familiar with Sutton and Dionne’s argument, but this isn’t the first time I’ve heard other explanations either. I think it’s really fascinating that such different opinions exist; how a group of people deals with a particularly painful part of their past is an important act of history in and of itself. I think for our project we have to keep in mind that there are different ideas of what happened. I hope we can create something that confronts this horrible part of American history while exploring the complexities and controversies that both existed within it and came out of it.

  5. Amy Platt says:

    Whenever we try to grasp something as huge as the Civil War (which I think should extend a couple of decades on either side of the actual battles), the tendency is to look for consistency. People rarely act consistently and so history often seems to lose a coherent narrative. For example, people beat their heads against the wall trying to reconcile Jefferson’s populist republicanism and his slave-run plantation (not to mention his slave companion and mother of his children). In the comments under Dionne’s piece, you can see people insisting on consistency–in language, motive, action–in order to accept any part of the narrative as “true.” The first step may be to create an environment that allows apparent contradiction to exist together (by avoiding presentism, maybe?).

    This tendency to reject theoretical inconsistency is obvious in the commenter’s struggle over the Democratic Party (which is ignorance on his part, but you can see how language can be a problem), but is perhaps less obvious in the argument over states’ rights and slavery. Both descriptions of the cause are “true,” but they must be true together. As both Seelye and Dionne describe, the causes don’t make sense on their own. Why did the South WANT to exercise their right to secede? And why did the argument over slavery cause a constitutional crisis? The two narratives must be spoken together, in the same breath, always and in every case. The South has been dividing one from the other for 150 years, which has had a profound impact on the educational system, the way memorials are made and interpreted, how politicians are elected, and so on. It all has a cumulative effect. People like Michael Givens feel secure in their defense of secession as an isolated concept (effectively and properly exercised, so worth celebrating) and at the exact same time shrug off the evils of slavery simply by asserting its evilness. So simple. This is one thing; this is something else–as if history happens within theoretical bubbles, within enclosed narratives that may only coincidentally overlap.

    A problem, then, is that public history and interpretation lean toward the congratulatory–for good reason: we choose people, places, and events that are extraordinary, leave a mark, affect the course of policy, etc., and have contributed to our local/state/national identities. But a whitewashing is easy to fall into, even accidentally (as Seelye describes). The struggle over commemoration and celebration for historical interpreters seems particularly difficult with the Civil War because the competing narratives are still decidedly regional. Lincoln is hero north of the Mason-Dixon; the devil to the south. And as long as people look for consistency of character and rhetoric in historical figures (Lincoln argued against abolition in the 1840s; he must have been lying in the 1860s), the meaning of events or documents will be lost to them. The challenge, then, of the Civil War projects will be to make sense of apparent contradictions so that a larger story is revealed and accessible, so that the good and the bad work together and not against each other (he bought and sold slaves AND he considered them part of his family; he hated slavery AND he thought blacks were inferior).

    The result of our inability to reconcile competing narratives is evident in the unbelievable success of the Tea Party. The Tea Party’s platform of states’ rights accomplishes several things at once: it reiterates and legitimizes a century-old southern narrative that makes the loss of the War irrelevant and the federal government both tyrannical and vulnerable; it turns policy disagreements into points of constitutional crises; and it demonizes defenders of the War (those who agree that Lincoln had to take federal action and who are glad the Union army won) as hypocrites. I don’t see how the NPS can avoid the current political climate–placing slavery at the center of the institutional mission will rile people up! But much of the theoretical debate can be mitigated if factual information is combined with the anecdotal (Sutton described this mix in his essay) and the personal. It will be interesting to see if federally implemented public history programs will effectively counteract the profound ignorance of history by anti-government groups so painfully on display in the comments sections of those articles–but perhaps it’s helpful to think that public history organizations helped create this knowledge gap in the first place by focusing on facts over meaning and by privileging individual over collaborative interpretation–and so, they may also bridge that gap.

  6. Brandon Quintel says:

    in Seeyle’s article about competing controversies about the civil war celebrations, my view point is that we should celebrate every aspect of the war even given that many aspects of the war and the time in which it happened may have been inhuman or against better moral judgement. im not saying that we should celebrate the bad things, but to recognize that they were and are a part of the past and to be honest, a very important part of it, that we cant just leave out. this is analogous to people leaving out parts of history that they didn’t like, this would definitely make history much lighter and happier, but its not the fact. we need to recognize these and in deed have these darker periods apart of the celebration. these opposing view points i think are of course drivin by present day politics. in todays world, it is wrong and considered a horrible thing to celebrate acts against people such as racism or slavery. so by given our times, people are more sensitive to these ideas and want to try and make opposing arguments to have these insensitive facts removed or downplayed.

  7. Dianna Woolsey says:

    I found the comments on Dionne’s article possibly more interesting than the article itself. That’s not to say that the article isn’t good and significant, but Dionne’s insistence on peeling away the denial surrounding the role of slavery in the South’s secession strikes me as perfectly reasonable and consistent with the history that I have been taught about the Civil War. The comments, on the other hand, are certainly not all in keeping with the history that I have been taught, and they impress upon me that any public history that I create needs to speak to people who would disagree to their last breath with my interpretation of the history. Some of the comments, even being posted to a Seattle-based news source by people listing their locations as parts of the Pacific Northwest, reflected an enormous amount of Southern identity and indignation. They spoke of an enormously powerful recollection of a narrative of Northern aggression and exploitation that, as a lifelong West Coast resident with few ties to the South or its traditions, I’ve always dismissed as a myth. It makes for a complicated task producing interpretive materials — whatever I think the history is, it does me no good to write interpretation that alienates visitors by dismissing their existing understanding without also giving them nonconfrontational space to think about the stories they’re being given. That’s easy enough to say, but I’m betting it’s incredibly difficult to DO.

    One of the commenters made an interesting point that seems parallel to Dionne’s. Both mentioned how the South re-framed its cause after the fact, in light of the postwar political climate — I think Dionne put it in terms of the discrediting of slavery, suggesting that seceding states’ framing their feeling of justification in terms of slavery wasn’t going to work when the institution was so unpopular. The commenter brought in the odd inconsistencies in the status of women and the cognitive dissonance of men trying to justify placing some women on a pedestal while abusing others — the conclusion was, to paraphrase, no wonder their grandchildren decided to pretend that didn’t happen and just argue about economics instead. I don’t know whether the status of women played such a large role as the commenter was arguing, but I think the point is well-taken that communities are usually pretty good at smoothing over causes that are ugly, inconsistent, complicated, or sort of embarrassing, and replacing them with ones that are easier to defend and less awkward to talk about. It tells me that a historian who can gently bring the ugly and embarrassing causes back out of the closet and discuss them, again without alienating the audience, is doing something fundamentally illuminating about the human experience.

  8. Andrew Carlson says:

    Seelye’s article speaks to the deep divide that we have in this country when it comes to politics. Instead of people believing in what they want to believe in and being influenced ONLY by themselves and their personal experiences, it seems that some individuals are following the “norm” of their environment, geographic location, and/or the views of others. I am NOT saying this is true for everyone but if we take voting, for instance, who believes that EVERYONE has the time to research each candidate, ask questions, etc.? The political divide in this country, especially between, say, the South and the Northeast, is enormous…just look at the electoral college (before Obama and after). There are still those (states) that have a firm belief system and seem to never vary because of past ideologies and viewpoints. Maybe I am rambling here, and I probably am, but as Seelye’s article points out, it’s okay to believe in what YOU want to believe.

    One of Dionne’s points is that even today, after 150 years, “there remains enormous denial over the fact that the central cause of the war was our national disagreement over race and slaver, not states’ rights or anything else.” She believes that it is important to get the story right in order to take pride over the struggles that our nation has faced in regards to slavery and segregation. Dionne does not believe that we should “dumb down” the story or, in her words, “sanitize” the events of the war because if we do, “we will dishonor the Civil War.”

    Dionne’s article relates to that of Dr. Sutton’s in that they both believe there is more to history than who shot whom, when, and where. For instance, we should focus on the details of a certain event or the thoughts/decisions of a certain person rather than a broad interpretation. By discovering more, interpretation can take on various forms. Dr. Sutton also discusses slavery and mentions, more specifically, the economic value of slavery on the eve of the Civil War. In this way, he is taking something broad and narrowing it down to an important aspect that many people might over look when interpreting it.

    It seems to me that the reception to Dionne’s article is mixed and when comments are made, they are not necessarily criticizing Dionne’s points of view but bringing in their own analysis. The discussions in this section are quite academic and really interesting to the average viewer, who would probably learn a lot more there than in any textbook. I think that we need to have an approach to our project that includes both sides of any conflict or issue that is brought up…of course, we will not be able to satisfy or convince everyone, but if we make an effort to put together things in a flowing manner, we can achieve success.

  9. Doug K-C says:

    Seelye’s article presents commemoration of the war without slavery. Which seems to be a completely backwards interpretation of the historical event, as we know it is impossible to remove slavery from the war, as context is everything in historical interpretation and presentation.

    Some discussion I have heard in previous classes is that all current historical writing is, to some degree, a reflection on present events. Thus, a book written today on the Mexican-American War is in some ways a depiction or statement/ judgment of the wars in Iraq an Afghanistan (American Imperialist Wars). If one subscribes to this theory, then of course a blog posting about the Civil War will reflect the current polarization of today’s (violent) political environment.

    And much of that polarization can be seen in the comments to Dionne’s article. But rather than get upset at what some people write and still hold as feelings about this war, I view this as an opportunity to be sure to include many different views and address them in our podcasts. We would be naive to not expect the comment that “the war was about state’s rights, not slavery!” to emerge from a Southern visitor to Manassas. We need to address it right away, and give an opportunity for the visitor to explore the theme of slavery in a way that offers an opportunity for them to listen and learn. By confronting in a stand off-ish, “historian voice” manner, no opportunity will be gained of correcting these (popularly) held, incorrect “beliefs.”

    My personal opinion is that the complexities of the war, the warts on the victors as well as the Rebels, should be exposed by our podcasts. It is only through examination of the intricacies, the massaging of the nuances, that true (and quality) understanding can be obtained. We cheapen the story when it becomes all black verses all white – the gray is the difficult, and the rewarding story to tell.

    But is this all “presentism?’ I think not. The Civil War was an ugly, ugly event, slavery was a horrible institution, and on many levels we have never really dealt with this as a nation. The sesquicentennial seems like an accessible, easy way to deal with some of these issues once and for all, so as a society we can move on.

    Both Dr. Sutton and Dionne’s articles attempt to “set the story straight,” and dispel this myth that the War was not about slavery. But Sutton’s argument is a little more nuanced, and carried the progress from the war to the present era, demonstration that the war was indeed about slavery, but also without that conflict, we would not have civil rights like we do today. Barack Obama would not be president today is the logical progression of the article.

  10. Shawn Daley says:

    When I read the comments in response to Dionne’s article, I wasn’t entirely surprised to see a few barbs thrown his way by those who know him as a somewhat “liberal” columnist. At the same time though, I was a little taken aback, because I didn’t think Dionne did anything in this that screamed “liberal.” Based on my own educational background, I thought he was simply asserting a point about the Civil War which I assumed was a given – that while the Civil War certainly had other factors leading up to it, the central thrust of the war was about the practice of slavery. Yet in reading about 10 of the 19 pages of comments (I think that was all the “Yurij” I could handle), this apparently is not a given. What’s more was that this was for the Seattle area, and if it isn’t a given in the Seattle area, I’m both interested and frightened to consider how the remainder of the nation views the Civil War 150 years later.
    Don’t get me wrong – as a native New Yorker I have always had a little bit of hometown pride, but that usually stops at my loyalty to sports teams (Go Jets!). In some of these posts, however, I got the sense that there are people who have grown up feeling ultimately aggrieved at what the Civil War did to their region, and they take on the mantle of a “son of the south” in a way that I don’t sense any other region of the country does (I don’t light a candle every time the anniversary of the Whiskey Rebellion rolls around as a “Son of a Middle Atlantic State”). As a former history teacher, I had a moment of curiosity about how maybe a 10th grade teacher could color lessons about the Civil War, thus leading to such a general mood.
    I didn’t necessarily think that Dionne had too many points in his commentary beyond the fact that Americans have glossed over that the Civil War was about slavery. While he introduced a variety of historical anecdotes, in particular the Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech, he nevertheless continued to return to this contention, and went so far to say that we would dishonor the legacy of the war (those that died) if we forgot this central concern. I thought this was along the same lines as Sutton, who while a bit more comprehensive (and I thought, tactful) through addressing the political, social, and economic areas, still got back to the same point. Sutton’s onion layer analogy, in which he peels off those three layers to get to the core of slavery was very well conceived, and I appreciated the detail he gave on all three of those fronts in reviewing the topic while still getting back to the slavery issue.
    Now when I read Seelye, I cringed a bit at some of the festivities that were being planned for the South in “celebrating” the Civil War. The “Secession Ball” unnerved me. Maybe it’s a stretch of a comparison, but I couldn’t help liken this to having a “Blitzkrieg Cotillion” in Germany when September 1, 2039 rolls around. It just seems to make light (and a profit) of what was an awful experience, and the fact that the power of our collective American conscious would not throw up major objections to planning an event like this may lend credence to the claim Seelye makes that this war is the “least resolved” of American conflicts.
    I did notice an interesting link between the articles. In Seelye’s piece, Jeff Antley, a Son of Confederate Veterans, notes that the events being planned in South Carolina were “to honor those South Carolinians who signed the state’s ordinance of secession…there’s no shame or regret over the action those men took.” Had I not read Dionne’s piece, I may have passed these comments over, but Dionne included that the South Carolina act of secession named slavery in some form 18 separate times. Thus when Antley goes on to call slavery an abomination while simultaneously trumpeting the men who tried to secede because of slavery, I saw some of the disassociating that is going on when it comes to the popular memory of the war.
    This makes me want to approach our assignment with some degree of caution, as I don’t want the issues to be lost in a series of political diatribes (when you look at pages 13-19 of the comments, you occasionally see the “voice of reason” post and say “where did this argument start?”). I think that the way Americans discourse tends to be so uncivil that we get nowhere as a society when we engage in that form of conversation. At the same time, I think these articles prove that maybe we have a responsibility to help filter out the misinformation that presently pervades American memory about the Civil War. In some respects, because of utilities like podcasts, we may have the ability to inform about the Civil War in a way that has not been done up until this point. But how to craft our rhetoric in a way that highlights historical record while not sounding a call to arms…

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