Can We Honor Robert E. Lee Apart from the Confederacy?

Lee University

Kevin Levin raises an interesting point.  In a recent talk a member of the audience asked him if it was possible to honor Robert E. Lee with a monument for his work as president of Washington and Lee University.

Here is a taste of Levin’s post at Civil War Memory:

One question in particular caught my attention. A graduate of Washington & Lee University asked if it was possible to commemorate Robert E. Lee today in the form of a monument that focused on his time as president of the college. Imagine Lee walking astride one or two students. Lee is in civilian clothing rather than military uniform and carrying a book. Could one be erected in 2017 on campus and if one were already present would people be justified in asking for its removal or relocation?

In other words, is it possible to commemorate Lee without acknowledging his service to the Confederacy?

I attempted to answer the question by drawing a distinction between before and after Charlottesville, but admitted that I am just not sure. What do you think?

The Author’s Corner with Kevin Levin

interpreting-the-civil-war-at-museums-and-historic-sitesKevin Levin is a historian, educator, and the proprietor of the popular Civil War Memory blog. This interview is based on his new edited collection, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017).

JF: What led you to collect and edit the essays in Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: With the United States recently having completed a 4-year commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, I was interested in how the war was interpreted at historic sites and museums throughout the country. I wanted a better sense of how recent scholarship and shifts in our popular memory of the war impacted interpretation on the ground. With that in mind I gathered together a group of public historians and educators to talk about how their respective institutions approached the sesquicentennial. I asked them to focus on how the specific challenges posed by their location and clientele shaped their exhibits and public outreach. My contributors include some very well known public historians working at high profile sites as well those who work at places that are a bit further off the beaten path.

JF: I realize that Interpreting the Civil War is an edited collection, but does the book have an overarching argument?

KL: Given the ongoing public debate about Confederate monuments it will not be surprising to hear that taken together the essays serve as a reminder that interpreting the Civil War for the general public is fraught with challenges. Contributors to this volume shared both successes and failures. The most successful public programs turned out to be those that took chances in engaging new audiences and addressing topics that have been both ignored and/or mythologized over the previous decades.

JF: Why do we need to read Interpreting the Civil War?

KL: First and foremost, I hope these essays will be helpful for practicing public historians. This book is part of Rowman & Littlefield’s “Interpreting History” series and is intended primarily for pubic historians, but I suspect that general readers interested in interpretive controversies as well as the long arc of Civil War memory will find much to consider. Essays cover the history of the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina and questions surrounding how to interpret the battle flag that was recently removed from the State House grounds as well as the challenges of interpreting the war in the former capital of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia. Other essays offer insight into where we may be headed in our work as public historians. A historian with the National Park Service assesses its sesquicentennial programming and offers suggestions on what work still needs to be done while the final essay offers advice to public historians on how they can engage various constituencies in communities that are currently debating the public display of Confederate iconography. I can’t think of a better moment for just such a book.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KL: I never intended to become a historian. In 2005 I finished an M.A. in History at the University of Richmond and was teaching full time at a private school in Charlottesville, Virginia. In November of that year I started a blog called Civil War Memory, which within a few years had become fairly popular. The exposure that the blog offered paid off gradually with opportunities to speak and write and eventually led to a contract for my first book with the University Press of Kentucky that was based on my thesis. As much as I enjoy writing, I still think of myself primarily as an educator. Although I am not in the classroom full time, my greatest joy is working with history educators on their professional development and working with students on field trips and other settings.

JF: What is your next project?

KL: I am finishing up a book-length project that is tentatively titled, Searching For Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth, which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. The book explores the wartime role of body servants or what I call camp slaves in the Confederate army and how these stories evolved after the war and into the present as the myth of the black Confederate soldier. My next project will address the current debate about Confederate monuments. I plan on structuring the book as a travel narrative that will allow me to visit and interview some of the most vocal participants on both sides of this debate in different places and weave into the story the history of these very same monuments. No title yet and I am still working through the overall structure and goals of the project.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

How We Got Our Historical Markers

Dexter

Over at Smithsonian.com, Kevin Levin, the proprietor of the excellent blog “Civil War Memory,” gives us a history lesson on historical markers.

Some of you may recall that it was a Levin blog post that triggered our recent post “Is Jimmy Carter a Lost Causer.”  Levin mentions this again in his Smithsonian piece.

Here is a taste:

Historical markers are a ubiquitous presence along many of the nation’s highways and country roads. You can spot their distinctive lettering, background color, and shape without even realizing what they commemorate. And their history is more fraught than you might think.

States have celebrated their pasts since the United States was born, but it took more than a century—and the creation of modern roads—for roadside markers to become a tool for public memorialization. Virginia’s historical marker program is one of the oldest, beginning in 1926 with the placement of a small number of signs along U.S. 1 between Richmond and Mount Vernon. A small number of markers were erected in Colorado, Indiana and Pennsylvania even before this date. By 1930, Massachusetts had 234 markers along its roads—and these early tallies don’t include markers placed by local individuals, organizations and larger heritage groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The largest number of state-sponsored programs, however, followed World War II.

In the two decades after the war, American families took to the roads on vacations that had as much to do with pleasure as a desire to explore and embrace historic sites that reflected the country’s national identity and democratic values. In 1954 alone, around 49 million Americans set out on heritage tours of the United States, including Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, Washington, D.C., and Independence Hall in Philadelphia. These sacred places allowed Americans to imagine themselves as members of a larger community bound together by common values—and encouraged good citizenship at the height of America’s ideological struggle against the Soviet Union.

These pilgrimages also reinforced a traditional historical narrative that catered specifically to middle-class white America. Stories of Pilgrims and Puritans, Founding Fathers, westward-bound settlers, and brave American soldiers dominated this consensus-driven picture of the nation’s past. The vast majority of historical markers reinforced these themes on a local level, pointing out important events or notable residents—most of them white and male—as travelers wound their way to their final destinations.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Jimmy Carter a Lost Causer?

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin discusses a fascinating story about Jimmy Carter and the Lost Cause.  It will be published in a chapter in his forthcoming edited collection, Interpreting the Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites. The story comes from an essay on historical markers and the Civil War written by Todd Groce, the CEO of the Georgia Historical Society.

The story centers on this marker,  which was originally placed on the grounds of the Carter Center in Atlanta:

George Civil WAR

Apparently Jimmy Carter did not like the text of the marker and wanted it changed to reflect, according to Groce, “a more traditional Lost Cause interpretation.”  This happened in 2015.

Read more at Civil War Memory.

The Civil War Centennial in Jackson, Mississippi

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory found this on You Tube.  Here is what he writes:

Check out this short video of a Civil War centennial parade in Jackson, Mississippi in March 1961. There is no shortage of Confederate flags. It certainly is a wonderful example of how these events rallied white communities at the height of the civil rights movement.

There does appear to be two black individuals in the parade, one pushing a wheelbarrow at the 54 second mark, but I am not sure what to make of it.

What Would a Civil War Course Look Like With An All-Female Reading List?

When I think of Civil War buffs I think of middle-aged white men–the kind of men who go to Civil War roundtables, tour battlefields, and read books about generals.  


Does the same thing apply to Civil War scholarship?  Perhaps. But Kevin Levin, the author of the blog Civil War Memory, argues that a darn good undergraduate or graduate course on the Civil War could be designed using only books written by female authors.  

Here are a few of the titles that would make his reading list:
Read his whole book list here.