Archive | July, 2012

Anniversary of the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek

27 Jul

Who would have thought a small skirmish between militia of the Mississippi Territory and a group of Creek Indians would lead to sweeping change across the Gulf South?  And yet, the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek that occurred on July 27, 1813, did just that. A force about 180 militia troops attacked a Creek encampment near Burnt Corn Creek (one of the greatest names for a location of a battle ever) close to the modern boundary line between Conecuh and Escambia counties in Alabama. After initially scattering them in disorder across the creek, the Indians soon rallied and counterattacked while the militia stopped to inspect the packhorses they had just captured. The American militia fled in terror, handing the Creeks  a victory that would lead to a full scale war that eventually resulted in the total defeat of the Creek Nation and the cession of 23 million acres of land in present day Alabama and Georgia.  The fate of nations do not always hinge on climatic battles. Even minor skirmishes can alter the trajectory of history.


Monuments to Men

23 Jul

Yesterday Penn State University did what most observers expected they would eventually be forced to do, and removed the statue of former Coach Joe Paterno from in front of Beaver Stadium. The event was only the most recent act in a long and tortuous debate over what the legendary coach symbolized for the school in light of the devastating scandal that has been in the news for months. It became exceedingly clear that despite decades of positive influence on thousands of people, a misguided attempt to conceal the dark truth about a close associate ultimately grew into a problem of epic proportions that brought about, among its many terrible consequences, the disgrace of Mr. Paterno. It is neither the first nor the last time a revered public official’s final estimation will come into question because of facts learned after his death. While it might seem peripheral to our profession, I believe there is something contained in the debates over this football coaches’ veneration that demand the historian’s attention.

There is an inescapable and inherent problem with idolizing any person with a permanent monument: there is always the possibility something in their character, actions, or words might bring about a reevaluation of their merit at some future date. In recent decades we have seen some reevaluation based on morality and conviction on a large scale. Some of this nation’s most respected historical figures have been held up to the light of scrutiny to see how they measure against moral standards of times in which they did not live, and the results have been largely unflattering. George Washington has been portrayed by some as just another wealthy, racist slaveowner; Thomas Jefferson as a philandering hypocrite; and Andrew Jackson as an egomaniacal white supremacist. The list goes on and on, but the underlying point to me is that these critiques are usually unfair, as they seldom place controversial actions or opinions in adequate context, fail to educate citizens on the totality of a person’s influence, conflate private flaws into blanket moral failures, and assume an air of moral superiority that presupposes our way of thinking today is the pinnacle of mankind’s enlightenment.

On the other hand, I do feel periodic reassessment of celebrated figures is a necessary and beneficial thing if done properly. In order to venerate a man and his influence we should be able to understand him and the true impact on our society he had both in his time and for succeeding generations. I hope that being a product of your times does not ever in and of itself preclude any individuals from being celebrated as important shapers of our national character. And to be blunt, sometimes flawed private lives and noble public influence must be separated. No matter what era in which they lived, the fact is men whose likenesses are crafted into a monument are still just mortal men. We would do well to remember this when choosing to memorialize any individual for what they achieved in life, and be prepared to deal with the consequences should their actions be questioned at some later date. We live in a society that is quick to crown heroes, but even quicker to castigate them when misdeeds, real or perceived, are discovered. I believe that it is unfortunate but entirely appropriate that Joe Pa’s statue will no longer greet visitors to Penn State, as the revelations of recent weeks have made it clear that on some significant level, his success and image were maintained through deception. But when uncomfortable facts about beloved icons surface in the future, and they surely will, we must be able to distinguish as clearly as we have here between influence derived from carefully orchestrated deception and genuine influence derived within the context of moral systems that we may not like or continue to subscribe.


A Job Well Done

16 Jul

We recently had the opportunity to travel to New Orleans and see the new visitor center/museum at Chalmette Battlefield, a division of the Jean Laffite National Historical Park and Preserve. The new visitor center opened in January 2011 after the previous one had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The new center is larger than the one it replaced, and features interactive exhibits and displays of authentic and reproduction artifacts that help tell the story of the battle and its impact. We both enjoyed the facility immensely and see it as the perfect complement to a visit to the battlefield where Andrew Jackson bloodied the British.

Utilizing a relatively small amount of space, the visitor center provides the public a superb overview of the battle and its relationship to the larger War of 1812.  Attractive museum displays and engaging videos keep your attention and educate you on the basics of the battle. In a span of about fifteen minutes, we saw some fascinating artifacts, read some interesting material and enjoyed the excellent movies which conveyed a lot of information without taking too long.  We were also glad to see that the museum did not to try to explain the entire war or strain to find some forced point of connection with visitors of every possible cultural background in an attempt to be relevant. It told the story that needed to be told. We both feel that historic site visitor centers should concentrate on 1) providing a good summary of what happened there and 2) preparing visitors to explore the site on their own.

 Unfortunately, this experience is not common in some visitor centers. For example, the Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center in Mississippi attempts to tell the entire story of the Civil War, leaving the visitor at times to wonder about the significance of the site itself. Instead of focusing on the city of Corinth and its role in the Civil War with emphasis on the siege and battle  of 1862, this facility spends way too much time discussing topics such as the war’s causes, Fort Sumter, and many other aspects of the war that do not need to be dealt with here. For example, a large amount of space, and money no doubt, was spent on an exhibit that features stone blocks on which are engraved the names of the states in an effort to communicate the fracture of the Union. It is an attractive display, but has far more style than substance. Finally, the facility is located a short walking distance from Battery Robinett, a pivotal location in the October 1862 Battle of Corinth, but the historic ground where the story of the site unfolded is not promoted and comes across as an afterthought.

These two visitor centers provide examples of radically different approaches to historic site interpretation which we believe are worthy of comparison and contrast. In our humble opinion, one far outshines the other by telling that particular location’s story and informing and preparing visitors so that they can better appreciate the significance of the site. The other attempts to tell so much that it ultimately tells little at all and fails to help visitors form a meaningful connection with the site at which they desired to visit. One capitalizes on visitor interest and facilitates an engaging site tour, while the other bombards visitors with extraneous information and seems to forget its very reason for being. Congratulations, Chalmette Battlefield, on a job well done!  


A Lost Art?

9 Jul

After recently receiving an academic history journal in the mail, I eagerly began reading an article that interested me. And like too many times in the past, my eagerness turned to frustration as I struggled to read and complete the article due to its poorly written style. As has become too common, instead of reading an engaging narrative that took me to a past time, I was instead transported to a place of irrelevancy as the author’s writing got bogged down  with data, quotes, and a general style whose main objective was to prove to the reader that an exhaustive search of sources had been conducted.

Historical writing today has lost its way. Too many historians seem preoccupied with proving that they have done their due diligence in research rather than telling a story that needs to be told. Simply put, they have forgotten the “story” out of “history.”  It appears the field of history has gone too far towards the scientific method and needs to be brought back towards the writing itself.  More emphasis must be placed on good writing instead of displaying superior research. It is the historian’s craft to conduct proper research, and then, relay it to the public in a format that is easily comprehensible and enjoyable to read.  Failure to do that simply continues the long-growing trend of historians writing only for other historians, dragging the field further and further into irrelevancy to the public.  


Learning From the Past

3 Jul

I believe historians do themselves a major disservice in their advocacy for the profession of history when they employ the overused and inaccurate maxim first penned by philosopher George Santayana which asserts “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We have all heard it. Perhaps some of us have even used it. The problem is that it is not only untrue, but provides a false rationale for the study of history that promises unattainable, scientific results.

Situational circumstances and context from one era to the next are incredibly varied, and applying the lessons of one experience directly to the next cannot consistently lead to predictable, desired outcomes. To assert as much implies we believe we have an ability to understand and overcome individual motives and control the course of world events that is at once both prideful and naïve. But of more concern to me is the concomitant assertion inherent in Santayana’s phrase that history is only made worthwhile because of its tangible results. History can teach us and assist us in making informed decisions when meeting crises, but it simply cannot lead us to perfect solutions every time. To suggest otherwise is to set historians up for failure and quick irrelevancy.

To root our arguments for the study of history solely in its importance to the future is to overlook some other vitally important functions it serves in a healthy society. It helps us understand who we are and how we got here. It offers examples of triumphs that can inspire and failures that can educate. It provides us with a common ground from which to evaluate our shared national character. It helps us understand the transcendent aspects of the human experience. And yes, it can even be entertaining. Does this mean we stay away from touting history’s relevance to our shared future? Certainly not. Let’s just not overplay it, and inadvertently shortcircuit our own arguments as to the profession’s overall contribution to society by pointing to guaranteed results we can never produce.