Archive | May, 2013

The Power of Place

31 May

As public historians, we should be aware that in a very real sense, “all history is local.” While many people care about and are eager to learn about the broad currents of national history, nothing quite resonates with the majority of our audience as stories explaining how their communities figure into them. Sometimes, though, we can forget or discount this bit of wisdom as provincial. This weekend I was reminded of the error of that mode of thinking in a personal way.

Benevolence Baptist Church

I am fortunate to be working in an area in which my family has deep roots, as both my father and mother’s ancestry settled here nearly two centuries ago. On Sunday, I attended a homecoming celebration at a church in a little off the beaten path community in rural south Georgia which some of those ancestors helped found back in the 1830s. Generations of their descendants, and those of their friends and acquaintances, have managed to preserve the historic church that was the center of their community, even though today to continue to do so is not exactly a practical endeavor. They do it from an appreciation of the stories the place contains, and the fact that it is inextricably part of their own stories today. They hope it will continue to be a part of their children’s story, as well, regardless of whether they ever they live in the vicinity. It was of course fun to be a part of this celebration of the past on a personal level, and to connect with a place of genealogical significance. 

But the visit was also an important reminder that for most of our audience, a primary and sometimes sole interest in historical places derives from a visceral connection to them either by residence or ancestry. There is nothing wrong with that. It is inherently difficult to be passionate about a place with which you have no connection, after all. All places matter to somebody, and as historians we should be glad they do. People such as those I met this weekend are the driving force behind the preservation of historical places across the country that would certainly have no other champion.


AASLH Awards of Merit

28 May

I have the distinct pleasure and honor of serving as a regional representative for the American Association of State and Local History’s Leadership in History Awards Committee. I can honestly say that it is one of the most thoroughly vetted awards programs I have seen, and I believe that due to the rigorous evaluation process and the standards to which AASLH holds applicants, it is among the best award programs. To have a project—exhibit, book, outreach or educational effort, preservation activity, etc…—recognized this way on a national level is truly an honor and means you are quite literally a leader in the field.

AASLH logo

From firsthand experience helping review all of this year’s the applications, I can say that the most recent group of award recipients, which will be recognized at AASLH’s annual meeting this fall, is exemplary. They are truly some of the best public history projects out there, demonstrating best practices, creativity, civic engagement, teamwork, commitment to the field, and solid research. They are positively impacting their communities. With so much bad news about our profession and its seeming diminishing role in public life, it is good to see what is right with public history for a change. To all the winners, congrats on a job well done.


Review of First Family: Abigail and John Adams, by Joseph Ellis

24 May

Having recently listened to Joseph Ellis’ seminal book on John Adams, Passionate Sage, I looked forward to listening to his acclaimed follow-up book, First Family: Abigail and John Adams. I was not disappointed.

First Family

This sweeping narrative chronicles the private thoughts of John and Abigail through the American Revolution, the Adams presidency, and the nation’s tumultuous first decades with a style and grace few historians can match. It is made possible, of course, by the voluminous correspondence between Adams and his wife which has remarkably been preserved. It is amazing in scope and candor, and revealing of the inner thoughts of both our second president and his wife. If it lacks anything, it is that when John and Abigail were together, which was actually rare, their conversations naturally went unrecorded. Ellis has a unique and keen insight into the Adams personality, which he brings to bear in impressive fashion. Equally notable is his portrait of Abigail, a well-known but perhaps not well understood figure in her own right. He shows her to be every bit of John’s intellectual equal; a capable writer with a sophisticated understanding of national and international events.

Ironically, the best parts of the book lie not in the details about the events in which Adams was a major player. That is well-trod ground, historiographically speaking. Rather, it is in Ellis’ handling of Adams’ understanding of his place in history that his narrative really shines. While this might seem a self-serving indulgence on Adams’ part, it was something he wrestled with for many years and runs as a main current in much of his correspondence. He lived well into his 90s and had plenty of time for reflection on his successes and failures as a parent, husband, friend, revolutionary, and leader. In his musings are found contemplations on some of the major currents of early American history, and Ellis brings them to life as few others.


A Few of Our Favorite Civil War Quotes

22 May

Owing to the fact that the Civil War occurred in an era in which written letters were a primary means of documenting events and that the war is among the most studied topics in American history, there are literally thousands of quotes from its participants that have been preserved as a part of its legacy. As the war has been a major focus of our reading and research for years, we thought we would put together a brief listing of a few of our favorites. We believe they help communicate in some small way how the men who fought the war thought as well as illuminate aspects of their character. Even this small sampling demonstrates the men who participated in our nation’s greatest internal crisis could be at once thoroughly ordinarily and profound. As we did with our recent post with our favorite quotes from Lincoln, they are broken down into the funny, the iconic, and the poignant.


The Funny:

“Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what are we going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Gen. U.S. Grant in response to fears about Gen. Lee’s army.


“If I owned Texas and Hell, I’d rent out Texas and live in Hell.”

General Phillip H. Sheridan

“If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world but I am sure we’d be getting reports from hell before breakfast.”

Gen. William T. Sherman

“The enemy is no closer than Corinth”

Gen. William T. Sherman shortly before being surprise attacked by Confederate forces at the Battle of Shiloh

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”

Gen. John Sedgewick just seconds before being shot


The Iconic

“A chicken could not live on that field when we open on it.”

Gen. Porter Alexander, commander of Longstreet’s artillery battalion, before the Battle of Fredericksburg

“There stands Jackson like a stone wall!”

General Barnard Bee, in reference to Thomas Jackson and his First Virginia Brigade at the Battle of Bull Run

There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

Gen. Robert E. Lee when considering the surrender of his army

“War means fighting, and fighting means killing.”

Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest

“Atlanta is ours and fairly won”

Gen. Sherman after capturing Atlanta

Finally, the Poignant

“It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Gen. Lee at the Battle of Fredericksburg

“Bottom rail on top this time, massa”

Allegedly said by a former slave who had joined the Union army upon encountering his former master


This Place Matters

20 May

Much of the space in this blog is devoted to commentary on what is wrong with public history today, and rightfully so considering the current generation may very well be one of the most historically ignorant and apathetic this nation has seen. But occasionally, I like to comment on a few of signs that at least some people still care. Perhaps one of the best examples of people demonstrating they care is in the steady stream of historical markers being erected across the country.

My organization maintains a historic marker program, and has installed hundreds of them in the eighteen counties in which we work. Last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in our most recent marker dedication. It was quite an affair, and one that reminded me of the powerful sense of place markers create and express and their role in communicating the importance of the past to the public.

Baker marker Baker crowd

A crowd of well over 200 gathered to commemorate the unveiling of the historic marker for Baker High in Columbus, Georgia, a school which opened in the 1940s and closed in the 1990s. Its alumni banded together to fund a historic marker for the school after the abandoned old building was demolished in 2011 to make way for new development. They wanted something to remind people that, whatever later occupies that spot, it once served as the home to a vital community institution which helped develop generations of citizens, many of them celebrated local leaders.

The dedication ceremony, featuring a number of speakers, was moving if you had any connection to the school and heartening even if you didn’t. The participants seemed to not just view the ceremony as a personal celebration of sorts, but to truly see the marker as the ultimate way to interpret an important local historical site which in some ways impacted not just them, but the larger community. It’s exactly the type of focus and interest I’d like to see exhibited for public history projects everywhere, especially those commemorating our overlooked historic sites. Regardless of what is written on historic markers, after all, what they all essentially say above all is that “this place matters.”


The Battle of Jackson Anniversary; More Proof on Historical Ignorance

16 May

May 14 marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Jackson, Mississippi.  The Old Capitol Museum in downtown Jackson hosted a program on May 4 commemorating the event with dedicated Union soldier re-enactors “capturing” the building, the former statehouse of Mississippi. The event occurred with little or no fanfare, but attendees seemed to enjoy being there to remember an important part in our city and state’s history.


On the actual anniversary, local media did not mention this day in history at all or only provided a small blurb or segment. One such segment that did air by a local television news station, which shall remain nameless, did catch my eye. A 25 second segment discussed the Battle of Jackson and made the point that this anniversary has gathered hardly any interest.  The video segment itself is the focus of this blog. To illustrate the story, the news station inexplicably selected footage or images of the modern civil rights movement, specifically those of activist Medgar Evers.  This glaring mistake baffles the mind. I do not know if this was simply an honest mistake or that the producers simply do not know the difference between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. The worst part of this pitiful excuse of reporting is that days later, this segment is still available on the news station’s website. Comments have been made on the website pointing out the mistake to no avail. I thought the number one rule in reporting was factual accuracy, but this failure puts that notion to rest.

Days later, I am still upset by this unbelievable mistake.  The Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement are the two most important events to occur in Mississippi and for images of one to be used to illustrate the other does a massive disservice to both. Both events deserve equal interpretation and commemoration. For a news station to confuse the two is incomprehensible and unfortunately, further proves my point on the absolute lack of knowledge our public has on historical events.


Best Abraham Lincoln Quotes

13 May

Abraham Lincoln possessed a rare genius that allowed him to understand people and situations more thoroughly than just about any of contemporaries. His remarks in a variety of circumstances—at once folksy, humorous and profound—struck observers as so extraordinary that they have been preserved for us as testament to his wisdom and uncanny ability to explain complicated things in a down to earth way. We have included here just a few of our favorite of the hundreds of Lincoln quotes that we believe illuminate the character, personality, and vision which helped shape our memory of an age.


First, the downright funny:

“The trouble with Pope is that he’s got his headquarters where his hindquarters ought to be.”

After receiving a dispatch from Gen. John Pope addressed from “headquarters in the saddle.”


“One war at a time.”

In cautioning Secretary of State William H. Seward during a diplomatic crisis with Great Britain during the war


“You are green, it is true; but they are green also. You are all green alike.”

In response to a message from Irvin McDowell shortly before the first battle of Manassas


“If General McClellan isn’t going to use his army, I’d like to borrow it for a time.”
In exasperation of McClellan’s inaction


“Tell me what brand of whiskey that Grant drinks. I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals”

In response to charges that Grant was a drunk.


The Iconic

“I can’t spare this man—he fights.”

In evaluating Gen. Grant


“My God! My God! What will the country say?”

After receiving news of Hooker’s defeat at Chancellorsville.


“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”

In a March 1865 speech to soldiers


“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt”

Attributed to Lincoln


Finally, the Poignant

“The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

From President Lincoln’s first inaugural address


Review of Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

7 May

I have been intending to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s critically-acclaimed book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, for some time now. Prompted by watching the movie Lincoln, which is based on the book, I recently listened to it as an audiobook recording. I’ve always heard people say that “the book is better than the movie,” and am happy to say that is the case here even though the movie is one of the better historical dramas that I have viewed.

Team of Rivals

Goodwin’s book fills a unique place in the virtual mountain of biographies extolling the virtues of Lincoln, the great majority of which chronicle the unlikely rise of a modest frontier lawyer to become our nation’s chief executive during its greatest crisis. Goodwin goes beyond that now matter-of-fact assessment, focusing on what she views as the key components of Lincoln’s greatness: his political acumen and magnanimity. These factors in his rise to power and enduring legend in American history are often either downplayed or not fully acknowledged by scholars writing about our sixteenth president.Goodwin demonstrates that Lincoln possessed a keen insight of not only human nature, but the sordid nature of the political process which during his day literally featured “smoke-filled rooms” in which deals were made. Yet she demonstrates that what set him apart from his contemporaries was something even more profound. His ability to overlook slights and make erstwhile enemies—his cabinet was in large part composed of men who had forcefully opposed his presidency—work together to accomplish his goals proved to be the real secret to his success. Rather than being self-serving, though, those goals were idealistic indeed, as the nature of the federal union, the role of slavery within it, and the process by which the defeated Southern states should re-enter the union were the moral and political dilemmas that defined the age. The Lincoln presented by Goodwin is a thoroughly interesting and dynamic person whose celebrated story-telling revealed much more than a love of homespun humor. On the contrary, his folksy style masked a rare genius that truly made him the right person at the right time in American history.


Museum Theatre

2 May

I’ve recently come to have a healthy appreciation for what some term “museum theatre” as an interpretive tool for public history institutions. The concept isn’t new, nor is it really all that novel. In my observation, though, the brief, focused skits that usually comprise “museum theatre” productions are exactly the type of thing a sizable portion of our changing audience seems to connect with today. For the unaware, think of a short play based specifically on the stories and collections interpreted at any given historic site, followed by engaging discussion.

theater event

Distinguished from traditional living history interpretation, the museum theatre experience is less immersive, more focused, features convenient beginning and ending points, and allows for a measure of artistic expression that can effectively recast museums and historic sites as part of the broader category of “arts” institutions. They offer an opportunity for unstilted and substantive engagement afterwards, essentially marrying the best first-person interpretive techniques with the time-honored Q & A session.

Not everyone can do it, and if they can’t do it right I’d rather not see them try. Museum theatre isn’t your run of the mill educational program, and if performed badly can turn off an audience and leave a pretty bad impression. But I’m heartened to see the effort from those who can pull it off, and from my viewpoint here in Georgia can say it is being met with a measure of success. Given the static or declining numbers of those possessing the time, resources, and interest to be involved with our struggling public history institutions, it behooves us to try anything consistent with our missions to catch the eye of a distracted public.