Archive | July, 2015

Patriotic Heritage

30 Jul

I recently had the opportunity to tour various museums and sites in Washington D.C. and the Baltimore area for vacation. In four days, I was able to see many sites and artifacts that define us as a nation. From the Charters of Freedom (The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights) at the National Archives to the Star Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, these artifacts stir the soul and make one proud to be an American. Add on to that the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and the World War II Memorial, and one can’t help feeling pride in our nation.

Fort McHenry

I almost wish it was mandatory for all citizens to visit the area. I feel that civic pride in our nation is at an all-time low. Little to no educational background in our nation’s history is one main contributing factor in this lack of civic pride. Seeing so many iconic places and artifacts would help overcome this foundational flaw. How can anyone stare at the flag “whose broad stripes and bright stars” withstood the fight or at the magnificent statue of Lincoln and not feel good about our nation and also have a desire to know more. That is why trips to historic sites and museums are so invaluable to our educational system. Besides getting first-hand knowledge, these trips serve a second purpose in providing pride in our nation, something that we are sorely lacking. Our national media and too many current historians emphasize too much on the wrongs of the past and the diversity of our citizens. We need to focus on the things that bring us together as a people and certain artifacts and places provide a common heritage that can serve to unite us all.

Fort McHenry entrance

So a final shout out to the grandness of visiting the DC area, a trip that spurs interest in our national identity. Who can’t take pride in the Wright Brothers plane at the Air and Space Museum, the powerful portrait of George Washington at the National Portrait Gallery, and Fort McHenry in nearby Baltimore, where this nation stood tall in the face of a formidable enemy. And who can’t take comfort in tales of triumph over a powerful foe in today’s world of uncertainty?


Review of Lost Capitals of Alabama, by Herbert James Lewis

29 Jul

Lost Capitals

Jim Lewis’ slim book chronicling the story of Alabama’s several seats of government, Lost Capitals of Alabama, is a welcome addition to the literature on the state’s early history. It explores one of the lesser known chapters in the development of the state, detailing the five capitals it had in the span of its first two and a half decades of statehood. It’s an interesting read, but not simply because it chronicles the stories behind how and why the center of the early state’s political world came to be located in turns at St. Stephens, Huntsville, Cahaba, Tuscaloosa, and Montgomery. Lewis sheds light on what life was like in the communities which hosted the capitals, as well as what life was like in the larger state at important milestones in its early years, such as the famed visit of Lafayette, the founding of University of Alabama, and the Second Creek War. Along the way, he also introduces readers to leaders and key personalities of the era, many of whom unfortunately, and undeservedly, are largely forgotten today. Lost Capitals is destined to serve as a reference source on its topic for years to come.


A Few Words of Wisdom from the Past

23 Jul

I recently ran across a great quote from a historian writing all the way back in the 1850s that has unusual relevance to today. In his History of Alabama, pioneering historian Albert James Pickett observed that:

“as a historian, we are expected to write the truth, even if that truth is unpalatable to the prejudices of the age.”

Pickett was writing about Aaron Burr and his capture in Alabama in the passage, and despite Burr’s still-fresh association with treasonous activities at the time of its writing, attempted to objectively summarize his career.


It’s an admonition historians today would do well to heed. I expect the general public to view history at times as little more than an assemblage of heroes and villains depending on how well we think they would fit in with today’s society. I’m alarmed that I see many professional historians who should know better doing the exact same thing. Our job as historians is to discover as much about the past as we can and relate it in a clear and unbiased manner. If it ever becomes a witch hunt aimed at demonizing forebears who did not think like us today, our profession will lose all credibility. In some ways, it is already dangerously heading in that direction.


Review of Cotton City: Urban Development in Antebellum Mobile, by Harriet E. Amos

20 Jul

Outside of New Orleans, few Deep South cities can boast the depth and richness of the antebellum history of Mobile, Alabama. One of the largest cities in the South by the time of the Civil War, in 1861 the city had already been an important Gulf Coast trading center for over a century and a half. While the span of its history is impressive, the speed with which it rose from a backwater colonial outpost to become one of the nation’s most important commercial centers is equally remarkable. For most of its early history, Mobile remained a humble but strategically important village successively occupied by the French, British, and Spanish before it came under American control. Between 1820 and 1860, its population dramatically increased from a mere 1,500 to nearly 30,000, making it one of the largest cities in the South. Even more importantly, during that same era it transitioned from a regional trading hub into the third largest port in the nation (behind New Orleans and New York) in terms of the total value of exports.


Harriet Amos’ landmark study of antebellum Mobile, originally published in the 1980s, chronicles that rise. The book is essential reading for any student of the city’s history, and one of the most valuable resources on its past available. It details a wide range of aspects of the city’s development, delving into broad trends in city finance and neighborhood development as well as the minutia of the evolution of city services and establishment of police and fire protection. Above all, it details the story of the city’s economic activity, focusing on who the major players were and in what capacities they operated. In that effort some rather unique features of antebellum Mobile emerge: 1) the city was exceptionally diverse compared to most of the rest of the South, having significant northern and European-born segments of its population involved in city leadership in addition to the presence of a substantial number of free blacks, and 2) antebellum Mobile was exceptionally dependent on trade with the north for its economic lifeblood—specifically New York. This unusually close dependency on one city as an outlet for the city’s exports helped shape the Mobile’s economic growth in profound ways, making what many might think of as a quintessential Southern city actually something more exceptional than might be expected.

For all of its rich detail on antebellum Mobile, there is one thing that both dates the study and makes it somewhat of a difficult read. It was composed during the height of the “cliometrics” movement in academic historical studies in the United States, which features a systematic application of economic theory and statistical analysis into examination of the past. While the results are enlightening at times and can often be used to help understand aspects of the past we would discover in no other conventional way, they can also result in history books that feature a bewildering series of charts and tables, and at times a rather dry recitation of compilations of numbers, percentages, and their meaning. Cotton City has a few passages that tend towards that unsavory, numbers-laden narrative, but thankfully never goes too far astray from its attempt to chronicle the development of the city by topic and era. Readers should be warned, though, it is not an engrossing narrative so much as a thorough examination of its topic. Even with this caveat, Cotton City is indisputably the definitive study of antebellum Mobile and an essential reference source on Southern urbanity during the era.


Go Set a Southern Man

14 Jul

Harper Lee’s recently discovered, highly-anticipated sequel to the American literary landmark To Kill a Mockingbird is set to be released today. Entitled Go Set a Watchman, the book takes place a few decades after the dramatic events chronicled through the eyes of a young Scout Finch in 1930s Alabama. I’ve not read a word of it yet, but I found it a little surprising that the main thing I have heard about the book ahead of its release centers on its apparent casting venerable Atticus Finch, hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, as a rather typical Southern racist of the era. I don’t know the specifics, but I’ve heard that in the pages of the book he attends a Klan rally and expresses some doubt about the aims of what we now know as the Civil Rights Movement. If true, then what are we to make of Atticus the egalitarian white lawyer who did his best to defend a black man accused of a crime he did not commit simultaneously being a man suspicious of desegregation and being at least a little bit racially biased himself?

Atticus Finch

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

I know Go Set a Watchman was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, so I am aware there may have been some significant adjustments to his character from the first to the second novel. Even more importantly, I also know that Harper Lee drew extensively on her experience growing up in the deeply-segregated South in the writing of both novels, and that racial attitudes of the day as she understood them are at the very heart of both books. So, Atticus may purposefully be an entirely different character in the books, or he could in fact be purposefully the very same man.

As a student of Southern history and a native  Southerner myself, I would have no problem at all in accepting as believable a character whose commitment to fairness and justice guided him in doing a difficult but morally correct thing while simultaneously harboring reservations on racial equality. In fact, I think it would make Atticus an even more believable character than the one who is featured in To Kill a Mockingbird. That Atticus Finch is a unique paragon of virtue, clearly willing and able to disregard all the conventions of the society in which he lived to do the right thing, regardless of consequences, out of his commitment to principle. While we would like to believe a pure Atticus Finch could have existed in 1930s Alabama, in truth he would have been pretty hard to find. Rather, an Atticus that harbored a lot of the biases of the society in which he lived but recognized the need to at least occasionally rise above them in special circumstances—a man on trial for his life being one—is probably a lot more accurate portrayal of even the most fair-minded of Southerners at the time. That duality is at the heart of a lot of Southern history and in my mind one of the reasons the region’s past remains so controversial. It’s just much easier to understand Atticus Finch the fictive advocate for racial equality than Atticus Finch the racial moderate.  Trying to comprehend the shades of gray in the portrayal of the South’s black and white history requires an appreciation of context that most today are unwilling or unable to fathom. The truth is in history we rarely have entirely unflawed heroes or entirely evil villains. I look forward to discovering more about the virtues and shortcomings of one of the most legendary characters in Southern literature soon.


Field Trips and History Education

13 Jul

We noticed that recently the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s “Nation’s Report Card” revealed that a mere 18% of American 8th graders are “proficient” in history. Considering how little emphasis seems to be placed on history in the curriculum, we suspect that things are actually even worse than they sound, as proficiency in a very minor subject would at least in theory be easier to accomplish than one in which students are expected to study intensely or consistently. When questioned as to why the shortfall exists, National Center for Policy Analysis, Youth Programs, Director Rachel Stevens asserted that students “dislike social studies class due to the emphasis on reading from the textbook, rote memorization, and note-taking.”

Sounds to us like a few more visits to historical sites might help make some much needed and meaningful connections. As we have stated on previous occasions, museums, parks, battlefields and similar cultural heritage sites and institutions are invaluable learning tools for all ages. They serve as places of inspiration and inquiry, but perhaps most importantly for schoolchildren, they can serve as places where history can be made relevant to them in their lives today. The classroom should be the beginning of history education, not the end. No history lesson resonates as powerfully as those learned where events actually happened.


A complete education must involve field trips. Any curriculum that does not allow for education outside of the classroom must be reexamined. Field trips provide a different method of reaching children who may not otherwise grasp a subject or even care. And let’s be honest, students are more likely to remember their trips to state capitols, battlefields, and other historical landmarks than history read in a poorly written textbook. And those field trips will hopefully create in children a long-lasting appreciation of their past, an appreciation that is necessary to insure long-term preservation of these valuable places.


The “General Lee”: Symbol of Southern Oppression??

8 Jul

As a historian, I am glad to see Americans today seemingly more willing than ever to wrestle with the unsavory racism in our country’s past. Unfortunately, though, it seems we are letting a real opportunity slip through our hands. Rather than attempting to learn about our history we continue to look around for any vestiges of symbolism which might represent something that somebody doesn’t like and banish it from view. No debate, no deep thought, just a summary demand that things be removed from sight. The recent tragic event in South Carolina could have presented an opportunity to actually discuss the complicated roots, terrible consequences, and debilitating legacy of institutionalized racism in America, for example, but instead we apparently have become content to merely take down a few commemorative historical flags and declare some sort of mythical victory when in fact we haven’t even engaged the source of our frustration. This move to eliminate the offensive has quickly devolved into the realm of the absurd, as the latest casualty is, of all things, a 1969 Dodge Charger featured in a 1980s television show.

Apparently we have identified the root cause of racism in this country. Now that it is off the air, we can safely move on.

Apparently we have identified the root cause of racism in this country. Now that it is off the air, we can safely move on in an enlightened manner.

As a kid growing up in Alabama in the 1980s, I can vividly remember the phenomenon that was the tv show The Dukes of Hazzard. It was a show built on hackneyed stereotypes of Southerners, Appalachian Southerners specifically. There were dirt roads, outhouses, chickens in the yard, moonshine, hot rod cars, and all manner of good old boys involved in all kinds of rather ludicrous small-town hijinks. What there was not was a lot of black people (historically accurate for a show set in Appalachia I guess), and I don’t remember any discussion of race in the show at all. As we all know, the stars of the show drove a souped-up race car named “The General Lee” which sported a painting of a Confederate flag on the roof and managed to use every dirt pile in Hazzard County as a ramp from which to go airborne. I maintain today that if anybody at all should be offended by Uncle Jesse overalls or Daisy Duke’s cutoff jeans, it ought to be white Southerners. But because of the possibility that uninformed modern viewers of today might associate an airing of a re-run of the show with some sort of endorsement of racist ideology (I can only guess), TV Land pulled the show from its lineup. If the show had actually been genuinely racist, I could understand. But it wasn’t genuinely anything but goofy.

My point is not that The Dukes of Hazzard should stay on the air, because I don’t believe that by any standard a 30 year old television drama series merits much discussion about racism today to be honest. Rather, I do think the pulling of the tv show serves as a particularly farcical example of our country’s ill-conceived attempt to fashion a false history for itself by systematically banishing things it does not like about its past, especially any Confederate symbolism. It is almost as if people believe that four centuries of racism and mistreatment of minorities can be blamed on one brief time and place and that by eliminating any symbols of the era we have reached some stage of enlightenment. It’s a dangerous and foolhardy approach to the past. The Confederacy happened, and purging it from our mind will not change the fact that most of modern American history leads directly from Fort Sumter and Appomattox; without an awareness of how and why it came to be and its brief tortured existence we have very little understanding of our shared past indeed. I’ll admit the South’s history is not always a happy story to read about, but in the rush to demonize all things Confederate I think we are overlooking the proverbial forest for the trees. Millions more people have been abused, oppressed, cheated, and killed under the flag of the United States over the course of its nearly 250 year history than the Confederate States of America trampled during its brief four years of existence. Does this mean we will see a sudden groundswell to banish any display of the Stars and Stripes since it has been associated with things we would not condone today? After all, George Washington did own slaves. Andrew Jackson removed the Indians from their homelands. People of Japanese descent were placed in detention camps in World War II. Women couldn’t even vote for over a century after the writing of our constitution—which sanctioned slavery, by the way. I say all this in jest in the hope our seemingly inexhaustible ability to be offended by things that happened centuries ago doesn’t cause us to get even more ridiculous and start taking down American flags.

It’s time for Americans to study their history instead of treating it as breaking news; something to be immediately reacted to and once some small inconsequential goal is achieved to move on to the next thing. It’s also time for people to realize that all of American history is interconnected, and that to start looking for some pure version of it that is devoid of anything objectionable to modern sensibilities is a fool’s errand and diminishes the lessons the past can teach us. In other words, objective historians have never been more needed in this present-obsessed and historically ignorant country. Let’s get to work.


Review of Natchez Country, by George Edward Milne

7 Jul

One of the most fascinating stories in U.S. history is the interaction between European colonists and Native Americans. During the early 1700s, three cultures were forced together along the Mississippi River with traumatic consequences. George Edward Milne’s Natchez County: Indians, Colonists, and the Landscapes of Race in French Louisiana describes how the indigenous Natchez Indians, the French colonists, and African slaves came together for dozens of years before the famous Natchez Revolt of 1729 created havoc across the region. During this narrative, Milne provides a thesis that the Natchez began seeing themselves as a different race (red men) to unite their society and distinguish it from others.


Milne uses two hundred pages to detail the three cultures and how they came together. Using predominately French accounts, Milne describes the Natchez Indians and their culture, the French arrival and their attempts to create an agricultural economy based on tobacco farming and their use of African slaves. Milne’s narrations of events such as the funeral of the Tattooed Serpent, the smaller conflicts leading up to the 1729 revolt, and the revolt itself and aftermath are the highlights of the book. An incompetent French fort commandant who made a horrible blunder led the Natchez to take decisive action as they had grown tired of French demands for more land as well as growing French attitudes of superiority. In a surprise attack, the Natchez attacked the fort in an effort to eliminate the French once and for all. According to Milne, it was during this time period that the Natchez began a “shift from a spatially grounded identity to one based on racial categories.” (214) In fact, Milne says the Natchez were the first to use the term “red men” in front of Europeans. This reestablishment of an identity was instrumental in building support for launching their attack. In the end, it did not matter as the French retaliated and forced surviving Natchez away from their homeland.

Milne’s engaging narrative is well-written and leaves the reader anxious to turn the pages to see what happens next. His thesis did, however, seem almost rushed at the end, almost like an afterthought. It is also interesting to note that he did not seem to consult much with Jim Barnett, longtime site director of the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians and the tribe’s preeminent historian. I also must state that the true significance of this particular story is that this dissolution of the Natchez nation is the final ending of Mississippian Mound Building societies. By the early 1700s, most other mound building societies were long gone and only the Natchez one survived until their encounters with the French in the early 1700s. Milne only mentions this in the last paragraph of the book. But these points aside, Milne tells us a captivating story that deserves a wider audience and his good work here will see that it happens.