Archive | November, 2015

The Civil War Connection to Thanksgiving Day

24 Nov


As I have stated previously in a blog I posted about the origins of the Thanksgiving holiday in America, I have a particular fondness for this day. It is a nice time of reflection on the plenty that we have in this country, and it provides a unique opportunity to visit with family and friends and, admittedly, to enjoy watching a little football. I guess another reason I am intrigued with the holiday is because of its distinctly American roots. Other countries do have similar days, but the stories and lore surrounding the day as observed here are directly associated with our founding era and with the most dramatic turning point in our nation’s history—the Civil War.

We are all aware, even if vaguely, of the association of Thanksgiving with the friendship between early European arrivals and Native Americans. Less of us probably realize that several presidents including George Washington encouraged celebration of “a day of thanksgiving” periodically during the early days of our republic. But the historical tidbit about Thanksgiving I wanted to draw attention to today is the origin of the modern holiday in the depths of the Civil War.

The war tried the spirits and wills of all citizens of the country, North and South. During its height, President Abraham Lincoln received considerable urging by individuals, most notably Sarah Josepha Hale to proclaim a national Thanksgiving Day to help unite and encourage the embattled nation. Hale, through her platform as editor for the widely-distributed periodical Godey’s Lady’s Book, had been encouraging a national Thanksgiving Day since the 1830s. She even personally wrote Lincoln on the subject. Several individual states, mostly in the northeast, had long observed a version of the holiday statewide for some time prior to the Civil War.



Sarah Josepha Hale


Godey's cover


Lincoln 1863

President Abraham Lincoln


On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for the last Thursday in November to be set aside as a national day of Thanksgiving. It has been observed continually since. As we get ready to carve up our turkeys, I thought it would be appropriate to read the last portion of that precedent-setting proclamation:

 I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.


The Genius of Eudora Welty and Kathryn Tucker Windham

17 Nov

Good storytelling, regardless of whether written or oral, requires special skills of observation; one must be able to notice things about people and their surroundings and incorporate them into tales to make them both believable and interesting. It is a skill the best writers all have in common. Some learn it but most, I think, innately possess it. I have come to believe that two of the best in translating observational abilities into compelling stories may have been a pair of the South’s most celebrated female literary figures—Eudora Welty and Kathryn Tucker Windham.


Eudora Welty



Kathryn Tucker Windham


Acclaimed authors who are regarded as among the most beloved women in their respective home states (Mississippi and Alabama), they are remembered for very different styles of work—Welty for her fictional short stories and novels and Windham for her gathering and relating of tales (especially ghost stories) in both oral and written form. They were more or less contemporaries, being born in 1909 and 1918 and passing away in 2001 and 2011, respectively. Both spent the majority of their lives in the Deep South communities in which they were born, and those places and the people who inhabit them are inextricably linked to their writing. For my money, some of best work of both is their relatively unheralded photographic documentary work. I believe this format provides a unique glimpse of the way both viewed the world.

I am especially fond of two books of this type they each produced late in life, Welty’s Country Churchyards and Windham’s Encounters. Each contains evocative images of the South; Welty’s the forlorn and isolated landscapes of cemeteries and churches in rural Mississippi in somber black and white and Windham’s candid images of people from various walks of life in rural Alabama taken at different times over the span of decades. Coupled with brief comments on the circumstances of the photographs’ creation and a few thoughts about the scenes they portray, both books are a unique form of documentary about life in the South that reveal the way the authors looked on the world and what they noticed as they gazed on everyday scenes.

Welty Country Churchyards

Windham Encounters

I find the non-fiction work of these authors fascinating, admittedly in part because I had the good fortune to cross paths very briefly with both of these literary figures, in a way. I have read Windham’s famed “13 Ghosts” series several times over, and I actually got to meet her as a child and hear her tell ghost stories at an Alabama library with a friend. As an adult working at the Department of Archives of History in Mississippi I was present when Welty’s coffin lay in state at Jackson’s historic Old Capitol and soon after helped select items from her home for an exhibit on her life. Neither of these experiences qualifies me as an expert on their work, of course, but they did cause me to want to know more about them. While I doubt Country Churchyards or Encounters rank among either’s most celebrated works, I think that in some ways they help you understand them better than anything else they wrote.


Review of Images of America: Columbus, by David M. Owings

10 Nov

With the recent release of Images of America: Columbus, there are now an impressive six titles in print by Arcadia Press on Columbus, Georgia (others include, Black America Series: Columbus, Georgia, Columbus, Georgia in Vintage Postcards, Haunted Columbus Georgia, Historic Linwood Cemetery and my own regional title with a focus on the city—Images of America: Lower Chattahoochee River) I’m compelled to say that my friend David Owings, archivist at Columbus State University, has introduced what might actually be the best of them all. It is the most comprehensive of all Arcadia’s Columbus titles to be published, offering a visual history of the city from its days as a frontier town through its heyday as a leading textile industry hub to its contemporary downtown revitalization efforts.


Arcadia’s titles are invaluable resources for the communities on which they are focused, and this entry on Columbus is no exception. Within its pages are maps, portraits, street scenes, and postcards that chronicle some of the most notable people, places, and events in the city’s history. It’s a story often retold locally, but it is worth mentioning that the mid-sized city along the banks of the Chattahoochee lays claim to originating (or at least playing a major role in the origination of) Memorial Day, boasts of its fair share of renowned authors and entertainers, was the home of the inventor of Coca-Cola and America’s first black fighter pilot, gave birth to Royal Crown Cola, and once prominently featured what at one time were among the largest textile manufacturing centers in North America. It also has an impressive architectural history, a rich steamboating heritage, witnessed what many believe was the last battle of the Civil War, and has long been the home of one of the country’s largest military installations. Within its most celebrated stories lie parallel tales of misfortune and oppression, however, for the city was erected on the ancestral home of the Creek Indians after their forced removal, built on the backs of slaves, and for generations virtually defined as a “mill city” owing to the thousands of low-wage industrial jobs that sustained (barely) a substantial portion of its population.

Needless to say, all this history makes for a compelling story which can be uniquely, if not ever entirely adequately, told through imagery. Even if a good portion of the images in the book will be very familiar to anyone with a detailed knowledge of Columbus’ past and the layout could cynically be described as predictable, it is good to finally see them in one focused chronicle in Arcadia’s time-honored format. These books don’t claim to be the most serious of scholarship, but they have an import and resonance all their own, and capture the essence of a community’s history as have few others when well done. In a format in which all that are created are not equal, Images of America: Columbus is indeed well done.


Monuments on the Move

3 Nov

As a newfound and fervent attention to political correctness regarding Confederate symbols has seized the country, removal and relocation of historic monuments appears to soon become the preferred method for local and state governments to disassociate themselves from any seeming connection with the Lost Cause. I suppose that just as every interpretation of history is subject to revision, the purpose of historical monuments is rightfully subject to reconsideration. Monuments and memorials are meant to be reminders of important events and the ideals those who place them hold dear, and if the memories they suggest seem outdated or incompatible with modern understandings of history, then I suppose they can and must be scrutinized in some way.

Linn Park Confederate Monument

As I have said in this blog previously, however, in most cases that scrutiny would seem to be most effective if it provides an opportunity for better understanding of context among our woefully historically ignorant public instead of knee-jerk and narrowly-focused reactions to fleeting notions of the offensive. I will not defend all Confederate monuments by any means as necessary or edifying, and I really don’t have an argument against some of them being relocated from public to private grounds if the modern communities in which they stand have well-reasoned arguments why they portray an incorrect image of their past or glorify people, places, and events which they have strong evidence are not as important in community heritage as previous generations once thought.

I do strongly object to simply removing, for removal’s sake, historical monuments of various sorts which don’t fit with contemporary opinions. Effacement of memorials and reminders of the past, even if unsavory, is a counterproductive method of dealing with unfortunate events in history in my opinion because it hides the history we don’t like and leaves those who come after with even less understanding of how their forebears viewed their world. It alters perceptions of both the actual past and the remembered past; both a serious threat to an understanding of either at best and substitutes in their place the construction of an idealized and false version of the past at worst. I expect effacement and periodic replacement of symbols in some areas of the world with less democratic governments, but it isn’t something open, democratic nations should be engaging in as a matter of course. I just hope our country’s current mania for purging Confederate symbolism from view will be done in a way that leaves us with a better understanding of the experiences of our forefathers and how their lives altered American history. As I have said before, we don’t have to like or agree with actions of people from the past for their actions to have impacted us. Morally bankrupt ideals may have provoked the Civil War, but obliterating reminders of some of the most traumatic events in our nation’s history will probably leave us less, not more, equipped to understand why the war still has resonance in today’s society.

As a historian, I have a hard time finding any era of American history in which some form of oppression or discrimination was not a powerful part of society, including our supposedly enlightened modern one. This doesn’t ever make it right, but it should make us wary of any effort to sugar-coat the facts by hiding the evidence of our sins.