Tag Archives: conferences

New Political Histories of the Sectional Crisis: A Report from the AHA

In August 2016, Kenneth Osgood and Fredrik Logevall (fresh from winning the Pulitzer Prize for his recent book on the Vietnam War, Embers of War) co-authored an op-ed for the New York Times titled “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?”[1] Like so many nostalgic jeremiads, it assumes that we have stopped teaching political history (or military history, or “traditional” history, etc.), and that politics is now a marginalized field. This is a familiar complaint rising and falling with predictable regularity, and it remains a relevant discussion in Civil War and Reconstruction studies.

At an AHA panel in Denver, historians presented their work in response to this op-ed at Session 150, “Linking the Local and the National in the Politics of Sectional Conflict.” The panel was chaired by Amy Greenberg and included roundtable presentations and discussion featuring Rachel Shelden, Corey Brooks, and Joanne Freeman. Their scholarship confirmed what we were all probably thinking when we saw the Logevall/Osgood op-ed: historians of the antebellum and Civil War eras have never stopped writing or teaching political history. Yes, certainly, there are historians working on less overtly political topics, yet we recognize the many ways in which social and cultural history supplement or alter our writing and teaching about politics. As social and cultural histories become integrated into political history, New Political History emerged, and perhaps what we are all engaged in now is as I once heard Jonathan Earle ironically call label it: the New New Political History. Put whatever label you’d like to on it, but as Shelden emphasized, political history remains as urgent a field of inquiry as ever for scholars of sectionalism.

Shelden’s Washington Brotherhood (2013) exemplifies the way in which political historians have integrated social and cultural history into their studies of the deeply widening sectional conflicts between the war with Mexico and the Civil War. In her current research, Shelden plans to provide just the same new political history approach—integrating non-traditional forms of social and cultural history into her examination of how personal engagement and friendship, collegiality and rivalry, partisanship and ideology all affected the judicial outcomes of the era. Shelden maintains that compared to the Presidency and Congress, the judiciary remains understudied. There is nothing more traditionally political than giving a branch of the federal government close scrutiny, and detractors aside, political history today must be more than the traditional focus on only elite actors in official capacities. Her examination of the pre-Civil War judiciary proposes to be just the kind of scholarship that would satisfy both political and social historians, because it will take the best of both approaches and illuminate an area of the emerging political crisis of the Civil War so often overshadowed by case studies of Dred Scott.

In his book Liberty Power (2016), and at the session, Corey Brooks argues that antislavery activists and the few politicians sympathetic to their aims used Congressional debates not to win over colleagues, and therefore votes, but instead as a national lyceum. The published speeches and reprinted pamphlets provided much needed labor in building a northern consensus from the 1830s to the 1860s that slavery, if not abolished, certainly needed to be limited in the West. Through the antislavery associations and ultimately through the Liberty Party, Free Soil Party, and Republican Party, Brooks attends closely to the ways in which partisans made effective use of both Congress and the press to move public opinion in the years leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln. For Brooks, the election of Lincoln, and perhaps the Civil War itself, is best explained by studying how political antislavery activists and politicians lobbied, petitioned, and simply harangued their constituents until politicians like Lincoln could express sentiments or support for policies (policies that a generation or two before would have been inconceivably marginal). For many historians of abolition, it is the social pressure of Garrisonians and the moral weight of antislavery intellectuals like Frederick Douglass which capture our attention when writing and teaching about antislavery. Often it is our understanding of the increasing anxiety in the U.S. about how to integrate newly acquired western lands into a nation with sharply diverging sectional economic structures, or the rise of Southern nationalism, or the collapse of the Democratic party, which dominate our understanding of the rise of the Republican party in the 1850s. Brooks, like Shelden, makes the best use of social and cultural history produced over the past twenty-five years in support of his argument that antislavery third-party politics needs greater attention because its role in the politics of the 1840s and 1850s has too long been overshadowed by other explanations for why the War came.

In her classic work Affairs of Honor (2001), Joanne Freeman may well have established the model for the New New Political History by taking seriously the role that cultural traits related to honor, reputation, and violence played in the lives and careers of early national politicians. Not surprisingly, the Hamilton-Burr duel brings many readers to Freeman’s book. (Too soon to call it a classic? I will anyway.) Since its publication Freeman edited Alexander Hamilton: Writings (2001) for the Library of America and has been consumed lately with interviews about the Broadway musical Hamilton (its success attests to the public’s continued interest in “traditional” political history). Her next research project carries her interest in political violence and early U.S. history into the 1830s and 1850s. For Freeman, this period experienced a noticeable shift in print culture in terms of format, content, and accessibility, which along with western expansion, led to the rise of a particular class of “fighting men” within partisan politics. Beyond “affairs of honor” such as duels, these antebellum fighting men provided election day muscle to intimidate people into voting (or not), demonstrated to voters and partisan opponents that words would and often were backed by actions, and may well have led to the escalation of violence in America’s urban centers, but also, of course, in Kansas. She suggests that Representative Preston Brooks’s vicious caning of Senator Charles Sumner in 1856 is in need of greater political context than traditional explanations of Southern honor codes and widening sectional indecorum on the floor of Congress. So frequently in the Northern antebellum press, but also in our scholarship, political violence is attributed to either the genteel Southerner bound to defend his reputation or, alternatively, the barbaric lower classes, often immigrants, who resorted to violence rather than politics or law to settle their disputes. Despite these assumptions, Freeman has identified “fighting men” in the North and South, among Democrats and Republicans, and it may no longer be tenable to maintain that political violence operated on the margins, utilized only be those to be deplored.

Generally, when anyone bewails the decline of the study of traditional forms of history, I tend to shrug because I know that they are wrong. Traditional history is just fine, and I also find the ongoing inquiry into less traditional topics to be both interesting in its own right, but also so obviously useful to political historians like those who participated in this AHA panel. For models of scholarship that integrate social and cultural history into political history on the coming of the Civil War, you could do little better than reading or teaching these panelists.

[1] Fredrick Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/29/opinion/why-did-we-stop-teaching-political-history.html (accessed January 17, 2017).

Nicholas Cox

Nicholas P. Cox is currently the Program Coordinator for the History Department of Houston Community College. He is currently writing a political biography of Colonel Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, as well as instructional supplements for OUP’s Texas history textbook, Gone to Texas. He has given presentations on his research and teaching at the AHA, SHEAR, TXSHA, ETHA, and HASH; referees article submissions for the Journal of South Texas; and reviews books for a number of journals. You can easily find him on Twitter @npcox or by email at nicholas.cox@hccs.edu.

Out of the Shadows Redux: A Graduate Student’s Thoughts at the SHA

Since the firing on Fort Sumter, the Civil War has been the watershed moment of American history. If historians are responsible for explaining the evolution of contemporary American culture, we recognize that at least part of its origin was forged during the war. We repeatedly flock to the same four year period, refining our interpretation of the wars’ causes and consequences. Even now, on the far side of the sesquicentennial, interest seems as strong as ever. Yet, there is a unique vulnerability in being a graduate student, particularly a graduate student studying the Civil War. It is the pervasive fear that all of the important topics are exhausted, that there is nothing left to contribute. With over 150 years of historical scholarship, one cannot help but wonder, is there anything left to say about the Civil War?

Imagine my interest, then, to find a panel at this year’s meeting of the Southern Historical Association titled “Coming Out of the Shadows: New Insight into Understudied Aspects of the American Civil War.” The topic sounded promising, as did the list of panelists: Judith Giesberg, Lesley J. Gordon, and Susannah J. Ural. Each of them was a successful scholar who undoubtedly had something to contribute to the conversation. I was eager for their presentations.

During the panel, each historian presented original research which, despite being loosely connected as “understudied” topics, varied widely. Judith Giesberg began the session with her discussion of soldiers’ consumption of pornography during the war. Explaining that new printing technology made erotic materials more readily available to soldiers, she argued that the consumption of pornography created a unique comradery through an insular sexual culture that regulated how soldiers viewed women and themselves. Such comradery, however, could be as exclusionary as it was inclusive. Using Anthony Comstock as a case study, Giesberg described how Comstock’s inability or unwillingness to participate in his regiments’ sexual culture ultimately led to his alienation.

Giesberg’s research, however, is not simply about the shared sexual culture of military life. It is also about the lasting consequences of that culture, and these consequences hold the exciting implications for her work. With the exception of studies on memory and race, historians often neglect how the Civil War contributed to the social issues of the latter half of the nineteenth century. While the army was never concerned with the sexual expectations shaped by military life, civilian society was. During the war, the government passed laws to restrict soldiers’ access to pornographic material. While rarely enforced, these laws set the precedent for future legislation such as the Comstock Law of 1873, which prohibited the circulation of “obscene” materials including erotica, contraceptives, and information regarding abortion. Thus, Giesberg roots the battle for women’s reproductive rights in the twentieth century within the sexual and legislative consequences of the Civil War.

Lesley Gordon’s research dealt with another factor contributing to soldiers’ potential alienation: cowardice. Focusing specifically on racialized understandings of bravery, Gordon examined how accusations of cowardice held different implications for black and white troops. While white soldiers were thought to have autonomy, choosing to be brave or not, African American soldiers were described as having a “passive” courage which was linked with their obedience to authority. As a result, a regiments’ expectation for success or failure became deeply attached to its racial makeup. While charges of cowardice were equally devastating regardless of race, African American troops carried the additional burden of proving their bravery on the field of battle.

While Gordon’s research contributes to a broader discussion concerning the relationship between African Americans and the military, it also reveals something else. Perhaps more than the other presenters, Gordon highlights the ways historians continue to construct and perpetuate traditional war narratives. Gordon falls in line with historians like John Keegan and Drew Gilpin Faust who assert that the fashioning and retelling of war stories inherently seeks to create order from chaos, telling of victory in the face of defeat. As a result the popular stories passed through the generations privilege narratives of heroism. As such, Gordon’s work is a call to look beyond the comforting narratives of order and into the chaos, where human behavior often fails to meet expectation.

Susannah Ural’s presentation was the result a public history project she is currently heading at the University of Southern Mississippi. There, she and her students are examining the records kept at the Beauvoir estate when it operated as a Confederate Soldiers Home during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While Confederate Soldiers Homes are not an understudied topic within the field, the information provided in Ural’s dataset challenges traditional scholarship regarding how these institutions operated. Usually thought to minister to the poorest and neediest of southern society, Ural’s research suggests that residents at Beauvoir were largely middle class compared to the rest of Mississippi. Furthermore, the fluid nature of residency combined with opportunities of civil engagement suggests that residents of the home were not “invisible monuments” to the South’s defeat. Instead, they were integrated members of the surrounding community.

Ural’s work aptly demonstrates how new methods of research and data collection might change the ways historians understand institutions. Indeed, the significance of Ural’s findings is made possible by a database that can easily track statistical information: race, age, gender, economic status, etc. These statistics offer the greatest challenge to the historiography. Ural has clearly discovered that Beauvoir does not conform to historians’ understanding of Confederate Soldiers Homes. The question is why. Was Beauvoir an exceptional case? Or have historians heretofore been incorrect regarding how these homes operated in the South?

Each of these presentations highlights new avenues of research. Whether interested in making more overt connections between wartime culture and the social and political agenda of the Progressive Era, or in deconstructing wartime narratives of heroism and victory, these studies demonstrate the breadth of topics and methods that have yet to be explored. Nevertheless, while each presentation was unique, there was one recurrent theme: a renewed emphasis on the localized study. While general narratives of war and soldiers’ experiences have recently dominated the field, the localized approach shared by Giesberg, Gordon, and Ural reveal unexpected nuances. It is in understanding these nuances, that graduate students may find their voice.

Lindsay Rae Smith

Lindsay Rae Smith is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alabama. Her dissertation, “’Fighting Johnnies, Fevers, and Mosquitoes’: A Medical History of the Vicksburg Campaign,” examines the way campaigning armies were aided, or hindered, by the capabilities of the Army Medical Corps and the limitations of nineteenth-century medical care.

Earl J. Hess Accepts Tom Watson Brown Book Award

The Society of Civil War Historians Banquet is an anticipated event on the program of the Southern Historical Association’s Annual Meeting. It is an opportunity for Civil War historians to gather together for conversation over dinner and drinks and hear about a new book that has garnered much attention in the field. On November 3, 2016, the 120 historians in attendance at this year’s event demonstrated their true dedication to the cause by sacrificing two more hours on the beautiful beach at the TradeWinds Grand Island Resort in St. Pete, Florida, to participate in the festivities of the SCWH dinner.

The president of the SCWH, Daniel Sutherland (University of Arkansas), introduced the Tom Watson Brown Book Award. Brown’s son, Tad Brown, sponsors the dinner, the complimentary copies of the book, and the $50,000 award each year. He also reads the book submissions and attends the dinner, where this year he presented the prize for the seventh consecutive time. Tad Brown created this award in memory of his father and the SCWH is extremely grateful for his continued support for the field.

Tad Brown, Earl Hess, and Dan Sutherland at the awards dinner, courtesy of the Society of Civil War Historians.
Tad Brown, Earl Hess, and Dan Sutherland at the awards dinner, courtesy of the Society of Civil War Historians.

The book prize committee this year consisted of Gary Gallagher, Lorien Foote, and James Marten. In their absence, Dan Sutherland read the report sent by Jim Marten regarding the winning book. Earl J. Hess’s Civil War Infantry Tactics: Training, Combat, and Small-Unit Effectiveness (Louisiana State University Press, 2015) captured the interest and acclaim of all three committee members from the start. They appreciated how Hess asked new questions of old sources and took the time to explain and explore the significance of unit-level tactics. In a lighter moment, the banquet audience reacted perceptibly to the committee’s comment that the book will cause historians to rewrite lectures. It was a warm and complimentary letter and demonstrated the committee’s genuine admiration for Dr. Hess’s work in this book.

Dr. Earl J. Hess, Stewart W. McClelland Chair in History at Lincoln Memorial University, then took the stage and began his talk by mentioning Mark Grimsley’s 1996 online essay “Why Military History Sucks” (http://warhistorian.blogspot.com/2016/06/why-military-history-sucked.html) and calling on historians to not let military history “die a quiet death.” Hess fears the marginalization of military history and believes that academic historians need to take a more prominent role in updating and disseminating military history. He does not want Civil War military history to be dominated by amateur historians who do not have the training and methodology he feels is necessary to analyze the sources and present the most cutting-edge research.

Hess argued that there is a pressing need for new perspectives in Civil War military history, and he stated his agreement with Gary Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier in their recent essay (Journal of Civil War Era, Vol. 4, No. 4, December 2014) when they called for more junior scholars to focus on military history. The historians at the banquet were familiar with this part of Hess’s argument, as it harkened back to discussion that cropped up in the wake of both Hess’s essay in Civil War History (Vol. 60, No. 4, December 2014) and the one by Gallagher and Meier. Megan Kate Nelson and Kevin Levin ruminated on this theme at the time in their blogs (http://www.megankatenelson.com/civil-war-military-historians-are-freaking-out/ and http://cwmemory.com/2014/12/11/in-defense-of-hess-gallagher-and-meier/), as did others, and we have also discussed this topic at length at recent conference sessions and panels. Hess utilized the stage at the SCWH dinner to reiterate his position on these issues.

Hess encouraged graduate programs to offer more military history and to make sure that scholars can be “true military historians.” He contended that Civil War military historians are far behind those of other wars and need to catch up, for example by revisiting old questions such as whether Atlanta’s fall really did secure Lincoln’s 1864 victory and whether the Civil War was truly an unusually destructive American experience. Historians of other American wars understand more about topics like supply, logistics, military engineering, and additional important aspects to conducting warfare than do Civil War historians; Hess would like to see these gaps filled in the literature.

Hess thus offers his book, Civil War Infantry Tactics, as an example and a step forward for Civil War military history. In the book, he analyzes the use of primary, small-unit tactics and discusses basic questions like the definition of column and line, the difference between them, and why it was so important that soldiers needed to know these formations. Hess argued in his banquet speech that primary tactics dominated the lives of soldiers, who were regularly drilled both during times of inactivity, long winters, or to update their skills. He pointed out that drills occurred even as late as March 1865 and that these served to keep idle troops busy and unite disparate men into battle-ready groups. Thus, understanding and drilling primary tactics had both a military and a morale-building purpose.

Hess outlined how American military leaders adopted much of their strategy and tactical knowledge from French military manuals, which were translated and interpreted by various Americans in the years prior to and just after the outbreak of the war. He reminded the audience that the manuals are filled with jargon, not theories or application, and served as a gateway to developing leadership qualities for men who were willing to dredge their way through the material. Hess argues in his book that the overwhelming majority of small unit commanders did learn tactics well enough to be effective. He noted that it was necessary for a commander to employ several maneuvers one after another in rapid succession and to be able to rely on men to obey orders without question.

After explaining the significant impact of successful implementation of tactics in the Civil War, Hess discussed how he expanded his analysis to consider how Civil War tactics fit in a linear examination of tactics in wars before and after it. Hess mentioned that this book complements another recent book of his, The Rifle Musket in Civil War Combat: Reality and Myth, and that the two books together demonstrate that the Civil War did not materially alter the nature of warfare in America. The rifle musket did not change how infantry fought on the battlefield – they still mainly employed short-range firing techniques rather than the longer-range opportunities offered by the new weaponry – and linear tactics did not cause the high rates of casualties in the Civil War. Hess does not agree that volunteer armies caused the wars to be long and believes that officers were effective in battle.

Hess rounded out his talk by encouraging the Civil War historians in the room to focus on the international context of the war and to compare the military history of the Civil War with other events globally in the same era. Ultimately, Hess argued that the Civil War was not a modern conflict and that it illustrates how Americans at that time copied most of their warfare style from the French; the Civil War, in Hess’s mind, demonstrated continuity with warfare before it, not American exceptionalism.

Dr. Hess’s final challenge to the audience was directed at graduate students and junior scholars to steer their research more directly toward Civil War military history. He views military history as the link between all topics of the war’s history and he sees the youthful academic historian as leading that charge.

Julie Mujic

Julie A. Mujic is currently teaching at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Her first book, Why They Stayed: The Mind of Northern Men in the Civil War Midwest is forthcoming from Fordham University Press. Mujic has presented research at two SCWH conferences, published essays in several edited volumes, and serves on the editorial board for the book series Engaging the Civil War from Southern Illinois University Press. She is active on Twitter at @JulieMujic, opposes Daylight Savings Time, and roots for all things Cleveland.

“A History They Can Use”: The Memphis Massacre and Reconstruction’s Public History Terrain

On May 20th and 21st, a group of scholars, students, and public historians gathered at the University of Memphis to discuss a dramatic event often overlooked in the narrative of Reconstruction, the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The symposium, and the Memphis Massacre Project, informed the public about the massacre and began a difficult and necessary conversation about how Americans approach the history of Reconstruction–how we rethink and repurpose existing spaces and create new public spaces to reflect on that history. The symposium’s directors, Dr. Beverly Bond and Dr. Susan O’Donovan, spoke with Muster about their work and their hopes for the project’s future.

From the capture of Memphis by Union forces in June 1862 through the final surrender of the Confederacy in April 1865, Memphis experienced dramatic demographic, social, and economic change. Thousands of enslaved African Americans fled area farms and plantations for sanctuary in the city. These new arrivals were housed in camps near the Union Army’s Ft. Pickering, on President’s Island, and in surrounding areas. After the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, African American men were allowed to enlist into segregated units of the U.S.C.T. Some of these soldiers were garrisoned at Ft. Pickering and a U.S.C.T unit from Ft. Pickering was among the black soldiers killed in the 1864 Ft. Pillow massacre, about forty miles north of the city.

The city’s white population also changed during the Civil War. Some Confederate sympathizers left the city to fight with the Confederate army or to refuge deeper into Confederate-held areas. Union military personnel, northern businessmen or war profiteers, teachers and other agents of northern missionary aid societies, and Freedman’s Bureau officials and workers poured into the city. As conflict wound down, some self-exiled white Memphians, returned to the city, hoping to take advantage of President Andrew Johnson’s generous amnesty programs and to reclaim homes and other property. Control of city services shifted back to civilian authorities.

These Memphis populations – newly emancipated African Americans, former Confederates (including many former slaveholders), former free people of color, ethnic whites (including many Irish immigrants), northern military and civilians – were negotiating the new terrain of freedom in the post-Civil War south. As was the case across much of the former Confederacy, white Southerners wanted to confine black Southerners to the narrowest of freedoms. White Memphians were willing to concede the end of slavery, the right to marry, and the right of former slaves to assume responsibility for the economic support of their families, but were not willing to extend full equality, full citizenship or even the fullest exercise of free labor to their black neighbors. Touting the presence of “surplus” African Americans in the overcrowded city, and beginning as early as fall 1865, white civilians and city government officials, sometimes with the complicity of the Union Army and the Freedman’s Bureau, encouraged (or pressured) black Memphians to return to the countryside to satisfy the labor needs of white farmers and planters.

Depiction of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Image from the Memphis Massacre Project site, http://www.memphis.edu/memphis-massacre/.

This volatile situation in the spring of 1866 engendered a series of minor confrontations between black soldiers at Ft. Pickering and members of the Memphis police, which escalated into a much larger massacre, a three-day wave of violence that left at least forty-six African American men, women and children dead. Other black Memphians were beaten and/or driven out of the city. Every African American church and schoolhouse was destroyed, homes and businesses were burglarized and burned, and at least five women were raped. Within weeks, a Congress that had already been at logger-heads with President Johnson over Reconstruction policy, dispatched a delegation to Memphis to investigate the massacre and its origins. What they learned, and how they responded to that new knowledge, led to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, changed the course of Reconstruction, and with it, the constitutional underpinnings of the nation. And then, as a nation, we “forgot” about Memphis along with the rest of Reconstruction’s history.

Bringing Reconstruction back into public view poses a number of challenges, both political and practical. The first, of course, stems from the fact that for 150 years, this history has been confined near exclusively to academic circles. Until May 1, 2016, when the Memphis NAACP unveiled a marker to commemorate the victims of the Memphis Massacre, there had been no National Park Service recognition of any aspect of this history anywhere. For reasons best explained by Cecelia O’Leary, David Blight, and others who work on the politics of memory, Reconstruction has been denied a place on our national historical landscape. But aside from having to carve out commemorative space that has for more than a century been claimed for marbled generals, Civil War battlefield sites, and more recently, Confederate battle symbols, Reconstruction didn’t happen in any particular or clearly defined place.   Unfolding more as a guerilla action or grassroots insurgency, Reconstruction worked itself out wherever people might meet – on workshop floors, inside white people’s homes, on plantations and farms. This has made it hard for historians to identify a physical location for an interpretive site or a monument. Still, there were moments when debates over black freedom flared largely and violently, and as Kate Masur and Greg Downs have observed, those acts of public violence can both be plotted on a map and used to open up discussion about a deliberately “forgotten” past. The Memphis Massacre of May 1866 gave us that chance.

Historical marker of the massacre. Image from Depiction of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Image from http://www.memphis.edu/memphis-massacre/.
Historical marker of the massacre. Image from Depiction of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Image from http://www.memphis.edu/memphis-massacre/.

What we quickly realized, however, was that teaching an event like the Memphis Massacre required teaching a wider and deeper historical context too. Reconstruction is such a cypher that no one knows how to think about it, or where to fit it into our national narrative. But in doing more to teach Reconstruction, we stumbled onto what turned out to be a winning strategy for making the Memphis Massacre meaningful to a 21st-century audience. By broadening our field of inquiry, our audiences quickly came to see that what happened in Memphis in 1866 was more than an idiosyncratic episode of only local interest. By broadening the story, they saw that what happened in Memphis is key to knowing how the nation we live in today came to be. As a number of our May symposium speakers revealed, many of the legal and constitutional rights we now take for granted owe their origins to the nation’s response the Memphis Massacre, and most especially, to the role played by former slaves in prompting those changes.

Indeed, if there was one aspect to this history that hooked our audiences most securely, we would venture to say it was the degree to which Black Lives–and black truths!–Mattered in 1866. Congress listened. A nation listened. And the outcome was a radical shift in American civil and political life. Imagine, for instance, where we would be today without the 14th Amendment, which Congress put the finishing touches on in the wake of the Memphis Massacre. Imagine where we would be today if black truths and black testimony carried the same weight that they did in 1866 when a congressional delegation took those testimonies seriously. For most of the people with whom we worked on the symposium this spring, this aspect of the Memphis story resonated the most deeply. Here was a history they could use.

We brought all these themes together in our capstone event, a two-day public symposium held on May 20-21 at the University of Memphis. It featured historians and scholars from across the country, including Robert K. Sutton, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service.  Presenting to an audience that numbered in the hundreds, their presentations pried open what has for 150-years been the carefully concealed history of Reconstruction, its legacies, and the significant role that Memphis played in both. The discussions that followed each presentation were lively, informed, and illuminating.  We learned much over these two days: about ourselves, our city, our nation, and the role of public memory in public life.

A picture of the Memphis Massacre Symposium. Image from the "Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866" Facebook page.
A picture of the Memphis Massacre Symposium. Image from the “Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866” Facebook page.

Now that we’ve brought the Memphis Massacre and through it, something of Reconstruction, to the surface, we intend to keep it there. But in the absence of a brick and mortar interpretive center, our efforts to commemorate, remember, and understand one of the watershed moments in national history will unfold in the digital domain. As it develops, the Memphis Massacre website will be museum, schoolroom, and public forum. In a sense, the amorphous nature of a digital interpretive center is appropriate given the amorphous character of Reconstruction’s history. Anyone, anywhere, at any time will be able to visit our site to learn more about this historic period. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can relive our May 2016 symposium, all of which was filmed and is now available on the Memphis Massacre blog. Panel four, “The Memphis Massacre,” aired recently on C-SPAN3 and panel 5, “The Radicalization of Reconstruction,” will air on the same channel on July 23. Both sessions will also be available in the C-SPAN Civil War video library.

Our plan in coming months is to continue adding new resources and teaching materials, including primary sources. We will use our blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed to promote Reconstruction commemorative initiatives in other communities as well as nineteenth-century African American history more generally.   We’ve found our website and social media “machine” to be very powerful and effective teaching and advocacy tools; our intent is to keep using them to permanently break what have been long-standing silences and to bring about a deeper public awareness of our past and the people and events that have shaped it.

Susan O'Donovan and Beverly Bond

Susan Eva O'Donovan is Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis. A former editor at the Freedmen & Southern Society Project and author of Becoming Free in the Cotton South, Professor O'Donovan specializes in African American history with a focus on the transition from slavery to freedom in the Civil War era. Beverly Greene Bond is Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis. Past president of the Southern Association for Women Historians, Professor Bond specializes in nineteenth-century African American history with a focus on African American women and their experiences.