If we can’t face facts about the Civil War, how can we ever deal with modern issues?

September 1, 2015

You have to wonder: With all of the challenges our state and nation faces, why do we still spend so much time arguing about the Civil War? Well, there are a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that Americans have an uncanny ability to believe what they want to believe, regardless of facts. No chapter in our history has been more mythologized than the Southern rebellion that officially ended 150 years ago.

If you want to understand the facts, a good place to start is Ken Burns’ 1990 television series, The Civil War. For five consecutive nights beginning Sept. 7, Kentucky Educational Television will show a high-definition version of that acclaimed series, which has been digitally re-mastered for its 25th anniversary.

I remember when the series first aired — and a record 40 million people watched. I lived in Atlanta, where the Civil War remained an everyday presence. It seemed like the whole city was sleep-deprived that week; people stayed up night after night, mesmerized by a compelling history lesson told simply with narration, old photographs and music.

If you have time to see only one episode of The Civil War this time, make it the first one. I watched the original again this week and was impressed by how well it explained the war’s causes, which generations of myth-making tried to obfuscate.

While there were a few side issues, the Civil War was all about slavery. White supremacy was the Confederacy’s core belief. Read every state’s secession documents. Read the politicians’ speeches. There is no doubt.

The other reason the Civil War still resonates is that deep divisions of race and class in America have never gone away; they have just become more subtle and complex. And each time it feels like our national wound is healing, the scab is torn off.

A white racist slaughters black worshipers in church. A black man assassinates a white deputy sheriff. White police officers shoot unarmed black men. A black man videotapes his murder of two TV journalists. So many white people find it so easy to hate a mixed-race president with a foreign-sounding name.

JeffDavis1

A participant in a Sons of Confederate Veterans rally at the state Capitol in July takes a “selfie” with the Jefferson Davis statue. Photo by Charles Bertram.

This ugly reality has refocused attention on Confederate symbolism, which has always been racially divisive. In Kentucky, the hottest debate is over the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis placed in the Capitol rotunda in 1936.

Like most Confederate monuments, including the statue of Gen. John Hunt Morgan in front of Lexington’s old courthouse, Davis’ statue was erected decades after the war, largely at taxpayer expense, by a Confederate memorial group as part of a well-organized effort to reinterpret the South’s racist rebellion as a noble “lost cause”.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, both candidates for governor and other prominent Democrats and Republicans have called for moving Davis’ statue from its symbolic place of honor in the Capitol to a museum.

That view was endorsed Monday by 72 historians from 16 Kentucky colleges and universities, who sent a letter to Stumbo and members of the General Assembly.

“The statue is not a neutral evocation of facts, but an act of interpretation that depicts Davis as a hero with an honorable cause,” the letter said. “Virtually no respected professional historians embrace this view — a perspective that minimizes the significance of slavery as a cause of the Civil War, downplays the human suffering of millions, and endows the southern cause with a nobility it does not deserve.”

But a recent Bluegrass Poll found that 73 percent of Kentuckians think the statue should stay in the rotunda. The all-white Kentucky Historic Properties Advisory Commission agreed by a vote of 7-2, but recommended adding a plaque with “educational context.” Myths are stubborn things.

What I find most disturbing about this debate is the willful ignorance of so many white people who insist the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. They ignore the fact that Confederate symbolism has always been a tool of racial intimidation. They remain oblivious to the pain black people feel toward veneration of Confederate heroes.

As the historians’ letter pointed out, this discussion isn’t about “erasing” or “rewriting” history; it is about making history more accurate. It is about no longer honoring people whose actions and beliefs are now considered despicable by a more enlightened and inclusive society.

With so many people so willing to ignore facts about the Civil War’s cause, it is no wonder we have trouble discussing race relations, economic justice, climate change and other issues that now threaten our future.

When willful ignorance and ideology replace facts and logic, it produces the kind of dangerous polarization that America saw in the 1860s — and that we see far too often a century and a half later.


History shouldn’t be erased, but made more accurate and complete

July 4, 2015
The statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan outside the old Fayette County Courthouse was erected in 1911 as part of a well-organized Confederate memorial movement. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

The statue of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan was erected in front of the old Fayette County Courthouse in 1911 at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Taxpayers paid $7,500 of the $15,000 cost after private fundraising efforts fell short. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

I went to see Gone With The Wind last week at the Kentucky Theatre, the same place where I saw it the first time almost five decades ago.

The 1939 movie is a classic, and quite entertaining. As a credible account of history, though, it is laughable. Given modern views about racial equality, parts of it are downright offensive.

What I knew this time, but not the first, was that Gone With The Wind was the ultimate expression of how the Civil War’s losers fought long and hard to win the battle for collective memory.

By spinning history and erecting hundreds of monuments across the South, Confederate veterans, their descendants and sympathizers sought to sanitize, romanticize and mythologize the rebel legacy. It became a noble “lost cause” of gallant cavaliers, Southern belles, moonlight and magnolias.

Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves but fought out of loyalty to their state. But the ugly fact is that the Confederacy’s main goals were to preserve an economy based on slavery and a society grounded in white supremacy.

As Robert Penn Warren, the grandson of a Confederate veteran, wrote in his great 1961 essay, The Legacy of the Civil War, “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”

As desegregation and civil rights began roiling America in the 1940s, many Southern whites embraced Confederate symbolism again, with a nasty twist. They added the battle flag on their state flags, flew it from public buildings and waved it in defiance.

Over the next half-century, discrimination was outlawed and racism became less socially acceptable. Confederate symbolism became more benign — at least to white people. Many now see the rebel flag as a symbol of “heritage not hate” and of regional pride and identity.

Besides, since so many outsiders look down on Southerners, we like being rebels, with or without a cause.

But the racist massacre at a Charleston, S.C., church has forced us to confront the fact that the Confederate flag has been tainted by racism as surely as the ancient swastika was by Nazism.

We also are re-evaluating the propriety of state-sanctioned monuments to the Confederacy. Should they stay, or should they go? It’s a complicated question.

A CNN/ORC poll surveyed 1,017 Americans last week and found that 57 percent see the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride, 33 percent see it as a symbol of racism and 5 percent see it as both. But there was a stark racial divide: while 66 percent of whites think it symbolizes pride, only 17 percent of blacks see it that way.

Interestingly, though, a majority of both blacks and whites said they were against renaming streets and highways that honor Confederate leaders.

That finding is pertinent to Kentucky, a divided slave state that remained in the union but embraced Confederate identity after the war, amid decades of racist violence.

What should be done with the Jefferson Davis statue in the state Capitol rotunda? Move it to a museum.

The physical heart of state government should be a place to honor Kentuckians of the past whose lives and ideals set examples for the future. There are many more worthy of that honor than the Confederate president.

What about the statues beside the old Fayette County courthouse of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate raider, and John C. Breckinridge, a former U.S. vice president who became a Confederate general and secretary of war?

The Davis statue, placed in the Capitol in 1936, and Morgan statue, placed on what was then the courthouse lawn in 1911, have similar histories: they were erected at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Breckinridge’s statue went up in 1887. State taxpayers subsidized the cost of all three statues.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning will host a free public forum at 6 p.m. Tuesday to discuss these issues. Mayor Jim Gray is to be among the speakers.

To me, these two monuments present a more complicated situation than the Davis statue. The old courthouse is no longer a seat of government, but a space used to commemorate Lexington’s history. For better or worse, those men, their statues and the forces that put them there are significant parts of that history.

This is what I would do: leave Morgan where he is, but rewrite the historical marker to say that some thought he was a hero while others considered him a terrorist. And explain that this statue played a big role in the influential Confederate memorial movement.

As for Breckinridge, I would move him to the back of the old courthouse lawn. That is where, in 2003, a long-overdue historical marker was placed to explain that one-fourth of Lexington’s residents were held in bondage by 1860, and this was the spot where slaves were publicly whipped.

At the Main Street entrance to Cheapside park, where Breckinridge now stands, I would erect a significant memorial to those slaves and the abolitionists who fought for their freedom. It also should explain that Cheapside was once one of the South’s leading slave markets.

History should not be erased or forgotten, because it holds important lessons for the present and future. But we owe it to ourselves to make the retelling of that history accurate and complete.

  • If you go
  • What: Forum on race, Lexington’s history with slavery and Confederate statuary and symbolsWhen: 6-8 p.m. July 7
  • Where: Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. Second St.
  •  More information: Carnegiecenterlex.org or (859) 254-4175

Move Jefferson Davis’ statue from state Capitol to a museum

June 23, 2015

The young, white thug who sat for an hour in a prayer meeting at a South Carolina church, then pulled a gun and murdered nine black worshipers, touted his racism by posting a picture of himself online holding the Confederate flag.

His heinous act has had one positive effect: It has forced conservative Southern politicians to rethink state-supported veneration of the Confederacy.

This is long overdue, and Kentucky leaders should join them by moving Jefferson Davis’ 15-foot marble statue from the Capitol rotunda to a museum.

Others have tried before and failed. Now, the idea is gaining rapid support from, among others, prominent Republicans including Sen. Mitch McConnell, state Senate President Robert Stivers and gubernatorial nominee Matt Bevin.

Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee for governor, said Tuesday that he would have to think about it — a hesitation he might soon regret.

jeffdavisAcross the South, Confederate symbolism is suddenly under siege. The Confederate battle flag’s days on the South Carolina capital lawn appear numbered, and some Mississippi leaders are talking about removing the emblem from their state flag.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered the battle flag removed from a license plate produced for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that Texas can refuse to allow the flag on its license plates.

Walmart and Sears announced that they will stop selling Confederate flag merchandise.

Since 1936, a statue of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederacy, has had a place of honor in Kentucky’s Capitol, along with four other Kentuckians: his nemesis, Abraham Lincoln; statesman Henry Clay; pioneer physician Ephraim McDowell; and Vice President Alben Barkley.

Davis’ statue was put there at the urging of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1934, legislators appropriated $5,000 of taxpayer money to help pay for it. That sum is now worth about $89,000.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans campaigned for decades to erect memorials to their Confederate ancestors, including the statue of Gen. John Hunt Morgan on Lexington’s old courthouse square. They were more interested in history than white supremacy.

But the same cannot be said for the people behind many official displays of the Confederate flag around the South. Most of those flags appeared a half-century ago as acts of defiance against the civil rights movement. Intent is key, and their intent was racist.

Their sentiments live on in the underground white supremacy movement, which is bigger than most politicians want to admit. It is why the Confederate flag continues to be embraced by people such as the South Carolina murderer, whose name I will not dignify by publishing.

But let’s get back to Jefferson Davis.

A Mississippi planter’s son, he was born in Kentucky, near the Christian-Todd county line, where a 351-foot obelisk that’s now part of the state park system was dedicated to his memory in 1924. He went to prep school near Springfield and attended Transylvania University before graduating from West Point.

When Mississippi seceded from the union in 1861, Davis resigned his U.S. Senate seat and led a war against the country he had sworn to defend.

Late in life, Davis claimed that the Civil War had never really been about slavery, a ridiculous argument that some Confederate apologists still try to make.

The central issue of Southern secession was the preservation of slavery and the economic system that depended on it. It was about denying black people basic human rights because of a belief that they were inferior. Davis was the man in charge of that effort, and he doesn’t deserve our honor today.

Some people would say that moving Davis’ statue out of the Capitol is an attempt to rewrite history. That isn’t so.

Davis’ statue should be prominently displayed in a state museum along with other relics of Kentucky’s complex and controversial past. He should be remembered, and his story should be studied in the context of his era.

If nothing else, Davis provides a great lesson for current and future Kentucky leaders, and that lesson is this: Doing what is politically and economically expedient but morally questionable can leave you on the wrong side of history.

Museums honor history. The Capitol rotunda — the very center of our state government — should honor those whose accomplishments and ideals we value.

State rules limit statues in the rotunda to people who have been dead for at least 40 years, according to David Buchta, the state curator of historic properties. That’s a good rule, because it gives time for famous people’s worth to be seen in perspective.

Moving Davis’ statue to a museum would make room for at least one other Kentuckian more worthy of our honor. I can think of several candidates, and some of them are of a different race or gender than the five white guys there now.


A short walk shows Lexington’s Civil War divisions

May 29, 2012

 

I first became fascinated with Civil War history as a boy in the 1960s, soon after the centennial celebration.

Many of the books I found in the Lexington Public Library — then located in the Carnegie building in Gratz Park — made that history seem remote. They told of epic battles in Virginia, Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania. They showed pictures of Atlanta, Charleston and Richmond — the one in Virginia, not the one down the road.

I had no idea then how much Civil War history lay just beyond those library walls.

America is now in the midst of a more nuanced commemoration of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. There is less focus on gallant cavaliers and more reflection on the causes and legacies of that terrible, transformative war.

That makes this the perfect time to take a short history walk through downtown Lexington. There are no forts or battlefields to see. But it would be hard to find another few blocks of American soil so intimately associated with the Civil War’s key political figures, central issue and deep divisions.

Begin your walk in Gratz Park at the James Lane Allen fountain. This is where Transylvania’s main building stood in the 1820s when Jefferson Davis was a student. After a couple of years, Davis transferred to West Point. He later became a U.S. senator from Mississippi and the only president of the Confederate States of America.

Transylvania’s main building burned in 1829. Years later, former student Cassius M. Clay revealed that the mysterious fire was started by his slave, who fell asleep with a candle burning while polishing his master’s shoes. Clay, the son of one of Kentucky’s largest slaveholders, became one of slavery’s most outspoken critics. In the 1840s, he published an abolitionist newspaper, The True American, from an office on Mill Street near the corner of Main.

Walk through Gratz Park to the corner of Market and Second streets. There is the Bodley-Bullock House, an 1814 mansion that served alternately as Union and Confederate headquarters when each army occupied Lexington during the Civil War.

Walk across the park to another 1814 mansion, at the corner of Second and Mill streets. It was the home of Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a cavalry raider known as the “Thunderbolt of the Confederacy.” It is now a museum owned the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation. (Hours and information: BluegrassTrust.org.)

Before proceeding on Second Street, look down Mill Street toward First Presbyterian Church. It surrounds a small brick building that was the law office of Henry Clay, America’s most influential politician of the early 19th century.

Clay negotiated political compromises over the expansion of slavery that delayed the Civil War for nearly four decades. (Learn more about Clay at his Ashland estate: HenryClay.org.)

At the corner of Second and Broadway, you will see a parking lot that was the site of Transylvania University’s renowned medical school, which closed in 1857. The building burned in 1863 while being used as a Union Army hospital.

Look down Second Street and you will see a marker outside the last home of John C. Breckinridge, whose career illustrates how the Civil War divided the city and the nation. This Lexingtonian was the 14th vice president of the United States, then a presidential candidate in 1860. When war came, Breckinridge sided with the South, becoming a Confederate general and secretary of war.

Walk down Broadway toward Short Street. You will see the Opera House, built in 1886. Before the Civil War, this was the site of a business operated by W.A. Pullum, one of the city’s many “negro dealers.” Lexington was one of the South’s biggest slave-trading centers.

Take a right on Short Street, past Saints Peter & Paul School and St. Paul’s Catholic Church, and you will see a marker noting the birthplace of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Her grandmother, Eliza Parker, lived next door. Neither house remains.

Lincoln visited his wife’s family in the fall of 1847. The man who would later abolish slavery was then a freshman congressman from Illinois, just beginning to grapple with the issue. That visit to Lexington might have given Lincoln his most close-up look at the South’s “peculiar institution.”

From the Parker house, historian William Townsend wrote, Lincoln easily could have looked past the spiked fence into Pullum’s compound, which had rows of eight-foot-square slave “pens” and a whipping post.

Follow Short Street to Jefferson Street, turn left and cross Main. The Mary Todd Lincoln House museum in a restored home where the future first lady lived from 1832, when she was 13 years old, until she moved to Illinois in 1839. (Hours and information: MTLHouse.org.)

That’s a lot of Civil War history in less than a mile.

The Fountain of Youth, a gift to the city from the estate of the writer James Lane Allen, is on the north end of Gratz Park on the site of the original building of Transylvania University.  Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in that building in the 1820s before transferring to West Point.  Photos by Tom Eblen

A groundskeeper last week prepared for Transylvania University’s graduation. In the foreground is Gratz Park, the former site of Transylvania’s main building, where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, studied in the 1820s.

 

 

The Bodley-Bullock House, built in 1814, served as headquarters for both Union and Confederate armies when control of Lexington changed hands during the Civil War. The house is across Gratz Park from Hopemont, home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Hopemont, built in 1814, was the home of Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a notorious cavalry raider.

Hopemont was saved from demolition by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation in 1855 and is now a museum.

Transylvania University’s Medical Hall stood where this parking lot is now at the corner of Broadway and Second streets. The building was being used as a Union Army hospital during the Civil War when it burned in 1863.

The Lexington Opera House, built in 1886, on Broadway just north of Short Street, stands on the site that in the 1840s was Pullum’s slave jail. Abraham Lincoln’s closest personal exposure to slavery may have been seeing Pullums while visiting his wife’s grandmother, who lived on Short Street adjacent to the jail.

A plaque noting Mary Todd Lincoln’s birthplace stands outside her former home on Short Street. The house in the background replaced an earlier one that was home to her grandmother, Eliza Parker.

The Mary Todd Lincoln House is where Abraham Lincoln’s wife lived from 1832, when she was 13, until 1839, when she moved to Illinois, where she met Lincoln. The house, originally built in 1806 as an inn, is now a museum.

 


Jefferson Davis’ life still holds lessons

May 31, 2008

He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky, grew up to be president and led his nation through a bitter Civil War.

No, not Abraham Lincoln.

The other guy: Jefferson Davis.

The 200th birthday of the only president of the Confederate States of America is Tuesday, and it will pass with little notice.

A few modest ceremonies and a historians’ symposium are planned this month, and there will be a festival next weekend at Davis’ hometown of Fairview in Todd County. That’s where a 351-foot concrete obelisk was built to his memory in the early 1900s by old men of the Lost Cause.

The commemorations are in stark contrast to the two-year national celebration that began in February to mark the bicentennial of Lincoln, who was born eight months later and 125 miles away, near Hodgenville in LaRue County.

Lincoln achieved mythic status after he died a martyr as the Civil War was ending. In the pantheon of American heroes, he’s right up there with George Washington.

Davis, on the other hand, is a man few now want to acknowledge, much less celebrate.

Before the Civil War, few would have predicted their fates.

Lincoln was homely and awkward. He educated himself while working as a frontier store clerk. His military career was modest. He married well by Lexington standards, but the Todds had little influence outside the Bluegrass.

After holding small political jobs, practicing law and serving in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln was elected to a single two-year term in Congress. He won the presidency in 1860 with not quite 40 percent of the vote in a four-way race that included John C. Breckinridge of Lexington. Lincoln was openly mocked, even by some in his own government. His emancipation of slaves was not a popular move.

Davis, on the other hand, was the handsome ideal of Southern manhood. He left Kentucky at an early age, as Lincoln did, but returned as the only Protestant pupil at a good Catholic school in Springfield. He studied at Transylvania, then one of the nation’s best colleges, before leaving Lexington to attend West Point.

He served twice in the military with distinction and married the daughter of his commander, the future President Zachary Taylor. She died of malaria three months after the wedding. He married well a second time, too, securing a comfortable place in Mississippi’s plantation aristocracy. He represented Mississippi in the U.S. House, served as secretary of war and was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Davis opposed secession, but when Mississippi left the union, he resigned his Senate seat and a month later was elected president of the Confederacy.

“In some ways, the elevation of Lincoln over Davis isn’t quite fair,” said Brian Dirck, a history professor at Anderson University in Indiana and author of Lincoln and Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865.

“Jefferson Davis was a talented man; before 1860, most people would have said he was more talented than Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “There are many people who felt (Davis) would have made a good president of the United States before the war.”

Davis did a remarkable job of holding together a confederacy founded on the principle that states’ rights supersede those of a central government. Throughout the war, he was constantly sparring with state courts and legislatures.

“I doubt anyone else could have done a better job, given the circumstances,” Dirck said.

“But here’s the thing: He lost. And by that I mean not only did he lose the war, he lost the battle for the Confederacy’s legacy, as well. After the war, he told anybody who would listen that the Confederacy was not about defending slavery, but rather the Constitution and states’ rights. He wrote a book to that effect – a really long, tedious book, I might add – and for a while people believed him.”

The Confederacy, of course, was all about slavery; the South’s wealth depended on it. Jefferson Davis led the fight for slavery and ended up as the poster boy for the most evil social institution in American history.

Davis’ view that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God … it is sanctioned in the Bible” was conventional wisdom in the South of his day, where slavery had existed for 250 years. People used Scripture then to defend slavery the way others would use it later to deny equal rights to women and gay people.

The United States is great because it is a nation of values, and high on that list of values is equal rights. We really believe that stuff about all people being created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, our entire history has involved struggles to make those words reality. In many ways, we’re still working on it.

I’ve always been fascinated by historic figures such as Jefferson Davis, the man who stood for all of the popular things and is now pitied for it.

And it makes me wonder: When people look back on us a generation or a century or two from now, who will be our Jefferson Davises? Whom will people revere, and whom will they pity?