Posts Tagged 'James Marten'

A Quarter Century (and counting) of the Frank L. Klement Lectures at Marquette

By James Marten

I find it a little hard to believe that Monday’s talk by Kathleen M. Brown of the University of Pennsylvania on “Undoing Slavery: Abolitionist Body Politics and the Argument Over Humanity” was the twenty-sixth Frank L. Klement Lecture!  The series was conceived long ago by a former colleague, Lance Grahn, and myself, as a Phi Alpha Theta project—Frank had been president of Phi Alpha Theta, the international honor society for history.  Encouraged by our then department chair, Tom Hachey, we started to think bigger.  A year-long fund-raising effort by the College of Arts and Sciences alumni group raised enough money—from hundreds of different donors, mostly Frank’s former students—to fully endow the series.

The man we honored was born on the banks of the Embarrass River in northeastern Wisconsin. After spending some time as a country school teacher, he enrolled in the frank_klement04History PhD program at the University of Wisconsin. Frank often told of the first day he walked into the seminar run by William B. Hesseltine (a famous curmudgeon), when, Frank claimed, three young men who would eventually become leading historians of the Civil War era turned to look at him: T. Harry Williams, Richard Current, and Kenneth Stampp (who was my dissertation director’s dissertation director at Berkeley). Although he always felt like a bit of an underdog, he completed his degree in 1946 and taught at Lake Forest College and at Eau Claire State Teachers College before joining the history department at Marquette University two years later. By the time he had retired twenty-seven years later with the rank of Professor Emeritus, Frank served as department chair from 1956-1958 and received the Award for Teaching Excellence in 1965. Frank’s scholarship focused on the Civil War era, particularly on northern dissenters. He authored over fifty articles and chapters in books and dozens of book reviews, but his best-known works are The Copperheads in the Middle West (1960), The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War (1970), and Dark Lanterns: Secret Political Societies, Conspiracies, and Treason Trials in the Civil War (1984).  Frank died at the age of eighty-six in 1994.

The first Klement Lecturer, Mark Neely, spoke a few months after he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, which was, appropriately enough, on dissent in the North during the Civil War.  The second lecturer was one of Frank’s old grad school friends, Richard Current; his rather iconoclastic lecture on “Abraham Lincoln and Multiculturalism” (he argued that Lincoln would not have been a fan) was by far the best-selling Klement Lecture from the days when MU Press published a booklet by each lecturer.

The first sixteen lectures were on the Civil War era, broadly defined; over the last decade we’ve brought in scholars of many other fields in US history, from the New Deal to the Old West, and from foreign policy to race relations. It’s a spectacular lineup; at least seventeen held or would go on to hold endowed chairs.  Two were Pulitzer Prize winners, while another two were finalists for the Pulitzer.  Nine have won the $50,000 Lincoln Prize from Gettysburg College (five more were finalists).  And their books have won scores of other prizes from professional organizations.

I would not call the following lectures my “favorites,” but I do think they stand out because they took on big, bold topics, or because they were particularly attractive to undergraduates, or simply because they were interesting:

Steven Hahn’s assertion that the Civil War and the subsequent campaigns against Native Americans were part of the American “Imperial Project” (“The Dimensions of Freedom: Slave Emancipation, Indian Peoples, and the Projects of the New American State,” 2012);

Fitz Brundage’s startling lecture on the ways in which American officials have engaged in torture—in the context of American soldiers being accused of torture in Iraq (“The American Tradition of Torture,” 2011);

Lesley J. Gordon’s and Bill Blair’s  (“‘I Never was a Coward’: Questions of Bravery in a Civil War Regiment,” 2005, and “Why Didn’t the North Hang Some Rebels? The Postwar Debate over Punishment for Treason,” 2004, respectively).

Along the way, Ed Ayers talked about one of the first major online archives on the Civil War (the Valley of the Shadow Project ), while Gray Brechin spoke on a new archive of New Deal sites that still exist (the Living New Deal: Still Working for America); Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber delivered lectures on women during the Civil War. Joe Glatthaar explored Robert E. Lee, Joan Waugh Ulysses S. Grant, Frank Costigliola the Milwaukee native and diplomat 41UoMsfnVzL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_[1]George Kennan, and Stephen Berry Edward Allan Poe. A complete list of a quarter century of Klement Lecturers—many of which have been recorded and can be watched or listened to—can be found here. The first fifteen lectures were published by Kent State University Press as More Than a Contest Between Armies: Essays on the Civil war Era, ed. by A. Kristen Foster and James Marten (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2007).

Although it makes me feel very old to know how many Klement Lectures we’ve had, I think I speak for the entire history department when I say that we’re proud that we’ve been able to bring to our faculty, students, and the larger community such an outstanding array of scholars on so many different topics.

James Marten is chair of the history department. Find out more about Frank Klement in a slideshow prepared for a memorial dinner commemorating his death. http://www.marquette.edu/history/klement.shtml.

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Thoughts on Confederate Monuments (My Own and Others’)

By James Marten

As the storm over Confederate monuments intensified during the late summer, it became obvious that I, along with anyone else teaching a Civil War class this fall, was being given an incredible teaching moment.  What better way to show students that the Civil War was a living, breathing event, a powerful way to represent—or to disrupt—American values and assumptions in politics, race relations, and culture.

But how to do it? One does not want to overtly politicize a course; by the same token, this is an incredible opportunity to underscore the relevance of history to modern Americans.  This isn’t a new thing, of course; historians have long explored the “memory” of the Civil War, particularly its causes and its results.  Books like David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (2001) and Caroline E. Janney’s Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (2013) examined the complicated ways in which Americans have sought to memorialize and politicize the Civil War era.

The monument issue that erupted early this month, like the previous controversy over the presence of the Confederate flag in southern capitols and courthouses, tended to pit those who argued that the flags and monuments  were simply representations of a southern “heritage” that should be recognized and honored against those who maintained that they promoted a racist past and should be ignored or taken down. Similar arguments have taken place on college campuses in both the South and the North, where controversies have boiled up about renaming buildings named after slaveowners. At our sister institution, Georgetown University, the institution’s ownership and sale of slaves in the 1830s inspired much soul-searching, a major research project, and the renaming of a major building on campus. (Check out the Georgetown Slavery Archive for more.)

The monument issue has been simmering for a few years now, but the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists used a statue of Robert E. Lee as a 800px-Lee_Park,_Charlottesville,_VArallying point, forced it into the public consciousness, particularly after President Donald Trump’s original comments blaming the deadly violence that occurred in Charlottesville on the actions of “both sides.” The city council had decided to remove the statue last spring; a lawsuit has delayed that action. (The story of Charlottesville’s Lee monument can be found in this New York Times piece from early August. The monument is pictured to the left.)

Like many of my colleagues in the field, I’ve struggled to decide exactly what I think should be done.  I teach in a private university in a northern state, so no one is likely to ask me about what they should do about Confederate monuments.  Yet it seems important to me to figure out for myself—and to have a ready answer should students (as I think they will) ask me about it.  Although I favored the elimination of the Confederate flag from public spaces, I’ve been something of an agnostic on monuments to the Confederacy.  But to me, now that the latter have been “claimed,” it seems, by white nationalists, it seems that whatever virtues there were in keeping the monuments intact have been compromised. As a result, I now support the removal by local authorities of Confederate monuments from public places.

But this blog is less about my opinion than it is about providing readers with a short introduction to some of the questions related to the monuments, and to point them in the direction of some excellent articles and blog posts by historians engaged in the issue. (For a great “roundup” of blogs, articles, and essays, see Megan Kate Nelson’s blog, “Historista.”)

In order to understand the monument issue, it’s important for us to distinguish the various motivations for the erecting a monument. The fundamental question when considering the appropriateness of any commemoration is this: why is this person or event being commemorated? What raises this circumstance or this person to that level of importance?

The vast majority of monuments—the kind found in small town squares and Confederate cemeteries—were mass-produced, generic statues of common soldiers. They were picturesque, but hardly works of art. (The historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage offers a brief history of these monuments—and a wise approach to dealing with them—in his essay published on Vox.)

But the debate has largely revolved around the larger, usually equestrian, statues of individual politicians or leaders. The president and others have cautioned that taking down Lee sculptures puts us on the slippery slope that could eventually lead to the destruction of monuments to founding fathers who owned slaves. Yet structures honoring to Washington, Jefferson, and other slaveholders were not built to commemorate their slave owning, but to honor their contributions to the formation of the United States.  On the other hand, the only reason there are monuments to Robert E. Lee is because he led the largest army fighting the United States in our country’s bloodiest conflict.  Without the Civil War, he would have been a well-respected colonel in the US army that no one would have remembered after his death. He, like many other Confederate military and political leaders, had, long before they joined the Confederate cause, sworn oaths to protect the United States as officers in the armed services or elected officials.

Moreover, most of the monuments that are currently being attacked, supported, or taken down were put up between the 1890s and the 1910s. By this time the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the war—in the best American tradition, the South had fought courageously and nobly for principles in which they believed—had captured the imaginations of southerners and many (not all) northerners alike.  But it was also the decade in which Jim Crow segregation and the disfranchisement of African Americans in southern states were nearly complete, and a time when lynching of African Americans had begun to reach its crescendo.  The Lee statue in Charlottesville did not go up until 1924—the same year KKK members openly paraded at the Democratic National Convention, a show of force that reflected the organization’s rebirth in 1915 (atop Stone Mountain, Georgia, which would become the site of another monument to the Confederacy). As Eric Foner has said, the monuments were expressions of power, not patriotism, and were not intended to represent “our” shared history, but a very specific version of history. (See Foner’s Op-Ed in the  New York Times.) James Grossman argues that comparing Confederate to Union monuments creates a false equivalent; however much one admires the courage of Confederate soldiers and the capacity of southern civilians to endure hardship, their cause hardly matched the moral and political high ground of the Union cause, or of the American cause in 1776 (to which it is often compared by southerners). (Grossman’s thoughts are part of a CNN roundtable on the issue.)

It says a lot about the leniency of Reconstruction and the racism of the post-war North that Confederate memorials could proliferate so widely and quickly throughout the confederate memorial at ArlingtonSouth with little pushback from the North. There were certainly examples of opposition—some Union veterans and others bitterly opposed the building of a Confederate memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, where a number of Confederates had actually been buried, but it nevertheless was unveiled in 1914—but generally they were accepted and the issue was, well, a non-issue. (For more on the Confederate memorial at Arlington, go to the cemetery’s website.)

Despite their belief that the monuments were direct links to Confederate racial policies and motivations, most historians have, for many years, believed it more important to provide context to these representations of a specific time in our history, to explain their symbolism and the uses to which they have been put. Yet that may be impossible now, and many historians are changing their minds.  (Civil War blogger Kevin Levin explains his change of heart in this blog for the Atlantic, while  Matthew Stanley indicates why he changed his mind at the Emerging Civil War blog.)

Some politicians are also taking aim at monuments to Confederate commanders at battlefield parks. Battlefield monuments occupy a somewhat different place in the construction of memory.  Their original intent was to mark the movements and accomplishments of military units and commanders.  The more elaborate sculptures and structures—to commanders of specific units, or memorializing the fallen from individual states—are original pieces of art. And there is a rough balance in the number of monuments to Union and Confederate commanders and units.

I personally would prefer the battlefield monuments to be left alone. But I also would urge the National Park Service to be aggressive and pro-active in interpreting the monuments, which have for the most part been left to “speak” for themselves. The last decade or two have seen numerous debates among and between public historians and meade1_18471138_stdacademic historians about how battlefields should be interpreted, particularly in terms of the causes of the war, the motivations of the men who fought it, and the public memory of that war.  It seems to me that the monuments provide a great opportunity to explore all of these issues.  Because they capture moments in time—both the moment being commemorated, and the moment in which the commemoration occurs—they can be tools that, if done right can help visitors understand not only the battlefield, but also the war’s larger meanings. (The photo to the left is of the Gen. George G. Meade statue at Gettysburg.)

Interpreting symbols of racism, inequality, and extreme political beliefs—particularly when substantial groups of people do not see them that way—is a tricky business requiring a great deal of nuance. Recent events suggest that nuance may no longer be possible.

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette. Among his recent publications are America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2014) and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2011).

“The Troubles of His Country Were His Own”: Rev. N. A. Staples

By James Marten

This year two parts of my lives collided: my work as a historian of the Civil War era and my membership in the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee.  First Church is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, and I’m helping the congregation commemorate the milestone by organizing speakers and writing a monthly blog.

First Church was formed in the spring of 1842, but a few months earlier a notice had appeared in a local newspaper asking Unitarians interested in starting a church to gather at a local meeting hall “at early candlelight” to talk it over.  Although the congregation has had its ups and downs–in fact, it suspended services at least twice in the nineteenth century, and once had its mortgage foreclosed–since 1892 it has been housed in a brick church at Ogden and Astor, on Milwaukee’s lower east side.  The denomination as a whole and our congregation in particular is noted for its social activism; today it is one of the largest congregations in the denomination with around 800 members.

My January blog highlighted the unique life of one of our earliest ministers, N. A. Staples. He was an unusual character–kind of hard to live with, it seems–but he represented the radical abolitionists who helped spark the Civil War in 1861.  The blog is based largely on a biography and collection of sermons written and compiled by one of his close friends, but Staples’ complicated personality comes through as clearly as his passion for reform and his belief in the liberal Christianity promoted by Unitarians.

You can read the blog here.

Jim Marten is chair of the MU History Department and has been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee for over twenty years.

Christmases Past: A Holiday Blog

By James Marten

It’s no coincidence that the most benign and popular of the three spirits who haunt Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Although in the end Ebenezer’s journey through select moments of his holiday memories are more bitter than sweet, this first of three ghostly tours reminds us that the ways in which we and our families celebrate Christmas—or any holiday, really—create a shared history among family members that can become treasured memories or dramas fraught with ambivalence.

Part of that memory-making, at least for some of us, threads through popular culture, whether it’s the smooth jazz-infused A Charlie Brown Christmas, the jerky stop-motion animation of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or the star-studded, over-the-top music specials that have flooded the airwaves since the 1950s (anyone remember David Bowie singing “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby?).

But three iconic representatives of the genre are grounded in history, and self-consciously reflected that history when they were made. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (actually published in 1843 as A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas), christmascarol1843_-_184has appeared in countless plays, cartoons, radio shows, and movies. Each version, in its own way, has captured conditions on Victorian England familiar to any historian: the class conflict reflected in the presence of the urban poor (the waifs revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Present), the barely-getting-by lower middle class represented by the Cratchits, the comfortable middle classes shopping and feasting throughout the story, and the wealthy folks who barely appear but are clearly present; the overburdened system of private charities and over-used work houses and prisons so loved by Scrooge; even the massive dislocation of the provincial population to London and its fabulous economic opportunities and worrisome dangers. Indeed, one of Dickens’ motivations for writing the little book was to offer not only a heart-warming holiday story, but to highlight the egregious conditions in which many Londoners lived.

Less concerned with societal ills than with individual redemption, It’s a Wonderful Life traces everyman George Bailey’s life from the 1910s through the 1940s, with major events like the World Wars and the Great Depression neatly framing the movie into three acts.  Smaller episodes reflect those times, from the druggist’s near-disastrous grief from losing wonderful-lifehis son during the WWI to the run on the Baileys’ building and loan in the early 1930s that ruins the George and Mary’s honeymoon, to the incredible energy poured into the war effort on the WWII home front.  Along the way we glimpse the effects of eastern European immigration and the development of the kind of the kind of suburban housing that would be made famous by the post-war Levittowns.  Every one of these and many other historical moments plays a role in the life George resents—and every one provides a specific kind of Christmas memory showing why his presence enriched the lives of others.

It’s a Wonderful Life appeared in 1946, as soldiers returned from war and adjusted to peace (like George’s hero brother Harry—a pilot like Jimmy Stewart, acting in his first movie since returning from several years of active duty) and as the country tried to glimpse a little optimism after the shattering destruction of the war. Eight years later, White Christmas came out at a time when, despite the Cold War, Americans felt more confident and the world was more or less at peace; filmed in living color and featuring peppy musical numbers, it occupies a place on the spectrum of Christmas movies about as far from It’s mmwhitechristmas02Wonderful Life as possible.  Yet even a bit of fluff like White Christmas is rooted in war-time and post-war America, from the GIs longing for home at the make-shift show put on by comrades just before they go into combat to the sudden rise to entertainment prominence of television to the bittersweet reunion of already aging veterans who gather to honor their old general after he’s been rejected by an army too modern to need an old-school soldier like him. Despite its modern sensibilities, White Christmas seems to have been produced to create nostalgia.

Whether these or other Christmas classics are on your must-see list, or if you simply watch a few minutes here and there while channel-surfing, for many of us these stories—and no doubt countless others—firmly meld fictional Christmases into real history and into our lives.

Happy Holidays on behalf of my colleagues in the Marquette University History Department!

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  He’s a little sheepish about admitting that one of his favorite holiday movies is Love Actually.

 

 

 

With Your Indulgence: Corporal Tanner Redux, for Veterans Day

By James Marten

“It was a pleasure reading . . . America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace,” the email from James Fitzpatrick of Chevy Chase, Maryland, began.  Historians rarely hear from non-historians who have read our work, so it was great to receive this kind piece of fan mail.  But it proved to be much more.  “With your indulgence,” the message continued, “this email shares something of my forebears’ relationship to Tanner, in hopes it may interest you.”

I first wrote about Corporal Tanner in February 2012, a couple of years before America’s Corporal was published (see “Reflections on a Man With No Feet“).  Tanner was an eighteen-year-old corporal in the Union army when he lost the lower thirds of both legs at the Battle of Second Manassas in 1862. He went on to become a powerful advocate for veterans and the disabled, a Republican operative, and a famous speaker at Chautauquas and other public venues. He eventually became one of the most famous men from the late nineteenth century who you’ve never heard of.  I also reported two other “out-of-the-blue” contacts.  One included three letters written by Tanner at different times in his life (see My Dear Comrade: Adventures with Corporal Tanner [continued]), while another was from a New Jersey woman named Sabrina who wondered why a letter from Tanner had showed up in her dead grandmother’s effects (see “It will sound rather strange to you…”: A Phone Call, a Letter, and the Corporal). I couldn’t help her, but the Tanner letter (one of the few surviving letters he wrote) provided a poignant end to America’s Corporal.

Sabrina had no idea who James Tanner was; she was trying to figure out how he fit into her family. The September 25 email from Mr. Fitzpatrick was quite different. So in honor of Veterans’ Day, here’s a little story about my continuing journey with Jim Tanner.

Mr. Fitzpatrick’s family enjoyed a close relationship with the Corporal during the quarter century before his death in 1927). Several documents and photographs had come down through the generations, and Mr. Fitzpatrick recalled several family stories about the Tanner family.  He hoped that I could fill him in on a few details about the Tanners; unfortunately, I wasn’t able to help much. Indeed, I’m afraid I learned more about the family from Mr. Fitzpatrick than he learned from me.  Here’s the list of the many links between the Fitzpatricks and the Tanners (the names get a little confusing—“Mr. Fitzpatrick” refers to my correspondent in Maryland):

–Tanner, who worked as a pension attorney for many years, probably helped Fitzpatrick’s great-grandfather apply for his Union army pension and, later, may have helped his great-grandmother complete her widow’s pension application;

–the Tanners (Jim, his wife Mero, and their daughters) lived in the same Washington, DC, boarding house as Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandfather, John Fitzpatrick, around the turn-of-the-twentieth-century;

–Tanner may have served as best man at the wedding of John and Mary (Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandparents);

btf-james-tanner–John and Mary named their son (Mr. Fitzpatrick’s father), Berchmans Tanner Fitzpatrick, after the Corporal (they are pictured to the left);

–Tanner’s daughter Ada, a long-time federal employee, sometimes drove out to Chevy Chase to give Mr. Fitzpatrick’s grandmother Mary rides in her car (Ada and Mary may also have worked together);

–on at least one occasion Mary came home to find John hosting a card party with the Corporal and other men that included drinking and smoking cigars (she poured the alcohol down the sink);

These are wonderful anecdotes, but two more took my breath away:

tanner3–James gave two books to young Berchmans, both on the Civil War; one he inscribed, “I present this little volume to my dearly beloved friend and namesake,” while in the other, written when Tanner was nearly eighty years old, he poignantly refers to the book as “Some record of the days where [when?] youth was mine.”

–Berchmans Fitzpatrick, who would later become a noted attorney in the federal government, worked for two summers as a kind of intern in the District of Columbia’s Register of Wills office, which Tanner ran for the last couple of decades of his life. Tanner wrote a heart-felt thank you note after the summer of 1925, when Berchmans returned to law school: “I cannot in justice to you let you go without saying how eminently satisfactory has been your work while you have been with us during vacation time.  I knew you had intelligence enough to discharge faithfully the duties assigned to you, but outside of that your courtesy, your readiness, your strict attention to business have been noticeable by all the members of our office force. . . . You go with the best wishes of every member of my force.  We all wish you every possible happiness that God may see fit to bestow upon humanity.”

These last two items meant that there were only two degrees of separation between the Corporal and me. This is obviously fun, and interesting, but it meant more to me than that.

The exchange with Mr. Fitzpatrick came just a couple of months after I’d completed my “Tanner pilgrimage.” A couple of years ago, while in Washington for a conference, I’d walked past the Du Pont Circle townhouse he’d shared with his daughters for two decades; his Washington apartment next door to the Peterson House, where he had taken testimony in shorthand while President Lincoln died; and the magnificent Pension Building (now the National Building Museum), where he had worked briefly as Commissioner of Pensions.  This last summer I drove to within one or two hundred yards of the spot on the Manassas Battlefield where he’d been wounded; visited the Virginia Theological Seminary, where he had been treated at an army hospital for several weeks; and Arlington National Seminary, where he and several members of his family are buried near a rustic amphitheater that was recently renamed after him (see below).

tanner-2                tanner-1

My low-level stalking of a long-dead old soldier was a personal attempt to get closer to the Corporal. Although I do feel I got to know the “legless corporal” fairly well—he was a shrewd, funny, outgoing man—I also wondered if the persona that emerged from the public documents, newspaper articles, speeches, and bits of memoirs revealed the “real” Tanner. Thanks to Mr. Fitzpatrick, I now have a few more hints as to the kind of guy Tanner was, and more information about the kind of people who admired him.

James Marten is chair of the MU history department. His two most recent books are Sing Not War: Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (2012) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (2013).

Politics and Christmas during the Civil War

 

By James Marten

A recent episode of the profane and hilarious (and also surprisingly respectful of history) television show “Drunk HistorNast 1y” featured Thomas Nast, the crusading Harper’s Weekly cartoonist. Historians know him for his efforts to bring down the corrupt “Boss Tweed” and his Tammany Hall machine in the early 1870, his cartoons attacking the Ku Klux Klan and the Democratic Party, and for any number of other political and reform-minded campaigns (some of his cartoons attacked the Catholic Church!).

Most Americans probably don’t recognize Nast’s name. But they are familiar with his most lasting creation: a drawing of Santa Claus made in 1881 that quickly became the most widely accepted version of the “jolly old elf.” It has appeared on countless postcards and posters since then; indeed, it is almost inseparable from the secularization—and, inevitably, the commercialization—of the holiday season.

But it was hardly the first time that Nast had portrayed Santa Claus for readers of Harper’s Weekly.

Almost two decades earlier, a year-and-a-half after the beginning of the Civil War, he had sketched his first version of Santa. Titled “Santa Claus in Camp,” it appeared in the January 3, 1863, issue. The Christmas season had not been a happy one in the North. Just two weeks earlier, the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg had cost the Union nearly 1300 dead and 9600 wounded soldiers. Just after Christmas, nearly 1800 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured at the ill-fated Battle of Chickasaw Bayou near Vicksburg, while Confederate raiders had threated Union positions in Kentucky and elsewhere. Just two days before the issue came out, the Union army barely won the Battle of Stone’s Creek in Tennessee, but 25,000 Confederate and Union soldiers became casualties—a third of the total number of men fighting. And to top it all off, the Republican Party, who controlled the Congress and the Presidency, was plagued with infighting, votes of no-confidence, and cabinet resignations.

Thomas Nast oNast 2ffered a pro-Union, optimistic antidote to the gloomy, bloody holiday. In addition to scenes of home front Christmases inside, the cover illustration showed Santa Claus receiving a hero’s welcome in a Union army camp. In addition to playing various games and cooking a sumptuous Christmas feast, the surprisingly chipper soldiers—“what,” they seem to be saying, “me worry?”—open the presents brought by Santa Claus, including socks and pipes; drummer boys play with a jack-in-the-box.

More importantly, unlike subsequent representations of Santa Claus, in which he is decidedly apolitical, this particular St. Nick is a determined ally of the Union. His costume features stars and stripes, and he’s entertaining the soldiers with a toy that is apparently an effigy of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. It seems to be a kind of jumping jack toy; pull the string on top and the legs and arms move as though he’s leaping and twirling. However, in this image, Santa is acting out a line from a popular bit of war-time doggerel set to a tune we now know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree!”

The war started to go better for the Union in 1863, of course, although hundreds of thousands more American men wNast 3ould be killed and maimed in the hard fighting that lasted until spring 1865. By then, Santa was doing what he did best—giving presents to children safely at home, far from war. (Although he would make similarly patriotic appearances in later wars; see the online exhibit at the World War II Museum here).

It’s unsettling for us to see just how easily a childhood fantasy can, in effect, be “weaponized” on behalf of a political ideal. But that’s what we historians do: complicate the ways in which we can see even the simplest—seemingly simple, at least—aspects of our culture.

Despite that, the History Department offers a fairly simple wish for the season: Happy Holidays!
For more on Thomas Nast and Santa Claus during the Civil War, see http://www.civilwarprofiles.com/thomas-nast-and-santa-claus-in-the-civil-war/.
You can watch the Nast “Drunk History” segment here: http://www.cc.com/video-clips/1pqsyg/drunk-history-thomas-nast-takes-on-tammany-hall.

 

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department. Among his books are The Children’s Civil War (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998) and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011).

My Dear Comrade: Adventures with Corporal Tanner (continued)

n honor of Memorial Day (the traditional date of May 30), and under the assumption that no one can get too much of The Corporal, Jim Marten offers yet another blog on James Tanner.

In February 2012 I posted a blog (“Reflections on a Man With No Feet,”) on a project about a disabled Civil War veteran that became America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014). A couple of months later, in a phone call I reported in another blog (“It will sound rather strange to you . . . “: A Phone Call, A Letter, and the Corporal), a New Jersey woman offered to send me a rather surprising and moving letter from the Corporal to an old comrade. I knew of only a handful of other surviving letters from Tanner, and this small find inspired a poignant paragraph in the book’s conclusion.

So America’s Corporal appeared in print in May 2014—and three months later, out of the blue, an email appeared offering a trio of letters written by my favorite Civil War veteran. Each came from a different period in Tanner’s life. (Although the author of the original email readily sent me scans of the letters, he never answered my questions about his background or his interest in Tanner.)

The first, dated mid-November 1863, was written a little over a year after the Battle of Second Manassas, where Tanner lost the lower third of both legs as an eighteen-year-old Union soldier. Tanner was writing from West Richmondville, New York, his home town jumarten bookst west of Albany, but this may be the period in his life when he was taking a course in shorthand at a business school in Syracuse. He’s writing to a James Sprague of Brooklyn, New York, pleading for news about James’s brother Jonathon, “the dearest friend I had in the army,” and one of the men, Tanner explains, who had carried him from the battlefield as the Union army collapsed around them. Someone had told Tanner that his friend had lost a leg in battle. “Can this be so?” he asked. The slightly older Jonathon had been a friend and a mentor to Tanner, who closed by writing, “Hoping to hear from you soon and to learn where he lost his leg and where bouts it was taken off and also wishing that He who offers the wind to the shore land will in His mercy restore our brother to health.” Unfortunately, Jonathon died of his wounds; Tanner would mention him from time to time throughout his long life.

Tanner wrote the second letter twenty years later, after he had moved to New York and then to Brooklyn, where he served for a number of years as Collector of Taxes. It’s a friendly letter to Arthur Spitzer, an official in the Richmond Customs House who was apparently involved with creating a badge for an organization for Confederate veterans.   Tanner offers some advice about the design and about pricing. He knew what he was talking about—by this time he had served two terms as Commander of the New York state branch of the Grand Army of the Republic (the main organization for Union veterans) and was one of the best-known Memorial Day speakers in the region. He would eventually serve as national commander and his name would be synonymous with veterans’ issues by the 1890s. Tanner also become famous for accepting the end of the war as the end of hostilities between the sections; his commitment to “reconciliation” would lead him to speak at many Confederate veteran events and at the laying of the cornerstone of the controversial Confederate monument in Arlington National Cemetery in 1912. Tanner’s specific advice is interesting: although Spitzer is working on a badge for a Virginia organization Tanner thinks bigger: he suggests that the badge “should be a badge for all the ex-Confederates.” Rather than using the Virginia coat of arms, “it strikes me that you should have the coat of arms of the Confederacy. I presume that in those days of high hope you indulged in such a trifling luxury.” Tanner managed to be encouraging and a little condescending at the same time; it seems that the Confederate veterans did not take his advice.

The third letter was written six years later, in September 1889. A lot happened in the meantime: Tanner’s rise to prominence in the GAR and in the Republican Party had led to his appointment in spring 1889 by the newly elected President Benjamin Harrison to the prestigious and lucrative position as Commissioner of Pensions. The letter is typewritten in a jazzy, italicized font, on Pension Bureau stationary. Tanner administered thousands of employees and millions of dollars in pension payments (which comprised the largest single item in the federal budget at that time). Tanner’s high-flying responsibilities were short-lived, however: he immediately got into trouble with his superiors, including the president, over certain policies and practices and his ruthless firing of Democratic clerks. This letter was written less than a week after Tanner had submitted his forced-resignation. Yet, as he declared in this fourteen-line note, “the report of the investigating Commission contained no reflections upon my character and integrity.” His only fault—this is one of those “faults” that is really not a fault at all—“is that I was too liberal and too hasty in the adjudication of just claims of needy comrades. On these charges I am willing to be judged by the boys [other veterans].” In fact, the purpose of the letter was to return an application for a job in the pension bureau, since Tanner would no longer be in charge. But he used the occasion to show that he remained unbowed and steadfast in his support for fellow disabled veterans. He would continue to work on behalf of soldiers and, along the way, make a small fortune as a claims agent for veterans applying for pensions.

Although interesting, these letters won’t require a new edition of America’s Corporal. Indeed, they have no real historical significance, other than to further confirm the sometimes conflicting character of the feisty, emotional, patriotic, and often kind Corporal Tanner. They do, however, prove the truism that the sources we have at hand for any given project are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of sources that were lost, burned, hidden, or otherwise denied to posterity. Yet we soldier on, and when we’re lucky we get to write about guys like The Corporal, these letters let me spend another hour or two with him.

Jim Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  You can find out more about America’s Corporal at ttp://www.ugapress.org/index.php/books/index/americas_corporal.


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