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The Roll of Honor

November 19th, 2013

I subscribe to Fold3, which has a treasure trove of digitized records from the National Archives.  Just this week it announced the launch of its Honor Roll, a digital gallery that “pays tribute to millions of men and women who served our nation, from colonial days to the present.”

My first search was for a Confederate soldier from South Carolina named Thomas W. Sligh, who was killed at Gettysburg.  (I’ll tell you why I chose him in a just a minute.) Sure enough, he was there.

I’m not sure what nation Fold3 is talking about, but my nation, the United States of America, is not the nation the Confederates were serving.  They had their own nation, the Confederate States of America, with its own constitution and its own military.  Led by South Carolina, which seceded from the Union because of its “increasing hostility…to the institution of slavery” (Declaration of Secession), the new nation of the C.S.A. enshrined “the right of property in negro slaves” in its founding document (Article 1, Section 9 [4]).  It was this nation, with this moral mission, that the Confederate soldiers were serving.

Fold3’s inclusion of Confederates in this national compendium of “service” is self-contradictory but hardly surprising.  It is the logical conclusion of an ideal of military service divorced from both history and morality.  Since the Civil War, this ethic of service has become a way to separate the warrior from the war and thereby to sidestep a frank accounting of war’s moral and human costs.

One of those costs was Thomas W. Sligh, a young man from Newberry, South Carolina, who left college to sign up for military duty in April of 1861, before even the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  According to a comrade of his, writing many years after the war, Sligh was a favorite with the troops, “witty, very ready, and always kind.”  But he was “rather girlish in appearance, for physically he was not strong.”  And so his officers, who must have liked the kid, made him an “orderly” whose duties were in the rear, away from harm.  When they arrived in Gettysburg, on the threshold of a battle that they all realized could turn the tide of the war, they told him to tend to the horses, but Sligh burst into tears and pleaded with them to be allowed to join his company and go into battle.  And so he did on July 2, and this witty, kind, physically slight young man, advancing bravely to defend his nation’s “right of property in negro slaves,” was cut down with his comrades in a peach orchard under a hail of bullets.

We can only imagine how this young man, who had been shunted to the rear because he wasn’t strong enough for combat, must have wanted to prove his honor, his manliness.  It’s an old story, and it still continues.  How did he feel as he marched into the oncoming fire?  That his few moments of manliness were better than a life of kindness, of “girlishness”?  But how, I wonder, did marching obediently toward certain death become manly?  How did this become “service”?  Service for what?  For the right to enslave others you deem inferior?  Is it honorable to die in the service of that privilege, the privilege to enslave and abuse other human beings?  These are not the questions that Fold3’s “Roll of Honor” allows us to ask.

Just to be clear: by asking these questions I am not condemning Thomas Sligh or his fellow soldiers.  My ancestors joined the Confederate army too, some whole-heartedly, some more reluctantly.  These are my people. Thomas Sligh was a kind and good-hearted man who belonged to a culture that condoned both slavery and war.  As a culture we have renounced slavery, but we still cling to war and cloak its ugliness in an ethic of service.

I met Thomas W. Sligh in a photograph.  The celebrated photographer Timothy O’Sullivan was at Gettysburg and found three Confederate bodies in a grave their comrades had dug but didn’t have time to finish.  The graves were marked with headboards hastily carved with the three initials of the names and the characters E 3, standing for the 3rd South Carolina, Company E.  In O’Sullivan’s picture the headboards come into focus along with the corpses lying in the sun, filling with gas and decomposing.  Sligh’s body is the one on the left, his face hidden.  It’s just as well, because it would be too hard to see that face battered in death, knowing something of its beauty in life.

On the ground, along the Cherokee frontier

June 14th, 2013

I’ve been looking at a lot of nineteenth-century land deeds lately. 

They are one major component of a new project I’m working on that deals with the complex entanglements between Cherokees and white settlers on the frontier in western North Carolina.  The project has taken me rather far afield from my home discipline (art history) and yet even so I keep coming back to my core interests in space and landscape, and how they are imagined, represented, and negotiated.

Land deeds are a gold mine of information for genealogists and historians, but at the same time they are more than just sources.  They are representations of the landscape – and of how people thought about land and how they interacted with it.  Their very existence testifies to an elaborate set of cultural practices that transformed human relationships with the natural environment.  And in this case they were weapons in the long war over Cherokee territory.

Deeds are connected uniquely to territory, to ground.  Nowadays we like to talk about space – “public space,” “domestic space,” the “production of space,” “cost-space” – the list goes on ad infinitum.  Space is an abstract mathematical concept that we impose on the world around us.  An extraordinarily powerful and useful concept, for sure, but surprisingly in the nineteenth century you didn’t hear much about it.  You heard a lot about ground instead.  The ground wasn’t at all abstract. People walked it, rode horseback on it, dug it up, farmed it, slept on it.  The physical quality of the terrain and the soil were huge factors in the daily life of much of the population, in a way that is hard to imagine today.

One of the primary purposes of deeds was to plot the ground that one person was claiming or selling to another.  Sometimes the deed was accompanied by a rough little “plat” of the property, but this picture was nothing more than a schematic two-dimensional diagram – imprecise and oddly uninformative because it flattened out the ground and ignored its most important features.  What really mattered was being able to tell someone how to walk the perimeter of this particular piece of ground, and for that purpose the visual representation was actually inadequate.

Therefore the language of most deeds included very specific directions tied to the natural landscape, particularly its trees and waterways.  In Pittsburgh we joke about how old-timers give directions: “Do you know where the gas station is?  Well you go up to the gas station and turn left…”  But deed descriptions basically did the same thing, using landmarks as their guides.  Typically they would start with language like “beginning on a black oak on the west side of the creek” then tell you to go north from that tree 320 poles (1 mile) to a stake, then turn east and go 160 poles, and so on.  If there was no tree or waterway to mark where the line turned, then a stake driven into the ground by the surveyor would mark the spot instead.  Sometimes the lines meandered along rivers or creeks but more often they were straight.  This meant they were also mathematical fictions (like space), not always walkable because there would be obstacles in the way like trees or brambles or unfordable waterways.  Even so, these lines were legally tied to the ground and whether you stood on one side or the other of that line on the ground was sometimes a matter of life or death.

In the mountains of western North Carolina during the early nineteenth century, Cherokees and white setters intermingled on the ground in various ways.  But rarely did they do so in deeds because the Cherokee didn’t have a system of individual property ownership – at least not until they had to adopt a system in order to try to stay on their ancestral ground.

Every now and then, though, in early settler deeds one will come across a glancing reference to the world the Indians inhabited.  A word or phrase will appear that is like a small stake in the ground, marking the presence of a people who otherwise remained invisible in the system of property relations that settlers imposed on the Indians’ landscape.

I recently came across one such example, a seemingly gratuitous sentence added as an afterthought at the very end of a deed, after the legal boilerplate language had run its course.  It was a deed originally made in 1802 by a somewhat shady land speculator named Joseph Dobson who was selling to a German immigrant farmer George Shuler.  The final sentence reads:

“The above tract of Land begins about a Quarter of a mile above the Indian Camp as he thinks where Dobson and Shuler lay all Night.”

Before you start thinking of Brokeback Mountain, here is some specific context: the tract in question was on a particular waterway called Scot’s Creek near where it emptied into the Tuckaseegee River.  Today this is the location of Dillsboro, in Jackson County, North Carolina, though in 1802 white settlement was still many years away.  Dobson and Shuler must have been scouting the area, and whether they “lay” that night within the Indian encampment or just upstream from it is hard to say given the mangled grammar of the sentence.

A couple of things are clear though.  They had crossed the North Carolina border into “Indian country,” territory that still legally belonged to the Cherokee, over fifteen years before the Treaty of 1819 would cede the land to North Carolina.  Of course, as the deed shows, this didn’t stop men like Dobson from charting the Indian land and selling it presumptively to white settlers who were willing to push over the boundary and take their chances.  The Indians weren’t a party to the deed and it wasn’t meant for them anyway.  It was meant for other white settlers.  In effect it was a warning to them: if you want to settle on Indian land you better go somewhere else.

The other takeaway from this deed is that the local Cherokee must have known Dobson and Shuler were there that night and may even have invited the two white men into their “camp.”  This camp was more likely a settlement, with log houses and cornfields under cultivation, not much different from what a white settler’s property would look like.  The Cherokee by this time were a settled agrarian society with a long history of trade, intermarriage, diplomacy, and sometimes warfare with white immigrants from various European cultures.  The Cherokee men that Dobson and Shuler encountered were almost certainly armed.  But they used their guns to shoot animals, not people, because they had been down the road of armed resistance before and typically it ended in disaster.  So forget John Wayne movies and think instead of negotiation, nonviolent resistance, and, always, adaptation.  This was a world in which the whites ultimately had the upper hand but in which they and the Cherokee inhabitants were thoroughly enmeshed, and constantly pushing across their own physical, cultural, and familial boundaries.  An essential point of the land deed system was to to erase that messy lived reality and hold tight to clear and fixed boundaries.

Dobson and Shuler sure look like bad guys in this story, but the truth is more difficult to gauge.  Although the Indian land on which they were encroaching was officially opened to settlement in 1820, the treaty that made this happen actually created a legal mess of overlapping white and Indian land claims.  In the sometimes violent conflicts that ensued, the Dobson and Shuler families appear in a somewhat different light.

Joseph Dobson’s son John, who lived a few miles from the plot described in the deed, took in some of the Indians who were displaced by the 1819 treaty.  George Shuler, who ended up settling peacefully on a farm a few miles downstream from the plot, actually testified against some of his white neighbors who drove the Cherokee off nearby land, one of whom had boasted to him of whipping an Indian.

In a final irony, the piece of property described in the Dobson-Shuler deed later came into Cherokee ownership, after the 1819 treaty, within a tract known as “Indian Dick’s reservation.”  Indian Dick was a Cherokee man also known as Richard Walker, himself a bilingual child of a white trader and a Cherokee woman.  He was one of the few Cherokee who were able to establish land ownership in the area after the treaty, and the “Indian camp” where Dobson and Shuler lay that night in 1802 probably still existed on Walker’s “reservation” under his patronage.  It would take more time, more treaties, and more deeds before the Indian camp was finally dispersed and the town of Dillsboro could rise from its ashes.

 

Requiem for a monument

March 17th, 2013

This morning I photographed the final stage of demolition of Richard Neutra’s 1961 visitor center at Gettysburg.  The building was commissioned by the National Park Service to be the flagship structure of its Mission 66 campaign, a hugely ambitious program to expand and modernize its park system and visitor facilities for the 50th anniversary of the agency.  The distinctive cylindrical drum of the building was designed to house the Cyclorama, an immense circular panorama painting of Pickett’s charge finished in 1884.

I’m not a huge fan of high modernism, but Neutra’s building was no doubt the most interesting and significant architectural commission in the history of the NPS.  It was a paradoxical program from the start: a signature modernist building designed to house an obsolete Victorian painted entertainment.  But in a way, that paradox perfectly expressed the idea of Mission 66, which blended an ethic of preservation with the goal of bringing the past into the contemporary world. The Park Service carefully chose the location of the building, and Neutra made an extraordinarily site-specific design.  Visitors who entered the drum and saw the Cyclorama came back outside through a portico that gave a dramatic view of the very landscape depicted in the painting; to accommodate the office space and other functions of the building Neutra created a long low wing that hugged the ridge line.  The circulation within the building was both dramatic and smooth, and the spaces managed to be airy and eloquent and understated all at the same time.

I spent part of the day discussing the demolition at a conference sponsored by Gettysburg College and the NPS on “The Future of Civil War History.”  I see the building as a monument, a chapter in the commemorative history of Gettysburg, much like the High Water Mark monument nearby that will never be torn down. But of course Neutra’s monument was immensely more difficult and costly to maintain. The building had some major maintenance problems from the get-go, and there have been charges and counter-charges about who is to blame.  Neutra’s son and fans largely blame the NPS, while the the NPS pins the blame squarely on the design.  I don’t know enough to enter this debate.  I also understand the limitations on the NPS with its perennial budget constraints.  Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater had a major structural flaw in its cantilever system, but the trust in charge of the building had the resources to fix it, at great cost of time and money.  Not so for the NPS, whether it was their fault or the architect’s for the technical failures of the building.

Still, I wish the NPS hadn’t foresaken the very building it once celebrated as its flagship for the future.  The whole episode was a lot like a divorce, with a similar ugliness.  And now we dispose of the remains as mere debris, without any attempt at ceremony.

As Neutra’s grand monument comes down and dies, I think we should pay our last respects.  A great deal of thought, creativity, imagination, enthusiasm, and just plain hard work went into this building.  We should honor its life, and deliver a eulogy.

Social contracts and utopias, embedded in our sidewalks

November 9th, 2012

We’re often told there is a great philosophical divide in the U.S. about the proper size and role of government, especially when it comes to the federal government. If so this past election didn’t clarify much. The Tea Party got trounced while Obama and Obamacare triumphed, suggesting a resurgence of faith in the possibilities of government.  But when asked in exit polls if government should do more or if it was doing too much, 52% chose the latter.

I don’t believe that most of us really think in abstract terms about the ideal role of government.  We tend to respond situationally, at a micro-level, especially to what we see or don’t see.

I was thinking about this as I walked down my street today. Embedded in our sidewalks is a record of some of government’s greatest aspirations and disappointments. Memorials, in effect, to failed great societies and to newer promises not yet tarnished.

A few blocks up the street my late-Victorian neighborhood got hit with urban renewal in the late 1960s.  A fair amount of demolition took place, and some of the street itself was removed to make way for a garden apartment complex.  But even on blocks that escaped the wrecking crew, city planners used their federal money to make over the sidewalks and street fixtures, to demonstrate in sparkling visual terms the new era of healthy, orderly city living that was supposed to flourish in our Great Society. Concrete sidewalks were dug out and replaced with tile, benches installed, and modernist street lamps planted by the curbs, their sleek geometric design a reproof to the messy Victorian clutter of the houses behind them.  None of the lamps work anymore, and only one has its globe left, now weathered green.

Closer to our house the sidewalks are brand new. They have been dug up and replaced to accommodate new gas pipes, and in the process our neighborhood has been introduced to tactile paving, those bumpy yellow pads embedded into curb cuts to warn the visually impaired when they are approaching the street.  If the broken street lamps are a sad memorial to the LBJ administration and its dreams and failures, the bright new sidewalk pads are a legacy of George Bush Sr and his Americans with Disabilities Act, the last great piece of federal social legislation enacted before Obama’s health care reform.

The tactile pad is a lot smaller scale than the wholesale redesign of the urban environment that planners tried to accomplish a half century ago.  But its aspirations are just as big, if not bigger: to give freedom and mobility to the disabled, to empower them to move through the city and take advantage of its opportunities.  Both the lamp and the pad are products of social engineering, yet with vastly different aims.  One tried to impose its own norms on the rest of the world, to make the world conform to a particular image.  The other seeks to expand access and opportunity, to open up the world to people who were shut out of it.  One is meant to prescribe, the other to emancipate.  If there is a lesson to be learned embedded in these sidewalks, perhaps it is not about how big our society should dream but about the kind of dreaming we should do.

Victimology and the 47%

September 19th, 2012

First there was Occupy’s 99%, now there’s Mitt Romney’s 47%.  This the 47% of the country whose mission in life, he says, is to sponge off the federal government.  The 47% who believe themselves victims, entitled to compensation from the other 53% for the real or imagined wrongs they have experienced.  It’s as if the black welfare recipients once scapegoated by Ronald Reagan as “welfare queens” have multiplied, under our black President, into a vast horde of dependents – nearly half the country clamoring for more taxes and more entitlements to salve their wounded psyches and fund their shiftlessness.

Last spring we heard a similar attack from Romney donor Edward Conard, except that his was directed at art-history majors – the .047%??  That’s his derisive term, according to a New York Times profile, for well-educated people who opt out of competitive capitalism and become café loungers.  Add up these assaults and this poor art-history prof is feeling, well, just a little victimized.

But of course Romney’s attack on the victimhood syndrome is just another expression of his own.  He and the rest of the 53% are, by implication, the real victims – victims of Obama’s legions of parasites.

Victimhood all too often has become a game of one-upsmanship, and conservatives have been in the game awhile.  The Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C. – sponsored by a roster of conservative thinkers and old Cold War hawks, and dedicated by George W. Bush in 2007 – was a direct response to the Holocaust Memorial, with its dramatic new accent on victimization in the landscape of national memory.  We’ll see your ante of six million, the Cold Warriors seemed to say, and raise the pot to 100 million!  This is the number emblazoned on their incongruously small monument, featuring a miniaturized replica of Tiananmen Square’s Goddess of Democracy.  However small the statue, the number is so large that it seems meant to preempt any future competition.

In truth, we do need to have a national conversation about victimology.  As Americans we often focus on our own losses and griefs as if they are exceptional, as if the rest of the world doesn’t know what it’s like to lose job, home, family, and way of life.  Perhaps this is human nature: we only know our own pain, after all, and it’s hard for any of us to see much beyond our own noses.  But if we want to have a politics worth caring about, and if we want to do something about the military and environmental disasters that threaten to engulf the planet, we’re going to have to try to do better.  We need to try our level best to look beyond our own sufferings and honor the values of empathy and reason that should be our guideposts for public rhetoric and action.