Hi I’m Jim Grossman and I’m a historian. I’ve written extensively on American history, African American history, ethnicity, and the place of history in public culture, with a specific focus on Confederate monuments. I'm also the Executive Director of the American Historical Association, which has been advocating for historical perspective in debates about Confederate monuments. You can view our collection of resources related to the violence that took place in Charlottesville last August here

I’m excited to be on Reddit and have a conversation with everyone about what you think should be done with the Confederate monuments, the history behind them, and telling this story on TV. You can watch the first episode of America Inside Out with Katie Couric (where they talk about the debate surrounding the monuments) for free here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5STMVSQwPw

Ask me anything!

Proof: https://twitter.com/NatGeo/status/985895746951176194

Thank you for your thoughtful questions and comments. One of you asked about how to move forward in the context of conflicts regarding difficult aspects of our past. These questions offer some good examples of places to start. I will return to this page during the rest of the afternoon to answer late-breaking queries. Please consider consulting the American Historical Association's resource page on this issue (https://www.historians.org/news-and-advocacy/everything-has-a-history/historians-on-the-confederate-monument-debate). And please consider joining the AHA (https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/membership). If this conversation has stimulated your interest, please also consider following the Twitter hashtag #EverythinghasaHistory

Comments: 318 • Responses: 25  • Date: 

Dr4gx29 karma

There's a quote from churchill that "History is written by the victor".

How much truth do you think there is to that statement, and have you ever found yourself being intentionally or unintentionally biased when writing?

nationalgeographic63 karma

With regard to the history of the Civil War - both professional and popular - Churchill was wrong, at least from the 1880's well into 1950s. During that period the dominant narrative was in essence written by white southerners, or white northerners who accepted the notion that the Civil War was centrally about things other than slavery. Professional historians have revised that interpretation based on new questions, new sources, and a more inclusive approach to historical work. To a considerable extent American popular culture has lagged, and one still sees Civil War and Reconstruction history that was written by the losing side (i.e. the Confederacy).

"Bias" is a tricky term. I prefer to think about how all of us see the past (and the present, not to mention the future) through lenses shaped by our own past, our own current context, and our ideas about the future. Professional historians are taught to weigh evidence with an awareness of the power and shape of these lenses. So a professional historian brings a perspective, but is still obligated to stick to the evidence when constructing a narrative.

daaiillyynn28 karma

Hello! I am almost finished with my undergrad in history. I do enjoy U.S history, and Early Modern Europe is my favorite. Other than teaching, would you have advice on other fields to go into?

nationalgeographic36 karma

A BA in history will prepare you for a wide variety of careers. Think about what you've learned how to do. You understand how change happens. You know how to take a mass of unorganized stuff and organize it into meaningful categories, and then how to create a narrative from that organization. For more detail about this see: https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/tuning-the-history-discipline/2016-history-discipline-core

The AHA has collected stories of History BA recipients who have pursued a range of diverse and exciting careers. You can read about them at http://blog.historians.org/category/what-to-do-with-a-ba-in-history/.

Snowbank_Lake24 karma

Have you ever been to the Charleston Museum in South Carolina? I feel like they do a good job of finding the balance between remembering America's dark times without promoting what happened. I think it sets a good example for what could be done with Confederate monuments and memorials.

Also, since you have studied African American history, what do you believe is the best way to get the opposing sides talking about this issue without emotion outweighing everything else in the conversation?

nationalgeographic21 karma

I haven't been to the Charleston Museum. One gap in my US travel is that I haven't been to Charleston. I hope to visit soon.

I would start the conversation by beginning with common ground. Can we all agree on the purpose of such a conversation? if so, that's a starting point. We can move next to a conversation about historical evidence.

ericthedreamer22 karma

Hello Jim, what are your thoughts on proposals to remove the Stone Mountain Confederate leaders face?

nationalgeographic132 karma

I offer what I think is a more productive idea. And it's probably even less expensive given the cost of reconstructing the face of a mountain. It is not an original proposal; I have seen it from others. The idea is to take all of the Confederate monuments in Georgia and haul them all to Stone Mountain. Make the site into an outdoor historical museum. Add context to these monuments. Monuments to other Southerners who fought in the Civil War - e.g. the former slaves and the white men who enlisted in the United States Army. Create a series of conversations, all of them with professional historians present, around the issues of Civil War memory to commission other new memorials as well. Have interpretive text that explains why all this stuff was created, and why it was moved here. This way nothing is destroyed; the history that is present in the monuments - their context, their reason for existence - is preserved.

the_goose_says16 karma

Most historical figures have values that are sickening to modern sensibilities. Are the very idea of monuments flawed? Is it enrvitible that all monuments eventually get torn down?

nationalgeographic19 karma

People are complicated. None are perfect. As long as we recognize that people who are memorialized for great achievements also had less savory aspects to their lives - and we use those aspects to better understand their time - we can keep our monuments. The easy cases are people who are being memorialized for causes that are not befitting of celebration, and who accomplished little else of note. A good monument should inspire debate and discussion, rather than merely awe.

PlastIconoclastic11 karma

Where do you think a fair line can be drawn between remembrance and hero worship of men who fought their own countrymen? What do the statues look like that are not being protested?

nationalgeographic23 karma

This is an excellent question (and I don't mean to imply that others aren't as well). Consider the difference, for example, between history, memory, celebration, and heritage. These are all somewhat different. To remember is not necessarily to celebrate. What I remember about an event 50 years ago might be very different from the interpretation by a historian who has access to a broader range of sources and perspectives than I did at the time. it's important to have heroes. But it's also important to recognize that heroes have flaws. And that some people who acted "heroically" in the classic sense in the heat of a moment might have been doing so in the service of a less than noble cause. in the case at hand, the issue is not only that they "fought their own countrymen," but that they also committed treason on behalf of the right of some people to own other people.

I assume that statues that are not being protested are statues of individuals whose careers do not relate to current political controversies. Some statues are probably just plain boring.

NOSlurpy9 karma

Hi! Can confederate monuments be found in other countries around the world? If so, how did this come to be? Thanks!

nationalgeographic16 karma

Brazil, Canada, Ireland, and Scotland. In Ireland and Scotland, these are communities Confederate army officers born in these towns. In Canada they commemorate a brief visit by Jefferson Davis. Brazil's monuments can be attributed to expats from the US South.

NOSlurpy9 karma

Can you provide any insight on how the local populations feel about these monuments?

nationalgeographic18 karma

No, I can't. But an excellent topic for a research paper.

kibblznbitz8 karma

I'm sure you probably get this question a lot, and I must submit my advance apologies for submitting it to you again. But, although not a physical stone monument unto itself, what are your thoughts regarding the ideological obelisk of the Confederate flag, and the seemingly still tense debate around it?

Specifically, regarding:
- What it does and doesn't represent, and
- The demands for its removal (from this or that site), or stalwart refusals thereof in the name of "pride?"

nationalgeographic34 karma

The Confederate flag represents a union of states formed to defend the principle and legal framework of slavery. The original documents from the Confederacy are clear on that purpose. If one is searching for symbols of regional pride, surely there are symbols of more praiseworthy aspects of southern history. Consider, for example, the schoolhouses built during Reconstruction.

The battle flag of the Army of the Confederacy symbolized a rebellion fought against the Army of the United States of America on behalf of the right to own human property. I'm not sure there's much to be proud of there.

jjf5 karma

Thanks for your time. I've read arguments that many of the monuments were put up during the Jim Crow era and again during the civil rights era, thus the monuments were intended as an expression of white supremacy. Several sites circulated a graph showing a spike in monument building in the 1890s. And I've read the counter-argument that this was when Confederate officers were dying, so of course that's when they were memorialized. (I don't recall any counter-argument for the smaller spike alleged during the 50s and 60s.) Can you weigh in on the motivations behind these monuments?

nationalgeographic20 karma

Confederate General James Longstreet died in 1904, right in the midst of this period of monument building. If it was about memorializing soldiers, then why no statues of General Longstreet? just a coincidence that after the War he favored African American voting rights?

Also, read the texts accompanying the dedications of statues. Read the text on the monuments. They are glorifying the cause as well as the man.

dont_take_pills5 karma

Is there a specific story that comes to mind of some relatively small scale thing from the Civil War/Reconstruction era that still has an impact on modern life in an area of the South or Country?

nationalgeographic15 karma

yes, there were many such things. Individual acts of terrorism took place across the South and even the "border states" during Reconstruction. African Americans were forced off newly acquired land. People were killed. Everyday life for a century was filled with "small scale" violence or even "mere" indignity meant to enforce white supremacy.

Harpapa4 karma

What is the impact of a statue being built of a person on the way he/she is perceived in society? Do we have statues in history that are built to depict the horrific nature or crimes by an individual. If not , then can there be statues to not glorify but to vilify a certain person and would that be effective ?

nationalgeographic7 karma

I'm not sure I've ever seen a statue to a villain. There are monuments that memorialize events perpetrated by villains: consider for example the various Holocaust memory museums; the National Lynching Memorial (aka "The National Memorial for Peace and Justice") which will Montgomery, AL on April 26; the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. It's important to remember and understand not only the terrible things that have happened in the histories of people around the world, but also the reasons such things have happened. This can include information about perpetrators. How can one understand slavery without learning about slaveholders?

Harpapa3 karma

Do you think history writers and governments have been successful in providing a context to these statues?

nationalgeographic3 karma

Does "these" refer to the monuments I've mentioned? If so, yes. The contextual materials that I've seen (Whitney, Holocaust) are quite good from a professional standpoint.

Harpapa2 karma

No, I mean to all statues with such history , are general masses aware enough when they go to visit these statues?

nationalgeographic5 karma

The text accompanying most of these statues reflects the perspective of those who created them. Moreover, few people read the text even if better explanations have been added. The statues stand as symbols of what and who the community honors.

islandsimian4 karma

Are there any other countries out there that have a similar issue with monuments to a rebellion that compares to the civil war?

nationalgeographic12 karma

Interesting question. Surely there are monuments to failed rebellions (think Ireland). But I don't think there are monuments to individuals whose cause has been completely discredited. Usually a government will remove memorials to individuals who committed treason. Such individuals generally get statues only if their revolution is successful.

In Russia and Hungary, statues from the Soviet era have been removed to parks that are in essence outdoor museums

PlastIconoclastic3 karma

It seems from other replies you have made that if the statues were of men of moderate politics like Gen. Longstreet then they would be easier for to justify as a remembrance that fits within our struggle for a more perfect union and less within a narrative of separatist beliefs in a state being created that did not acknowledge African Americans as people. I also think docents at monuments and centralizing them is a great idea, but what if the docents are from a mindset that “the wrong people won” the civil war and it is used as a cinder of hope for a belief system that rationalizes genocidal civil war. What if we create a white nationalist Mecca? (Reposted from a reply to the main level as a comment)

nationalgeographic13 karma

i didn't say they would be easier to justify. I was using the example of Longstreet as historical evidence. In constructive our narratives, in interpreting the past, historians look to absence as well as presence. So the absence of statues to Longstreet, Mahone, and other Confederate officers who became Republicans after the War tells us that the purposes of memorialization was probably not a matter of honoring dead soldiers. That conclusion is then corroborated by text, by the documents accompanying the construction of monuments.

I would not be in favor of "centralizing" unless it were done in the fashion of any good museum. The collection would need to be built and then curated professionally. there is no place in our country for a "white nationalist Mecca."

PlastIconoclastic3 karma

Where do appeals to “heritage” fall into this debate? Can we defend indefensible memorials of the past such as the confederate flag and statues motivated by racism by the arguments that refer to fathers and grandfathers feeling connected to these physical objects despite not believing in their original meaning? i.e.: Can we accept that the meaning of symbols can change?

nationalgeographic12 karma

I agree that the meaning of symbols change, but remember that the "meanings" to which you refer are different according to which southerners are standing in front of a monument. Too often people say "southerners" or "southern heritage" when the word "white" is applicable. I doubt very many African American southerners situate their heritage within a past symbolized by these monuments.

On the difference between "heritage" and "history" see http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/thinktank/313315391.html

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Harpapa3 karma

I have a question , can we and should we have a written banner or something near these statues to tell us about the horrific past of these people so that no one is fooled to treat them as good people.

nationalgeographic6 karma

A reasonable idea. The problem is that a "banner" might be aesthetically jarring. Others have suggested adding additional monuments that would speak to the context and message of these statues. If one wants to leave these things in place, whatever is constructed to create such a conversation would have to be as visually powerful as what is there now.

Campmoc12342 karma

If monuments are a symbol of remembering slavery, but were put there during civil rights era, or reconstruction era, then wouldn’t a plaque or text simply stating this suffice as also remembering that unsavory portion of American history?

nationalgeographic4 karma

The problem with this solution is that many people don't stop to read text. They point to the monument and tell their children who this is and why he/she (usually he) is important. So simply adding some text doesn't change the main fact: that a community is identifying a particular person as worthy of honor.

AlexG552 karma

Recently there was a popular chart going round showing that Confederate monuments tended to be put up at specific points in history corresponding, for instance, to the passage of Jim Crow laws and to the desegregation of schools.

The thing is, these dates also correspond to things like large numbers of veterans dying off, and the centenary of the war.

Does the timescale of when Union monuments were put up match this? Sorry if this is a bit out of your area.

nationalgeographic6 karma

I should know more about monuments to US Army soldiers. My impression is that many of these are constructed in the 20 years after the war, which would make the timing somewhat different.

Redwood6712 karma

What is your opinion on monuments that remember the fallen on both sides? Such as the unit monuments that mark the landscape of Gettysburg. I am of the opinion that there is a lot of military history that can be gathered from the locations of these monuments.

nationalgeographic7 karma

True. These monuments are very useful for the study of military history, for research that focuses on what one might call the mechanics of the war. But it's important to remember that the causes for which they are fighting are not equivalent. The defense of the Union (i.e. many US Army soldiers did not see themselves fighting against slavery) is surely not equivalent to the defense of a union created explicitly to perpetuate human slavery.

spaghettilee21121 karma

What are your thoughts on removing statues of other slave owners in the US? Such as Thomas Jefferson or George Washington? I was just having this conversation earlier, prior to seeing this. Do you think that you can do enough good to outweigh profiting off of the backs of slaves? What if the good you did, that outweighed profiting off of the backs of slaves, was only viable via slavery, such as starting a new country? I ask this, because one of the biggest arguments against tearing down confederate statues is that "People like Jefferson and Washington owned slaves. Should we tear down their statues?" in an attempt to point out hypocrisy.

nationalgeographic6 karma

This is a conversation that ought to take place wherever statues exist. We build memorials to honor people, and the question is how a community determines who and what are worthy of honor. The "slippery slope" argument, however, is a red herring. Stonewall Jackson accomplished little (or nothing) beyond his work on behalf of the defense of slavery. Jefferson can be honored for many things, as can Washington. Lee can be reasonably honored with a statue at the college that he transformed from a backwater to a serious institution of higher education. But he has nothing else in his resume (except perhaps his work as an army engineer in a few cases) that merits the massive statuary that proclaims his valor and even moral distinction. Communities need to discuss and debate, with professional historians available for consultation to make sure that the context and the facts are taken into consideration.

High_tech_redneck4061 karma

I was born and raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Are there any odd or interesting facts regarding statues, monuments, or otherwise historical locations inside or outside of the park there that as a local I may have never known?

nationalgeographic1 karma

I've not been to Vicksburg. A thoughtful visitor would consider whether the soldiers serving the Army of the United States of America are being considered as serving a cause equivalent to those who were in rebellion against that government.

AGallagher4101 karma

How do you view the effects of the monuments in the times that they were erected compared to today?

nationalgeographic6 karma

Monuments to the Confederacy were an important part of the effort to unify white Southerners under the rubric of white supremacy, and indeed to unify the white population of the nation as a whole. It was part of a popular culture that portrayed the Civil War as a tragic mistake, and the Old South as a place drenched in romanticism, chivalry, and even decency. Every time you see a place called "Tara" you are reminded of the success of this enterprise.

CocteauQuintuplet-5 karma

In your opinion, is there any reason to not demolish monuments from a failed attempt at treason?

nationalgeographic10 karma

Demolish? I don't think so. Then we lose these objects as historical sources about the periods in which they were created. this is not a history to be proud of; but it cannot be denied. Communities across the US built these monuments, and they are therefore part of our history. But they can be removed to museums, just as other artifacts are added to museum collections.