With the advent of the sesquicentennial, there has been a surge of interest in all things related to the Civil War. At Harvard, this has taken the form of intensified debates over the inclusion of Harvard's Confederate dead in Memorial Hall.
Harvard's Memorial Hall
|Memorial Hall via Wikipedia|
was built in the 1870s as a monument to Harvard's Union war dead. It is a huge, gothic building that houses Annenberg Dining Hall, Sanders Theatre
, and a memorial corridor lined with marble plaques that bear the names of 136 Harvard graduates who died while serving with the Union army. The plaque in the center of the transept declares,
This hall commemorates the patriotism of the graduates and student of this university who served in the Army and Navy of the United States during the war for the preservation of the Union and upon these tablets are inscribed the names of those among them who died in that service.
The controversy arises from the fact that the 71 Harvard graduates who died in the Confederate armed forces are not included in this memorial. When the cornerstone for the building was laid (1870), the prevailing sentiment was toward honoring only those soldiers who had fought against treason. During the reconstruction era, Cambridge was still proud to characterize the war as a sacred struggle over both union and slavery, as demonstrated in the sphinx monument at Mount Auburn Cemetery (1872), which bears the text,
AMERICAN UNION PRESERVED
AFRICAN SLAVERY DESTROYED
BY THE UPRISING OF A GREAT PEOPLE
BY THE BLOOD OF FALLEN HEROES
Yet, the reconciliationist narrative
came to Cambridge as surely as it swept over the rest of the nation. By the time the 50-year celebrations rolled around, there were active efforts to include the names of Harvard's Confederate dead at Memorial Hall. Monuments erected at Yale and Princeton during this era jumbled the names of Union and Confederate dead and honored all as patriots.
In the past year, the campaign to include the Confederate dead in Memorial Hall has ramped up again. Many pro-memorialization advocates have latched onto the fact that Memorial Church
(a different building on campus, built in 1932 to commemorate the WWI dead) lists the names of several Harvard men who died serving in the German army in WWI and one Divinity School graduate who died in WWII. Last fall, the Harvard Crimson ran a long article
about the differences between the Memorial Hall and Memorial Church commemoration philosophies, in which it quoted Prof. Alan Dershowitz as saying,
The University needs to adopt a policy one way or the other. The current inconsistent
standard is unacceptable, and it’s particularly unfortunate that the
exception seems to be for a member of the Nazi army, one of the darkest
regimes in human history, and a regime with which Harvard had too cozy a
While I tend to think that Prof. Dershowitz would probably rather see the deletion of German soldiers from Memorial Church than the addition of Confederates to Memorial Hall, others have come to the opposite conclusion. The Harvard Confederate Memorial Initiative is a small, but vocal organization dedicated to advocating for a Confederate memorial at Harvard. You can view their intro video here
. Their cause has been getting some attention, not just from the Crimson
, but from conservative media outlets like World Net Daily. Last summer, a WND reporter confronted White House press secretary Robert Gibbs over the Memorial Hall issue — Gibbs had no comment
. The HCMI also has a Facebook petition
(currently rather pathetic at about 130 "likes"). Executive Director Roger McCredie told the Crimson
that the HCMI's goal is to correct the historical narrative of "South equal bad. North equal good":
If you want to talk slavery, we can talk slavery all day long and about
how no one’s hands are clean from it—including the Fanueil family and
the Brown family, both of whom made fortunes on the slave trade. This extremely skewed view of history and of historical perspective has
become pandemic—it does not infect merely Harvard; it infects the entire
educated and cultural edifice of the United States these days.
Now, I know Mr. McCredie has a particular political agenda to advance, but this sort of thing is rage-inducing. He seems to be confusing Harvard with a mediocre elementary school circa 1990. The Harvard curriculum is hardly trying to cover up Northern complicity in American slavery with courses like Sven Beckert's "Harvard and Slavery" or faculty research like Jill Lepore's New York Burning
or events like last month's joint conference with Brown
, which was called "Slavery's Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development" and focused on slavery's role in national economic development after the Revolution. When someone claims that academic historians are ignoring or trying to cover up Northern slavery, I know that I can safely disregard everything else in his/her manifesto because he/she clearly has no grasp of what academic historians do. Northern slavery is one of the hottest things going in Early American history at the moment. People who pretend otherwise are willfully ignorant in service of their neo-Confederate politics.
Yet, admittedly, academic historians are notoriously awful about getting the word out about our work. Part of that is our fault (we generally for one another rather than for a wide audience and punish colleagues who try to engage with the public), part is the fault of the structure of history education at the k-12 level (holiday history controlled by politicized state committees and useless AP-driven fact cram later on), part is the fault of public figures who appeal to history as a cover for their own biases (see the entire Scalia oeuvre), and part is the fault of an incurious general public that can't be bothered to read anything more challenging than a David McCullough biography. As an historian with a commitment to public history, I think it would be a great idea to do some public outreach regarding Harvard's role in American slavery and its considerable ties to the Confederacy.
Therefore, I propose the following exhibit:
In the transept of Memorial Hall, two rows of rectangular display pedestals will stand along the East and West walls, each directly under a memorial panel and mirroring the panel in shape and size, though tipped at a slight angle so that visitors can view the contents easily. Each pedestal will display an object or text relating to Harvard's multifaceted role in creating, sustaining, and challenging American slavery and the war that ended it. A final pedestal will stand at the North end of the transept, under the stained glass window, bearing the names of the 71 Harvard students and alumni who gave their lives in support of the Confederacy and its cause — not in violation of their position as Harvard men, but in fulfillment of it.
Examples of objects that would go into these cases:
- J.T. Zealy / Louis Agassiz Daguerreotypes:
- In 1850, Harvard's most celebrated naturalist, Louis Agassiz, traveled to South Carolina, where he commissioned a series of photographs of African-born slaves and first-generation African-Americans in an attempt to gather evidence about racial types. Agassiz believed that various races were created separately, and his use of scientific methods, including these photographs, lent his ideas intellectual weight in antebellum America. The daguerreotypes — many of them depicting their subjects nude, in the poses now familiar to us from mug shots — are held by Harvard's Peabody Museum. They are not on display, partly because they are fragile and partly because they are ghastly. For more information, see Molly Rogers' Delia's Tears: Race, Science and Photography in 19th-Century America. This book reprints all of the images in full, something I would not do here, even if I had permission.
- Portrait of Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Frank Weston Benton (1893)
- Higginson, a fiery abolitionist who contributed openly to John Brown's cause, was a member of the class of 1841. He was a true radical and found that the reforms brought about by the Civil War fell far short of his hopes for racial justice. In 1904, he gave a Decoration Day speech in Sanders Theatre in which he suggested that Confederates might be included in the tablets in the transept. While some historians (David Blight) have argued that Higginson represents the erasure of abolitionism from Civil War memory, others (W. Scott Poole) argue that Higginson's remarks in 1904 "speak to his own disillusion about the possibilities of nationalism and
his doubts about whether or not it could serve as a force for racial
justice." Higginson's portrait (along with various quotations) would provide an unparalleled example of the complexity of Harvard's relationships with abolitionism and Civil War memory.
- Samples of "Negro Cloth" from Rhode Island 1839-1850 from Baker Library (Harvard Business School)
- Many Harvard alumni and donors (ex: Francis Cabot Lowell, class of 1793) were industrialists who turned slave-grown Southern cotton into cheap cloth. Some of this material, like the samples above, were manufactured in order to be sent back to Southern plantations to clothe those same slaves. Several cases in this exhibit would be devoted to the Harvard/factory/plantation nexus.
Other cases would showcase other items related to Harvard's historical support of and entanglement with slavery — receipts for gifts from slaveowning or slave-industry alumni, a replica of the gravestone dedicated to Cecily (d. 1713, 13-year-old slave to William Brattle, class of 1680), a fragment of brick from an 18th-century college building built using slave labor, etc. An exhibit like this would probably be the fruit of research conducted in undergraduate seminars (like Prof. Beckert's) and by professors and community members as part of a commission similar to Brown's Committee on Slavery and Justice
. Its catalog would probably go on to form part of a larger report by the commission laying bare Harvard's complicity. I know that a report from a steering committee doesn't sound like a very friendly way to get the word out, but there was plenty of interest in Brown's report, and Harvard's would make a bigger splash. People might not read the report, but they would read the NYT article about the report.
In this way, Harvard could engage in meaningful reflection on its institutional history. I think that a public exhibit in Memorial Hall would be a powerful way to write Harvard's Confederate dead back into its story, not with celebration, but with conscience. The point would be to bring context to the names already on the walls in the transept. They were the memorial that Harvard needed in 1870, but we need something more in 2011.
Roger McCredie and others who call for the names of Harvard's Confederate dead to be added to the rolls of honor in Memorial Hall argue that Harvard should acknowledge its role in the development and maintenance of American slavery. I agree. But simply adding the names of Harvard's Confederates would not just acknowledge that role — it would perpetuate it. If Harvard were to take such a bold and public step in favor of a reconciliationist narrative that argues that the Civil War was about personal valor and sacrifice, rather than a struggle over treason in defense of slavery, the institution will have lent its considerable cultural capital to the mythology of the Lost Cause
. It will have arrayed what arms it has on the side of a white supremacist, anti-intellectual movement that is stuck in the mindset of the 50th anniversary while the rest of the nation observes the 150th. Luckily, I think there is very little chance that this will happen, particularly under the administration of President Faust, who is, after all, a scholar of the Civil War with a particular interest in memorialization. If the names of Harvard's Confederate dead are added to Memorial Hall — and I hope they are — they must be part of an effort to confront Harvard's institutional complicity, not an attempt to prolong it.