(Not) Commemorating the Irish Famine in Montreal

May 25, 2017 § Leave a comment

The Irish Famine was one of the great humanitarian disasters of the 19th century. A blight upon the potato crop, combined with British malfeasance, brought about a crisis that saw Ireland lose around 25% of its population between 1845 and 1852.  One million people died.  Another million emigrated.  This was the birth of the Irish diaspora as we know it today.

 

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Famine refugees in Ireland (woodcut)

Montreal is one of the great cities of the diaspora, even if most of the Irish world doesn’t know this.  Something like 40% of Quebecers have Irish heritage.  And the Irish have long been recognized as one of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city.  The flag of the Ville de Montréal features the flowers of each of the ‘founding peoples’ of the city: the French, English, Scots, and Irish, and a cross of St. George.  The landscape of the city is littered with remembrances of the Irish, from rue Shamrock by Marché Jean-Talon in the North End (where the old Shamrocks Lacrosse Club stadium was) to Loyola College (now part of Concordia University) and rue Dublin in Pointe-Saint-Charles.

 

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The flag of the Ville de Montréal

During the Famine, the city was inundated with refugees.  Even with a quarantine station on Grosse-Île, up the St. Lawrence River near Quebec, the sick and the dying still made it downriver to Montreal. They ended up in fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles, just across the Lachine Canal from Griffintown.  Upwards of 6,000 of them were dumped in a mass grave that went largely unmarked and forgotten until 1859, when a bunch of Irish construction workers, building the Victoria Bridge, unearthed them.  The workers erected a huge black rock to mark the grave.

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The Black Rock

Don Pidgeon was the long-time historian of the United Irish Societies of Montreal, until he died last year.  He liked to argue that the rock was the birth place of Irish Montreal.  It was largely due to him that the Black Rock has been preserved and cared for.  For as long as I can remember, the Irish community of Montreal sought to create a proper memorial park to commemorate the Famine dead.  The Black Rock currently sits on an island in the middle of Bridge St., the Montreal approach to the Victoria Bridge, near where Goose Village once stood.  During rush hour, Bridge St. is congested and car-heavy.  It is no way to commemorate the dead.

Montreal is the only major diaspora city that lacks a Famine Memorial.  This is shocking and so very typically Montreal in many ways.  Montreal exists as it does today in large part due to the inundation of the Irish in the early 19th century.  This is true both demographically, but also infrastructurally.   The Irish built the bulk of the city’s 19th century infrastructure: the Lachine Canal, the railways, Victoria Bridge, the buildings and factories, and their muscle dredged the Montreal harbour, expanding it for bigger and bigger cargo ships.  They were also a key constituency of the industrial working classes in the 19th century.  They were present at the beginnings of the Canadian industrial revolution in Griffintown, and they helped power the city into the industrial centre of Canada. The influx of Irish also meant that for a brief period in the second half of the 19th century, English-speaking people were the majority of the population in the city.  And while the Famine is not the means by which all the Montreal Irish got there, it is a central story to the Irish in Montreal.

This is true of both the Famine refugees, but also the Irish community that was already there.  St. Patrick’s Basilica opened its doors on 17 March 1847, at the very start of the worst year of the Famine, Black ’47.  But that the Irish could construct a big, handsome church on the side of Beaver Hall Hill in 1847 also signifies the depth of the roots of the Irish in Montreal.  Even as early as the 1820s, there was a firmly ensconced Irish population in the city.  But when the flood gates opened and the refugees began streaming in later that spring of 1847, the Montreal Irish got to work.  They donated large sums of money to the care of their brethren, they volunteered to work in the fever sheds, they helped the survivors set up in Montreal (it is worth noting that the same was true of the rest of the city’s population, whatever its ethnic background).

In short, the years of the Irish Famine were central to the development of Irish Montreal.  And perhaps more to the point, following the Famine, Irish emigration to Montreal (and Canada as a whole), dried up.  Thus, in many ways, the Irish of Montreal were able to integrate and assimilate into the wider city.  They shared a language with the economically dominant group, a religion with the numerically dominant.  And the growing stability of the population aided in this process.  In short, in some ways, the Irish experience was not as fraught in Montreal as it was in other diasporic locations, where nativism and anti-Irish sentiment held sway.

 

The Montreal Irish Memorial Park Foundation kicked into gear last year, with its plan  to build a proper memorial.  The goal, according to the Foundation’s website, is to create a memorial park that would include playing fields for Irish sports, a theatre, and a museum on the site.  This park would be strategically located, and presumably would be connected to the Lachine Canal National Historic Site nearby, which is itself a heavily-used park.

The Foundation appears to have had all of its ducks lined up, with support from the Irish community, corporate Montreal, and the Mayor’s office.  The Irish Embassy in Ottawa was also supportive, willing to kick in some money (as it had with the Toronto Famine Memorial).

And then, a few weeks ago, the land that it proposed to acquire for the park was sold by the Canada Lands Company (a Crown corporation that deals with public land) to Hydro-Québec, which wants to build a sub-station there, ironically due to the massive redevelopment of Griffintown.  And while there is allegedly a clause in the sale requiring Hydro-Québec to build a monument to the Famine dead, that’s cold comfort.  Who is going to go look at a monument along a busy road next to an sub-station?

And so, at least for now, the dream of a proper memorial to the Famine refugees in Montreal is dead.  This year marks the 375th anniversary of the founding of Montreal, but it is also the 160th anniversary of Black ’47.

I have a hard time believing that something like this would happen in any other city.  A project with community, corporate and political support got derailed by two Crown corporations.  I don’t quite understand how this could have come as a surprise, as in, how did the Foundation not know that Canada Lands was negotiation with Hydro-Québec?  Then again, this is Montreal, so that is also entirely within the realm of possibility.  And this entire affair is so typically Montreal.

Mis-Remembering the Patriotes

May 22, 2017 § 2 Comments

 

Today is the Journée nationale des Patriotes in Quebec.  The date commemorates the 1837 Patriote Rebellion in what was then Lower Canada, when a rebellion against the British Empire erupted in first, Saint-Denis, and then other nearby locales in November and December of that year.  And while it started off well for the Patriotes, it did not end well, with the British routing them and then ransacking the village of Saint-Eustache before martial law was imposed on Montreal.

But the rebellion only tells a part of the story of the Parti patriote.  The Patriotes, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, were a group of middle-class radicals, largely based in the urban centres of Lower Canada (Quebec).  They took their inspiration from the French Revolution, and from the wave of liberal radicalism across the Western world, from France to the United States.  They were frustrated with the corrupt politics of the Governor and his cadre.

From the early 1830s on, they formed the majority of the colonial legislature, which met in the capital of Quebec.  The Patriotes sought, essentially, responsible government.  They demanded accountability from the legislature and the governor.  And they demanded economic development for the disenfranchised, disgruntled French Canadian majority of Lower Canada, as well as the working-class, predominately Irish, in Montreal and Quebec.

In other words, the Patriotes were not a French Canadian nationalist movement.  I read an article in the Montreal Gazette yesterday that encapsulated my frustration with the memory of the Patriotes and 1837.  The article was a discussion about what to call today in Quebec.  The journalist noted that in the Montreal suburb of Baie d’Urfé, the citizens wish to call it La journee nationale des Patriotes/Victoria Day.  This is not, obviously, an actual translation.  The article then tours around the West Island and some off-island suburbs of Montreal that have a large Anglo population.  The results are more of the same.  And then there’s the title of the article, “Our Annual May Long Weekend Is Here. But What Should We Call It?”  This, of course, is typical West Island Anglo code for their exclusion from the nation/province of Quebec, at least officially.

This is also a mis-remembering of the Patriotes.  And not just by the West Island Anglos, but by almost every single Quebecer, whatever their background.  And it is one that is rooted in our education system, not just in Quebec, but nationally.  I learned, in school in British Columbia, that the Patriotes were only interested in French Canadians and were nationalists.  When I taught in Quebec, my students had learned the same thing.  I remember reading Allan Greer’s excellent book, The Patriots and the People, in grad school and being surprised at what I read.

Greer, in addition to noting the multi-ethnic background of the Patriotes, also is the one who made the argument that what 1837 was was a failed revolution in Quebec.  That had the Patriotes succeeded, Quebec would’ve looked politically more like France or the United States.  Indeed, it is in the aftermath of 1837 that the Catholic Church in Quebec came to be so powerful, as it became a member of the state in the province/nation, and gained great political, moral, economic, social, and cultural power over Catholic Quebecers, both English- and French- speaking, until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

To return to the multi-ethnicity of the Parti patriote and its supporters, Papineau’s lieutenant was Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan, who was the member of the legislature for Montreal West.  O’Callaghan succeeded the radical Dr. Daniel Tracey as the MLA for Montreal West and the right-hand seat at Papineau’s table.  Both were Irishmen.  Tracey died treating his compatriots in the fever shacks on Pointe-Saint-Charles during the cholera epidemic of 1832.  Montreal West was the riding that contained Griffintown and other Irish neighbourhoods in what was then the west end of Montreal (now it’s the sud-ouest).  The Griffintown Irish were radicals.  They kept voting for Tracey and O’Callaghan over the wishes of their more genteel compatriots.

And then, there is the simple fact of the Brothers Nelson, Robert and Wolfred.  They were the sons of English immigrants and members of the Anglo Protestant Lower Canadian bourgeoisie who were also major players within the Patriote movement.  Wolfred led the rebels at the first battle of the Rebellion, at Saint-Denis on 23 November.  This was the battle the Patriotes won.  Robert, meanwhile, was amongst a group of Patriotes who were arrested and then freed in the autumn of 1837, which caused him to flee to the United States, where he was further radicalized.  He led the 1838 Rebellion, which fizzled out pretty quickly.  Both Nelsons survived the rebellions.  Wolfred went on to become the Mayor of Montreal in the 1850s. Papineau, for his part, returned to the legislature after being granted amnesty in the 1840s.

Indeed, the major impetus for the formation of the St. Patrick’s Society of Montreal on 17 March 1834 was exactly this: the radical nature of the Griffintown Irish was hurting the larger ambitions of the Irish-Catholic middle class of the city.  In those days, Montreal was not all that sectarian or linguistically divided.  It was class that cleaved the city.  Thus, the middle-class Anglo-Protestants, French Canadians and Irish all formed a community within the larger city, give or take the radicals.  And they stood in opposition to and apart from the working classes, who tended to be more radical.  Thus, the St. Patrick’s Society was created to separate the middle class Irish from these radicals.  The Society was originally non-sectarian, it had both Catholics and Protestants within its ranks.  It was not until the sectarian era of the 1850s that the Protestants were ousted.

It does all of us a dis-service to so clearly mis-remember the Patriotes.  While Papineau is commemorated on streets, schools, highways, buildings, and a métro station in Montreal, the Nelsons, Tracey, and O’Callaghan are not.  They have been removed from the officially sanctioned story of the Patriotes, let alone the 1837-8 Rebellions.  Meanwhile, the Anglo community of Quebec seems to prefer to forget about the existence of these men entirely, to say nothing of the ancestors of many of us who voted for Tracey and O’Callaghan in Griffintown.  Remembering the Patriotes for what and who they were would help with the divide in Montreal and Quebec.

Mis-Remembering the Civil War

May 15, 2017 § Leave a comment

While it is easy to forget foreign wars, it is not so easy to forget wars fought on one’s own territory.  Reminders are everywhere — those statues, those memorials, those museums, those weapons, those graveyards, those slogans.  While one may not remember history, one cannot avoid its reminder. — Viet Than Nguyen.

Nguyen wrote this about Vietnam, and how reminders of the Vietnam War are all over the Vietnamese landscape.  But this is true of any war-marked landscape, any territory haunted by war.  It is true of the landscape I live in, the American South.

Driving to Chattanooga last week, I saw, but didn’t see, the half dozen or so Civil War memorials that dot the landscape off I-24.  I saw, but didn’t see, the National Monument atop Lookout Mountain just outside of the city (from here, Union artillery bombarded Confederate-held Chattanooga).  I am sure I’m not the only one who experiences this.  We historians like to talk about memorials, about their power and all of that, but most memorials are simply part of the landscape, no longer worth remarking upon.

Most of the Civil War memorials were erected in the half century or so following the war, and thus, have had another century or so to blend into the background.  My personal favourite of these memorials is one that lies within a chainlink face, on the side of a hill, above a hollow, hard up against the interstate.

The Civil War was obviously fought on Southern territory, as it was the Confederacy that tried to leave the Union.  And it remains the most mis-remembered of all American conflagrations, of which there have been many.   Americans in the North and the West think the Union went to war to end slavery.  And many Americans in the South (by no means all, or, even a majority, I don’t think) think that the war was fought for some abstract ideal, like states’ rights.  Both are wrong.  The Confederacy seceded due to slavery, as the Southern states felt the ‘peculiar institution’ to be under attack by Northerners.  But this is not why the North went to war in 1861; the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t come about until 1862, enacted on New Year’s Day 1863.  Prior to that, the Union was fighting for, well, the union.

To return to the landscape of the South, with its battlefields, its many monuments, and to the parts of the landscape still physically scarred by the war, over 150 years ago, there is this constant reminder.  This, I would like to humbly suggest, is why the Civil War has remained such a bugaboo for the South.

I oftentimes get the feeling that the larger country would like to just forget the Civil War ever happened, to move on from it.  Maybe this is not true for all Americans, particularly African Americans (given slavery ended with the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865).  But, it is certainly a trope I notice in my adopted country.  But for the South, it couldn’t forget the war even if it wanted to.

Both the Union and Confederate armies marched up and down Tennessee, between Nashville and Chattanooga, along the railway that runs between the two cities.  That railway runs next to I-24 for much of that stretch, at most a few miles apart.  There are a series of battlefields between the two cities and, of course, the fall of Chattanooga in Autumn 1863 is what allowed the Union Army of General Sherman to march into Georgia and towards Atlanta.

It is hard to forget and move on from a war when there are reminders of it in almost every direction.  And mis-remembering the Civil War also serves a purpose beyond the macro political.  For one, it removes the nasty part of the rationale for the war on the part of the Confederate States: slavery (this also, obviously, has a macro-political impact).  This allows some Southerners to mis-remember the Civil War in order to claim their ancestors who fought in it, to celebrate those that came before them for defending their homes, family, and so on.

Nevermind the inconvenience of slavery, or the fact that these very ancestors in the Confederate Army were deeply resentful of being the cannon fodder for the small minority of the Confederate States of America who actually owned slaves.  Nevermind that these ancestors recognized they were the pawns in a disagreement between rich men.  Nevermind the fact that these ancestors didn’t own slaves.  In fact, that makes it easier to claim and sanitize these men.  They were innocent of the great crime of the Confederacy.

And thus, it is easy to take this mis-remembered vision of one’s ancestors fighting in the Civil War for the Confederacy.  It is easy to forget that war is terrifying, and to forget the fact that these ancestors, like any soldier today, spent most of their time in interminable boredom, and only a bit of time in abject terror in battle.  It is easy to forget all of this, and thus, it is easy to mis-remember the essential reason why this war happened: slavery.

Monumental History

May 11, 2017 § 18 Comments

I’m reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.  It’s an interesting read, as it posits the larger history of the Vietnam War, which includes the Vietnamese, as well as Laotians and Cambodians, are an essential part of the war story.  Of course, that is bloody obvious.  But, he is also right to note their elision from the official story of the Vietnam War in the US.  He also objects to the fact that the very word ‘Vietnam’ in the United States means the Vietnam War.  The entire history and experience of a sovereign nation is reduced to a nasty American war.

He spends a lot of time talking about the ethics of memory and an ethical memory in the case of the Vietnam War.  And he is sharply critical of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in DC.  He is critical because, as he notes, the memorial is 150 feet long and includes the name of the 58,195 Americans who died in service; if it were to include the Vietnamese dead, the wall would be nine miles long.

And so this brings up an interesting point about monuments and memory.  There is a lot more to be said about this topic and, time permitting, I will return to this point in future posts.  But what I want to consider here is the very nature of memorials.  Memorials are either triumphalist or they are commemorative.  They are constructed to recall glorious memories in our past. Or they are constructed to recall horrible events in our past.

sieur_1In the former category, we have one of my favourite monuments, that to Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and the other founders of Montreal.  This is a triumphalist monument, with Maisonneuve surveying Place d’Armes from atop the monument, ringed with other early pioneers of Montreal: Lambert Closse, Charles le Moyne, and Jeanne Mance.  And then, of course, there’s Iroquois, the single, idealized indigenous man.  In the bas-relief between the four minor statues, the story of the founding of Montreal is told, sometimes with brutal honesty, such as the ‘Exploit de la Place D’Armes,’ which shows Maisonneueve with his gun to the throat of an indigenous warrior, as other warriors watch horrified.1280px-Exploit_de_la_Place_d'Armes

The Maisonneuve monument was erected at Place d’Armes on 1 July 1895, Canada Day (or Dominion Day, as it was known then).  Montreal had celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1892, and this monument was a product of that celebration.

800px-National_Famine_Monument_with_Croagh_Patrick_in_the_backgroundAn example of a commemorative monument is the National Famine Monument, at Murrisk, Westport, Co. Mayo, Ireland. This monument was unveiled in 1997, on the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the worst year of the Irish Famine (1845-52).  The Famine saw close to half of Ireland either die (1 million) or emigrate (2 million).  It is the birth of the great Irish diaspora, and remains one of the most catastrophic moments in the history of Ireland.  The monument is stark, and looks frankly out of place, as a bronze model of a coffin ship sits in the green fields of Mayo.  But it is designed to be haunting, a testament to the victims of the horrors of the Famine.

But what Nguyen is arguing for is an inclusive monument-making: one that honours both sides of an historical event.  And so I find myself wondering what that would even look like, how it would be constructed, how it would represent both (or more) sides of an historical event.  How would the historic interpretive narrative be written? What kind of language would be chosen?  Monuments are already an elision of history, offering a sanitized version of history, even commemorative ones (such as the one in Co. Mayo, which most clearly does not discuss the policies of British imperialism in manufacturing a Famine in Ireland).  So how is that historical narrative opened to include multiple points of view?

I don’t have the answers, but these are questions worth pondering.

 

The End of the New Deal?

May 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

I teach a lot of US History.  And every semester, when we get to the Depression, my students are gobsmacked.  It doesn’t matter where they’re from, New England or Alabama, or California or Virginia.  It doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans or disinterested in politics.  It doesn’t matter if they’re Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, or atheists.  To a person they are appalled and disgusted by the response of Herbert Hoover’s government to the Depression.

They don’t understand how the government of the United States, their country, could be so callous towards its citizens.  How, they repeatedly ask, could Hoover sleep at night as people were starving and shivering in the streets?  How could Hoover and a Republican majority in the House and Senate do nothing as people lost their jobs, their homes, their families?

And then, they read about FDR and the New Deal.  And, to a person, they are excited to learn about the New Deal, about how it re-set the government and its relationship to Americans.  They are happy to learn that their government responded humanely to the greatest crisis the United States has ever seen in a time of peace.

FDR’s administration did create a new deal between Americans and their government.  Out of the Depression was created a government that provided a modicum of care and services to its citizens.  Certainly, the so-called welfare state of the United States did not reach the levels it did in the United Kingdom, Canada, and many other Western democracies.  But, it did give Americans a change to begin to get back on their feet, though they were certainly helped in this regard by the outbreak of the Second World War.

That Americans as a whole appreciated the New Deal is borne out in the fact that the President came from the Democratic Party from 1933-53 and 1960-69.  In addition, the House remained Democratic from 1931 until 1995, with the exceptions of the 80th (1947-49) and 83rd (1953-55) Congresses.  The Senate, meanwhile remained blue from 1933-1979, except for those same 80th and 83rd Congresses.

Even Republicans in office retained a respect of the New Deal, reflecting their constituents.  A lot has been made of the Reagan Revolution and how it began the dismantling of the New Deal state, but that, in many ways, is overblown.  The New Deal understanding of the relationship between state and society, for the most part, survived Reagan.

But it is under attack now.  One of my students, during the first attempt to dismantle Obamacare in March, commented on the inhumanity of throwing 24 million people off health care rolls.  Another one noted that this appeared to be a break down of the New Deal.  This is when I felt like a proud professor, of course.

But they are right.  Obamacare was a continuum of the New Deal’s promise to Americans.  And while I, a Canadian, think Obamacare is stupid (I much prefer the single-payer system), it was a massive improvement over what came before it.  And the American Health Care Act, which was passed by the House last week, is a return to pre-New Deal America.  It is a return to Hoover-era politics, where Americans suffered as their government turned its back.

21 Short Films About Griffintown

March 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

As regular readers will know, I have been working on the history and memory of Griffintown, Montreal for many years now.  My book, Griffintown: Identity and Memory in an Irish Diaspora Neighbourhood, is out in May (the paperback will be out in the fall).  And, of course, I have been working for a few years now with Montreal film-maker, artist, animator, and purveyor of all things creative, G. Scott MacLeod.  Our project, 21 Short Films About Griffintown, is now up on the web for all to see.

This project is based on a walking tour of Griff Scott developed, and can be followed on your smart phone.  We have 21 very short films of 21 sites around Griff, about their history and significance.

I like these clips, partly because Scott has done some great work contextualizing my stories of these sites with archival footage, his animations, and music, because all of this also minimizes my screen time.  But also because it was a fun day that we spent wandering around Griff filming these.  It was a hot August day in 2012, a day or two before I left Montreal for good.  I had my dog, Boo, with me.  He was all stressed out because of the move and had scratched his face raw.  So he was with me because I had to keep him from scratching the infection.  He trundled along with us in the 30C heat, usually with my foot on his leash as we filmed.  Boo was a massive dog, around 150lbs, a Mastiff/Shepherd cross.  He was a big, gentle giant. Boo died last year, so I see this project as a bit of a memorial to him, even if he doesn’t appear on screen.  IMG_0070

History & Memory and Abraham Lincoln

March 27, 2017 § 12 Comments

Lincoln’s birthday came and went in February, largely ignored in Tennessee and other Southern states.  In the wake of his birthday, this image came floating through my Twitter feed.  This is an interesting take on the question of history and memory of the Civil War.  It fascinates me on both levels.

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Factually, there is not much in this that is true.  And the interpretation presented in this poster is, well, wrong.  The part on top, with the spelling and grammatical mistakes, was tacked onto the Wanted poster by someone as it travelled through the right wing, Confederate social media world.  I don’t know who did it.

Note how the unknown commentator claims that Lincoln waged an unholy war against the South. The Civil War, of course, was begun by the Confederacy, when it attacked Fort Sumter, in the harbour of Charleston, SC, on 11 April 1865.  Thus, the war is not the fault of the Union.  Fort Sumter was a fort held by the United States military, constructed in the wake of the War of 1812.  There are no ‘hard facts’ that can be presented to deny this historical truth.

But, of course, fact and memory are not the same thing.  And this is why the question of history and memory fascinates me.  It’s not simply a matter of how we remember history as individuals, as our own individual memories are a function of society as well, but it’s also a question of how all of our individual memories work in concert with each other to form cultural memory.

Certainly, in the South, the Civil War is remembered differently from the North.  And it is not always remembered in a cartoonish, neo-Confederate manner as this.  On a more basic level, many Southerners can express distaste for the actual causes of the war and the war aims of the Confederacy and a deep pride in their ancestors’ gallantry in battle against the North.  Hence the romance and popularity of Civil War re-enactors and their romance of the Confederacy.  And, of course, there is a careful parsing of the larger context of the Confederacy and its reasons for fighting the war in the first place.

Slavery is the first or second thing mentioned in every single Confederate state’s articles of secession.  It was central to the war aims of the Confederacy.  It was not, however, central to the war aims of the Union, despite what many Northerners believe.  It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on 1 January 1863, nearly two years into the war, that the end of slavery became a Northern war aim.  In short, then, the Civil War happened, from the perspective of the Confederacy, over slavery.  Not states’ rights (had it been, the fight over the entry of new states to the Union and whether they’d be slave states or not, would not have happened).

And clearly, Lincoln is remembered differently on either side of the Mason-Dixon line.  But there is also a question of history.  When the Republican Party tweeted a fake quote from Lincoln for Lincoln’s Birthday (in a tweet that has since been deleted), it wasn’t the fake quote that amused me, it was the GOP’s statement.  Lincoln certainly did not bring the nation together.  His election was the excuse the Confederacy used to justify secession.

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But at any rate, to return to the original issue here of the differing memories of the Civil War and un-reconstructed Southerners: One could indeed argue that Lincoln violated the Constitution.  Many people have made this argument, including respected historians and constitutional scholars.  Lincoln was very aware of his expansionist reading of the Constitution and reminded his opponents that they could question him, through the ballot box and via the court system.  Ultimately, however, his expansion of the Constitution has been recognized by scholars as an historical fact, more or less.

But there is also the question of other means of bending the Constitution.  In the case of habeus corpus, Art. I. Sec. 9, cl. 2 of the Constitution reads:

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeus Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public safety may require it.

However, Article I of the Constitution lays out the powers of Congress, not the Executive (that’s Article II).  However, Congress can delegate authorities to the Executive, and has (for example, during World War I, the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917).  But, Congress had not delegated this power to Lincoln.  Thus, in ex parte Merryman, a federal court decision in 1861, Justice Roger Taney, who was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but sitting as a federal court justice, found Lincoln’s suspension of habeus corpus and his delegating of this power to United States Army officers to be beyond the law, that the suspension of habeus corpus was limited to Congress, which could, of course, delegate this power.  Merryman, however, was ignored by Lincoln on the grounds of necessity due to the unusual circumstances of the war.  He argued that the Civil War was exactly situation noted in the Constitution, a case of rebellion.  And, furthermore, he argued that the President has had to act many times when Congress was not in session.  Indeed, this is true, dating back at least Jefferson’s era.  In these cases, the President is expected to seek post facto permission for his actions from Congress. Indeed, in 1863, Congress passed An Act relating to Habeas Corpus, and regulating Judicial Proceedings in Certain Cases. 

Indeed, in my copy of Richard Beeman’s Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution, which I assign every semester, as it annotates the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Beeman merely states the following:

On at least a few occasions American presidents have suspended while either suppressing rebellion or protecting public safety.

Beeman then uses President Lincoln and the Civil War and President George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 as examples. That’s all.  In other words, this is a recognized power of the president, though Beeman does note that Bush based his actions on the USA Patriot Act, which is obviously an act of Congress.

As for the treason claimed in the Wanted post, I’m not sure where this comes from, given that the attempted secession by the Confederacy was, by definition, a treasonous act.  Treason is an attempt to overthrow or betray one’s country.  Certainly, the Confederates felt that the American government had overstepped its bounds and was attempting to claim the right to rebel, as the Founding Fathers had in the Declaration of Independence.

Nor did Lincoln imprison 40,000 Northerners in military prisons during the war.  I’m not even certain where such a number would come from.

As for the question of the plight of Southerners under Union occupation, that is another thing entirely.  Certainly, federal troops did commandeer supplies and property.  They did rape Southern women.  But, the argument about the loss of civil rights, well, the Confederacy did start the war.  There was no official declaration of war, given that the Union refused to recognize the Confederacy, nonetheless, there was most certainly a war  And the war was fought in Southern territories.  Thus, the suspension of civil liberties in a territory of open rebellion should not be surprising.

Nonetheless, while I would not state that the vision of Abraham Lincoln in this Wanted poster is a common one in the South, there is a small fringe that does view him in this manner.  And I also do not find this surprising, given the romanticization of the Civil War in the minds of many (and not just in the South).  Lincoln was the enemy, obviously.  And so it should not be surprising that someone, thinking it clever, created this Wanted poster (though I cannot speak to the editorialization attached to it).

In this romanticized version of the Civil War I have seen up close, at County Fairs and the like in Alabama and Tennessee, something interesting happens to the Civil War.  Race is removed from it, in that the Sons of the Confederacy, the ones who dress up and Civil War garb and re-enact the war, insist they have no racial malice and that there is no racial malice behind their play-acting nor flying of the Confederate Battle Flag (whether or not this is true is a matter for another blog post).  Rather, they claim, they are celebrating the gallantry of their ancestors against the Northern incursion (and, of course, the reasons for that incursion are elided).

And this brings me to what I see as the greatest irony of the lionizing of the Confederacy.  I had a student who wrote an MA thesis on the Confederate soldiers between the Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee in April 1862 and the Battle of Mobile Bay in southern Alabama in August 1864.  She used soldiers’ diaries as a major primary source.  Shiloh was their first battle and many of these men responded much as you’d expect: abject terror at the actual grizzly face of mid-19th century war.  And almost overnight, these young men went from being keen to be battle-tested to bitter.  They were bitter at their inadequate supplies and medical care and leadership.  But they were also bitter that they were being compelled to fight for the right of rich men to own slaves.  As they marched South, chased by the Union Army through Mississippi and Alabama to Mobile Bay, they became increasingly angry and bitter.  Those that survived did fight, against insane odds. And generally lost in this theatre of war, which was very different than the one commanded by Robert E. Lee in Virginia.  In Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, they were outgunned, outmanned, and victim to poor leadership.  But even the soldiers in Lee’s Army of Virginia were well aware of the irony that they, too poor to own slaves, were laying their lives on the line for the rich slave owners.

It’s certainly a historical truism that poor men are the cannon fodder for the rich.  Even today, the US Armed Forces tend to draw their recruits from the poorer areas of the South. So that the poor white men of the South found themselves in grey uniforms and fighting the US Army should not be surprising.  So, in many ways, this is what these men, the Civil War Confederate re-enactors are interested in: the plight of poor men.  And celebrating their ancestors.  But, their ancestors were on the wrong side of history.  And the wrong side of the Civil War.

And so they’re left with the uncomfortable problem of unsorting the simple fact of slavery and racism from their views of the Civil War.  Hence the rise of the states’ rights claim.  Or others.  The simple fact is that they’re confronted with a double dose of difficult knowledge in confronting the Confederacy and the Civil War.  First, the slavery issue.  Second, their ancestors’ plight of fighting and dying for rich, slave-owning plantation owners.  And perhaps this is their way out of the racial conundrum: these men and women, their ancestors weren’t the slave owners.