“War is Hell”: Public History?

September 16, 2015 § 2 Comments

Wesleyan-hall-6-07

This is Wesleyan Hall on the campus of the University of North Alabama.  It is the oldest building on campus, dating back to 1855.  Florence, the town in which the university is located, was over-run by both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War.  Parts of northern Alabama were actually pro-Union during the war and at least one town held a vote on seceding from the Confederate States of America.  This was made all the more complicated by the fact that the CSA was actually created in Montgomery, Alabama’s capital, and the first capital of the CSA, before it moved to Richmond, Virginia.

Wesleyan allegedly is still marked by the war, with burn marks in the basement from when Confederate troops attempted to burn it down in 1864.  A local told me this weekend that there is allegedly a tunnel out of the basement of Wesleyan that used to run down to the Tennessee River some 2 miles away.

The most famous occupant of Wesleyan Hall during the war was William Tecumseh Sherman.  It is in this building that he is alleged to have said that “war is hell” for the first time.  Of course, there are 18 other places where he is alleged to have said this.  And herein lies the position of the public historian.

Personally, I think Sherman said “war is hell” multiple times over the course of the Civil War, and why wouldn’t he?  From what I know of war, from literature, history, and friends who have seen action, war is indeed hell.  But I am less interested in where he coined the phrase than I am in the multiple locales he may or may not have done so.  What matters to me is not the veracity of the claim, but the reasons for the claim.

So why would people in at least 19 different locations claim that Sherman coined the phrase at that location?  This, to me, seems pretty clear. It’s a means of connecting a location to a famous event, to a famous man, to raise a relatively obscure location (like, say, Florence, Alabama) to a larger scale, onto a larger stage.  It ties the University of North Alabama to the Civil War.  But more than that, since we already know the then LaGrange College was affected by the war, but the attempt to claim Sherman’s most famous utterance creates both fame for the university, and makes the claim that something significant connected to the war occurred on the campus.  There are no major battlefields in the immediate vicinity of northern Alabama, so, failing that, we can claim Sherman declared that ‘war is hell’ in Wesleyan Hall.

The Alabama Cultural Resource Survey

August 27, 2015 § 5 Comments

Alabama is one of the forgotten states.  The chair of my department calls it a fly-over state, a place you look down upon when flying from Miami to Chicago.  The only time Alabama ever seems to enter the national discussion is when something bad happens here, or when the University of Alabama or Auburn University’s football teams are ranked in the Top 25.  But otherwise, Alabama only makes the national news when bad things happen.  It’s like Alabama is the butt of a joke the entire country is in on.

Not surprisingly, I find this problematic.  Alabama is a surprisingly diverse place, both in terms of racial politics, politics in general, and culture.  Like most states, the population and culture is not homogenous. Where I live, in Northern Alabama, the area is more culturally attuned to Nashville and Tennessee as a whole, rather than Birmingham or Montgomery.

The town I live in, Florence, is an amazingly funky little college town.  We have a bustling downtown with restaurants, cafés, nightclubs, and stores.  There are a series of festivals here and the people of Florence take pride in their downtown, which has been rejuvenated despite the fact the city is ringed with stripmalls, including two Wal-Marts.  Like many other towns and cities across the state, Florence is the beneficiary of Main Street Alabama, dedicated to the revival of the urban cores of the state.

Across the Tennessee River are three more towns (Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia) and collectively, the region is known as The Shoals.  Anyone who knows anything about music knows about the rich musical history of the Shoals area.  Every time I turn around, I see more potential public history projects.

One thing that we are involved in is the Alabama Cultural Resource Survey. This project is a collaboration between the Public History programme here at the University of North Alabama and the Auburn University History Department.  Since I arrived in Alabama last month, I have been to a series of meetings around Northern Alabama talking to people about the survey and its importance in leading up to the 2019 Alabama Bicentennial.  This project is unique, I cannot think of anywhere else in the United States or Canada where such a project has been undertaken.  We are asking the people of Alabama to contribute to a telling of their history for the Bicentennial.  Eventually, this survey will migrate over to the Archives of Alabama website.

So far the response has been impressive.  Alabamians are anxious to tell their stories, multiple and multifold as they are, to have them entered into this massive database for themselves and their descendants to use.

But this isn’t the kind of thing that Alabama makes the news for.  Maybe that’s a good thing, we can keep all the good stuff going on in our state to ourselves.

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