Sons of Confederate Veterans loses license plate legal battle

I posted about this almost four years ago, then updated on the story after readers and fellow bloggers alerted me to some pertinent details. Now, the controversy over the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) seeking to have a license plate made for their organization in Texas has finally been adjudicated and they are on the losing end.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 (you can read the briefing here)that Texas may reject the SCV license plate on the grounds that license plate designs constitute government speech and does not violate the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Justice Clarence Thomas joined Stephen Breyer, who authored the decision, as well as Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor. Chief Justice Roberts, as well as Justices Alito, Kennedy, and Scalia dissented, with Alito providing some biting criticism of the decision, writing, according to CNN, “the Court’s decision categorizes private speech as government speech and thus strips it of all First Amendment protection.”  He added that the ruling, “”establishes a precedent that threatens private speech that the government finds displeasing.”

What is interesting about this decision is how it goes against the general trend when cases involving the SCV and other states have gone to courts, with the SCV usually ending up as the victor. Personally, I will say that I am a bit concerned about the precedent that this may set regarding other organizations seeking to have license plates for their causes, but as I stated back when this story first flared in 2011, I believe that had the SCV compromised and sought to create a neutral plate with a soldier silhouette and commemorate the 150th anniversary, or Civil War veterans in general, the issue would have been moot.

The Confederate battle flag is a powerful symbol with a complex and divisive past, as evidenced by the tragic shootings in Charleston the other day. I will never deny someone from being proud of their Confederate soldier ancestor, as they fought a hard war for a cause they believed in, or other reasons they believed in as much as their Union counterparts. However, we live in a different era, where segments of our society have different feelings towards that flag and what it means to them.

Unfortunately, one cannot escape the reality that the flag symbolized an army fighting for a government established, in part, for the perpetuation of slavery. Further, it became a symbol of hate and oppression used by a minority of people to intimidate blacks, thus coloring the collective population of the South by the actions of a few. Not all Southerners are racists, just as not all Southerners owned slaves. However, the perceptions cast by the use of the flag and its history since the end of the war stand in contrast to its use by soldiers in the Confederate Army.

Now that the SCV has lost the battle in Texas, only time will tell as to how other states will respond regarding their already-issued SCV plates and the display of the Confederate battle flag in public. Confederate symbols will continue to elicit controversy, but this does not mean that they should be eliminated from our awareness, as they can be tools for educational purposes, whether presenting on Confederate soldiers, or the post-war history of the South, the good, bad, and ugly.

With that I will leave you with a poll and welcome any thoughts you would like to share, provided they are civil, regarding this case and the Confederate flag.

Momentous anniversaries and visiting Civil War history

To my loyal blog readers, my apologies for not actually posting something worthy on the actual anniversaries recently, but I do want to share with you that the last several days have commemorated some momentous events related to the history of the Civil War. One of the reasons was that I was out of town visiting my parents for Easter, followed by a trip to Branson, Missouri to celebrate my mother’s birthday, which is actually April 15 (yes, I do appreciate the irony as a historian of her birthday).

On April 7, my Dad and I traveled to Illinois College, my alma mater to hear Dr. Robert Welch, who also writes a blog The Eagle and The Journal, which deals with Macomb, Illinois during the war via articles from its two main papers during the war The Eagle and The Journal. Check it out, as it’s quite good. Welch brought a lot of gear to his talk and drew a crowd of around 75, who were quite interested in his topic on Civil War Living History and Reenacting, including its uses as a teaching tool, which resonates with me quite well.

April 9 marked the 150th anniversary of the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. I unfortunately missed the NPS program on it, but my good reenacting buddy Den Bolda had two questioned answered during the live-stream, which was quite cool. I did make a Civil War trip out of it though, as my Dad and I visited Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield that day. I had been there before in 2011 to reenact for the 150th, but did not get to see much, so it was fun to take time with him and survey the park, despite limited time.

April 14 marked the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater in DC. Finally, April 15 marked the 150th anniversary of his death. Springfield is abuzz with activities leading up to ceremonies commemorating the anniversary of his funeral, so, if you are in Springfield, be sure to take in the festivities.

With that I will leave you with some photos of Welch’s talk and my visit to Wilson’s Creek.

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Review of Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection

Product DetailsSmithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Civil War: Inside the National Collection. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2013. 308 pp. $40.00.

This book reflects the efforts of the Smithsonian Institute to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war by showcasing the many unique and special items housed in their collections related to the war.

While it is not a scholarly monograph, this book is a wonderful piece that belongs on the shelf of those interested in the Civil War for both scholarly and general interest pursuits.

It provides hundreds of beautifully detailed photographs of objects housed in the collections, including uniforms, equipment, photographs, and documents. In addition, informative captions describe and discuss the objects. This is coupled with thematic and chronologically-focused stories to provide context to the substantial amount of images.

The book covers many themes related to the war, including the home front, slavery, freedom, music, government, soldiers, material culture, and photography. Readers will find something for almost every possible topic related to the conflict within this book.

What stood out for me on this book was the beauty of it and its construction, as a fairly sturdy hardback book. The paper quality is excellent, with glossy paper that allows the images to pop off the page. Related to the great construction and printing, is the price, which is quite reasonable for a large hardback book, making it affordable for many interested in the war.

Through rich photography of items, coupled with informative and gripping stories and captions, this book will hopefully build interest in learning more about the Civil War well beyond the recent 150th anniversary commemorations. Younger readers will be able to access the book via the rich imagery, while adults can discuss with them the stories behind the photos, fostering learning.

The Smithsonian did an outstanding job with this book and I recommend it for all folks interested in the Civil War as one that should be on your wish list and eventually your shelf. Smithsonian Civil War is a glowing testimony to the expertise and quality of the Smithsonian’s commitment to preserving our nation’s history, including the Civil War. If you don’t have a chance to visit the physical museums in Washington, consider getting this book to allow you to take a virtual tour.

Interesting thoughts about Civil War manuscript collections

To my readers, I want to apologize for neglecting this blog for so long and not posting anything for almost a year. I have not left blogging and am not done with this site, but life’s been quite busy with teaching and trying to finish a dissertation, so my free writing time has been limited. That said, I want to thank you all for sticking it out with this site and hope you will come back, as I hope to get back into it a bit more in the near future. I am always willing to consider new topics to write about, so let me know.

That said, I want to tip my hat to Kevin Levin over at Civil War Memory for sharing this interesting article from the Gettysburg Compiler via Facebook. Written by Kevin Lavery, an undergraduate student at Gettysburg College, while part of their Civil War Institute, this article on manuscripts and the right to be forgotten from history really made me think.

As someone who has worked in a special collections department for over two years now, I deal with manuscripts of all types on a regular basis, including diaries and letters. These sources, as Mr. Lavery points out, are quite important to researchers, but the ethical dilemma he raises does hold some weight. Some of what he raises about historians’ responsibilities in dealing with unpublished sources is important, as we are dealing with another human being’s private conversation and while that individual may be dead, the intimacy of the words on the page do not lessen because of death. This means that such words must be treated with respect.

Does this mean that we should not use them to understand the past? Certainly not, but it does mean that we must strive to avoid what is termed presentism, or applying the standards of our time to those of the past. My mentor from my undergraduate days always used the example of one of your descendants picks up a letter you wrote describing eating a juicy steak and recoils in horror. Though a little tongue in cheek, his point was that we do not want to be judged based upon the standards and values of a time we are not familiar with, so we should not judge those who came before us by our standards because their time held different values than ours in some cases.

As I read such sources, I always try to see what such writings tell me about the past, but I am uncomfortable with the pseudo-psychological role that some scholars take when evaluating sources, as we can never fully understand what another human being felt during a given event, especially when recalling it in a later writing. One of the best examples would be the field of military history. In writing about warfare, a scholar, who happens to be a combat veteran may understand, to an extent, the gripping accounts of battle written by a soldier long ago, as they share the same broad experience of being in combat. Yet, the differences would be in the nature of that combat, the personality of the soldier involved that wrote the letter, diary, or memoir, as well as the societal norms of that period. Sherman’s generalization that “war is hell” is as accurate today as 150 years ago, but the nature of war has changed in many ways since then.

In the end, it seems that Mr. Lavery’s analysis would argue that we should let the authors of Civil War manuscripts speak for themselves and perhaps respect their privacy a bit by not delving into nuances regarding such writings. These men, and women, were writing to loved ones about an important event that was shaping their very lives, no more, no less. For them, it was a matter of staying in touch with home during a time when mail was slow and death could be quick. When faced with one’s mortality, even as a younger person, and with the technological limitations placed on your ability to communicate over great distances, the very soul of a man may be poured out on a piece of paper, in an effort to not leave something unsaid to those back home.

I welcome your thoughts on this interesting subject.

This Week in the Civil War: Sep 9-15, 1863

Wednesday, September 9.  General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland entered Chattanooga this morning. Rosecrans wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “Chattanooga is ours without a struggle and East Tennessee is free.” The Federals had conducted another brilliant campaign of maneuver with little loss of life.

General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee had reluctantly abandoned the prized city. Hoping to destroy Bragg’s army, Rosecrans immediately ordered a pursuit despite being deep in hostile territory. The Federals were also dangerously split into three columns, while Bragg much closer than expected.

President Jefferson Davis decided to send General James Longstreet’s Second Corps from the Army of Northern Virginia to reinforce Bragg. Because the Federals now occupied Cumberland Gap, Longstreet’s troops had to travel through the Carolinas and Georgia via Atlanta to get to Bragg.

In Charleston Harbor, a Federal flotilla attempting to land at Fort Sumter was repulsed with heavy losses. Sumter’s walls were crumbling from continued Federal artillery, but the defenders refused to surrender. Skirmishing occurred in the Indian Territory.

Thursday, September 10.  As Federal forces captured Fort Smith on Arkansas’s western border, the Federals threatened eastern Arkansas. Outnumbered, Confederate General Sterling Price evacuated the state capital of Little Rock and withdrew to Rockport and Arkadelphia. The Federals entered the capital unopposed and seized control of the Arkansas River. This threatened General Edmund Kirby Smith’s entire Confederate Trans-Mississippi District.

William Rosecrans’s Federals probed Confederate positions in Georgia below Chattanooga. James Longstreet’s Confederates began moving out of Virginia to reinforce Braxton Bragg. The Federal shelling of Fort Sumter temporarily ceased.

In North Carolina, Confederate soldiers destroyed the offices of the Raleigh Standard, a newspaper owned by pro-Union politician William W. Holden. Skirmishing occurred in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas.

Friday, September 11.  Reconnaissance and skirmishing continued between Rosecrans’s Federals and Bragg’s Confederates in northern Georgia. The Federals continued advancing on Confederate positions without knowing exactly where they were.

President Abraham Lincoln instructed Governor Andrew Johnson to organize a pro-Union government in Tennessee. Lincoln also met with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck to discuss the Charleston campaign. A Federal expedition began from La Grange, Tennessee to Corinth, Mississippi. Skirmishing occurred in West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

Saturday, September 12.  Federal probing of Confederate positions continued in northern Georgia. Skirmishing occurred in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Missouri, and Arkansas.

Sunday, September 13.  When James Longstreet’s corps was pulled from General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army and sent to reinforce Braxton Bragg, Lee was compelled to withdraw to the Rapidan River in northern Virginia. As a result, General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac moved from the Rappahannock River and occupied Culpeper Court House. Clashes took place at Brandy Station, Muddy Run, Stevenson, and other points.

General Ulysses S. Grant was ordered to send all available troops to aid William Rosecrans at Chattanooga. In Georgia, Braxton Bragg ordered a Confederate attack on Federal scouts, but the order was not carried out.

In South Carolina, Federal telegraphers were captured near Lowndes’ Mill on the Combahee River. In Mississippi, 20 Federal crewmen from U.S.S. Rattler were captured by Confederate cavalry while attending church services at Rodney. Skirmishing occurred in Missouri.

Monday, September 14.  Skirmishing continued between George G. Meade’s Federals and Robert E. Lee’s Confederates in northern Virginia. Other skirmishing occurred in West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana.

Tuesday, September 15.  Citing the existing “state of rebellion,” President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus throughout the North in cases where the Federal military or civil authorities held citizens in custody for suspected disloyalty. Lincoln also wrote to General-in-Chief Halleck that George G. Meade should attack Robert E. Lee immediately. Meade chose not to attack.

Federal expeditions began from Virginia, Missouri, and the New Mexico Territory. William Rosecrans and Braxton Bragg began concentrating their forces as various skirmishes took place in northern Georgia. Skirmishing also occurred in Virginia and Missouri.

Primary source: The Civil War Day by Day by E.B. Long and Barbara Long (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971)

This Week in the Civil War: Sep 2-8, 1863

Wednesday, September 2.  In eastern Tennessee, General Ambrose Burnside’s Federal Army of the Ohio entered Knoxville unopposed. The city had been virtually undefended, as most Confederates had left to join General Braxton Bragg at Chattanooga. The Federals were overwhelmingly welcomed by the predominantly pro-Union residents. The fall of Knoxville cut a key rail link between Chattanooga and Virginia, which forced Bragg to use a roundabout route through Georgia to supply his men.

In Charleston Harbor, the Federal bombardment lessened, but Federal troops entrenched themselves within 80 yards of Battery Wagner’s earthworks on Morris Island. The Alabama state legislature approved employing slaves in Confederate armies.

President Lincoln informed Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase that portions of Virginia and Louisiana could not be included under the Emancipation Proclamation because the “original proclamation has no constitutional or legal justification except as a military measure.”

A Federal expedition began from Martinsburg, West Virginia. Federal naval forces destroyed buildings and four small boats in a raid on Peace Creek, Florida. Skirmishing occurred in Virginia, as Federal cavalry destroyed two Confederate (formerly Federal) gunboats on the Rappahannock River.

Thursday, September 3.  A portion of General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland skirmished with Braxton Bragg’s Confederates in Georgia as part of Rosecrans’s campaign to capture Chattanooga.

Federal troops fought Indians in California’s Hoopa Valley and in the Dakota Territory. Federal military operations began in the Humboldt Military District of California. Federal guns began pounding Battery Wagner.

Friday, September 4.  In Tennessee, William S. Rosecrans’s Federals continued their advance on Chattanooga. The Federals crossed the Tennessee River at Bridgeport, Alabama and Shellmound, Tennessee, and began encircling the city. Confederate President Jefferson Davis urged Braxton to hold Chattanooga while trying to muster reinforcements.

Federal transports and supply ships left New Orleans, advancing toward the Texas-Louisiana coast at Sabine Pass. This was the first of several moves by General Nathaniel Banks’s Federal Army of the Gulf to capture important points in Texas, both as an offensive against Confederates and as a display of force to the French occupying Mexico.

Women looted food and supply stores in Mobile, Alabama while carrying signs reading “Bread or Blood” and “Bread and Peace.” Southern discontent with the economy and hardships of war were becoming more prominent in the press. Federals scouted from Cold Water Grove, Missouri, and from Fort Lyon, Colorado toward Fort Larned, Kansas. Skirmishing occurred in Arkansas, Missouri and West Virginia.

Saturday, September 5.  U.S. Minister Charles Francis Adams informed British Lord John Russell that if Confederate ironclads left the British shipyards, “it would be superfluous for me to point out to your Lordship that this is war.” Two ships known as the “Laird Rams” were under construction in British navy yards, ostensibly to be used by the Confederacy. Unbeknownst to Adams, Russell had previously ordered the ships detained at Birkenhead. The “Laird Rams” were not delivered to the Confederacy, and an international crisis was averted.

In Charleston Harbor, Federals edged closer to the earthworks surrounding Battery Wagner as Federal artillery continued firing. Confederates repulsed a Federal attack on Fort Gregg on the north end of Morris Island. The Charleston Mercury stated that President Davis “has lost the confidence of both the army and the people.”

Meanwhile, President Davis urgently asked Braxton Bragg, “What is your proposed plan of operation (at Chattanooga)? Can you ascertain intention of enemy?… can you not cut his line of communication and compel him to retreat for want of supplies?”

William S. Rosecrans’s Federals skirmished with Confederates in Alabama and Georgia. Federals also skirmished in eastern Tennessee as they moved in on Cumberland Gap from Knoxville. Skirmishing occurred in Arkansas, and Federals battled Indians in the Dakota Territory.

Sunday, September 6.  In Charleston Harbor, Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard evacuated Battery Wagner and Fort Gregg amidst the relentless Federal naval bombardment of the harbor forts. But Fort Sumter and Charleston held firm.

Monday, September 7.  In Charleston Harbor, Federals occupied Battery Wagner, which gave them a better position to fire upon Forts Sumter and Moultrie in the harbor.

Skirmishing occurred in Georgia, below Chattanooga. Other skirmishing occurred in Virginia, West Virginia, Missouri, and Kansas.

Tuesday, September 8.  In eastern Texas, a detachment of Federal transports and gunboats under General William Franklin occupied Sabine Pass and prepared to advance on Beaumont and Houston. The Confederates could muster only 47 defenders on the Sabine River, led by General John B. Magruder and Lieutenant Dick Dowling. Nevertheless, they destroyed a Federal gunboat from a nearby earthwork and forced the withdrawal of the remaining vessels. The humiliated Federals returned to New Orleans, while this small engagement greatly boosted Confederate morale in Texas.

In Charleston Harbor, Federal naval vessels bombarded the forts as the Federals prepared for a small-boat operation by night against Fort Sumter. William S. Rosecrans’s Federals skirmished in Alabama and Georgia. Other skirmishing occurred in Virginia, West Virginia, Louisiana, and the Arizona Territory.

President Davis informed General Robert E. Lee of the increasing threat to Braxton Bragg at Chattanooga; Davis said that he considered sending Lee west, but feared that Lee’s absence would demoralize the Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate Attorney General Thomas H. Watts resigned, having been elected governor of Alabama. He was replaced on an interim basis by Wade Keyes.

Primary Source: The Civil War Day by Day by E.B. Long and Barbara Long (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971)

This Week in the Civil War: Aug 26-Sep 1, 1863

Wednesday, August 26.  In Charleston Harbor, Federals captured Confederate rifle pits in front of Battery Wagner on Morris Island. Confederate President Jefferson Davis confirmed General P.G.T. Beauregard’s decision to hold Fort Sumter.

In a letter to the “Unconditional Union Men” in Springfield, Illinois, President Abraham Lincoln wrote, “I do not believe any compromise, embracing the maintenance of the Union, is now possible.” He added, “Peace does not appear so distant as it did.”

Former U.S. Secretary of War and Confederate General John B. Floyd died in Virginia. In West Virginia, heavy skirmishing occurred among William Averell’s Federals at Rock Gap. Skirmishing occurred in Virginia, Arkansas, and the Indian Territory.

Thursday, August 27President Davis expressed concern about increased Federal pressure on both Charleston and Chattanooga. Skirmishing occurred in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

Friday, August 28Federals conducted expeditions from Stevenson, Alabama to Trenton, Georgia, and from Lexington to various counties in Missouri. Skirmishing occurred in Virginia and Tennessee.

Saturday, August 29.  In Charleston Harbor, the experimental Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley sank during a test run, killing the five crewmen aboard.

In Tennessee, General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland moved slowly but decisively south of Chattanooga in an effort to capture the city by flanking it. The city was defended by General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee.

In the New Mexico Territory, Federal skirmishing increased with Navajo Indians. Skirmishing occurred in Missouri and Alabama.

Sunday, August 30In Charleston Harbor, Federal batteries inflicted heavy damage on Fort Sumter, as Confederate continued digging guns from the fort’s rubble and transferring them to Charleston.

A Federal expedition began toward Chattanooga, and another expedition operated around Leesburg, Virginia. In Arkansas, skirmishing occurred as Federal forces continued their campaign to capture the state capital at Little Rock.

Monday, August 31 Skirmishing occurred in Tennessee, Alabama, and Kansas.

Tuesday, September 1.  The Federal military occupation of Missouri expanded into Arkansas, as Federal forces captured Fort Smith on Arkansas’s western border. Meanwhile, Federals also threatened eastern Arkansas and the state capital of Little Rock.

In Charleston Harbor, Federal artillery hammered Battery Wagner and Fort Sumter; the firing of 627 rounds ended the second phase of the bombardment. Sumter was in ruins, but its Confederate garrison refused to surrender.

In Tennessee, William Rosecrans’s Federals crossed the Tennessee River as they edged closer Braxton Bragg’s Confederates at Chattanooga. The crossing was largely unopposed, with minor skirmishing taking place in northern Alabama. President Davis told Tennessee Governor Isham G. Harris that reinforcements and arms were being sent to Bragg in Chattanooga.

Skirmishing occurred in various points of northern Virginia. Federals began moving from Natchez, Mississippi to Harrisonburg, Louisiana. Federal expeditions began from Paducah, Kentucky into Tennessee.

Primary Source: The Civil War Day by Day by E.B. Long and Barbara Long (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971)