13 October 2012

Corruption & Politicizing The Civil War

Reader and world famous balladeer, David Corbett, recently shared this with me:

Federal prosecutors and FBI agents in Washington have launched a new criminal investigation of Illinois Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. involving alleged financial improprieties, including possible misuse of funds monitored by Congress, law enforcement sources tell NBC News.
More here.

This reminded me of some more details about Congressman Jackson, brought to us by OVB faithful reader and world renowned Civil War blogger Kevin Levin regarding Jackson's legislation politicizing the WBTS at our Nation's Civil War battlefields and parks. Of course, the Civil War Trust got in line as well. (More on that to come in a later post - that ain't gonna be purty.) As Kevin pointed out in his original post:

Many read the initial bill as falling squarely within Jackson’s own political and social agenda, and his language as emphasized in italics clearly worried many that he was calling for a drastic change and/or supplanting of any discussion of what happened on the battlefield.  His opening remarks at the 2000 Civil War symposium sponsored by the NPS and  held at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. highlights his political agenda and further alienated those that were already feeling defensive.  "Only with the appropriate interpretation of these historical events–of the Civil War–,"argued Jackson, "can those Americans ever arrive at the right to a more perfect union through health care, through education, and through housing."

Is is possible that pols like Jackson often take their cues on politicizing the WBTS from historians like David Blight:

Why doesn't the Confederacy just fade away? Is it because we are irresistibly fascinated by catastrophic loss? Or is it something else? Is it because the Confederacy is to this day the greatest conservative resistance to federal authority in American history?

The Civil War is not only not over, it can still be lost. As the sesquicentennial ensues in publishing and conferences and on television and countless websites, one can hope that we will pursue matters of legacy and memory with one eye on the past and the other acutely on the present. 

But just remember - with these folks, it's really not history, it's sociology and politics. They're really no different than the heritage crowd whom they so often impugn - just a different perspective with federal support. Interesting how history repeats (and reveals), isn't it? Let's see - a corrupt congressman from Illinois, doing the old bait and switch routine on the causes of the Civil War - oh, the irony and poetic justice of it all.


kindredblood said...

So are you saying Richard, is that at no point during my visit to Gettysburg or Fredericksburg that I should not have the opportunity to understand why two massive armies are at these places. Should I just chalk it up to the old lost cause interpretation of states rights and big government?


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

This was not the policy of the NPS until Jesse Jackson, Jr., motivated by his politics, legislated it. He admits it.

"Should I just chalk it up to the old lost cause interpretation of states rights and big government?"

Is Blight a "lost-causer"?

kindredblood said...

If it had been someone other than Jesse Jackson Jr. would this be more acceptable?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Like . . . David Blight maybe? Why don't you quit beating around the bush and just say what you mean.

kindredblood said...


I was actually not beating around any bush. I was curious if it was a dislike of JJ Jr. or if you disagree with the addition of the interpretations of the causes of the war at the battle sites.

But sure, lets say Blight called for it...I am sure you would disagree. But lets take it one step farther, what if the Battlefield guides requested more discussion of the causes because the public kept asking them why the armies were in Gettysburg...what would you say than?


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"a dislike of JJ Jr."

Has nothing to do with it.

"if you disagree with the addition of the interpretations of the causes of the war at the battle sites."

Yes, unless the various interpretations and causes were presented fairly and in a balanced fashion. Since, in our current environment, that's almost impossible, then the status quo should have prevailed. But, let's not forget, Jackson clearly states his motivation for emphasizing slavery was purely political. He does us all both a disservice and a favor - a favor in revealing what's really behind that "interpretation."

"lets say Blight called for it.."

We don't have to "say" it, he's done it.

"what if the Battlefield guides"

"What if" is pointless, but as I said, the status quo was probably the best route. Beyond that, presenting the various interpretations and perspective would be in order. Jackson (and most academic historians) don't want that.

But, again, let's stay on point. This was purely a political move as Jackson himself revealed, thus our sacred battlefields have been politicized by a corrupt politician.

Corey Meyer said...


I think Kevin reads your blog...

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Well of course - you'd think he'd give me credit, wouldn't you?

Corey Meyer said...

The problem is that you are claiming that JJ Jr. politicized something that was going on within the NPS long before he passed his legislation.

Let me pose this question...Why did you write your book on Gen. Jackson?


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

So you don't take Jr. at his word? Nonsense. He specifically admitted it. Whether or not it was already going on is moot. He codified it.

My book is not a battlefield financed with tax dollars.

Corey Meyer said...

Why don't you just come out and say it...you don't think the war had anything to do with slavery and you despise those who have done the leg work to prove that it has.

As for your book, you wrote it to tell a certain side of Jackson. Why should be be worried about knoiwng that? We know he was a General in the confederate army and fought at such and such battle and was accidentally killed by his own troops. Why do we need to know he broke the law and taught blacks to read?

Your book is out there for those interested in the story to read...just as the cause of the war are presented at the battlefields for those who want to know about it. It is not forced on the public but is addressed if asked about or if they seek it out in the visitors center.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"you don't think the war had anything to do with slavery"

And you're lying. I don't believe that and I've never said it.

"As for your book, you wrote it to tell a certain side of Jackson."

That's correct, but the duties of NPS guides should NOT be to tell a CERTAIN side of anything.

Private authors and government paid guides and financed parks are quite different.

Kevin said...


Yes, I read Richard's blog for a number of reasons. This post reminded me of my previous post on the subject and thought it was worth re-posting. Jackson has very little to do with recent changes in the NPS. In the case of the Petersburg National Battlefield the changes envisioned by Jackson began to take shape as early as the 1980s. Nothing was "codified" by the Rally symposium and legislation.

My question is why do you insist on harassing Richard? Has Richard ever suggested that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery? Can you point to a passage?

Is this how you expect your students to engage others?

Kevin at Civil War Memory

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin - thanks for chiming in. And, as I've noted before, I regularly read your blog as well and learn from it, even though we rarely agree.

Though I understand the NPS changes were already in motion prior to Jr.'s legislation, I nonetheless believe they're related. That being said, I'm not sure I understand you denying the legislation didn't codify this. You may be better informed than I am on the subject, but it was my understanding that Jackson's legislation tied funding to the issue. It's been a while since I actually read all the details so, again, you may be more up to speed on it than I am.

I've always believed that slavery was central to the WBTS, I just thing it's misleading to say "slavery caused the war." Though I know you disagree, I believe that over-simplifies a complicated subject. Moreover, that typically leads to a morality play, i.e. "North good, South bad."

See: http://oldvirginiablog.blogspot.com/2012/02/challenging-simplistic-view-of-wbts.html


Kevin said...

Glad to see my comment went through. I was having trouble with confirming my identity.

You might be right about the funding, but I also have to go back and look at the wording. In that sense it would be codified as you pointed out, but as I said, these interpretive changes were already in the works.

I don't think we are far off in our conceptualizing of slavery's importance. In the end, I believe that it was the issue (broadly understood) that drove the two regions apart and served as the backdrop of secession in 1860-61.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kevin - rather than "reinvent the wheel", I'd direct readers to this essay by Doug Harper:


Harper's perspective on this issue (as expressed in that essay) probably best reflects my own views on the topic, (in as much as one article written by someone else can express the views of another.)

It's been on my "Must Reads" page for quite a while. Thanks again for commenting.

Corey Meyer said...


My use of Richard writing a book about Jackson was to underscore the idea that the book was written to expand our knowledge of Jackson just as the NPS was trying to expand our knowledge of the war by including the issue of slavery.

Sure it has been politicized by JJ Jr. and others, but what do you expect? The cause(s) of the war seem to be a still hot topic in this country.

I was not trying to harass Richard at all, I was simply asking questions and making comments...I thought that is what we did on these blogs. I asked Richard if he would have approved of the new laws if it had been someone other than JJ Jr....it was not a racially charged question. JJ Jr. politicized the issue, had it not been a political figure calling for the legislation would that have changed Richard's mind on the issue.

Also, Richard asked me to play nice in a previous exchange and I thought I was doing just that...

And no, this is not how I teach my students. What I do here and in the classroom are usually divided.

So Richard, if I am harassing you please let me know and I will no longer comment on OVB.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Bring it on.