Technology, History, and Travel

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Stonewall Jackson statue, Richmond.

The Strange Case of the Bronze Confederates

Two weeks ago, workers in New Orleans dismantled a monument that had originally been erected in 1891 to celebrate the fight of white supremacist vigilantes against the city’s police forces during Reconstruction (1865-77). The workers were acting on a December 2015 city council resolution that this monument be removed, along with statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis. Although the city council was overwhelmingly in favor of removing the monuments—the vote was six to one—a minority of the city’s population was strongly opposed to removal. To protect themselves against violent reprisal, the workers removing the monument wore bulletproof vests, helmets, and masks.

Like New Orleans, most major southern cities have monuments to the failed Confederate States of America and its defeated leaders. Although they represent the Civil War (1861-65), these monuments belong to a later period, as they were built after the war’s end and reflect the concerns of the time when they were built.

Monuments built in the first fifteen years after the war were funereal (gravestone-like), usually obelisks with urns or drapes. The symbolism of the monuments, many of which were located in cemeteries for war dead, represented a sense of grief for the great numbers of men lost in battle.1

It was only after 1880, when the horrors of battle receded a little in the collective southern memory, that monumental memorials to the Confederacy began to appear. New Orleans completed its monument to General Lee—now slated for demolition—in 1884. In Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, city leaders developed a new street for Confederate statues, Monument Avenue. Richmond’s own Lee monument was dedicated in 1890, and a busy (I would say ugly) memorial to Jefferson Davis in 1907. The Davis memorial was the last major Confederate monument built in the South.2

Before 1880, Confederate monuments commemorated grief and loss; after 1880, they boasted of heroism and moral rectitude. What changed in the last two decades of the nineteenth century was that the South adopted the ideology of the Lost Cause, which claimed that even though the Confederacy had lost the war, it had acted justly and with honor. This ideology was accepted by a North jaded about industrialization and beset by labor unrest and endless crises in its capitalistic economy. In doing so, the North also accepted white supremacy, a decision that continues to haunt the nation more than a century later.3

Confederate monuments have been caught up in the controversies of our own day. Two years ago, after a white supremacist murdered nine members of a Bible study group at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, activists graffitied “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on monuments in several southern cities. The Jefferson Davis memorial in Richmond was one that got the spray can treatment. The monument vandalisms were part of a general rejection of Confederate imagery by much of the South’s white population, in reaction to the shocking mass-murder at the church. At the same time, Confederate flags disappeared from public monuments, the shelves of WalMart, and many private residences.

This newfound willingness to reinterpret the Confederate past—especially as it was reimagined decades after the war—is a good thing, and I only wish it hadn’t taken such an appalling crime to bring it about. As for the Confederate flags, good riddance, I say. The use of the Confederate flag to represent the South only dates back to the 1960s, when it was deployed in opposition to Civil Rights activists—so it really is a racist symbol.

The New Orleans city council also made the right decision to dismantle its Confederate monuments. The Confederacy only has a weak claim on New Orleans, because the city spent three-quarters of the war under Union occupation.

Other cities may make similar decisions, and they too may be making the right call. But when it comes to most Confederate monuments, I would not be in favor of demolition. Demolishing the monuments would amount to an attempt to erase the past, which we shouldn’t try to do lest we forget it. Instead, we should change how we remember the past. Rather than destroying monuments we now find distasteful, we should reinterpret them with interpretive signage, plaques, or even extensions to the monument that subvert the original white supremacist message. Some of the monuments can be moved to museums, but others should be left where they are, because it is easy to ignore things in museums, and harder to ignore what is in the middle of the street or in front of the statehouse.

  1. Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 41. []
  2. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy, 91, 100-102, 158. []
  3. Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 4. []

Why good science needs good history

Yesterday was Earth Day, and to commemorate the event, scientists across the United States turned out in force to protest the Trump administration’s proposed cuts in science funding and professed hostility toward climate science. The main March for Science was in Washington, DC, but there were hundreds of other demonstrations in cities across the country, including a sizable one in Los Angeles, which I attended.

My reasons for attending the march were part conviction, part curiosity. I wanted to show support for funding scientific research, and I wanted to see what a pro-science protest looked like. I didn’t have any illusions that this single protest would save research funding. Marchers can’t cause change, especially if they come from outside, participate in the protest, and then leave (as many people did for, say, the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, and as I did yesterday in LA). Activists, whose day job is organizing communities and placing pressure on political leaders, can cause real change—sometimes. But most people, even those with good intentions, can’t afford to become activists.

With these reservations, I went to Los Angeles and marched, without a protest sign, from Pershing Square to City Hall. Thousands and thousands of other people were there too—some scientists, many obviously not; some carrying signs or wearing costumes, others not. From time to time, someone would start a call-response chant in the crowd. My favorite went like this:

What do we want?


When do we want it?

After peer review!

The poor meter and overall nerdiness of this chant made it seem particularly appropriate for the setting.

The March for Science had been organized on the premise that science is real and should be trusted. This theme appeared in the speeches delivered before the march in Pershing Square, as well as many of the marchers’ signs. Almost all the rhetoric I saw or heard at the march portrayed science only in a positive light, an interpretation that eighteenth-century European Enlightenment thinkers would have appreciated—before World War I, the atomic bomb, and all that. I did see one sign warning that much evil had been done in the name of science too.

For all the rhetoric about how the United States government needs to fund and pay attention to good science, I was disappointed to encounter a considerable amount of bad history at the march. Galileo Galilei was held up (literally, in the case of at least one sign) as a brave champion of science against the oppressive Catholic Church. This characterization of Galileo is well-known, but in fact the Catholic Church was early-modern Europe’s biggest funder of scientific research. The Gregorian Calendar, the modern international standard, was developed based on measurements taken in solar observatories built inside Italian cathedrals. (There is a good, if dense, book about the Catholic Church and astronomy: The Sun in the Church, by J.L. Heilbronn.)

I made mental notes of signs that annoyed me. The sign I hated the most said this:


This is so false, I don’t even know where to start. Assuming this is referring to the European Dark Ages (and not some other dark age like the one that occurred in Greece between the archaic and classical periods), this sign is an outrageous abuse of history. The European Dark Ages, which took place roughly between the years 500 and 1000, were a result of the collapse of the political order in western Europe after the fall of the western Roman Empire. With no unifying imperial power in place any more, Europe broke up into countless tiny kingdoms with largely self-contained economies and little trade or communication between them. Even the larger kingdoms formed during this period, such as France or the Holy Roman Empire, remained internally divided between the jurisdictions of local lords. There was much less literature and scholarship produced in Europe during the Dark Ages than there had been during the Roman Empire, but this was a result of economic collapse, not anti-scientific sentiment. And at any rate, the science defended by the March for Science did not exist in the Middle Ages; empirical, experimental science originated in Europe in the seventeenth century.

The March for Science was not all bad history. There was plenty of good history there too; it just didn’t catch my eye like the abuses did. But for me the lesson of the march was this: If you are going to start a movement defending facts, then you should check the facts you are using first. If the facts are outside your discipline, then ask an expert for his or her opinion. I can’t speak for all historians, but I for one would be happy to advise scientists about history.

View of Vienna from Stephansdom.

From fortress to boulevard

The most picturesque part of Vienna, a city known for its beauty, is Ringstrasse, the Ring Road that encircles the oldest part of the city. The broad, attractive road wraps around three sides of the historic city center, with the Danube River closing the loop to the north. Many of the city’s most important cultural and civic buildings line Ringstrasse, including the opera house, Rathaus (town hall), the Austrian parliament, and an assortment of museums and libraries.

Ringstrasse is a legacy of the Austrian Empire, when Vienna was the capital of a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire eight times the size of Austria today. Emperor Franz Josef, who reigned from 1848 to 1916, spearheaded the development and beautification of his capital city early in his reign. In 1857, he authorized the most dramatic change to the city: demolishing the old defensive works to make room for Ringstrasse and the buildings alongside it.

But what were these defensive works that made way for Ringstrasse? When I first learned about Ringstrasse on a wonderful but brief visit to Vienna eleven years ago, I had the impression that they were medieval walls, made of stone. This didn’t really make sense to me, though, because medieval walls, such as those that still stand in Rothenburg, do not take up much space—not nearly as much as Ringstrasse and the neighboring buildings. In fact, Vienna had been defended by early-modern fortifications. The city’s medieval walls had been torn down and rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to defend against the Ottoman Turks. A large open area in front of the defensive works, known as the glacis, was kept clear to offer a clear field of fire. The buildings of Ringstrasse were constructed on the land that had been kept open for the glacis.

Early-modern defensive works had a low profile and a large footprint. Consisting mostly of large earthen berms, the fortifications were designed to defend against the offensive weapon of the age: the smooth-bore cannon. The earthworks absorbed the impact of cannonballs, which could easily shatter stone defenses. These early-modern defenses were in vogue until the introduction of rifled-bore artillery, which made its debut in the American Civil War.

Many (but not all) early modern-fortifications had triangular projections at regular intervals along the berms or walls—the origin of the nickname “star fort.” The projections allowed soldiers standing on them to shoot at attackers from either side, trapping them in enfilading fire. An 1858 map of Vienna, drawn before the old defenses were demolished, shows triangular projections at regular intervals along the wall.

Another city that once had early-modern fortifications, but does no longer, is Frankfurt. The German city’s approach to using the land freed up by the demolition of the defenses was different from Vienna’s. The land once occupied by Frankfurt’s defenses is now taken up by a park that wraps around the historic city center. Even some of the triangular star-fort projections have been converted into parkland. They are visible on modern maps of the city—a telltale sign that this park was once an early-modern fortification.


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