Lord, Have Mercy on This Land of Mine

I don’t know what most folks look for when they travel, but as a historian, one of the most interesting intersections to me in all of America is in Alabama: a circle called Court Square, at the center of downtown Montgomery. It is not a particularly commanding visual, and it holds some of the greatest horrors of the American past in its cobblestones. But as a relic of the layers of American history, all crowded into one tiny little space, it’s hard to beat.

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Ironic Points of Light

Several months ago, I had a fascinating conversation with an archivist in New Ulm, Minnesota. I had gone out for the day to review some documents surrounding New Ulm’s World War history – a heavily German town, they had suffered intense discrimination during both World Wars, a story reflected in the town’s monuments. But what New Ulm is famous for in Minnesota history comes earlier: in 1862, the town was besieged as part of the US-Dakota War, a war waged by Dakota people against white settlers for their violation of land treaties. In the same year that the Battle of Antietam handed us the single bloodiest day of combat in US history, it is a war not often minded outside of Minnesota, but it is one that deeply marked the state’s history. The hanging of 38 Dakota prisoners as punishment for the insurrection remains the largest single-day mass execution in U.S. history, and the Dakota people were banished from the state. The attack on New Ulm, meanwhile, was commemorated in a painting that was hung in the Minnesota State Capitol in 1923. It remained for nearly one hundred years, until it was removed in 2016.

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