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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And They Shall Beat Their Swords into Plowshares

Being as I spend most of my time looking at World War I memorials, I sometimes forget that Veterans Day, for most Americans, is the kind of federal holiday where you have to stop and think about why the library is closed and you aren’t getting any mail. There are still ceremonies if you know where to look for them (usually, at the town war memorials); there are often articles about veterans in the daily newspapers; Google has made a Doodle about it, but it does not command the public attention it once did. In the interwar years, Americans gathered yearly in long parades and large public gatherings to honor the dead of World War I. They did this even though Armistice Day was not made a federal holiday until 1938. In 1954, the holiday was renamed Veterans Day, to honor veterans of all wars.

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The Light of Autumn

The light has changed;
middle C is tuned darker now.
And the songs of morning sound over-rehearsed.

This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring.
The light of autumn: You will not be spared.

Louise Glück, “October

Several weeks ago, exploring Minneapolis’s Lakewood Cemetery on a hunt for war memorials, I stumbled across the grave of a 5-year-old girl.

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The Past Still Needs Us

“I want to wander. But the past still needs me.
How could I ever leave?”
– Hua Xi, The Past Still Needs Me

A sentiment I have heard more and more in recent years from confused and weary liberals is the bitter sense that Lincoln made a grave mistake in keeping the Union together. Why bother? Why not let the South just go? I was first asked this question just after the 2016 election, but I get it more these days, both from my students and from folks who would be pretty happy creating a United Republic of the East and West Coasts and calling it a day. Let them have kept their slaves. Let them have their guns and their backward lives. Leave us out of it.

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Abandoning the ‘War’ on COVID

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Sometime this month or next, the United States will hit a once-unimaginable milestone: one million dead from coronavirus. When that happens, the reaction from many will be muted. Americans are exhausted, most agree, and they are ready to put the pandemic behind them, whether or not the pandemic is done with them. We have hit so many milestones by now that these numbers appear almost meaningless to us. What makes one million more unimaginable than any of the rest of them?

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Somewhere in the first weeks of the pandemic, a knot settled in my chest. It falls in the middle of my sternum, some physical manifestation of grief and stress and whatever else we have all shouldered these past twenty months. It ebbs and it flows, but it has settled between my ribs and made its home there. In doing so, it has become my most constant companion over the last year and a half, with me through every loss and setback, every step forward.

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