Q&A with the Symposium Speakers: Thomas Brown

By John Coski
Historian

Ahead of our 2017 Symposium: Lightning Rods for Controversy, we asked the lecturers why it is important to study Civil War monuments and how they got started studying them. 

Thomas J. Brown is professor of history at the University of South Carolina. He earned his B.A., J.D., and Ph.D. from Harvard University.  He is the author and editor of numerous works, including American Eras: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877 (1997), Dorothea Dix, New England Reformer (1998), Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, (2001), The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History with Documents (2004), Reconstructions: New Perspectives on the Postbellum United States (2006), City of the Silent: The Charlestonians of Magnolia Cemetery, by Ted Ashton Phillips, Jr. (2010), Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (2011), and Civil War Canon: Sites of Confederate Memory in South Carolina (2015). He was an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer from 2004-2013. 

Why study monuments?

Monuments invite study for a lot of reasons and from a lot of angles. I am especially interested in the ways in which commemoration distills a negotiation among many participants. Monument advocacy, funding, site decisions, design, and dedication ceremonies offer implications that sometimes reinforce each other and sometimes compete. This process of giving meaning to the monument can continue after the dedication with public uses, literary or artistic invocations, and I like to think, original scholarship.

How did you start studying monuments?

I grew up mostly in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. My family spent a lot of Sunday afternoons sight-seeing. The major monuments of the capital were an important backdrop of my youth, and my sisters and I loved discovering the more tucked-away statues to historical figures who we usually considered obscure. I felt confident that I knew the code of equestrian statuary by which the placement of the horse’s feet supposedly revealed by hero’s fate in battle. When I became a historian I enjoyed working on a topic that brought back pleasant remembrances of those early days. I learned that I had been wrong about many things, but I again felt engaged with the civic landscape.

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