American Historical Association Abstract

I just finished my presentation for the AHA meeting in Philadelphia in two weeks. The paper reflects the beginning stages of the final section of my Crater manuscript. The paper examines the 1903 and 1937 Crater reenactments. In addition to my paper, Christopher Bates will present a paper on the culture of reenacting today. Professor Gregory Urwin of Temple University will serve as commentator. I recently discovered that he enjoys reenacting and even appeared in the movie Glory. The panel should be a real whoot. Here is an overview of the paper:

“Landscapes and the Lost Cause: An Analysis of the 1903 and 1937 Crater Reenactments”

Over the past few years, historians such as David Blight, Fitzhugh Brundage, and David Goldfield have led the way in explaining the process by which national reconciliation came to shape the way the nation understood its Civil War at the turn of the twentieth century. In Blight’s view the veterans on both sides of the
Potomac chose to assign the deepest meaning of the war to the heroism and valor of the soldiers on the battlefield. The shared experiences of soldierhood was a theme that could bring former enemies together peacefully on old battlefields. The forging of bonds of valor between one-time enemies, however, required that questions surrounding emancipation and race be ignored. According to Blight, the success of what he calls the “white supremacist legacy” of the war over the “emancipationist legacy” guaranteed that the role of African Americans in the Civil war would be minimized to the point of non-recognition.

Battlefields played a crucial role in providing a landscape on which veterans of both sides could shape their preferred interpretations of the Civil War. Reenactments, reunions, and other commemorations that took place on the South’s battlefields allowed for the shaping of a public memory that not only promoted Lost Cause principles, but turned African Americans into what historian David Goldfield describes as “ghosts”, or “figments of white perceptions.” Understanding how public spaces such as battlefields came to be interpreted—as they were transformed into National Military Parks—and the consequences of that interpretation sheds light on the creation and maintenance of public memory.

While the emphasis on veterans’ reunions and postwar reminiscences reveal a great deal about the evolution of public memory surrounding Civil War battlefields in general, such an analysis remains limited in respect to more specific sites. The Battle of the Crater is a case in point. I argue that the reenactments of 1903 and 1937 go much further to explaining the gradual disappearance of African Americans from the public memory of this battle compared with more popular forms of commemoration such as reunions and monument dedications. Both celebrations occurred at important junctures, the former at a time when Virginia’s state legislature was instituting Jim Crow legislation, and the latter, which marked the beginning of the National Park Service’s oversight of the landscape. While reunions that took place on the Crater battlefield following the war received widespread coverage in both northern and southern newspapers, participation by the general public was limited. In addition to widespread media coverage, reenactments were viewed by tens of thousands of spectators. Audiences were not simply witnesses to a casual recreation of a Civil War battle, but played an integral role in attaching the landscape with a specific meaning that implied defense in the face of alternative interpretations.

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