Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free: An Analysis

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

The National Park Service recently released a new interpretive video titled Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free, which focuses on the experiences of both black and white Virginians in the Fredericksburg area during the Civil War.  The production is another example of the NPS’s efforts to broaden their interpretation of Civil War battlefields to acknowledge the importance of the civilian perspective as well as the role of emancipation and race.  I invited historian John Hennessy who is currently employed as the Chief of Interpretation for the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and the script’s author to share his thoughts about the movie.  Mr. Hennessy was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the movie for review.  Feedback is of course welcome, especially from those who have seen the movie. 

John Hennessy

Dominantly, we did the civilian film because the story is important.  The transformation of this war (from the Union perspective) from a relatively straightforward effort to re-assemble the Union in 1861 into a consumptive conflagration intended to restore the Union by transforming the nature of it is, I believe, the single most important thematic link between all Civil War sites.  Every site has something to say and stories to tell about that transformation.  Fredericksburg has more to tell than most.  With four battles spanning 18 months; with a town bombarded and looted; with civilians fleeing as refugees into he countryside; with thousands of slaves refusing to await emancipation, and instead seizing freedom themselves; with a landscape desolated not just by battle, but by the mere presence of armies; with changing Union attitudes toward the concept of a Hard War; with a local economy that suffered wartime damage enough to require nearly a century to recover; with the loss of life that vividly reflects the immense human cost of this war; with leaders struggling to adapt to a changing war, and to reckon with the political implications of every victory or misstep–the story we can tell goes miles beyond pure military science or military history.  There is hardly place in America where a visitor can get a better understanding of this war in all its manifestations, and in all its consequences, as it evolved from relatively simple to profoundly complex and significant.

Our primary purpose in making the film is to do good history–to begin th process of showing that what the armies did reverberated beyond the bound of their camps and colleagues in uniform.   We wanted to show that different people often perceived the same event in entirely different ways (for example, the traditional monolithic interpretation that "Fredericksburg" was horrified by the arrival of the Union army in 1862 is simply not  true; slaves–literally half the population in this region–saw the Union army in VERY different terms than did white residents; for them, the Union army meant not horror, but opportunity).  We wanted to illustrate, by using Fredericksburg as an example, that the Civil War transformed not in abstract, legalistic ways, but in physical, financial, and cultural ways, and that the impact of the war still reverberates (though I think we were not as successful on this last point as we should have been).

How has it been received?  Very positively, largely.  The most common negative comment is that it focuses too much on slavery.  A few have suggested that we were just being politically correct by addressing slavery.  About one-third of the film addresses the experiences of slaves and the significance of that experience.  Objectively–given that the civilian population in the region was almost exactly 50% slave–spending just one-third of the film addressing slavery is too little, not too much. But, in the context of a society often instructed that slaves and slaver were not and are not an integral part of the Civil War story, it’s not surprising that even the quantitatively inadequate treatment in the film strikes some as too much.

In our visitor center, where we show the film once a day (we show it regularly at Chatham), the staff has noted that visitors just don’t seem to expect or be prepared for something that doesn’t focus on the battles themselves.  Again, that’s not surprising given our long tradition of focusing only on military history.  I think over time and even decades, part of our goal should be to increase visitors’ expectations so that something of this sort doesn’t surprise them…..

There have been a few rumbles that we shouldn’t be doing this sort of interpretation at all–that we should confine ourselves solely to the military story, as we have for decades.  The reasons for that are well-discussed on this board, and I don’t think I need to elaborate on them.  I can only say, again, that our commitment is to doing good history, and to me that means untangling all the impacts and meanings of the events and sites we’re charged with interpreting.  In that context, it seems to me, the civilian story is unarguably an important part of our story, one that’s both important to tell and well worth hearing.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, the civilian film has brought to the surface some fear that the NPS is going to overawe our traditional, battle-oriented interpretation with abstract forays into social history, cultural meanings, and modern relevance.  That’s silly. The civilian film hasn’t replaced a thing.  It’s an addition to our program, delivered with an eye toward according MORE significance to the battles fought here rather than less. We have not and will not diminish our commitment to telling the story of the battles this park was founded to interpret–that’s our job. But we will, I hope, constantly plow new historical ground that reveals the full impact and importance of those events.  Both good history and historical justice demand it.

Kevin M. Levin

One of the central themes of this blog has been to challenge the way we think about our Civil War.  As we approach the sesquicentennial it is safe to conclude that we are still wedded to an interpretation that treats the war as part of a broader narrative of American Exceptionalism or as an arena where the virtues of courage and steadfastness were practiced by men on both sides.  From this perspective little has changed in how we view the war over the last one hundred years.  According to this view our Civil War is something to celebrate rather than explore by continually asking new questions.  Slavery and emancipation play almost no role since it forces us to address the tough questions of what caused the war, how the war evolved, and its short- and long-term consequences.  No, better to keep our attention on the battlefields where such messiness can be avoided. 

The battle of Fredericksburg is the paradigm example of this tendency.  We tend to see the December 1862 battle as a slug-fest where men on both sides were slaughtered and where Robert E. Lee could utter his famous line about the horrors of war.  Visitors to the battlefield walk the path along the Stone Wall and Maryes Heights, but probably think little about the civilians caught in the middle or the timing of the battle which was situated between the release of Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and its execution on January 1, 1863.  The war was changing in profound ways that few could have predicted at the beginning, but given our prejudices for a narrow conception of the battlefield one would never know it.  If we look at the battle at all from the civilian perspective it is as a white Southerner who viewed the occupation of the town as a terrible tragedy.  What is missed, of course, is the slave perspective which interpreted the movements of Union soldiers not as "Yankee hordes", but as liberators. 

This broader perspective on the significance of Fredericksburg is nothing new for professional historians.  Recent social and cultural histories have opened up new areas of research and have enriched the way we think about individual campaigns and battles.  Unfortunately, there is a gulf between the kinds of questions that professional historians analyze and most Civil War enthusiasts who have an insatiable thirst for the minutiae of the battlefield and who – for any number of reasons – have an interest in maintaining a traditional interpretation of the war.  Over the past few years this debate has taken place on the very battlefields of the war and in the offices of the National Park Service.  As many of you know the NPS is now re-interpreting many of its Civil War sites to include references of civilian life as well as the touchy issues of race, slavery, and emancipation.  [My recent trip to Appomattox Court House is but one example.] 

The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park’s contribution to this trend is a new interpretive video titled Virginians Desolate, Virginians Free which looks at the war in the Fredericksburg area from the civilian perspectives of white Southerners and slaves.  What emerges is an incredibly rich account of how the war, and the battle specifically, altered life in the area in ways that few could have predicted.  The movie is rooted in the words of the participants themselves, which challenges the criticism that this "new" approach to doing history is simply a product of liberal or post-modern theory emanating from the academy. 

The wide-range of primary sources brings to life such unknown figures as the slave John Washington who eventually escaped as the Union army approached the town, as well as Dabney H. Maury, Fanny White, and Mary C. Knox who struggled through the hardships of occupation and the destruction of their homes; most importantly they struggled to understand and accept the end of slavery.  One of the strongest scenes takes place following the battle and involves a Union soldier escorting a slave family off their owner’s property and to freedom.  The woman of the house rushes to the family and pleads for them not to abandon her and the family.  The scene goes far in suggesting how little white Southerners understood their slave’s desire for freedom.  As Washington noted, "…life had a new joy awaiting me."    The message underlying the movie is clear: Only by focusing on the slave perspective can the real significance of military operations in 1862 be more clearly understood. 

Southern white woman are also featured prominently in this movie.  The war mobilized the entire Fredericksburg community and its woman are shown meeting to discuss how best to support the soldiers in the ranks.  Woman are also depicted as ardent supporters of the Confederate cause through their bitter hatred of "Yankee" soldiers.  One young woman noted in her diary, "They little no the hatred in our hearts."  Even towards the end of the war the civilians of Fredericksburg remained defiant and convinced that "with God we will be victorious."  Such a stance reinforces recent interpretations that white Southerners remained committed to the Confederacy until the very end and that defeat did not bring about a smooth reconciliation with the North.

The production staff for this movie should be congratulated for creating an entertaining and educational look at those groups and themes that have long been ignored at our Civil War battlefields.  As John Hennessy noted in his commentary, there will always be critics.  What we need to remember is that the Civil War does not belong to any one group.  Our job as historians is to continue to explore the difficult questions and find ways to share those insights with the general public.  I applaud the National Park Service and particularly the staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park for their efforts.

Click here for a schedule and location

Click here for a review from the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star.

3 responses... add one

Kevin

I have just seen the movie this past weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. Since I live in the Fredericksburg area, it has helped round out my understanding of the experience of the local population during the war. A question it raised with me is, what was the composition of the escaping slaves during the period. I am not sure there is any statistical study for this, but it would seem to stand to reason that most of the slaves running away to the Union lines would probably have been single males, or married males who were seperated from their families (as shown in the movie of the husband being sold to another owner). Married slaves, or mothers with children might not risk the trip unless the Union lines were very close, or actually occupying the area. The movie certainly address the issue of whether or not a slave would automatically leave, and I imagine for each individual the pros and cons of leaving wieghed heavily on what from our perspective is a no brainer.

“how little white Southerners understood their slave’s desire for freedom”

Do you think the Northerners understood the slave’s desires any better? I wonder if the men on both sides thought of anything other than “will we be victorious?” and “will I live through the day?”. Am I right in thinking that emancipation was overwhelmingly more of a punitive measure against the South rather than any desire to be liberator?

Can you interpret what is meant by this line, “The transformation of this war (from the Union perspective) from a relatively straightforward effort to re-assemble the Union in 1861 into a consumptive conflagration intended to restore the Union by transforming the nature of it”? What would the Confederate perspective be? Did their perspective “transform”?

How do we judge and interpret any story regarding the voice of the population when written accounts depend on who took up the pen, which accounts survived, and which accounts are chosen to be publicized? It may be the best we have, but I wonder how accurate and representative it is?

Thanks,
Jim

Jim, — I think you have to keep in mind the purpose of this documentary. It was created by the NPS to explore the experiences of black and white residents of Fredericksbury and Spotsylvania County during the Civil War. Your question re: whether Northerners understood the desires of slaves is interesting, but a separate issue altogether from the two reviews. As to the line about the “transformation” of the war I would interpret it as a straight-forward overview of how the war did change owing to the progress of the war and events on the ground involving fugitive slaves.

Your final thought is something that every historian working in the archives and with limited evidence must deal with.

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