If You Fight it All Over Again They Will Come

A good friend of mine and a very talented local historian fired off an email in response to Viola Baskerville's editorial on Virginia's plans to commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  It was a thoughtful response which I wanted to respond to on the blog:

What about the military historians? What about the literally tens of thousands of people who, hopefully, will be coming to Virginia just to do what Ms. Baskerville says they shouldn't—revisit & expand their understanding of the many bloody battles? Also, I really don't believe the commission will encourage people to "step away from the . . . military strategy" but will instead urge people to "come to Virginia to see where most of the war was fought."

First, I think it goes without saying that the majority of people who travel to Virginia will be doing so to see one of the many wonderful battlefields from the Shenandoah Valley to Petersburg.  For most Americans the Civil War is simply a series of battles which took place over a four year period and I think it is this that Baskerville was responding to.  There will be every opportunity for those visitors that are looking to tramp along a battlefield for the first or up-teenth time.  No doubt, scores of reenactments will take place during the sesquicentennial and the National Park Service will step up to the plate and offer a wide range of battlefield tours for those interested.  As an adviser for the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission it is my hope that we can help to broaden our understanding of the causes, the battles, and the consequences of the war that we are still grappling with today.

Given that our popular perceptions of the war revolve around battles and leaders it seems to me that the commission's focus and resources should be on these broader issues from the reaction of Virginians to John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry and the role of slavery in the state to the way the war affected the home front to the consequences of defeat and Reconstruction.  I don't believe that this implies ignoring the battlefield at all; in fact, I believe that it enhances our understanding of what happened on those bloody fields and why.  That said, given the centrality of the battlefield in our popular imagination it is difficult to see how tweaking our explanations of where "Stonewall" Jackson was shot at Chancellorsville or the location of a specific regiment during the battle is as important as some of these bigger issues, which are less known.  I hope the commission continues to work to bring the best in recent Civil War scholarship to as wide an audience as possible and focuses specifically on providing resources for our classrooms.  We have already arranged to hold a series of panels, beginning with John Brown's Raid and proceeding into Reconstruction, which will involve some of the top scholars in the field.  A comprehensive film, under the direction of James. I. Robertson, will be made available to every history classroom in the state.  As someone who teaches a semester-long elective on the Civil War and requires students to spend an entire day on a Virginia battlefield I devote just as much time discussing tactics as I do the broader issues.  When we travel to Chancellorsville I discuss the Chancellor family and their slaves, the motivations of the men who fought there, and national politics.

I can see how Baskerville's editorial might leave the impression that Virginia's Sesquicentennial will be battlefield-free, but this is not the case at all.  We want to ensure that Virginians have the opportunity to think about the war from multiple perspectives.  This stands in sharp contrast with a Civil War Centennial which highlighted a relatively narrow range of themes that had everything to do with the state of scholarship and a commitment to white political control along with a complimentary national memory.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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