Yesterday, I briefly touched on some of my concerns surrounding a commemorative talk that I am scheduled to deliver in December for the anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Part of the reason I find it so difficult to commemorate a Civil War battle has to do with my tendency to interpret the war years as extending much further than 1865. In fact, the framework that I work with follows closely with the recent interpretation by Vernon Burton, in his sweeping survey of the nineteenth century, The Age of Lincoln. Burton views the period as ending with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which severly limited the freedoms and civil rights of African Americans. By then most Southern state constitutions had been rewritten to legally enforce and legitimize white supremacy.
Our tendency to distinguish between the Civil War and Reconstruction obscures the fact that fundamental questions of freedom, national identity, and citizenship were left unanswered. According to Burton:
At stake during the Civil War was the very existence of the United States. The bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War posed in a crucial way what clearly became persistent themes in American history: the character of the nation and the fate of African Americans (writ large the place of minorities in a democracy, the very meaning of pluralism). Consequently, scholars have been vitally interested in the Civil War, searching out clues therein for the identity of America. But if the identity of America is in the Civil War, the meaning of America and what we have become is found in Reconstruction, and the Civil War cannot be separated from Reconstruction any more than the sectional conflict can be separated from the war. (“Is There Anything Left To Be Said About Abraham Lincoln?, Historically Speaking, [September/October 2008] p. 6)
Rather than acknowledging the war years as part of a larger sweep of history and push toward greater freedoms we have reduced it to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the symbolism of national reunion; implied in this perspective is the view that the meaning or significance of the battles themselves can be found in the extent to which they contributed to this outcome.
This is a mistake. In recent years historians have explored Reconstruction, both politically and militarily, with an emphasis on the level of violence that persisted after the war by paramilitary units throughout the South. As someone who has spent a great deal of time researching and writing about the battle of the Crater it is fairly easy to draw connections from July 1864 to the street battles in New Orleans as well as the Colfax Massacre. On a related note, our view of Civil War soldiers as apolitical lends itself to this tendency to isolate the Civil War from the more divisive political questions of Reconstruction. It allows us to focus on those battlefield virtues that connected the soldiers on both sides even as we ignore the intense disagreements that help us to explain why they were fighting to begin with. We can no longer ignore the fact that soldiers on both sides closely followed the news and debated issues of slavery and race. My recent foray into the world of Confederate demobilization following Appomattox has only served to reinforce my belief that Lee’s men did not return home having left the political and social implications of defeat behind. I recently learned that in South Carolina men applied for the state’s Confederate pension even though they were too young to have served in the Confederate army. This little tidbit suggests that from the perspective of the State of South Carolina, the Civil War was not yet over.
For those of us interested in memory, commemoration, and the continued relevance of the Civil War we ought to take South Carolina’s pension policy seriously. It offers one among many ways to better understand the place of the Civil War within the nineteenth century and the struggle for greater civil liberties for blacks, women, and later the “common man”, as expressed in the Populist Movement, which Burton notes came to an end as a party in 1896.
It may be difficult to see how a commemorative talk is possible given such a perspective, but it seems to me that it allows for a more meaningful reflection on the relevancy of the Civil War. The loss of civil rights for most black Americans by the end of the nineteenth century was not inevitable; in fact, there were significant achievements on the grassroots level and beyond throughout the country, including the South. There is no need to filter this history into an overly simplistic morality play. The Supreme Court did indeed strike down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in 1883 and in Hurtado v. California (1884), but this did not prevent states in the Midwest, such as Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Nebraska, from passing their own civil rights statutes. And in the South, while white southerners continued to resist black civil rights by joining paramiliatary organizations and the Ku Klux Klan, others, such as William Mahone, James Longstreet, P.G. T. Beauregard, and John S. Mosby championed black rights. Former Virginia Governor Henry Wise’s son, also a Confederate officer, became a prominent civil rights attorney by the early twentieth century.
I guess my point is that we do not have to run away from history when we commemorate it. In fact, it is only through embracing it, in all of its complexity, that we truly do justice to the sacrifices, achievements, and yes, failures, of our forebears. So how does the battle of Fredericksburg, fought on the eve of emancipation, fit into this broader sweep of American history?