The latest post by Ta-Nehisis Coates beautifully captures the frustrations that many African Americans experience when visiting America’s Civil War battlefields and specifically those places where African Americans participated. A recent visit to the Petersburg battlefields, including the Crater, by Coates and his children highlights the continued challenges facing museums, the National Park Service, and other historical organizations in working toward a narrative that acknowledges the contributions of African Americans and situates the Civil War within the broader history of freedom and race. When you take a moment to step back it is shocking to think that a war that resulted in the end of slavery and emancipation of 4 million people would be remembered in a way that divorced the descendants of those very people from being able to fully engage and consume the historic sites from that struggle. And yet, that is where we are on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Before proceeding here are a few passages from Coates’s post:
For me, it was all history through the veil, yet again. I felt robbed of something–like I couldn’t see Petersburg, the way I might see Pearl Harbor, that I was more like a Jew surveying the cemetery at Normandy. The group asked questions, mostly concerned with tactics and strategic errors, which the ranger dutifully answered. It was like listening to a doctor discuss with great interest and curiosity, your grandmother’s cancerous tumors. This is why I can never be a Civil War buff. I am not fascinated. I am compelled. I would turn away, if I could.
And at the Crater:
Our last stop was at the Crater, that great union debacle, where colored troops were fish in a barrel. There were Confederate monuments aplenty, all noting the valor of those fighting, none noting precisely what they were fighting for. I felt the old anger, but only for a few seconds, before a new anger replaced it. Every one of those monuments was paid for by the Sons or Daughters of the Confederacy. There was no monument to the colored troops who died there, and for that I felt blame. The Lost Cause is, to be sure, mythology. And yet I’ve come to a point of respect for its authors, for their understanding, perverted as it may be, that they must honor their heroes, that they can’t wait on others to do it for them. It’s a lesson we could take to heart. Half of the battle is correcting their mythology, the other half is honoring our own history.
Coates’s distinction between being “fascinated” and “compelled” by the war is quite telling. The former reminds me of a previous post in which I suggested that the attraction for many Civil War buffs is one of entertainment. The obsession with battlefield tactics and troop movements allows one to observe the war from a safe distance and avoid the more messy and divisive questions of causes and consequences. Why is it difficult for Coates to turn away? Perhaps it is the awareness that places such as the Crater help those like Coates to make sense of their identity as black Americans as well as their place within the broader African American community and the nation as a whole. Our curiosity and connection with the past should help us to bridge the divide between self and other[s]. Unfortunately, Coates reminds us of the long-term consequences of a national memory of the war that has all but divorced black Americans from the history and memory of the war. Coates is correct that there is no monument to the sacrifices of the black men who served in the Fourth Division of the Ninth Corps and who managed to make some of the furthest advances of any Union division that participated in the battle. And Coates is correct in observing the significance of the narration at the end of the NPS’s movie at Petersburg on the fall of Petersburg: “Appomattox is only a week away.” It’s a relic of a deeply-embedded meme that centers the Petersburg campaign and the war in general around the nobility of Southern armies and the inevitability of Confederate defeat. Imagine the effect on visitors if the focus were on the end of fighting and its connection with the end of slavery and emancipation. Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Appomattox had far-reaching consequences that clearly matter to Coates and ought to matter to all Americans.
What I can say with confidence in response to Coates’s thoughtful post is that landscape of Civil War memory has shifted dramatically over the past few decades even if it is difficult to see after a short visit. The NPS at Petersburg and elsewhere has expanded its interpretation and programs to cover a much broader swath of Civil War history. [A visit to the new museum at Gettysburg is a perfect place to begin.] You can see it in the planning and early programs of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial programs. Even a cursory glance of recent Civil War titles reflects a reading public that now has an appetite for more sophisticated studies, including a brand new book on the Crater that focuses a great deal on the USCTs and race. including a recent flurry of popular Reconstruction titles. I don’t want to exaggerate these changes, but it is hard to deny that perceptions have not shifted. I could go on and point out a host of other examples, but the point is made.
Unfortunately, even with all of the changes that are currently being implemented we have a long way to go. My greatest fear is that these changes will fail to be acknowledged by the African American community. There is still a great deal of mistrust between the Civil War and African American communities. I’ve heard from a number of people in the museum field and NPS who have reached out to the black community with little success. This is not meant as a condemnation in any sense since these emotions exercise a great deal of control. Still, it does not negate the fact that the black community will have to take a step or two to help further the process along. That said, even most white Americans who claim to be intersted in the Civil War for whatever reason fail to come to terms with its importance to our broader history. I sometimes think that our colorful stories of Lee and Lincoln are more of a threat to our sense of national identity as no memory or connection with the war. We would all do well to take a step back.