“History Through the Veil Again”: A Response to Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

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13 thoughts on ““History Through the Veil Again”: A Response to Ta-Nehisi Coates

  1. Rob Wick

    Kevin,
    This is why I have pretty well stopped going to Civil War discussion boards, which seem top-heavy with neo-Confederates and Lost Causers intent on spreading their “heritage” nonsense and the silly notion that the Confederacy wasn’t fighting to preserve slavery. After a while, I finally was physically tired of reading it. If that can happen to me–a white man who hasn’t experienced the trials and tribulations of growing up black–I can begin to understand how those like Coates would feel when they are in such a place like Petersburg. And I must add that I like his point about the Confederate remembrances. It’s all too true.

    Best
    Rob

    Reply
  2. Chris Meekins

    Optimistically I would say that we remain fortunate that the landscape, both intellectual and physical, is still open for interpretation – waysides can help fill both voids but I would dearly love to see a movement for monuments for USCT, dedicated by the entire community. Commemoration is the very essence of the chance to educate and we settle for something less than full if we fail to seize the initiative and act on that chance. What a watershed the 150th could be if every US battlefield or park, where appropriate, dedicated a monument.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Chris,

      I couldn’t agree with you more. There is a monument to USCTs at Petersburg, but it is located at one of the earlier stops where USCTs were more successful in some of the earlier Union attacks against the city’s defenses. Still, I would love to see a monument at the Crater site.

      Reply
  3. Mike

    Mr. Coats needs to call his national NAACP chapter and tell them instead of wasting money over weither the Battle Flag flys on the SC Captial Grounds on a Confederate Monument they should be like us who honor our hallowed dead by giving money to build monuments to service for a cause we hold was right.

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  4. Adam Arenson

    Very nice reflection.

    I’ve been working on an essay on the efforts of the National Park Service and others to bring the concerns “beyond the battlefield,” in Frederick Douglass’s phrase and David Blight’s usage — slavery, gender, civilian experiences, social history — back to the battlefield. I think sesquicentennial commemorations and new exhibits will work best when they engage these larger concerns while documenting how they were expressed on the battlefields.

    Kevin, as you have discussed, Chandra Manning’s book and the new Gettysburg visitor center seem to be leading in this direction.

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  5. Peter

    Kevin,
    I think Mike maybe offers the most perceptive reading of Coates’s piece, or at least what I take his meaning as, shorn of its more insulting aspects.
    This part of Coates’s writing strikes me as the argumentative heart of the article:
    “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.”
    And of course the final line: “We have the material out there. We’ve got to start honoring it. ” It would seem to me, at least, that in light of these statements, whatever the NPS does in the way of interpretation is beside the point.

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  6. Kevin Levin Post author

    Peter,

    It’s an excellent point and one that hopefully comes through in the post. Clearly, we are at the point where action is possible along the lines outlined by Coates. I have no doubt that a monument to USCTs could be organized at the Crater with little difficulty. Other projects abound.

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  7. Peter

    Of course a monument to the USCT is possible, but I took Coates’s “we” in the contexts I cited in terms of the African-American community, rather than America as a whole (“half is honoring _our_ history”). So while NPS may have taken great strides to correct “mythology,” the difficulty with installing a truly meaningful monument to the USCT would have to involve motivation within the African-American community. So, yes, the NPS and scholars have reached out to the African-American community, but I think Coates points out that more than “a step or two” on their part is needed, as you point out. But obviously, we aren’t yet at the point where a monument to USCT could be organized and I see Coates’s post as a call for action in that direction.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Peter,

      I meant to say that I think it is possible for the African American community to organize for the purpose of a USCT monument. In that sense I also agree with Mike that the NAACP should stop wasting their time with the flag issue.

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  8. johnny

    Do you not know what the cause was? SOUTHERN INDEPENDENCE! My ancestors were confederate soldiers, they owned no slaves. They fought for independence from the north. I have a right to be proud of the sacrifices my family gave for thier homeland. I am not going to say that slavery wasn’t the core issue but there were other issues too. In the past years an agenda has been pushed by several groups to wipe out reminders of the Confederacy and to villify everything connected to it. History is never just black and white but several shades of gray. My shade of gray is confederate gray, yours may be union blue. If you are upset there is no markers for black troops fine do something about it instead of running your mouth, I will gladly give some money toward a monument for them, I think all soldiers brave enough to fight should have a monument no matter thier color or allegience. Do not belittle my ancestors and I will not belittle yours.

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