This is the second in my series of “Best of” posts that will be shared throughout November in recognition of the four-year anniversary of this blog. The following post appeared on March 23, 2006 and is titled “Why the Civil War Matters”. This post was formally presented at my school as part of the 2006 Virginia Festival of the Book and is one of my favorite pieces of writing.
Americans were exuberant in 1961 at the prospect of the upcoming Civil War Centennial celebrations. It was a chance to unfurl Confederate battle flags and ponder the character and heroism of such iconic figures as Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Families could watch as re-enactors brought to life memorable battles such as First Manassas and Gettysburg where lessons could be taught about the common bonds of bravery and patriotism that animated the men on both sides. There would be no enemies on the battlefields of the 1960’s.
Even as Americans geared up for celebration problems festered just below the surface. The decision of the Civil War Centennial Commission to hold its first ceremony in the southern city of Charleston, South Carolina in April 1961 raised the problem of how black delegates would be able to take part given the continued practice of segregation in local hotels. Even the intervention of President Kennedy (in office for only two months) and an attempt at compromise could not stop New Jersey, New York, California, and Illinois from protesting the opening ceremony. As much as white Americans wanted to celebrate and remember their preferred interpretation of the war, the continued problem of race and the ongoing Civil Rights struggle served as a reminder that not all was well. Indeed, the images of Lee and Jackson were being challenged on a daily basis by the names of Martin L. King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till and news of school desegregation, lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Riders.
The Civil Rights Movement presented a challenge for centennial event organizers and participants. It not only challenged the country’s self-proclaimed status as the leader of the free world at the height of the Cold War, but pointed out serious problems and omissions in the way Americans chose to remember their Civil War. These challenges pointed to the extent to which Americans had engaged in a collective act of amnesia in reference to their memory of the Civil War. The most salient omission was the almost complete absence of racial issues such as the role of slavery as a cause of secession, emancipation, and the presence of roughly 200,000 African Americans who fought for the Union. The Southern poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren already understood that “Slavery looms up mountainously” in the Civil War narrative “and cannot be talked away.” Comments such as the one made by a reporter from the Richmond Afro-American, that “the Union might not have been saved but for the sacrifices made by colored soldiers” had become even more prevalent by 1963. While events continued into 1965 the crowds were smaller and their enthusiasm diminished as both domestic and foreign issues took center stage. In the end Confederate flags had been unfurled, but they now stood atop Southern state capital buildings not simply as symbol of “Massive Resistance,” but also as a defense of a past that had come under increasing attack.
The extent of the assault must have surprised many white Americans and particularly white Southerners. After all, they enjoyed a history that had changed little since the turn of the century. Most Americans and particularly white Southerners had adopted elements of what came to be known as the “Lost Cause” interpretation of the war, which emphasized states’ rights as a justification and explanation for secession and the bravery of their Confederate chieftains such as Lee and Jackson. Nowhere in this view did slavery or emancipation appear. That white Southerners sought to distance themselves from such divisive issues in a post-emancipationist world is understandable, but the eventual success or pervasiveness of this sanitized view by the turn of the century needed compliance from the rest of the nation. While many northerners were in no mood to forgive and forget in 1865 by the mid-1870’s Republicans began doubting their ability to use the arm of the federal government to enforce black civil rights and the rest of their Reconstruction agenda. At the same time and increasingly in the 1880’s the first reunions between Confederate and Union veterans on the old battlefields furthered the country’s longing for reconciliation and reunion.
African Americans understood clearly that reunion among white Americans threatened their own political gains. More importantly, reunion meant being further removed from the national memory of the war, including the significance of emancipation and the contributions of black men to saving the Union. Perhaps the most eloquent spokesman within the black community was none other than Frederick Douglass. Douglass’s rich life, which straddled both the antebellum and post-bellum worlds, brings the looming threat of national amnesia and a return to racial injustice into sharp focus. From “stealing his body” into the North to working in abolitionist societies to pushing President Lincoln towards emancipation and the recruitment of black soldiers, Douglass understood more than anyone else what was at stake. During his 1883 speech in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the twenty-first anniversary of emancipation in the District, Douglass admonished his audience to acknowledge the importance of memory: “As the war for the Union recedes into the past and the negro is no longer needed to assault forts and stop rebel bullets, he is in some sense of less importance. Peace with the old master class has been war for the negro. As the one has risen the other has fallen.” Douglass understood that memory of slavery, emancipation and the Reconstruction Amendments reminded white Americans of old wounds and threatened to aggravate any lingering sectional bitterness.
Douglass’s death just one year prior to the 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson allowed him to see first-hand just how accurate his fears and predictions proved to be. Perhaps one can live too long. The continued pull of reunion, the introduction of Jim Crow legislation, and the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898 succeeded in turning much of the nation into a segregated society which sought to recreate the racial hierarchy of the antebellum world. It is absolutely essential to note that history and politics worked hand-in-hand to achieve these ends. The gradual removal of African Americans from the national historical narrative of the Civil War justified segregation and the goal of segregation worked to encourage a white-only history.
There are plenty of examples of this, but let me cite one related to my ongoing research of how the memory and commemoration of one particular Civil War battle was used to justify Virginia’s Jim Crow policies and the removal of black Americans from the nation’s collective memory. The Battle of the Crater, which took place on July 30, 1864 was the first time that Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was forced to fight a division of black Union soldiers (USCT). The battlefield was shaped by the early-morning detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate position which created a horrific scene and left a massive crater through which the Union attackers moved. The disorganized nature of the attack and Confederate outrage at the sight of armed black men resulted in a heightened level of intensity and violence within the crater. Multiple after-action reports confirm stories of the execution of black soldiers by their Confederate captors and the placement of some back into slavery. My own survey of the letters and diaries of Lee’s men in the days following the battle reveals just how important the presence of black soldiers was to their understanding of the battle. In short, their presence served to remind Lee’s men of just what was at stake if the Confederacy failed in its bid for independence – nothing less than a complete overturning of their antebellum world.
Roughly forty years later Virginians commemorated the battle in Petersburg by staging a reenactment that involved still living Confederate veterans. In front of an audience numbering 20,000 the aged veterans charged the crater and engaged in mock fighting for close to thirty minutes. Absent from the days proceedings were any references to the presence of black soldiers on the battlefield or in the speeches that connected a younger generation with the heroism of their fathers and grandfathers and the glory of their cause. Event organizers did include one famous African American for the day’s events and it turned out to be “Stonewall” Jackson’s personal servant. A reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch recalled that he “wore the gray of the Confederate soldier, and carried his army canteen. . . . Frequently he was cheered.” Given the steps that the Virginia legislature was taking to rewrite its state constitution which barred the majority of the state’s black population from voting and its passing of Jim Crow legislation it is not surprising that the only black presence on the battlefield was one that supported the state’s racial hierarchy. A more accurate depiction of their role on the battlefield would have served to remind the local black population of the steps taken to save the Union and bring about their own freedom and civil rights. By 1900 history served to reinforce racial stereotypes, white supremacy, and solidify national reunion.
While African Americans continued to celebrate a history steeped in emancipation the price of the nation’s historical amnesia was devastating. One can find no better example of this than in the preface to Edward Johnson’s book, A School History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1890 published in 1890. I quote at length in deference to a fellow teacher whose words continue to remind me of my own ethical responsibilities to properly teach those issues and groups that have been intentionally ignored for racial or other discriminatory reasons:
“During my experience of eleven years as a teacher, I have often felt that the children of the race ought to study some work that would give them a little information on the many brave deeds and noble characters of their own race. I have often observed the sin of omission and commission on the part of white authors, most of whom seem to have written exclusively for white children, and studiously left out the many creditable deeds of the Negro. The general tone of most of the histories taught in our schools has been that of the inferiority of the Negro, whether actually said in so many words, or left to be implied from the highest laudation of the deeds of one race to the complete exclusion of those of the other. It must, indeed, be a stimulus to any people to be able to refer to their ancestors as distinguished in deeds of valor, and peculiarly so to the colored people. But how must the little colored child feel when he has completed the assigned course of U. S. History and in it found not one word of credit, not one word of favorable comment for even one among the millions of his foreparents who have lived through nearly three centuries of his country’s history! The Negro is hardly given a passing notice in many of the histories taught in the schools; he is credited with no heritage of valor; he is mentioned only as a slave, while true historical records prove him to have been among the most patriotic of patriots, among the bravest of soldiers, and constantly a God-fearing, faithful producer of the nation’s wealth. Though a slave to this government, his was the first blood shed in its defense in those days when a foreign foe threatened its destruction. In each of the American wars the Negro was faithful — yes, faithful to a land not his own in point of rights and freedom, but, indeed, a land that, after he had shouldered his musket to defend, rewarded him with a renewed term of slavery. Patriotism and valor under such circumstances possess a peculiar merit and beauty. But such is the truth of history; and may I not hope that the study of this little work by the boys and girls of the race will inspire in them a new self-respect and confidence. Much, of course, will depend on you, dear teachers, into whose hands I hope to place this book. By your efforts and those of the children, you are to teach, from the truth of history, that complexions do not govern patriotism, valor and sterling integrity.”
Unfortunately, Johnson’s voice occupied a small space within the public sphere in 1890.
Much has changed within the historical profession and in race relations, but as we approach the Civil War sesquicentennial celebrations beginning in 2011there is reason to be concerned. While academic and National Park Service historians have worked tirelessly over the past four decades to revise our understanding of the Civil War by emphasizing the importance of slavery, race, and emancipation as central themes of the war the general public continues to hold onto a sanitized, white-only interpretation. From this perspective little has changed since the turn of the last century when reconciliation elevated Civil War soldiers and the war in general to a status that called for reverence and little critical questioning. Just think how surprised Americans were at the release of the movie Glory in 1989, which starred Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman and recalled the history of the 54th Massachusetts.
I dare say that Americans love to remember their past when they can set the terms of the inquiry. We prefer a heroic past that is continually progressive and exceptional compared to the rest of the world. Just reflect for a moment on the way we think about our Civil War compared with news of civil wars from around the world. For most people the news of foreign civil wars conjures up images of confusion, sadness, corruption, uncertainty, and violence. Individuals and causes are rarely viewed as heroic or the product of benevolent design. No, foreign civil wars are reflective of the failure of governments and of the individuals who occupy high positions of power. We may see these nations and societies as the victims of a corrupt past void of democratic tendencies. For many it no doubt confirms American Exceptionalism. Whatever the case, civil wars are events that happen elsewhere and to others. I point this out to draw a sharp contrast with the way many Americans interpret our own Civil War. If you peel away the celebratory layers you will see that it has a great deal in common with the way we view civil wars elsewhere. It is the celebration of the war which troubles me because it seems to me that our gut reaction to foreign civil wars is a much more appropriate stance. Where is the confusion, uncertainty, violence, and sadness in our Civil War? I see the Civil War as a humbling event that serves as a reminder of the fragility of governments and the depths of violence that we all too often reach. I agree with the late historian William Gienapp that the “outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such the Civil War constituted the greatest failure of American democracy.” I wish more people would approach the study of the Civil War from this perspective.
Most Civil War enthusiasts prefer a more entertaining or playful version of the war. I’ve seen it at Civil War Roundtables whose audiences hope for nothing more than the same tired stories about the same short list of characters. It’s that little chuckle in the audience after the speaker strikes some sentimental chord that irks me. I see it in casual discussions when the person I am talking to finds out I teach a class on the Civil War and says: “Let me share a story your students will love.” And yes you can see it in the coffee mugs, t-shirts, towels, and bumper stickers and in movies such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. What bothers me is the casualness of it all. W.E.B. Dubois warned against using history simply “for our pleasure and amusement, for inflating our national ego.”
My main point today is very simple: The Civil War still matters because as a nation we have yet to take it seriously. We’ve turned the war into a celebration of our collective imagination that emphasizes values that are deemed safe by white Americans. We choose to celebrate military leaders without coming to terms with the fundamental social changes that their actions wrought. And we reflect on the minutia of the battlefield completely divorced from their causes and their consequences. As the story goes, battlefields are places where white Americans sacrificed for values of equal worth–no blame, no guilt, no right or wrong. Messiness is rarely tolerated in these circles. Safer to debate whether J.E.B. Stuart, or this or that brigade were responsible for Confederate defeat at Gettysburg or any other battle than the controversy surrounding the recruitment of black soldiers and other divisive issue related to race.
As we approach the Sesquicentennial celebrations the question of how Americans remember their Civil War will be fought on many of its most famous battlefields. In 2000 the National Park Service began the process of reevaluating the interpretation of its Civil War battlefields and judged that it had fallen short in its coverage of the role of slavery and race. Southern Heritage groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans responded in a strongly defensive tone in the pages of their official organ, the Southern Messenger: “The present politically correct conventional wisdom is that the War Between the States was fought over slavery, period; that therefore all things Confederate are tainted by a tacit endorsement of slavery or its latter-day counterpart, “racism,” and therefore those who venerate them are racists.” While the language of the SCV betrays a loose logic, their concerns are reflective of a deep-seated desire on the part of many to resist clouding their preferred narrative of the war with issues of race.
I see our Civil War battlefields as ideal locations to discuss complex issues of race. On battlefields such as the Crater in Petersburg it is absolutely essential that one does so. If we are going to take the Civil War seriously we have to learn to put aside what we have traditionally been comfortable examining; in short, we have to be willing to get a little dirty. Battles were not simply slugfests between mindless pawns manipulated by disinterested generals. The evolution of the war brought about an end to slavery and the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union army. Soldiers argued about slavery and race and many came to see on both sides of the Potomac that the war would eventually bring an end to the nation’s “peculiar institution.” We do a disservice to history if we do not acknowledge the centrality of race in our Civil War.
In closing let me leave you with a more immediate concern, one that I care deeply about and that animates my current research. I’ve spent countless hours walking the Crater battlefield trying as best as I can to piece together the events of that bloody day and also events that took place there many years later. Unfortunately, the Crater and other Civil War sites are not visited by significant numbers of black Americans. One black visitor to Gettysburg in 1999 had this to say: “When you’re black, the great battlefield holds mixed messages.” I find this state of affairs all the more troubling because I understand all too well the process by which they were cut off from any meaningful connection with these and other places that played a central role not just in the history of this nation, but the evolution of black freedom as well. Part of the process of writing about Civil War memory is to suggest what was possible. The study of the past is about acknowledging contingency. Our memory of the Civil War could have evolved in any number of ways. That it did evolve in a certain way serves to remind us of how important it is to step back on occasion and ask who is being served and who is being left out and why. My hope is that as we gear up to remember the Civil War as a nation that we take the opportunity to use our battlefields as well as scholarship to craft a more inclusive history that honors all who fought and how the founding principles that we hold so dear were brought closer to fruition.