This week I will be working with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers as part of a Teaching American History workshop on the Civil War and historical memory. This time around I am teamed up with historian, W. Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina, who will take care of the morning session with a lecture that provides an overview of some of the major themes of postwar narratives of the Civil War. My job is to provide teachers with a foundation of content and skills that can inform the way they teach history.
I have a two-hour slot in which to work so my plan is to divide the time between two activities. During the first hour I am going to introduce the group to documents related to the recent debate in Virginia surrounding Confederate History Month. No doubt most of these teachers will be familiar with the controversy, but this activity should give them a chance to think further about many of the points made in Brundage’s opening lecture. I recently completed a lesson in my Civil War Memory class in which we analyzed the very same documents; the lesson concluded with students writing their own proclamation. The results were quite interesting and perhaps at some point I will share a few excerpts.
The next lesson will explore the question of who won the Civil War through a close reading of a collection of primary sources. I teach the Civil War and Reconstruction as part of the same unit and I try to provide as smooth a transition between the two as possible. In other words, I want my students to see the period following 1865 as an extension of a war that raised fundamental questions about the place of African Americans within this nation. In doing so, we move beyond the overly simplistic image of Appomattox as a symbol of reunion and even reconciliation. The challenge of how the nation would be reconstructed raises the obvious question of whose vision of reconstruction would prevail and within what particular time frame. I ask my students to think about these questions to reinforce the importance of acknowledging perspective and the open-ended nature of certain historical questions. Here is a taste of the kinds of documents that we will explore together.
Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881)
Though slavery was abolished, the wrongs of my people were not ended. Though they were not slaves they were not yet quite free. No man can be truly free whose liberty is dependent upon the thought, feeling, and action of others; and who has himself no means in his own hands for guarding, protecting, defending, and maintaining that liberty. Yet the negro after his emancipation was precisely in this state of destitution.
The law on the side of freedom is of great advantage only where there is power to make that law respected. I know no class of my fellowmen, however just, enlightened, and humane, which can be wisely and safely trusted absolutely, with the liberties of any other class. Protestants are excellent people, but it would not be wise for Catholics to depend entirely upon them to look after their rights and interests. Catholics are a pretty good sort of people (though there is a soul-shuddering history behind them), yet no enlightened Protestants would commit their liberty to their care and keeping.
And yet the government had left the freedmen in a worse condition than either of these. It felt that it had done enough for him. It had made him free, and henceforth he must make his own way in the world, or as the slang phrase has it, “Root, pig, or die”; yet he had none of the conditions for self-preservation or self-protection. He was free from the individual master, but the slave of society. He had neither property, money, nor friends. He was free from the old plantation, but he had nothing but the dusty road under his feet. He was free from the old quarter that once gave him shelter, but a slave to the rains of summer and the frosts of winter. He was in a word literally turned loose naked, hungry, and destitute to the open sky.
The first feeling towards him by the old master classes, was full of bitterness and wrath. They resented his emancipation as an act of hostility towards them, and since they could not punish the emancipator, they felt like punishing the object which that act had emancipated. Hence they drove him off the old plantation, and told him he was no longer wanted there. They not only hated him because he had been freed as a punishment to them, but because they felt that they had been robbed of his labor.
An element of greater bitterness still came into their hearts: the freedman had been the friend of the Government, and many of his class had borne arms against them during the war. The thought of paying cash for labor that they could formerly extort by the lash did not in anywise improve their disposition to the emancipated slave, or improve his own condition. Now, since poverty has, and can have no chance against wealth, the landless against the land owner, the ignorant against the intelligent, the freedman was powerless. He had nothing left him but a slavery-distorted and diseased body, and lame and twisted. limbs with which to fight the battle of life.
Susie Taylor King, Reminiscences of My Life: With the 33rd United States Colored Troops (1903)
Living here in Boston where the black man is given equal justice, I must say a word on the general treatment of my race, both North and South, in this twentieth century. I wonder if our white fellow men realize the true sense or meaning of brotherhood? For two hundred years we had toiled for them; the war of 1861 came and was ended, and we thought our race was forever freed from bondage, and that the two races could live in unity with each other, but when we read almost every day of what is being done to my race by some whites in the South, I sometimes ask, “Was the war in vain? Has it brought freedom, in the full sense of the word, or has it not made our condition more hopeless?
In this “land of the free” we are burned, tortured, and denied a fair trial, murdered for any imaginary wrong conceived in the brain of the negro-hating white man. There is no redress for us from a government which promised to protect all under its flag. It seems a mystery to me. They say, “One flag, one nation, one country indivisible.” Is this true? Can we say this truthfully, when one race is allowed to burn, hang, and inflict the most horrible torture weekly, monthly, on another? No, we cannot sing, “My country, ’tis of thee, Sweet land of Liberty”! It is hollow mockery. The Southland laws are all on the side of the white, and they do just as they like to the negro, whether in the right or not.
A few of the images that we will examine:
There is no answer to this question. It depends on who, where, and when the question is asked.