What Does Civil War Memory Sound Like in French?

Update: Gilles Biassette interviews Peter Carmichael in La Croix.

Last Friday I spent the afternoon with Gilles Biassette, who writes for La Croix in France.  He spent a few days in the United States talking with people about the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  We talked about a wide range of topics as we walked through Lee and Jackson Parks, the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia and the campus itself.  Gilles asked excellent question and I even had the chance to ask him about historical memory in France.  Of course, there is always the concern that a reporter will butcher what I have to say, but I think it turned out really well.  It seems appropriate that a French publication would express interest in our Civil War given that Europe closely monitored the events of 1861-65.

Mais cette passion américaine n’est pas que militaire. Comme l’atteste le nouveau musée de Gettysburg.

Ils l’ont refait il y a quelques années, explique Kevin Levin, professeur à Charlottesville et auteur d’un blog très riche sur la guerre de Sécession et sur son héritage, Civil War Memory. Avant, il y avait des murs couverts d’armes, et le reste tournait autour des mouvements de troupes… Maintenant, il n’y a plus qu’un échantillon de la collection d’armes du musée. À la place, une excellente exposition sur l’esclavage, le rôle des femmes, les conditions de vie à l’époque. Ce qui n’a pas plu à tout le monde ! Des gens ont râlé, disant qu’un musée sur une bataille, c’est fait pour parler de la guerre, pas de l’esclavage….

L’image d’un Sud esclavagiste combattant au nom de la liberté a de quoi faire bondir… « Ce type d’argument est repris par ceux qui veulent minorer le problème de l’esclavage, poursuit Kevin Levin. On entend même, depuis quelques années, certains prétendus historiens assurer que des Noirs se sont battus côte à côte avec les Blancs dans l’armée sudiste. Mais il n’y a absolument aucun élément qui prouve ceci ! Ce qu’on sait, en revanche, c’est que certains militaires étaient partis se battre avec leurs esclaves, présents sur le front pour accomplir leur travail d’esclaves….

La guerre de Sécession est toujours une passion américaine, précise Kevin Levin. Mais cet intérêt est beaucoup plus émotionnel qu’intellectuel : cette guerre permet surtout aux Américains d’établir un lien avec leurs ancêtres, de ressentir le passé.

Google Translation (It’s not perfect, but you get the idea.)

But this passion is not that American military.  As evidenced by the new museum Gettysburg.

They’ve redone a few years ago, said Kevin Levin, a professor in Charlottesville and author of a blog about the rich Civil War and its legacy, Civil War Memory. Before, there were walls covered with weapons, and the rest turned around tro…op movements … Now there is only one sample of the museum’s collection of weapons. Instead, an excellent exhibition on slavery, the role of women, living conditions at the time. This did not please everyone! People have bitched, saying that a museum on a battle is meant to talk about the war, no slavery …

The image of a Southern slave fighter in the name of freedom has much bounce … “This kind of argument is repeated by those who want to underestimate the problem of slavery,” says Kevin Levin. You can even hear the last few years, some historians supposed to ensure that blacks fought alongside whites in the Southern army. But there is absolutely no evidence that proves this! What we do know, however, is that some soldiers had gone to fight with their slaves present on the front to do their work of slaves …

“The Civil War is still an American passion, “says Kevin Levin. But this interest is much more emotional than intellectual: this war especially allows Americans to establish a link with their ancestors, to experience the past.

Thanks to Gilles for the opportunity to share my interest in the Civil War with the good people of France.

12 comments… add one

  • Emily Hill Mar 11, 2011

    Dear Kevin,
    What a thrill to read the article in French…thank you for including the insert.

    Heartiest Congratuations! and Bravo, from all Civil War history enthusiasts, I’m sure.
    ~*~ Emily Hill

    • Kevin Levin Mar 11, 2011

      Thanks again, Emily. :)

  • Billy Bearden Mar 11, 2011

    Well Kevin,
    Your big chance at a forigen audience.
    Mr Biasette was used. Shame on you…

    “When an organization like Southern, Mississippi, wants to sell, to commemorate the anniversary of license plates bearing the image of a Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest – slave trader before the war, founder of the Ku Klux Klan after … “

    • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2011

      Thanks for the comment, Billy. I suppose that you would have revealed “the truth” to Mr. Biassette. For the record, I was not the only individual he talked to during his trip to the states. I don’t see anything problematic about the sentence you quoted. What I find interesting is that the SCV can’t even find a native Mississippian for this honor. I know, I know, Forrest defended northern Mississippi from the “Yankee invaders”.

      • Billy Bearden Mar 12, 2011

        Been telling the truth since my first LTTE in 1988. Forrest didn’t found any klan, it was just a cheap shot at the SCV at the expense of the truth, just like the ‘few hundreds’ comment. I would like to have picked the Frenchman’s mind over how they feel about the CSS Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, but it was your chance to shine. Epic fail.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2011

          So sorry to disappoint you, Billy.

        • Andy Hall Mar 12, 2011

          “Forrest didn’t found any klan”

          That is largely a distinction without a difference. Even Forrest’s admirers admit that he was a grand wizard of the Reconstruction-era Klan, recruited to role specifically because his name would ad legitimacy to the group, and that he used his role in the insurance business partly as a cover for his Klan activities. Forrest wasn’t one of the original six in Pulaski, but to argue that he didn’t play a key role in the Klan’s early years is disingenuous.

          You can argue that Kevin misspoke referring to Forrest as a founder of the Klan, but it’s certainly worth noting here that the Klan itself celebrates Forrest as a hero of the group, even holding parades in Pulaski on Forrest’s birthday.

  • Chantal Mar 11, 2011

    As Quebecer, I’m very pleased to read something in French in your blog Kevin!! It’s great that your experience was positive with M. Biassette. It’s a very interesting article.

    In Quebec, we have articles about the CW in occasion in the papers. Canadian historians have written about Canadians in the CW (French and English speakers) and don’t forget the Union and Confederate agents in Canada! It’s damage that we don’t more specialized books in French.

    Chantal

  • Emily Hill Mar 12, 2011

    Well, Baissette also refers to the Civil War as the ‘War of Secession’ (am I correct?) but knowing Kevin’s perspective on THAT war, I’m sure the term didn’t spill from Kevin’s lips, it’s not a historians label. And, let’s not forget what the French perspective was in 1861.

    Having been in news media relations for decades nothing in more hair-raising and risky than one moment with a reporter. You’re going to be THEIR tool for THEIR perspective – been there, done that. Better to have ‘taken the stroll’ than to leave the park with a big “We contacted American historian Kevin Levin who refused to comment on our article.” One is always advised to take your audience with the press and try to bring about your best outcome.

    I had the same damned experience last month with Dan DeWitt, St. Petersburg Times who was interviewing me for my novel – which he insisted I send him [gratis, of course] then weeks later at the interview told him he had never read. Over a lunch I physically couldn’t eat he prodded me about how my ancestral uncle would have felt about the Klan activity that took place in the South during the 1930′s. You take your chances, you do your best, your community understands.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 12, 2011

      I’ve never turned down an interview. There is always a risk involved and my commentary has been butchered in the past, but there is really no alternative. I consider it an obligation.

  • elisabeth May 19, 2011

    j’étais intéresser par les image des esclavage et sa m’etonne vraiment de c’est douleur qu’il ressentait par eux mème et sa me touche vraiment dans le coeur et pour ça nous somme désolé pour les souffrance qu’il ressentaient des jour et nuit sont penser à leur avenir vraiment pour moi la vie d’aujord’huit est vraiment different par rapport a l’ancien que les esclave vivaient vraiment mais franchement c’étais pas facile pour eux.

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