Declaring Victory

This past weekend I took part in a conference on the Civil War and public history at North Carolina State University.  I heard a number of interesting presentations and I will likely comment on them over the next few weeks, but for now I want to say a few quick words about one specific point made during the course of the day.  A number of the presentations, including my own, addressed issues relating to the continued interpretive divide that still exists between historians and segments of the general public.  You can guess which organizations were mentioned at one point or another as examples of this resistance.  In response to John Hennessy’s keynote address Peter Carmichael encouraged the audience to “declare victory” in reference to the interpretive wars.  He is right.  Public historians working in a wide range of historical institutions are now interpreting the war from a much broader perspective that includes the stories of individuals and groups, who have for far too long been left out of our collective memory.  The difficult issues such of slavery and race are now being explored from every possible angle.  Finally, the recent focus on historical memory has made us all more sensitive to the consequences of being left out of the nation’s collective memory.

I’ve been suggesting something along the lines of a declaration of victory for some time now.  The calls of “revisionism” and emotional defenses of “Southern heritage” are little more than a reflection of an intellectual bankruptcy that was always present in many of the more traditional interpretations that tended to focus more on emotional defense as opposed to an analytical understanding of the past.  John Hennessy hit the mark in his keynote address when he noted that the Civil War is one of the only places in American history where the personal anecdote is expected to frame the national narrative.  You know what this looks like: My great grandfather never owned slaves….

Evidence abounds to support a declaration of victory.  We can see it in the work of the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission as well as the commission in North Carolina, the most recent exhibit at the Virginia Historical Society, and the numerous programs sponsored by the National Park Service.  If you have any doubt survey the events scheduled in South Carolina to commemorate the anniversary of the firing at Fort Sumter.  The Low Country Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission continues its lecture series with a symposium on the causes and consequences of the Civil War and a lecture by James McPherson.  In addition to this:

  • On the evening of April 11, the Fort Sumter-Fort Moltrie Historical Trust, the City of Charleston and other groups will remember the first shot of the Civil War at White Point Garden (The Battery), a landmark promenade along the Ashley and Cooper rivers that was used for artillery during the war. The observance will include a concert featuring the music from Ken Burns‘ PBS series Civil War by the original band, Jay Unger and Molly Mason Family Band; the Mount Zion A.M.E. Church Spiritual Ensemble; and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.
  • The City Gallery at Charleston’s Waterfront Park will feature restored Civil War photographs of Charleston in 1865, and the Gibbes Museum of Art will host two exhibitions, Stephen Marc’s Passage on the Underground Railroad and A Soldier’s View of Civil War Charleston.
  • The Charleston Museum is showcasing Threads of War: Clothing and Textiles of the Civil War, City Under Siege: Charleston in the Civil War, and The Life and Times of Congressman Robert Smalls, as well as a lecture series.
  • Living history programs with Confederate and civilian re-enactors take place April 9-17 at the Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center.
  • Secessionists, Soldiers and Slaves: The Middleton Family’s Civil War explores the rice culture during the war, the building of Charleston’s defenses and more at Charleston’s Middleton Place plantation.

Look closely and you will see the triumph of social history and a willingness to confront some of the tough questions of race.  In April 1961 the top story was the unwillingness of the Francis Marion Hotel to register Madaline Williams, who served as New Jersey’s black delegate to the Civil War Centennial Commission.  The commission was scheduled to meet as part of the city’s Fort Sumter celebrations.

Fifty years later and black and white Americans have the opportunity to travel to Charleston to learn.  Now, that’s progress on any number of fronts.

6 comments… add one

  • John Hennessy Mar 28, 2011

    Kevin: As it relates to the supply-side of the equation, I think there is little doubt that there is something to your and Pete’s declararion of victory. But on the consumer side–not entirely. Anyone would be hard-pressed to declare to the front-line staff on an NPS battlefield site that the issue of disputed memory/history/heritage/tradition is settled in the public’s mind. There HAS been great progress, and we see evidence of that on a regular basis, but we also see evidence of discord literally every day. And then, too, there is the issue the entrenched disconnect between the public history of the Civil War and the African-American community. As has often been said, history doesn’t turn the page, only historians do.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2011

      Hi John,

      You hit the nail on the head. In fact, I am working on a post that makes just this point.

    • Margaret D. Blough Mar 28, 2011

      John-I totally agree. Enormous progress has been made, but I think that declarations of victory are premature and risk seriously underestimating the opposition. To me, one of the biggest problems is that many people do not like to be made uncomfortable, and there is nothing comfortable about the reality of the Civil War and what led up to it whether we are talking about North or South, slave state or free, secessionist or unionist, etc.. To those people who dislike feeling discomfort, a comfortable myth is always going to be very seductive. There are hardcore neoconfederates who recognize exactly what the antebellum South was like and wish they could go back to it. Many,many more, IMHO, are motivated by a false syllogism: Slavery was a bad thing. Their great-great-grandfather or other ancestor was a good man. As a good man, he would not fight for a bad thing. Therefore, secession and the war that resulted could not have been about protecting slavery.

      I have the greatest respect for the NPS historians & other personnel who have been there in the trenches in fighting the good fight for accurate, honest history even if it does make people uncomfortable.

  • Billy Bearden Mar 28, 2011

    Well if folks like James McPherson – who teamed up with Terrorist William Bill Ayers in begging President Obama not to lay a wreath at the Confederate Memorial in Arlington, and Mamie Locke, who was proven a racist against a white student at Hampton University by her coworker (The student was Devlin Casey) and sits on the Virginia Sesqui Commission, and others, are the group you are claiming victory with, then it is hollow at best.

    We here at Confederate Taliban central will rue the day we let victory escape us, even though back in 2007 you pooh poohed using the name Taliban only to snicker about it amongst your buddies now.
    Enjoy your laurels up in the great white north!

    • Kevin Levin Mar 28, 2011

      With all due respect, Billy, it seems to me that this comment is a perfect reflection of what I was getting at. My guess is that you’ve never opened up a book by James McPherson or any of the other historians that you so easily throw around. I have no idea what Bill Ayers has to do with it.

    • Phil Ross Mar 28, 2011

      Just remember, Billy: one man’s terrorist and racist is another man’s freedom fighter. Folks who are so deeply invested in a 145-year struggle to justify their own failed bid for “freedom,” as they define it, should not toss terms like these around so casually if they don’t want their logic questioned. Unless, of course, you intended the tu quoque fallacy for general amusement.

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