This morning I read Jim Loewen’s brief report of his recent visit to Richmond to attend the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History. He was struck by the changes to its public history landscape, both in the form of new monuments and introduction of tours that broaden the historical narrative to include individuals and groups that have for too long been left out. Who would disagree? I’ve been making this point for some time now. In fact, I think it’s such an obvious point that I would suggest that public historians and educators have won the battle to reinterpret the Civil War era in a way that broadens and deepens our understanding along racial and gender lines. Of course, public historians and educators have not won the battle alone; in fact, their role may be secondary compared to the kinds of political shifts that have taken place since the end of the 1960s that have brought a myriad of voices into the public sector that reinforced the need for an interpretive shift.
Yes, there are still plenty of challenges and by no means am I attempting to minimize them. The biggest challenges remain in k-12 education and the economic disparity between classrooms across the country. Loewen briefly references John Coski, of the Museum of the Confederacy, who worries about consistency in interpretation at his own institution. That by no means negates the incredible transformation in interpretation and outreach that the MOC has undertaken in recent years to reach out to a broader demographic. What is clear is that our major historical institutions as well as professional organizations have embraced a more complex and broader past that can be seen along a wide spectrum of public programs and exhibits.
So, where do we go from here? According to Loewen, “Ed Ayers, historian and new president of the University of Richmond, spoke on the Civil War, emphasizing emancipation and pointing out that we must make even our newest immigrants think of it as “their” history, leading to rights and conflicts that still affect all of us.” [Click here for an essay by Ayers which fleshes out some of these ideas.] There are certainly aspects of our Civil War that have an international flavor, most notably in term of the immigrant connection, but in popular circles we still think of this period in isolation from the rest of the world. We still tend to think of the end of slavery as well as the development of a strong central government in myopic terms. Wayne Wei-Siang Hsieh has a thoughtful essay in the most recent issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era (September 2011), which critiques the “total war” narrative as a definition of Union policy against the South in a way that situates the war in a broader global and temporal context. There is a growing scholarship on the subject and I am pleased to see that even teacher workshops are beginning to address the issue. [I seem to remember that an upcoming Virginia Sesquicentennial Signature Conference will focus on the Civil War in a global context as well.]
Even as my own classroom became more and more diverse I struggled to make the necessary changes that would help to bridge the gap between my American and international students. In that sense our American history narrative is woefully inadequate. The standard classroom narrative continues to interpret much of American history outside of a global context until the late nineteenth century. When the outside world does enter the discussion it is more of a footnote rather than anything that has causal import. But what is true in the classroom certainly holds for our popular view of the Civil War and I agree with Ayers that this constitutes the next big interpretive push. Ayers closes his essay with the following:
The great American trial of war, emancipation, and reconstruction mattered to the world. It embodied struggles that would confront people on every continent and it accelerated the emergence of a new global power. The American crisis, it was true, might have altered the course of world history more dramatically, in ways both worse and better, than what actually transpired. The war could have brought forth a powerful and independent Confederacy based on slavery or it could have established with its Reconstruction a new global standard of justice for people who had been enslaved. As it was, the events of the 1860s and 1870s in the United States proved both powerful and contradictory in their meaning for world history.