Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Civil War Memory

It’s nice to see that Ta-Nahesi Coates’s contribution to the The Atlantic’s special Civil War issue is getting so much attention.  It nicely sums up why I am now a regular reader of his blog and why last week I went to meet him in person at MIT.  Coates’s essay is a very personal and thoughtful reflection on why the African American community appears to have lost interest in the Civil War.  The essay tracks the gaping hole in his personal memory of the Civil War as a child to his discovery of it later in life and his subsequent reading of a wide range of primary and secondary sources.

Coates locates a collective lack of interest among African Americans in a narrative that has become all too familiar.  Popularized by David Blight in Race and Reunion, this narrative traces a gradual embrace of reconciliation among white Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, an acceptance of the Lost Cause view of the war, and ending with the tragic loss of of what Blight describes as an “Emancipationist” view of the war.  From there Coates jumps briefly to the Civil Rights Era and later to such popular interpretations of the war such as Gone With the Wind, Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the war and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary.

There is much to ponder within this framework, but it only gets us so far to understanding what many people working in the public history sector are reflecting on as well.  As I read Coates’s essay part of the problem seems to be in the assumption that the process of reunions gradual ascendency functioned to cut off African Americans from memory of the Civil War only to have it re-emerge on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The danger here is that Coates runs the risk of painting a picture of blacks as emasculated from history and I know that this is not his intention.

Coate’s concluding remarks create an uneasy tension between on the one hand a national memory of the war that continues to struggle to acknowledge African Americans and his marching orders:

And for black people, there is this—the burden of taking ownership of the Civil War as Our War. During my trips to battlefields, the near-total absence of African American visitors has been striking. Confronted with the realization that the Civil War is the genesis of modern America, in general, and of modern black America, in particular, we cannot just implore the Park Service and the custodians of history to do more outreach—we have to become custodians ourselves.

The Lost Cause was spread, not merely by academics and Hollywood executives, but by the descendants of Confederate soldiers. Now the country’s battlefields are marked with the enduring evidence of their tireless efforts. But we have stories too, ones that do not hinge on erasing other people, or coloring over disrepute. For the Civil War to become Our War, it will not be enough to, yet again, organize opposition to the latest raising of the Confederate flag. The Civil War confers on us the most terrible burden of all—the burden of moving from protest to production, the burden of summoning our own departed hands, so that they, too, may leave a mark.

I want to suggest that a more nuanced narrative of the relationship between African Americans and the Civil War may give us some direction as we make our way into 2012 and what promises to be a rich a rich Civil War commemorative season.

One of the most surprising and rewarding discoveries that I made in the course of my research on the battle of the Crater and historical memory was the rich outpouring of writing and activity from within the black community during the Civil War Centennial.  I was already familiar with some of the scholarly studies written by black historians and published during this period, but what caught my eye was the apparent level of interest within the broader black community.

You can find it in a number of places, most notably in Ebony and Jet magazines, which are searchable through Google Books.  The issues published between 1955 and 1975 are filled with editorials and articles by noted scholars such as John Hope Franklin and Benjamin Quarrels as well as a broad range of other voices.  Of course, I was most interested in the articles focused on USCTs and the Crater, but you can find articles on every aspect of the war as well as Reconstruction.  The letters to the editor from across the country are particularly interesting because they highlight a very personal interest and attachment to this history from diverse backgrounds.  Black newspapers from across the country did their part as well.  Pamphlets and newsletters from the Association for the Study of African American Life and History indicate that black schools focused a great deal of attention on the Civil War era.  That translated to the college level as well.  I noticed a sharp increase of thesis topics related to the Civil War during this period at black colleges, including Petersburg State College (now University), which is just a stones throw away from the Crater battlefield.

Of course, I’ve just scratched the surface in terms of what I found and at some point I hope to go back and do some more research on the topic.  Given the Civil Rights struggle and the Centennial celebrations it should come as no surprise that the black community would find itself focused on the Civil War era.  Rather than frame the challenge of how to introduce African Americans to the Civil War within a broad narrative that ends in defeat at the turn of the twentieth century, it may be helpful to look more closely at what was clearly a sustained reawakening of interest within living memory.  Perhaps this will help all of us move forward.

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11 comments… add one
  • Margaret D. Blough Dec 8, 2011 @ 21:31

    Kevin-I was particularly pleased to read Mr. Coates’ discussion of the improvement in interpretation at GNMP. Although John Latschar is not mentioned by name, that occurred during his approx. 14 year tenure as Superintendent at GNMP. Shortly after he started at GNMP, he discussed, at a park seminar, the need for a more inclusive interpretation of the Civil War at GNMP. The SCV responded by sponsoring an letter/postcard writing campaign that produced over 1,000 results in an unsuccessful attempt to get him fired. During the long struggle to get the current general management plan (GMP) at GNMP developed, approved and implemented (which included the building of the current visitor center/museum/film)), one of the longest and bitterest of the struggles was the one over expanded interpretation both in the park and in the VC/Museum. Some opposition came from Confederate heritage groups. Others came from those who, even if their interest/support was the AOP & not the ANV, furiously opposed even hinting at anything beyond who shot who and where with everyone being brave and noble. These opponents fought against ever discussing why these brave, noble people were killing each other.in the Civil War. Dr. Latschar was unwavering in explaining and supporting the need to go beyond that despite constant, vicious, very personal attacks against him. The NPS leadership at all levels and his staff supported him and the goal totally. I was really pleased to be able to forward the article to him. True, he wasn’t mentioned in the article but that never has never even been remotely important to him. What was and is important to him and everyone who has fought for expanded interpretation is what Mr. Coates wrote about, after discussing an unsatisfactory childhood visit to Gettysburg:

    >>In August, I returned to Gettys­­burg. My visits to battlefields are always unsettling. Repeatedly, I have dragged my family along, and upon arrival I generally wish that I hadn’t. Nowhere, as a black person, do I feel myself more of a problem than at these places, premised, to varying degrees, on talking around me. But of all the Civil War battlefields I’ve visited, Gettys­burg now seems the most honest and forward-­looking. The film in the visitor center begins with slavery, putting it at the center of the conflict. And in recent years, the National Park Service has made an effort to recognize an understated historical element of the town—its community of free blacks.

    The Confederate army, during its march into Pennsylvania, routinely kidnapped blacks and sold them south. By the time Lee’s legions arrived in Gettys­burg, virtually all of the town’s free blacks had hidden or fled. On the morning of July 3, General George Pickett’s division prepared for its legendary charge. Nearby, where the Union forces were gathered, lived Abraham Brien, a free black farmer who rented out a house on his property to Mag Palmer and her family. One evening before the war, two slave-catchers had fallen upon Palmer as she made her way home. (After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, slave-catchers patrolled the North, making little distinction between freeborn blacks and runaways.) They bound her hands, but with help from a passerby, she fought them off, biting off a thumb of one of the hunters.<<

    That passage is a sign that expanded interpretation as put into operation at GNMP is making progress in its goal of not only expanding te interpretation but, in doing so, reaching out to those who have been alienated and estranged by the old reconciliationist interpretation. The struggle is far from over but reading what Mr.Coates wrote about GNMP felt good and it felt encouraging.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 9, 2011 @ 2:38

      Thanks for the comment, Margaret. I agree that Dr. Latschar deserves a great deal of credit for the expansion of interpretation at GNMP. There are a lot of people who are working hard to attract black Americans to Civil War battlefields and I trust it will continue. That said, I don’t want to see battlefield visits become the sole measure of the nation’s interest in the Civil War. As we’ve seen there are plenty of ways to express one’s interest in the past.

      • Margaret D. Blough Dec 9, 2011 @ 4:01

        Kevin-I totally agree with your statement about not wanting to see battlefield visits being the sole measure of how the nation and/or individuals express their interest in the Civil War. However, to some extent, battlefield visits function, to a considerable extent, as sort of a canary in the coal mine about such interest. Also, for many children, a school field trip or family trip to a CW battlefield is their introduction to the Civil War. Coates’ article about his own childhood experience shows how alienating that experience could be for a child who was black in the era when the reconciliationist & Lost Cause schools held sway over battlefield interpretation.

        I was lucky enough to be able to attend the NPS symposium “Rally on the High Ground” on CW battlefield interpretation which was held at Ford’s Theater. in 2000. It was organized by, IIRR, Dr. Latschar and Robert Sutton, then Supt. at Manassas and now Chief Historian of the NPS. Based on what I saw and heard there and in the followup, while there will likely always be dissenters, I believe the commitment within the NPS to expanded interpretation is deep & systemic and will continue.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 9, 2011 @ 4:12

          Good point, Margaret.

          I wrote the post, in part, because I am taking part this summer in a teacher workshop that will focus on how to teach the Civil War to “at risk” kids. This includes urban areas that are predominantly black. I want to hear more from Coates re: possible strategies. It seems to me that the centennial years may offer some clues.

  • Peter Winfrey Dec 8, 2011 @ 10:18

    He was also on NPR this morning speaking about his essay:


    A great essay though, a (correct) interpretation that blows the Lost Cause out of the water.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 8, 2011 @ 10:20

      Hi Peter,

      I caught that as well. Thanks for including the link. It is indeed an excellent essay.

  • Barbara Gannon Dec 8, 2011 @ 10:06

    First, and foremost, based on my research, African American in the nineteenth-century, or even the twentieth century, did not concede the battle for Civil War memory to white Americans. African American disinterest in the Civil War is a more modern phenomenon. Second, while the ideological and the political is important, I think the key to African Americans retaking ownership of Civil War Memory in the Twenty-first century is more personal; they could do so by reconnecting with their ancestors who lived and struggled through the Civil War. Historians underestimate the extent to which white Americans interest is because of personal connection to the war; those double or triple great grandfathers who fought in this conflict. It may be hard to make this connection, but it is not impossible.

    • Kevin Levin Dec 8, 2011 @ 10:19

      Hi Barbara,

      Thanks for the comment. I certainly agree with you. I found in the course of my research that the black community in Petersburg remained closely connected to their Civil War past. That became more difficult by the early twentieth century, but you can find signs of it throughout the period. At the same time, however, it is clear that the 1950s and 60s involved a sharp increase in interest among black Americans and for the obvious reason. So, I agree that the larger point that you mention should not be conceded, but it seems to me that the lessons of this later period may be more relevant or helpful to those, like Ta-Nahesi, who are thinking about the future.

      • Ray O'Hara Dec 8, 2011 @ 10:53

        Being sold out to Jim Crow might have made many Blacks lose interest in the War as their liberation in the South was marginal at best until the Civil Rights era.

        • Kevin Levin Dec 8, 2011 @ 10:58

          But as Barbara correctly notes, African Americans have never completely lost interest. I do think that the politics and challenges of Jim Crow did push it further away. It’s no surprise that the politics of the civil rights era on the centennial of the Civil War would bring it up in a prominent way once again.

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