Today I read a very thoughtful post by John Rudy at his Interpreting the Civil War blog. He added his voice to the recent chorus of posts on the challenges and importance of properly commemorating the final two years of the Civil War. I agree with much of what he has to say.
But the war after Gettysburg morphs into that long, bloody, messy slog across Virginia or Tennessee and Georgia. It changes from prisoner exchanges into prison camps and the bloodiest ground on the American continent. Politics gets ugly, as Peace Democrats make a true, concerted effort (and nearly succeed) at unseating one of modern America’s most beloved historical figures. Battles become racialized, as men are massacred in battle not simply because of the color of their uniforms, but because of the color of their skin. The war gets ugly.
I’ve expressed optimism from the beginning and continue to hold out hope for the final two years, though I agree with John that it is going to be a challenge. This is, indeed, not your grandfather’s Civil War, but as Brooks Simpson rightfully notes, that does not mean that we should declare victory. I’ve noted multiple times, for example, that we need to reign in our embrace of an emancipationist narrative that is much too reductionist. I see it all the time here in Boston. You would think that everyone was an abolitionist, though the monuments in and around the city tell a slightly different story.
I am already beginning to think about what I am going to say next summer in my keynote address to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle of the Crater. The scope of the battle offers a unique opportunity to begin to talk about the challenges of Reconstruction, which as I suggested the other day, is likely to get short thrift in our sesquicentennial.
There is no grand narrative that can be applied to this battle without losing sight of salient aspects of the story. Confederates and the white population of Petersburg and much of the rest of the Confederacy understood the significance of the battle and the presence of black Union soldiers. Black Union soldiers embraced the fight as another demonstration of their fitness for citizenship, while their white comrades and much of the rest of the country remained ambivalent, if not opposed, to civic equality even as they embraced the necessity of emancipation. The fight at the Crater anticipates competing, if not contradictory, visions of what a reconstructed Union might look like. It is, as John Rudy, describes it: ugly.
The Crater is but one example of ways that we can use the final two years of the war to engage students and the general public around some of the toughest and most divisive questions that the Civil War forced on the American public. Americans ought to feel justified in celebrating the end of slavery and emancipation, but it is my hope that educators and historians will make room for deeper understanding that may not admit of any clear answers or resolution.