Commemorating Richmond’s Fall and Liberation

What I wouldn’t give to be in Richmond, Virginia this coming week for the 150th anniversary of the city’s fall and liberation. There are a wide range of events planned by the National Park Service and a host of other organizations. It’s a fitting way to end the sesquicentennial in Virginia given its track record over the past few years. No state has done more nor has devoted more resources to the sesquicentennial.

In the Richmond Times-Dispatch this weekend Katherine Calos interviewed a number of people involved in sesquicentennial planning throughout Virginia and Richmond specifically. Their thoughts reflect the many differences between the centennial and sesquicentennial and the continued challenges associated with its interpretation and commemoration. Ed Ayers (President of the University of Richmond and historian)

People are beginning to see, in a way they didn’t see before, that you can’t walk around history. You can’t walk away from history. You have to walk through history to get to any future that’s worth having. I think that’s been Richmond’s Journey in the last five or six years. Finding people like the National Park Service and the new Civil War museum and Elegba Folklore Society all together, it’s an accomplishment. I’m prepared to be proud of us.

Lincoln said it was somehow about slavery and that somehow was constantly changing. It was about slavery in 1860, but it was differently about slavery in 1865. It was about slavery the whole time, but the war’s relationship to slavery kept changing… For the United States, the war is steadily more about slavery. For the Confederacy, it’s steadily more about independence… You can say the Civil War is rebooted every year. It’s reconfigured. There’s a new constellation of issues and possibilities in reach for both the North and the South. I think if we have a more supple understanding of the war, then we find that some of the boxes we put ourselves in have opened up.”

The good will is palpable. The cooperation and collaboration and mutual respect is real. I’m not sure we’ve had that before. It would be ironic if the commemoration of the Civil War is the thing that pulls us together and reframes the debate in a way. The more the city does, the more it takes charge of its own history, the less vulnerable we are to people coming in and trivializing our history. I think what we’re working on now is creating ballast to stabilize the story so outside groups can’t come in and hijack our city history for their own purposes.

Beth Stern (chief of interpretation at Richmond National Battlefield Park)

I think the sheer volume and variety of experiences is one of the hallmarks of this commemoration. Every time we share the visitors guide with folks they go, ‘Wow! There’s a lot here. I think it echoes and mirrors the complexity of the experience itself. As I’ve watched the process unfold, we’re very conscious that this is a communitywide commemoration, owned by the community and not by one institution or one individual. The theme we’ve adopted is Richmond’s Journey. … When people say there’s still some work to do, that’s part of the journey.

John Hennessy (chief historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park)

If we were trying to plan the sesquicentennial simply to engage the most number of people in some way, we probably wouldn’t have taken the considered and conversational and thoughtful approach that we did.

H.V. Traywick Jr. (author and apparently the last living Confederate)

The sesquicentennial, I see as being a ham-fisted morality play all about slavery and Southern guilt and Northern righteousness. To me it was a war of invasion, conquest and coerced political allegiance exactly like 1776 and for very much the same reason… It was a war of attrition. It was total war waged against us. They blockaded the coast, burned houses down. It was a horrible war. We were fighting for our independence.

S. Waite Rawls III (co-CEO of the American Civil War Museum)

The story of slavery, the story of contrabands, the story of the USCT (U.S. Colored Troops), has come to light in a way that’s a great pleasure. It was a great absence during the centennial 50 years ago and occupies a great place this time. [During the centennial, people on both sides were depicted as] honorable, patriotic, courageous people. In this one we’ve got good guys and bad guys, and all the Confederates were bad guys and all the Yankees were good guys. Oh, man. They were people. There were good guys and bad guys to go around on both sides.

Ana Edwards (chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project)

The shame comes from different areas. The guilt comes from different areas. There’s lots of anger. A lot of that is right and correct. It has been a tremendously difficult context in which to live. We are still living in this history. The closer you come to it, the more you realize that… Progress is very difficult. As long as we keep referring to it as ‘in progress,’ we’re OK. When we refer to it as ‘accomplished,’ we’re trapping ourselves and fooling ourselves. People will find new pathways. Even if sometimes we think we haven’t done what we wanted to do, or haven’t seen the kind of victory we want to see, there will be other people who take the motivation and carry it forward. We are part of a process of struggle, and it’s a good struggle to be part of.

I do hope some of you will have the opportunity to participate in this closing chapter of our sesquicentennial.

16 comments… add one
  • christinemsmith67 Mar 29, 2015

    I feel the same way about being there, Kevin. I’ve been to St. Paul’s, sat in the Davis pew, tried to imagine what it would have been like. Walked Richmond’s streets trying to imagine again what it would be like. I am going to try and keep up on the events to see how things play out. It has not been an easy time, I’m sure, but it is what it is, and we can’t deny it by hiding from it. Thanks for this post.

  • Pat Young Mar 29, 2015

    Thanks for this post. Good to recall that Richmond was occupied by black troops commanded by a German-born immigrant general. A different America was presaged.

  • Jeffry Burden Mar 29, 2015

    I will be front and center for as many events as I can, especially the ceremonial march of USCT and other reenactors along East Main Street to Capitol Square on Saturday, April 4. The planned events are thoughtful and ambitious, and if they stick in the craw of H.V. Traywick and his ilk, so much the better. 🙂

  • Connie Chastain Mar 29, 2015

    The ongoing and accelerating evilization of white Southerners, past and present. No, thanks.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 29, 2015

      With all due respect, sometimes you just sound like a bitter old women.

      There is a link to the schedule of events Perhaps you can share with all of us which events (organized by white and black southerners) ‘evilize’ the white South.

      • Connie Chastain Mar 29, 2015

        A certain amount of bitterness is understandable and justified.

        The sesquicentennial of the civil war wasn’t particularly about the war — especially in Richmond, from reports I’ve received. The war of very secondary importance to the anniversary. The sesquicentennial was about slavery, slavery, slavery. And discussions of slavery that I’m familiar with, but academics and other assorted leftists, are nearly always conducted for the purpose of evilizing Southern white people.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 30, 2015

          A certain amount of bitterness is understandable and justified.

          Only if you can provide some evidence, which you have failed to do. Put up or shut up, Ms. Chastain. Don’t bother sending in another comment. It will not be approved.

        • Rob in CT Apr 3, 2015

          “The sesquicentennial was about slavery, slavery, slavery”

          The war was about slavery, slavery, slavery. So there ya go. 😉

          That’s only a slight oversimplification on my part, and if you were remotely honest about the history, you’d accept it.

          As for White Southerners, I love me some George Thomas…

          Perhaps you feel Bill Clinton was “evilized” ? No?
          Maybe LBJ (well, he was, justifiably IMO, for his part in the Vietnam war)?
          Or perhaps you’re thinking of some other folks, who perhaps are viewed as problematic not because of geography but because of their political views? There’s the rub. And you know it.

    • Jimmy Dick Mar 29, 2015

      More victimization mentality from a champion of it. Kevin is correct. You sound like a bitter old woman. Now respond to Kevin and show us more of how you think you are being victimized by facts.

      • woodrowfan Mar 29, 2015

        When I first read her comment I read it as “The ongoing and accelerating Civilization of white Southerners…….”

      • Msb Mar 29, 2015

        Is bitterness particularly bad in a woman? I disagree with Ms Chastain’s views, not her gender. I see, as usual, she has accusation and not arguments to make.

  • London John Mar 30, 2015

    Lost-causers aren’t all the likes of the always-entertaining Connie C and H. V. Traywick jr: this letter appeared in the Guardian this month:
    “Martin Kettle seeks a British Lincoln (6 March). The latter as president deliberately started a war which killed hundreds of thousands of people by invading an independent state (Virginia/ the Confederacy) without any valid legal justification or authorisation (he refused to seek the judgement of the US supreme court). Perhaps Tony Blair is the man Mr Kettle is looking for.
    Alan Sked
    Professor of International History, LSE”
    Professor Sked teaches American History, among other topics, at the London School of Economics.

    • Andy Hall Mar 30, 2015

      . . . he refused to seek the judgement of the US supreme court. . . .

      I would have hoped that Professor Sked understood that the Supreme Court doesn’t issue advisory opinions.

  • Brad Mar 31, 2015

    I agree with MSB. Why do we have to draw Ms. Chastain’s sex into it and use her sex to put her down since there’s more than enough ammo in her views.

    Do we call men bitter old men.

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