Will the Real Appomattox Commemoration Please Stand Up

This morning I set out to write a post in response to Jamelle Bouie’s column at Slate which details his assessment of a commemoration of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. A few of you likely read it before I took it down. I had some strong words for the author that turned out to be completely unjustified and I want to take this opportunity to apologize to Mr. Bouie. I could not understand how he arrived at his conclusions after claiming to have attended the event, but what I didn’t understand is that there were two commemorations of Appomattox and apparently they offered two very different narratives.

Bouie attended an event organized by the Appomattox County Historical Society and featured primarily reenactors. The author noted the lack of references to slavery and the presence of USCTs in the Army of the James, which helped to prevent Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from reaching Lynchburg.

But missing in this remembrance, and in the audience as well, were black Americans. Of the thousands of re-enactors and thousands more spectators, only a handful were black. And while this may seem minor (or worse, a needless invocation of race), it’s a terrible disadvantage. The real Appomattox wasn’t just about reunion; it was about emancipation as well.

I am not surprised that this is what Bouie experienced given the focus of the event, but I do wish that the author had resisted the urge to draw a conclusion about the sesquicentennial based on this one event. In fact, if he had attended the National Park Service’s 3-day commemoration Bouie would have witnessed a very different commemoration.

Here are just a few excerpts from the many presentations that took place.

Today we will remember the costs of this immense war, but also its legacies: freedom for millions of enslaved Americans and a transformed Union—a nation that would in the following decades stride onto the world stage as a force for freedom and democracy. – Superintendent Snyder

I am Emmanuel Dabney, the descendant of Benjamin Dabney of Dinwiddie County, Virginia, a young free black who believed his future depended on Union victory. “If the Union succeeded,” Benjamin later wrote, “we hoped to see slavery put an end to, and

On the morning of April 9, 1865, about a mile west of us on the Coleman farm, an artillery shell crashed into a simple cabin and struck 60 year-old Hannah Reynolds. Hannah was a slave, owned by Dr. Samuel Coleman. She was wounded just after the Union lines had swept past her. She died on April 12. Cruel circumstance robbed her of the transformation from chattel to citizen. Of her nearly 15,000 days on earth, Hannah lived just three of them in freedom—and for those three she lay dying in a Union field hospital. – Bud Hall

My name is Phyllistine Mosley, born in Prince Edward County Virginia. With the surrender at Appomattox, ten members of my family went free: Booker, Beverly, Monk, Phillip, Martha, Almo and Fanny Ward. And Emaline, Ann, and John Thompson. From Appomattox, the tide of history rushed forth, carrying the United States onto the world stage. But that tide was chopped by crosscurrents, stalled by eddies. Many white Americans clung to a vision of nation that did not include equal rights for former slaves. A week after Appomattox, a soldier from Pennsylvania told his family at home, “grave questions remain to be settled, for which God alone can give the true wisdom and guidance.” – Phyllistine Mosley

As I suggested yesterday, Ed Ayers offered one of the most powerful statements of slavery’s centrality to Appomattox and our memory of the war as a whole. While Bouie offers David Blight’s Race and Reunion as an explanation as to why the event he attended failed to attract African Americans and all but ignored their role at Appomattox and the war, he would likely have been surprised to see none other than Blight himself as one of the NPS’s featured speakers.

All of this leaves us in an odd place. In our history books, the war is a conflict over slavery. But in our remembrance, it’s still a fable, where valiant white men fought each other over abstract principles. The difficult reality—the facts that made this war so vital—is absent. At the sesquicentennial of the surrender at Appomattox, we weren’t commemorating our history; we were celebrating a myth.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Slavery and the role of United States Colored Troops has been front and center in the NPS’s commemoration of the war. Their chosen theme is none other than, “From Civil War to Civil Rights.” Indeed, the NPS is responsible for some of the most innovative public history of the entire sesquicentennial.

As I’ve said before, this has not been anything like your grandfather’s Civil War commemoration.

17 comments… add one
  • Agreed. I’ve already corrected about ten people on Facebook. “Those people” at the Industrial Park were actually a response to the perceived lack of cooperation on the park of the NPS and the Museum of the Confederacy. Most of that revolved around the rules on battle reenactments as much as the interpretation advocated by the park service. As for HK…well, he draws the media more successfully than actual people. Everyone I knew at Appomattox over the past week never saw him and most have never heard of him.

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    • I’m a USCT reenactor and I was a part of the NPS Appomattox program. My wife and two daughters participate in reenacting with me. We arrived at the event on Saturday morning and our station was at the Carver-Price Legacy Museum (a former school for Black kids in Appomattox). I did see H.K. Edgerton.

      When we got to Carver-Price, I looked out on the street and saw a Black man with a Confederate Battle flag. I said to my wife, “Oh, my God, I think that’s H.K. Edgerton over there! You know that Black Confederate guy I’ve told you about?” We went up to him, introduced ourselves and shook his hand. He did try to convert me to the Confederate side, though he said “I hadn’t planned on getting into this today.” Of course, I just smiled and nodded until he was finished. Anyway, he was very polite (we also met his brother) and very entertaining, I must say. I don’t believe anything he believes but it was nice to meet him. My wife just loved him. We took some pictures with him. I would post them here if I could.

      By the way, I asked him, “What does H.K. stand for?” Without hesitation, he said, “Handsome and kool.”

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      • Without hesitation, he said, “Handsome and kool.”

        I love it. Thanks for sharing.

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        • “I love it. Thanks for sharing.”

          Everybody does. I just sent you pictures.

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  • While the NPS has some pretty innovative programs, lets not forgot that the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission has been a leader in advocating that everyone’s stories should be told. What other states have hosted a conference on slavery and the coming of the War? This weekend the commission is hosting a special conference in Charlottesville, about the War’s memory. The efforts by museums and historic societies all across Virginia (with the possible exception of battle reenactments like the one in Appomattox), showcase the fact that Virginia has come a long way since the 1960s.

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    • You are absolutely right. And as you know I’ve written extensively about its activities on this blog throughout the sesquicentennial

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    • …a special conference in Charlottesville
      wow, I can’t believe I am just hearing about this, especially since it is occuring about 100 yards from my office. It is now full, which is pretty impressive, considering that the room it is held in seets many hunderds of peopel. I coudl probably get away with crashing it…

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      • Seating is limited in that venue, and there’s not going to be any crashing, especially since seating is filled with people who paid their registration fee. For those who missed the registration, the conference is going to be broadcast live by C-SPAN III beginning at 8:30 AM.

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        • Given the focus of this post it is worth noting that the 2010 Virginia sesquicentennial “signature conference” was focused entirely on slavery and emancipation. This final conference on the legacy and memory of the Civil War and from what I understand it is SOLD OUT. I hope Gary Gallagher, who chairs this conference, takes a moment to question he own assessment of the sesquicentennial as “anemic.”

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          • It probably has been anemic in most of the states, especially those not in existence during the war or those that saw no Civil War battles. While the NPS has done, in my opinion, an outstanding job, the same can’t be said for the rest of the Federal Government.

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            • While the NPS has done, in my opinion, an outstanding job, the same can’t be said for the rest of the Federal Government.

              Compared to what? This statement is usually made in reference to the fact that while the federal government formed a commission in the late 1950s for the centennial it failed to do so this time around. What is usually left out is the fact that the commission was a disaster almost from the beginning.

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              • The commission started out as a disaster, but I would suggest it was partially fixed so that while it still fell short in some respects, it became more effective in coordinating commemorations in various states, many of which had their own commissions as some did also for the Sesquicentennial. Also, President Kennedy was hands-on for at least part of the Centennial, moving the location of the first conference and revamping the Commission’s membership. I haven’t seen much interest out of the White House at all in the past six years. I should also recognize the US Postal Service has marked the Sesquicentennial with stamps, which I omitted in my earlier comment.

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                • The commission started out as a disaster, but I would suggest it was partially fixed so that while it still fell short in some respects,

                  Very little happened after 1962 and apart from the Charleston controversy Kennedy was largely absent. Yes, he visited Antietam and Gettysburg, but that’s about it. Good point about the postal service. In the end, however, we’ve seen many more events throughout the sesquicentennial than what took place during the centennial. I guess what I am suggesting is that the importance of a national commission has been overblown.

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    • No doubt about the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission’s importance. Thanks for speaking up about them, Bill. Side note: Will there be any sort of recognition/memorial in memory of the recent passing of Elizabeth Pryor at the conference?

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  • As a NPS volunteer I think that the events at the park were very well done. I watched on C-SPAN and did not know there was an alternative event until just now.

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  • Hey Bryan! 🙂
    I thought the Saturday evening funeral service for Hannah Reynolds was the high point of the weekend. I got to serve on an informal honor guard of USCT who presented arms as the “coffin” was brought to the stage for the service. We marched off as soon as the pall bearers set it down so as not to distract from the next phase and I started walking back to camp. But when the preacher started I realized there was more coming and stayed.
    The story of the woman who was mortally wounded as a slave but lingered long enough to die free moved me much more than meeting “Grant” and “Lee” or anything else we did that weekend.
    NPS had to overcome a number of logistical glitches with the masses of reenactors and spectators, but their conception of the commemoration deserves great praise. They went well beyond the traditional focus on the pathos of the surrender to give us all something of meaning for today.
    Glad I went after all.

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  • perhaps this has been posted here before..

    david blight did cspan call in from Appomattox ..

    he covered, i think, a lot of the issues mentioned here at civil war memory.. i think the calls were screened as most of the questions were timely and interesting

    he was asked about african americans there, blight responded, i think, that a program event was the night before, set a record for attendance at national park by african americans..

    http://www.c-span.org/video/?325200-4/open-phones-author-david-blight

    >>>APRIL 12, 2015
    Open Phones with David Blight
    David Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, talked about his book and responded to viewer questions.

    This program took place at the 150th anniversary commemoration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. The commemoration was held April 8-12, 2015, at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park

    CALLER
    I COULD BE THERE MYSELF. THANK YOU FOR BEING THERE TODAY. I HAVE BEEN WATCHING THESE EVENTS ON C-SPAN FOR THE PAST FOUR YEARS. I HAVE NOTICED THAT THE MAJORITY OF THE PARTICIPANTS AND THE ATTENDEES ARE MIDDLE-AGED TO ELDERLY LIKE GOOGLE. I CAN SAY THAT BECAUSE I AM ONE. I WONDERED, WITH THE MAKEUP OF THE COUNTRY CHANGING AND SUPPOSEDLY THE WHITE RACE BECOMING A MINORITY IN THE COUNTRY BY 50 YEARS FROM NOW, WILL THESE EVENTS, DO YOU THINK THAT THESE WELL READ BIRD — WILL BE WELL — AS WELL REMEMBERED THEN AS THEY ARE NOW? DR. BLIGHT: YOU RAISE

    00:17:40

    DR. BLIGHT
    A VERY INTERESTING PROBLEM. WHY DON’T AFRICAN-AMERICANS COME TO CIVIL WAR SITES?

    FIRST OF ALL, LAST NIGHT THERE WERE HUNDREDS, IF NOT 1000 OR MORE AFRICAN-AMERICANS OUT HERE. AN EXTRAORDINARY PERFORMANCE HERE ON THE MAIN STAGE BEHIND ME. THEY HELD A MOCK SYMBOLIC BURIAL OF A FORMER SLAVE WOMAN NAMED HANNAH REYNOLDS WHO WAS KILLED HERE ON THE MORNING OF APRIL 9. NO ONE EVER KNEW WHERE SHE WAS BURIED. THEY DO HER NAME AND WHO HER MASTER WAS, HER OWNER, AND THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY OF APPOMATTOX COUNTY GOT TOGETHER WITH THE NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE AND PLANNED FOR MONTHS THIS AMAZING PERFORMANCE THAT WAS A LIVING HISTORY BURIAL, A FUNERAL FOR HANNAH REYNOLDS. THE CHOIRS WERE TERRIFIC. THEY SAME — THEY SANG SPIRITUALS. WITHOUT ANY ACCOMPANIMENT. I WAS SURPRISED, STUNNED, AND PLEASE DEFINE HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS OF BLACK FOLKS. I HAVE NEVER SEEN THAT MANY OF THE CIVIL WAR SITE. TODAY THERE ARE ALMOST NONE. THAT IS A VERY VERY OLD SAGA. HISTORIC. IT GOES BACK TO THE YEARS WHEN CIVIL WAR SITES — AND THIS IS CHANGING BY THE NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE, THEY HAVE BEGUN TO MAKE GREAT STRIDES — BUT IT USED TO BE SEEN AS ESSENTIALLY A PLACE WHERE YOU SAW THE STORY OF THE BLUE IN THE GRADE. YOU SAW THE STORY OF AN. A SITE-SPECIFIC STORY OF BATTLE AND COMBAT THAT YOU DID NOT ENCOUNTER ANYTHING ABOUT THE WAR BEING WHAT IT IS ABOUT. FOR THE LAST 20 YEARS AT LEAST THE NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE IN CONJUNCTION WITH THE ORGANIZATION OF AMERICAN HISTORIANS AND OTHER GROUPS HAVE BEEN WORKING TOGETHER TO BROUGHT IN INTERPRETIVE PROGRAMS AND CHANGE THE FILMS THAT ARE SHOWN AT INTERPRETATION CENTERS, TO CHANGE THE PROGRAMMING. LAST NIGHT, AS I SAID IN MY FORMER — FORMAL SPEECH, IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE THINGS I HAVE EVER WITNESSED AT A NATIONAL PARKS SITE. THESE SHOULD BE PLACES THAT PEOPLE COME TO UNDERSTAND WHY THE CIVIL WAR HAPPENED AND WHAT THE SHORT AND LONG-TERM CONSEQUENCES WERE. THE CHALLENGE, NOW, IS TO GET PEOPLE OF ALL BACKGROUNDS TO COME. ONE OTHER THING, IF YOU LOOK AT HISTORICAL TOURISM IN THIS COUNTRY, AFRICAN-AMERICANS GO INTROS TO CIVIL RIGHTS SITES ACROSS THE SOUTH. CIVIL RIGHTS MUSEUMS AND CROSSROADS. CIVIL RIGHTS TWO HOURS ARE ALL OVER THE PLACE. THAT IS A TRIUMPHAL STORY THAT BLACK PEOPLE LED. THE CIVIL WAR IS STILL NOT QUITE SEEN THAT THE CIVIL WAR IS NOT QUITE SEEN THAT WAY. BLACK LEADERSHIP WAS PIVOTAL IN BRINGING ABOUT EMANCIPATION IN THE MIDST OF THE WAR. THE CIVIL WAR IS A GREAT AND PIVOTAL STORY OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY. IT CAN’T QUITE GET THE SAME TRACTION AS THE MORE RECENT CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT GETS BECAUSE THAT IS A MUCH MORE RECENT MEMORY. HOST: OUR C-SPAN CAMERAS

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