Author Archives: Kevin Levin

This Image Really is Worth a Thousand Words

Fugitive_slaves

Today my Civil War classes are examining sources that will aid them in better understanding the complex set of factors that led to the Second Confiscation Act and Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862.  I began the class today with this photograph of fugitive slaves fording the Rappahannock River in August 1862 and asked students to think about how it helps us understand this process.  It was another wonderful discussion in what is fast becoming my most enjoyable year of teaching thus far.

Is This Appropriate?

1971 It wasn't too long ago that reenactments were considered to be divisive and illegitimate as a form of remembrance.  In fact, the Civil War Centennial pushed to keep them out of commemorations of important battles after the embarrassment at First Manassas in 1961.  Since the 1970s, however, reenacting has become the most popular form of remembrance and is a staple item at most commemorations throughout the year.  These "Image Tribes" – as referred to by Jim Weeks – dominate the Heritage Tourism industry.  Reenactors are indispensable at a time when most "buffs" crave individual experiences of soldier life over a more analytical approach.  Questions remain over the appropriateness of reenacting in various venues.  As we all know reenactments are not allowed on NPS-owned land, but recent surveys suggest that a large percentage of people see nothing wrong with it.  In fact, the reenactors are seen by many as necessary to complete the empathetic identification that visitors to battlefields strive to achieve when imagining what took place. 

Here is an interesting story out of Lexington, Missouri.  A group of reenactors commemorated the battle of Lexington, which took place just after Wilson's Creek in the Fall of 1861.  Apparently, the battle took place on what is now a cemetery, but that did not stop these good folks from staging their reenactment:

The two sides fired on each other, the Confederacy pushing the Union soldiers back and back. Shouts of, “Independence and fire! Fire for independence! Forward! Halt! Keep the line together boys!” mingled with the constant gunfire. Soon the men began to drop as they were killed or injured by the advancing Confederacy, indeed a few of the Confederate troops fell as well. During a lull in the firing, Confederate soldiers stooped to pick the pockets of a dead Union soldier. Surrounding the parameter of the battlefield were men, women and children dressed in vintage clothing of the 1860s. Spectators were told by the narrators that it was common for folks to come from Kansas City and Independence to watch the skirmishes as if they were an afternoon form of entertainment.

We've come a long way from barring reenactments on "Hallowed Ground" to allowing them to walk over people's graves.

Latest Volume from Freedmen and Southern Society Project Released

Hahn_freedom
On Saturday I received an advanced copy of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 [Series 3: Volume I: Land and Labor, 1865].  This is a hefty volume, running just under 1,100 pages and coming with a price tag of $85.  I assume most of the sales of this volume will come through libraries, but if you work in the area of Reconstruction or related field, and can afford the price, it is no doubt worth owning.  I've already picked out a few documents from the Freedmen's Bureau that will work well in my classes.  Here is the book description:

Land and Labor, 1865 examines the transition from slavery to free labor during the tumultuous first months after the Civil War.
Letters and testimony by the participants–former slaves, former
slaveholders, Freedmen's Bureau agents, and others–reveal the
connection between developments in workplaces across the South and an
intensifying political contest over the meaning of freedom and the
terms of national reunification. Essays by the editors place the
documents in interpretive context and illuminate the major themes.

In
the tense and often violent aftermath of emancipation, former slaves
seeking to ground their liberty in economic independence came into
conflict with former owners determined to keep them dependent and
subordinate. Overseeing that conflict were northern officials with
their own notions of freedom, labor, and social order. This volume of Freedom
depicts the dramatic events that ensued–the eradication of bondage and
the contest over restoring land to ex-Confederates; the introduction of
labor contracts and the day-to-day struggles that engulfed the region's
plantations, farms, and other workplaces; the achievements of those
freedpeople who attained a measure of independence; and rumors of a
year-end insurrection in which ex-slaves would seize the land they had
been denied and exact revenge for past oppression.

Recreating a Recreation at Massaponax Baptist Church

Grant_and_Meade_at_Massaponax_Church.410 This is a perfect story with which to follow up yesterday's post on Gettysburg.  As part of its 220th anniversary, the Massaponax Baptist Churchof Spotsylvania County decided to recreate the famous Timothy Sullivan of Ulysses S. Grant and his staff during the height of the "Overland Campaign".  The decision to recreate this image reflects the tight hold that the Civil War continues to exercise on both the identity of the church and the surrounding area. 

It's hard to know what people think they are doing when they set out to re-imagine or re-enact some aspect of the past.  Perhaps in this case it is as mundane as whether the logistics can be duplicated.  More than likely it is, in part, an attempt to establish a meaningful connection with the past, the upshot of which is some lesson or experience that has been lost to modernity.  I am reminded of the reenactors in Tony Horowitz's popular book, Confederates in the Attic, which depicts men going to extremes to recreate the experiences and look of both living and dead soldiers.  I rarely ask whether these  dramatic reenactments are accurate representations of the past since a complete picture would have to include the subjective experience and this is simply impossible.  Instead, I tend to see these events and the people involved as sharing a set of values that are every bit a function of some perceived deficiency with our contemporary culture.   In short, for many the hope or belief that we can experience or recreate the past comes down to a form of escapism.

The last few paragraphs of the story on the MBC is quite telling:

The lens peeked through the window panes of Massaponax Baptist Church, from the same location where O'Sullivan stood.  The reproduction shot is a closer photo, cropping out Massaponax Church Road in the background. The original photo shows that thoroughfare filled with horse-drawn wagons.  Yesterday, cars, trucks and motorcycles zoomed by as re-enactors sat on benches waiting for the photo.

Modern development has encroached on the historic church. The congregation recently bought adjoining land for a new building. Across the street, a sign advertises for tenants for the future Massaponax Crossroads offices.  "If you look around, there's no doubt our area is changing," said the Rev. David Hockney, pastor of the church. "The challenge for us as a church is to realize God still has a plan for us. The book of Massaponax Church's history is not finished. It's still being written."

Did the writer pick up on this tension between past and present as expressed by the participants or by the nature of the event itself?