Blog

A Camp Servant at De Battle Uv De Crater

Here is a little gem that I somehow missed in my research on the battle of the Crater. I will, however, include a few stanzas in my book on camp servants and Black Confederates. What follows is a poem written by a former camp servant who was present at the Crater on July 30, 1864. It was included in a book of slave reminiscences published in 1916 by Mary Louise Gaines. The poem was written by “Old Sam” and falls neatly within a body of postwar literature that glorified the Old South and the relationship between the races at a time of intense racial violence and political realignment following Reconstruction. Continue reading “A Camp Servant at De Battle Uv De Crater”

“I Have Been on the Battlefield”

Over the past few days I’ve been working through wartime accounts of camp servants who took part in battles in one form or another. It’s a challenging topic for a number of reasons. As you might imagine wartime accounts authored by camp servants are next to impossible to find for the obvious reasons and the accounts of their masters must be treated with care. Postwar accounts by former slaves, in some cases written decades after the war, are even more difficult to interpret.

In dealing with the wartime accounts one thing I have noticed is that officers did not seem to make any assumptions about how their slaves would behave once a battle commenced. There is very little evidence that they intended for their servants to follow them onto the battlefield. I have found plenty of accounts of masters who specifically assigned their servants to guard their personal items, treat the wounded, bury the dead, assist doctors and a few that expected a meal to be ready once the battle ceased. Continue reading ““I Have Been on the Battlefield””

Historians Discuss Charleston and Its Impact on Civil War Memory

David Blight recently convened a panel at Yale University to discuss the impact of the Charleston shootings on our Civil War memory. It takes a little time for the pace of this discussion to pick up, but it is well worth your time. Panelists include Edward Ball, Yale; Jelani Cobb, University of Connecticut; Glenda Gilmore, Yale; Jonathan Holloway, Yale; Vesla Weaver, Yale.

[Uploaded to YouTube on September 28, 2015]

Between the Past and Present

My good friend, John Hennessy, has a way of encapsulating in just a few sentences what typically takes me months to articulate on this blog. John added his voice to a post I wrote on the role of public historians in the current debate about the public display of Confederate iconography:

The dog has bitten its tail, and it hurts.

Historians have worked hard to help Americans see and understand the past more clearly. Now that Americans by and large do, some of them want to obliterate the symbols of the history that historians have labored so hard to help them understand.

Most of us in this business have espoused, loudly, that people should accept the complexities of the past.

Sometimes, though, we as historians have a hard time accepting the complexities of the present.

The complicated landscape in which historians work–subject to changing values, newly empowered voices, and shifting political and societal winds–means that some people, some sites, some communities, some states, and perhaps even some government entities will choose not to view these icons and sites as historical tools of learning, but as present sources of pain and discord.

Indeed, despite historians’ best efforts, the larger part of the milieu that will determine the fate Confederate icons resides not in the past but in that complicated present, which we as historians can little hope to influence.

The messy, boisterous marketplace of the American mind will figure this out. In the meantime, public historians ought to continue doing what we do, recognizing the limits of what we can do–that sometimes the history of things like the windows at St. Pauls is not all that matters. Sometimes, to some eyes, the present matters more.

Discuss.

St. Paul’s Episcopal and the Limits of Public History

Update: I highly recommend Christopher Graham’s response and thoughts about Luskey’s essay. Thanks again to Ashley for a thoughtful post that ought to give all of us much to think about as we work through these challenging questions.

This week Ashley Luskey added her voice to the discussion about the public display of Confederate iconography. Ashley focuses specifically on the debate within Richmond’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church about what to do with its beautiful Tiffany windows, which honor Confederate leaders and their Lost Cause. The essay is well worth your time. Ashley does an excellent job of laying out the wartime history of the church, its connection to Confederate leaders during the war and its role during the postwar period in memorializing their actions.

Like other public historians Ashley worries about the implications of removing these windows for our collective memory of the war and history generally as well as our ability to address contemporary problems such as race. Ashley also makes a compelling case for the importance of place in interpreting the windows rather than removal to a museum or other educational setting. Continue reading “St. Paul’s Episcopal and the Limits of Public History”