I am making my way through Andrew Delbanco’s short book, The Abolitionist Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2012), which features his essay of the same name as well as responses by John Stauffer, Manish Sinha, Darryl Pinckney, and Wilfred M. McClay. The reading is difficult, especially the literary analysis of antebellum literature. As a historical interpretation it is fraught with problems. First, Delbanco never provides a satisfactory historical profile of the abolitionist community. More importantly, he places too much weight on their role in causing the war.
Delbanco is at his best, however, when exploring how recent cultural, social, and political shifts have shaped our understanding of the abolitionists. This particular paragraph caught my eye.
Would we have regarded the firing on Fort Sumter as the abolitionists did–as a welcome provocation to take up arms against an expansionist power? Or would we have regarded it as a pretext for waging war, akin to that notorious event in every baby boomer’s memory, the Gulf of Tonkin incident? If we could have known in advance the scale of the ensuing carnage, would we have sided with those who considered any price worth paying to bring an end to slavery? Or would we have voted for patience, persuasion, diplomacy, perhaps economic sanctions–the alternatives to war that most liberal-minded people prefer today in the face of manifest evil in faraway lands? [p. 43]
A statue of Dred and Harriet Scott is scheduled to unveiled at the Old Courthouse in Downtown St. Louis on June 8, but organizers are still $140,000 shy of its fundraising goal.
“The memory of Dred Scott and the important shift he helped to bring about in American society is a story that deserves to be recognized and remembered for all future generations. We are appealing to individuals, corporations and foundations to help us get over the finish line prior to the June 8th unveiling on the grounds of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis.”–Lynne M. Jackson
The following documentary fits neatly into the culture of 1950s America. Southern plantations were depicted as scenes of peaceful coexistence between master and slaves before the Civil War and through the era of Jim Crow. According to this narrative, slave labor led naturally to sharecropping, and both arrangements provided the two parties with an equal benefit within an organic community. One can hear echoes of the Lost Cause view of the Civil War, which played down the evils of slavery and the coming of emancipation and freedom.
Today, if we visit a social gathering in the south, we’ll see some of these things. The gentle manners and courtesy. The separation of society into distinct groups. And the relationship of that society to the land, which supplies its wealth. These are some of the things the plantation system has contributed to southern life.
The nation’s collective memory of its Southern past, which included no hint of any racial or class tension, reinforced America’s self-proclaimed status as leader of the free world at the height of the Cold War. Within a few years, this view would be shattered by bus boycotts, Freedom Riders, and lunch-counter sit-ins. As a result, by the end of the 1960s, a new interpretation of the Antebellum South began to emerge, one that attempted to deal more honestly with some of the tougher questions related to slavery and race.
We are so close I can smell it. The other day I had a chance to review the content of the dust jacket, which included the blurbs below. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have these endorsements. I seem to remember at one point speculating as to whether blurbs were simply favors or at least based on some understanding of the content. Well, in this case I can state with confidence that all four read through the proofs or an earlier version of the book. I am so excited about the impending publication of this book that I wonder if actually holding it in my hands will be anti-climactic.
The only blurb we are still waiting on is from David Blight. No one has taught me more about the study of the Civil War and historical memory than Blight. While I hope my book builds on and even challenges some of the claims made in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, no other book that has had more of an impact on my understanding of this field of Civil War studies. Earl Hess has been a supporter of this project from the very beginning. Back in 2003 I spent part of my summer gathering archival sources related to the Petersburg Campaign for his book, In the Trenches at Petersburg: Field Fortifications and Confederate Defeat as well as his more recent military study of the Crater. I was very pleased to see that my published work on the Crater made it into the final chapter of his book, which briefly explored the postwar themes connected to the Crater. While researching in Petersburg I spent a good deal of time talking with Chris Calkins, who was then chief of interpretation at the Petersburg National Battlefield. No one knows more about the battle and while I suspect that Chris disagrees with some of my interpretive points related to the recent history of the NPS at Petersburg I am thrilled to have his name on the book. Chris is now in charge of the new Sailor’s Creek battlefield, which I hope to visit at some point soon. Finally, it’s really nice to have Anne Marshall’s endorsement. Despite predictions to the contrary I would like to think that our books point to continued interest in the field of Civil War memory. If you have not done so I highly recommend reading her recent book, Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State.
The 150th anniversary of one of the most fascinating Civil War battles is fast approaching. Learn about what happened on that bloody day and how the battle has been remembered. Get your signed and discounted copy direct from the author.
"Levin is both superb scholar and public historian, showing us a piece of the real war that does now get into the books, as well as into site interpretation.” –David W. Blight, Yale University