Bonus Posts on Fredericksburg and the Richard Kirkland Story: Is it True?, Mac Wycoff Responds, Does it Matter?
Today is the 150th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Back in 2008 I delivered the keynote address for the National Park Service’s annual commemoration of the battle. In it I reflected on the meaning of the battle and why I bring students to these sites. I thought it might be worth running again given the date of its original publication and I hope it leaves you with something to think about on the anniversary of one Civil War battle.
Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students, bound for one of the areas Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. For me, it is an opportunity to reconnect with a history that has given my life meaning in so many ways. It’s also a chance to introduce this history to my students, many of whom have never set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Visits to battlefields such as Fredericksburg provide a venue in which to discuss what is only an abstraction in the classroom and offer students and the rest of us a chance to acknowledge a story that is much larger and more remote compared to our individual lives and yet relevant in profound ways.
I suspect that my class visits to battlefields have much in common with what bring you to a place like Fredericksburg. We want to understand what happened here, why it happened, and what it means that it happened. We are compelled to do so. My students and I walk this hallowed ground and try our best to piece together what are often conflicting accounts of the ebb and flow of battle. At the same time we struggle to understand and honor the courage of the men who fought and “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Some of those stories are well known, such as the one depicted in this beautiful monument dedicated to Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, who in the heat of battle chose compassion over violence and hatred or the combination of fear and steadfastness that animated Sergeant Thomas Plunkett of the 21st Massachusetts, who carried his regimental colors into battle only to receive a direct hit by a Confederate shell which cost him one arm and part of another – his blood forever staining the regiment’s flag.
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I may go and see Spielberg’s Lincoln again later this afternoon. Anyone want to join me? I’ve done my best to stay on top of what the Lincoln and Civil War communities have had to say. Here is a rundown:
I shared a few of my own thoughts at the Atlantic. This is just what I could remember offhand so feel free to include additional reviews in the comments section. I’ve learned a hell of a lot from reading these folks as well as others. That said, I am not sure how much I learned about the movie given the rather narrow emphasis on what interpretive threads that were not acknowledged. Perhaps I would if the movie was somehow fundamentally flawed as a historical document. No one that I’ve read has said that. I still find myself agreeing with Timothy Burke, who blogs at Easily Distracted. Burke’s post was written in response to an early editorial by Foner.
Which is why I think Foner’s response is in some ways just one more front in the long struggle between social history and narrative. I suspect that he and many other historians would find any cinematic representation of any individual playing a key or decisive role in shaping consequential events inadequate–that what we have here is less an argument about particular discrete facts or events or people and more a deeper argument about what really matters in history.
If we’re going to have that argument through and around cinema, we would be wise to always avoid scolding a film for inaccuracy. Finger-wagging is a death trap for public intellectuals: it keeps us from appreciating the complexity of how a film or other cultural work can have meaning for its audiences, and it casts us outside and above the world of ordinary spectatorship. More importantly, most historians know better than to claim there’s a linear relationship between “accuracy” and “critical thought”, the latter being what most historians would like to see as the outcome of reading or learning about the past from a trustworthy source.
When we want to say that we don’t think that a given event–or any event–was primarily about powerful or important people and their decisions, then let’s say just that and go from there, accepting the legitimacy of the interpretative argument that follows that statement. Disagreement about interpretation involves but is not reducible to fact, to accuracy, to evidence or to comprehensiveness.
What do you think?
A week from today I will be speaking in Manhattan at the Civil War Forum of Metropolitan New York. This is my first time speaking in the “Big Apple” and I am very much looking forward to it. I will likely leave Boston early and spend the day roaming around the city. The event includes both a dinner and talk. Reservations need to be made by December 16. I will have plenty of books on hand at a heavily discounted price of $25. Of course, I will be happy to sign your copy. This is my last book signing/talk before the end of the year in what has been an incredibly enjoyable run since the book’s publication back in June. Thanks to all of you who have purchased a copy.
Keep an eye out for my Best of 2012 post, which is right around the corner.
Like many of you I’ve been following this story out of Utah at Dixie College. It seems that the school is going through a bit of an identity crisis as its status shifts from college to university. Already a statue of a Confederate soldier has been relocated off campus grounds, but it is the debate over a change of name that has caused the most controversy. At first I didn’t think much of this story as I thought the school’s name and even the Confederate statue constituted a loose identification with a Confederate past. Chalk it up to Ole Miss wannabes.
Boy was I wrong.
Until a few weeks ago, Brody Mikesell, like most of his fellow Dixie students, saw no problem with the name. But he began leafing through old yearbooks, called “The Confederate,” after another student pointed out troubling photos, some as late as the early 1990s. White students sing in black face, dress as Confederate soldiers, stage slave auctions and affectionately display the Confederate battle standard.
Some as late as the 1990s? In the official school yearbook?
The clincher for Mikesell was a parade float called “Gone With the Plow.” In a photo dating from the late 1960s, a man with his skin painted black pushes a plow while a white student, formally dressed with a top hat, holds what appear to be reins or a whip.
Troubling enough, but consider the following from business professor and former chairman of the school’s board of trustees Shan Gubler:
A 1981 graduate, Gubler once carried the Confederate battle standard on campus, never considering that many regard the flag as a racist symbol. Now, thanks to the yearbook photos, “we have printed ourselves into a corner,” Gubler said, because they affirm the perception that Dixie name is a nod to Southern racism.
I hate to break it to you professor, but this is much more than just a “nod” to racism. The fact that there is a history of these images in the official school yearbook suggests that a certain culture was well embedded as late as the early 1990s and that it was sanctioned or at least tolerated by the school’s administration and faculty. This is an open and shut case. If the school wants to be taken seriously as a university it at least should do what is necessary to bring its outward appearance more in line with what we hope goes on inside its classrooms.
Here is something that is sure to make a rainy Boston Monday look just a bit more bleak. It’s the first local news report from Charlotte, NC from this weekend’s event in which nine slaves and one free black man were remembered for their service as soldiers in the Confederate army. You can’t really blame WBTV 3 for this report since all they can do is share what took place. Between the ceremony and this report it does give one the sense of just how woefully misinformed some people are about the institution of slavery and Confederate policy about arming black men as soldiers. The report begins: “Ten black military soldiers finally got the honor they deserve 150 years later.” Not one of these men served as a soldier.
On the brighter side, this morning I am heading over to Boston University to give a guest lecture in Nina Silber’s Civil War class. I am going to talk about my book and the broader topic of how black soldiers have been remembered in recent years. Part of the talk will focus on how the Internet has helped to spread and give legitimacy to the myth of the black Confederate soldier. All we can do is educate.
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