with (left to right) Ralph Luker, Mark Grimsley, and Becky Goetz at the 2007 meeting of the SHA in Richmond
Today I was sad to learn that Ralph Luker is closing up shop over at HNN’s Cliopatria blog. Ralph has been blogging since before I was born – I mean my blog, of course. Early on it was the place to be seen and I certainly benefited from Ralph’s encouragement and support from making it on to the blogroll to the occasional hyperlink, and most notably receiving the Cliopatria Award for Best Individual Blog in 2007. Thanks to the many distinguished bloggers who made Cliopatria home over the years and thanks especially to Ralph for his hard work and commitment to maintaining the site. It is safe to say that Ralph is largely responsible for encouraging academics to blog and for giving the format the respectability it deserves.
Thanks to everyone who left a comment in response to my last post on David Blight. I wanted to take a few minutes to respond to Barbara Gannon’s comment, which I believe gets at something central to Blight’s overall approach to Civil War memory:
Blight’s explanation is popular because it is neat and satisfying. It posits memory as useful, and historians believe in useful memory. It makes us feel important. In his work, he suggests that forgetting emancipation and the failure to protect African American are somehow tied, in a cause and effect relationship. He posits history was useful to Southerners in this case. His implication, if memory had been right, and slavery remembered, it would have changed things, and been useful to African Americans. Its a real problem when people remember slavery in this era and this did not effect on the status of black Americans. My book and others coming up challenge his fundamental assertions, not minor points in his work. [my emphasis]
The topic of biography comes up at the very beginning of John Neff’s interview with Blight, which I think is key to any response to Barbara’s comment. Blight’s entry into Civil War memory comes before Race and Reunion (2001) in his collection of essays, Frederick Douglass’ Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (1989). Douglass clearly sits at the center of how Blight sees memory unfolding during the postwar decades and its implications for African Americans. It is perhaps not a stretch to suggest that Blight has adopted Douglass’s own view of the moral and political implications of memory as his own, which he believes is important for the rest of us to reflect upon. This is the sense of ‘useful’ that I believe Barbara is getting at.
Barbara’s new book shows that GAR chapters were largely integrated and that African Americans managed to achieve positions of authority while John Neff argues that the Union dead and Lincoln’s assassination rendered reconciliation shallow and problematic. Both books, as well as others, challenge central claims made by Bight in Race and Reunion, but both books tackle narrower topics. We are still left with the brutal fact of Jim Crow and a world that Douglass saw crumbling around him by the end of his life. There is the question of how representative Douglass was to the African American community during the postwar period, but it seems to me his life is useful for reflecting on the connection between historical memory and political power and the larger historical shifts that took place, which tend to be where people find a deep sense of meaning.
In response to one of my posts last week on the Civil War Sesquicentennial one of my readers expressed a feeling of frustration (not on the blog) that David Blight’s interpretation of Civil War memory has become the standard or official narrative. The individual is a professional historian, who has written on the subject. On the one hand, I can certainly understand the concern. How can what is essentially a meta-narrative (a narrative about multiple narratives of the past) become something akin to an official explanation? Since the publication of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory back in 2001 historians have chipped away at various aspects of Blight’s thesis, which emphasizes the triumph of sectional reconciliation at the turn of the twentieth century. My own forthcoming book on the Crater and historical memory bumps up against it.
On the one hand the cottage industry of Civil War memory studies that Race and Reunion spawned is a testament to the quality of the book. Race and Reunion unfolds much of the terrain that subsequent historians have attempted to stake their claim to and challenge. And yet the argument has held up quite well. That, however, does not explain the book’s popularity.
To the extent that Race and Reunion has been embraced by the general public has everything to do with the visibility of its author. The guy gets around. Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Prof. Blight in a number of settings from academic conferences to National Park Service tours to small bookstore signings. Of course, he is not the only academic historian who has achieved public notoriety, but there is something special about achieving it in an area that many might think of as much too theoretical. Most Civil War enthusiasts want to talk about the Civil War and not about how it has been remembered and what this tells us about ourselves as a nation.
The visibility of Blight’s narrative in our popular discourse reminds us that it is the personality and sense of mission behind the book that matters most. And that is something that we should always encourage and celebrate in our public intellectuals.
Battle of the Crater by Harlan Bonar
I kind of like the colors that Harlan Bonar employs for his interpretation of the battle of the Crater, though I don’t see any USCTs. Check out his portfolio for other Civil War scenes. On the Crater front, just a quick reminder that I will be speaking tomorrow night at Genessee Community College in Batavia, New York.
This morning neo-Confederate crusader Edward Sebesta posted the third of his four-part series on the Museum of the Confederacy. Sebesta is convinced that the museum stands at the center of the neo-Confederate cause: “The 3rd installment covers how the MOC creates Confederate identification amongst its supporters, visitors, and others by being a shrine and reliquary.” This most recent entry displays the same shoddy analysis and research that can be found in the other parts. According to Sebesta, this is clearly reflected in the museum’s flag conservation program:
National flags are by definition national identifiers. Confederate flags are those flags adopted by the Confederacy in its quest to be a nation and were intended to serve as a symbol of the Confederate nation. The conservation of flags, like the conservation of any historical artifact, is a legitimate activity for a museum. However, flags are powerful instruments of national identity and act as such – it is the purpose for which they designed. The MOC uses Confederate flags as symbols that both assert and reinforce Confederate national identity.
Sebesta seems to think that the financial support for this project by the Sons of Confederate Veterans implies that the flag’s restoration is for their benefit only and that its purpose is to keep alive the Confederate cause. This is absurd. First, there is nothing necessarily wrong with the SCV offering financial support to the museum nor is there any conflict of interest for the MOC in accepting and publicizing it. The flags belong to all of us.
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