The Complexity of Race

This weekend I head to upstate New York for a conference sponsored by John Brown Lives!  On Friday evening I will host a public screening of the movie Glory at the Palace Theater in Lake Placid for the general public and the following day will do a workshop on the movie for area history teachers.  [There are still slots available if you are in the area and interested.  You do not need to be a teacher to attend.]  I am putting together a little packet for each teacher that includes a selection of Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s letters that will hopefully help them to think beyond the movie.

This little passage to wife Annie caught my eye:

There is a blue-eyed, yellow haired, white-skinned, black preacher out here, who has great influence among the blacks.  He wants to go as chaplain, and I think I shall take him; he looks so much like a white man, that I don’t believe there would be much prejudice against it.  I think I should care very little for public opinion, if it did no harm to the regiment.  It would be out of the question to have any black, field or line, officers at present, because of public sentiment.  It ruined the efficiency of the Louisiana coloured regiments…. [March 17, 1863]

There is quite a bit to unpack in this brief passage.

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Correction to My New York Times Article

It’s always nice to hear from readers who take the time to share how much they enjoy your work.  Though it’s a bit more painful to read, I also appreciate readers who point out my interpretive shortcomings and downright factual errors.  That is just what happened in response to my essay about John Christopher Winsmith, which recently appeared in the NYT’s Disunion page.   Last week I received an email from a gentleman in Spartanburg, SC, where Winsmith was raised.  I should point out that this individual is currently researching Winsmith’s father and has uncovered a good amount of information.  Earlier this year I shared the first year of Christopher’s wartime correspondence.

In the article I point out that Christopher was commissioned as a lieutenant in Company G of the Fifth South Carolina Volunteer Infantry.  Later in the essay I noted that he was elected as captain of another unit in 1862.  It gives the impression that he was an officer throughout this period.  It turns out he was not.  I don’t mind admitting that I was just a bit startled when it was pointed out that Winsmith resigned from his position in the Volunteer Infantry in June 1861 in hopes of getting a commission in a regular Confederate unit.  That did not happen.  It means that for a significant period in 1861 and 1862 Winsmith served as a private.  He also kept his servant, Spencer, with him, which as many of you know is highly unusual.  I had forgotten about this and to say that I am just a little embarrassed would be an understatement.

A few days ago I finally located my Winsmith files where I was surprised to find that I had jotted down just that transition in rank back in 2010.  What it comes down to is that I had not refreshed myself sufficiently about Winsmith’s early wartime career when I went to write about a select number of letters concerning his relationship with Spencer for the NYTs piece.  There is nothing factually wrong in the article (Winsmith was most likely appointed to the rank of captain rather than elected.) but it is misleading.  My correspondent believes that the acknowledgement of Winsmith’s time as a private has and effect on how we interpret his relationship with Spencer.  I am not so sure about that, but I will continue to think about it.

My original goal with the letters was to see them published in the University of Tennessee Press’s “Voices of the Civil War” series.  It is an incredible collection of letters, but it’s been slow going.  All of the letters are transcribed, but still need to be edited.  The upside to all of this is that my correspondent and I are now talking about publishing the letters together.  Stay tuned.

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Review of Lincoln at the Atlantic

Thanks to my editor, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, for cobbling together an appropriate movie review from my last few posts for my column at the Atlantic.  She saved me a couple of hours of work that I don’t have this week.  For this historian and history educator, the amount of coverage that this movie has received is incredibly encouraging.  I’ve heard from folks from all over the country who have seen the movie and who have reported that audiences applauded at the end.  They applauded even in places like Alabama and Mississippi. :-)  Let’s face it, the release of this movie will be remembered as the most important event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  If you are interested in reading more reviews and commentary, I highly recommend Donald Shaffer and Louis Masur.

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Review of the Museum of the Confederacy – Appomattox

What follows is a guest post by Thom Bassett, who recently took a trip to Virginia to explore Civil War battlefields and other sites.  He took the time to visit the new MOC museum at Appomattox and sent along this review.  Thom teaches at Bryant University in Providence, R.I. He has written numerous essays for the New York Times Disunion blog and is currently working on a novel about William Tecumseh Sherman.

It’s unfortunate that in the minds of many the Museum of the Confederacy’s newly opened branch at Appomattox is associated exclusively with the ginned-up controversy about display there of the Confederate battle flag. For one thing, the museum staff seem heartily sick of the issue and those who protested the museum’s design: As I carefully began to ask about it during my visit this weekend, one of them interrupted me to scoff, “What the hell else did they want? We put the damn state flags outside!”

For another, and more important, the MoC-Appomattox overall is a superb example of sophisticated, accessible, evocative, intellectually honest public narrative about the Civil War. While it’s in some respects still very much a work in progress, the museum nonetheless already meaningfully informs and engages the public about the war and its significance today.

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Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner Are Not Historians

Historians are stakeholders in anything that attempts to tell a story about or represent the past.  The vast majority of these stories pass us by innocently enough, but when the most popular Hollywood director makes a movie about Lincoln we watch and listen closely.  We don’t just watch, we also feel a strong need to educate the general public and point out interpretive shortcomings in popular films.  Spielberg’s Lincoln has certainly opened up the floodgates for Lincoln scholars and Civil War historians.  Over the past few days I’ve read numerous reviews by professional historians, both in print and in my circle of social media friends.  All of them are informative even if they tend to reflect individual research agendas much more than the movie itself.

I’ve already linked to a few reviews, but for this short post I am going to refrain from doing so because my point is not to put anyone on the spot or even to suggest that criticism of a Hollywood movie as historical interpretation is not welcome.  Over the years I have done it myself both on this blog and in print.  When there are gross oversights and distortions it is absolutely essential, but at what point do such reviews come down to nothing more than historians once again talking to one another?

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