What Can Holocaust Memory Teach Us About Civil War Memory?

Next year I will be teaching a course that explores the Holocaust and historical memory as well as how our own Civil War has been remembered.  I am excited and horrified given what little I know about the Holocaust and WWII.  Perhaps I would feel this way about any historical subject next to my knowledge of the American Civil War.  The course comes with a whole new set of challenges that are definitely going to keep me on my toes. [click to continue…]

USPS Civil War Commemorative Stamps Show Clear Bias

Gettysburg

Has anyone else noticed that the stamps released thus far by the United States Postal Service reflect a clear bias?  Perhaps it should come as no surprise that an agency of the federal government would favor the United States during the Civil War.  Next month the USPS’s Forever stamp marking the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg will be released.  It is based on Thure de Thulstrup’s 1887 chromolithograph and once again depicts the Union line as opposed to the more popular Confederate perspective on July 3.

Stamps marking the anniversaries of Bull Run and Antietam also features Union positions while the New Orleans stamp features Union gunboats.  And let’s not forget the Emancipation commemorative stamp.  I suspect that this bias is intentional and that it will continue to the end of the sesquicentennial.  We may not see a Rebel until we get to Appomattox.

At this rate I am willing to wager that they release a stamp marking Sherman’s March?

Crater Talk at Virginia Festival of the Book

First things first. Thanks to all of you who emailed yesterday to share your concerns about our safety in light of the attacks that took place here in Boston.  My wife and I have lived in Boston for close to two years.  After watching the response of our community to yesterday’s tragic events, I can honestly say that there is no other place I would rather live.  I love this city.

Last month I traveled to Charlottesville to take part in the Virginia Festival of the Book.  My panel included my good friend, Rick Britton, and new friend, Ronald Coddington.  We talked about our respective books and fielded a number of excellent questions from the audience.

This coming Saturday C-SPAN will air a panel discussion about United States Colored Troops that I recently moderated at Gettysburg College.  Let’s just say it was an unusual and entertaining discussion.  I’ve actually thought about it a bit and will share some thoughts over the weekend.

No Confederate License Plates in Texas

Palestine, Texas

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled earlier today that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles did not violate the First Amendment when it denied an application by the Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans for customized plates that depicted the Confederate flag.  Here are a few excerpts from the judge’s ruling.

“The issue before the court is this: does the First Amendment require a state government to place the Confederate battle flag on customized, special license plates at the request of a nonprofit organization which has otherwise complied with state rules governing issuance of such plates?” Sparks wrote.  He determined that the answer is no, not because specialty license plates constitute government speech, as the board claimed, but because the plates constitute a nonpublic forum.  He further found that the content of the SCV license plates drove the board’s decision, rather than the group’s viewpoint.

“The SCV repeatedly argues the fact the Buffalo Soldiers plate was approved indicates SCV was subjected to viewpoint discrimination,” Sparks wrote in the 47-page order. “SCV speculates Native Americans would be offended by the Buffalo Soldiers plate, because of the role played by African-American troops in the frontier wars of the nineteenth century. However, the record does not support this assertion: in contrast to the chorus of negative public comments raised against the SCV’s plate, there appears to have been no significant objection to the Buffalo Soldiers plate, rendering SCV’s assertion the Buffalo Soldiers plate is equally derogatory at best purely speculative.”

Sparks noted that, unlike the SCV plates, the Buffalo Soldiers plates lack an “inflammatory symbol comparable to the Confederate battle flag.”  The judge also noted that the group could turn to state lawmakers to get its license plates approved.  “Although suggesting a petitioner for judicial relief should look to the legislative branch for assistance is usually the practical equivalent of there being no relief available, here the Texas Legislature can and frequently has approved a variety of plates — including controversial plates, such as ‘Choose Life’ — by direct legislative action,” Sparks states.

The order concludes: “It is a sad fact the Confederate battle flag has been co-opted by odious groups as a symbol of racism and white supremacy. There is no reason to doubt the SCV and its members are entirely heartfelt in their condemnation of this misuse. It is to be hoped the passage of time, and efforts such as the SCV’s resolution, will eventually remove a blight from the flag under which feats of great heroism and fortitude were accomplished. All the traditional avenues of public discourse are open to those who would fully redeem the battle flag. Nevertheless, the state of Texas has chosen to abstain from this debate, and the First Amendment does not require it to open up state-issued license plates as an additional forum in which to contest the flag’s meaning.”

I find the judge’s thoughts re: the flag’s symbolism to be very strange.  How exactly do you “remove a blight” from a flag that was used between 1861- and 1865 to establish a nation built on slavery and later in the twentieth century as a visible symbol for the maintenance of the racial status quo?  The Confederate flag doesn’t need to be “redeemed” from anything.  What it deserves is a proper interpretation in a place that fosters serious reflection.

Oh well, I guess the Texas SCV can at least fall back on their recent victory in Palestine.  Where is Palestine, you ask?

Remembering that Historical Actors Looked Forward

Gone With the Wind

There is a danger when we remember or imagine the past or treat historical actors as static or stuck in a particular moment as opposed to dynamic and forward looking.  We make an implicit assumption that since we are preoccupied with a particular historical moment that the individuals were as well.  The recent history and memory of 9-11 ought to be sufficient to reveal the mistake that is involved in this imaginative act.  Roughly ten years later and a visit to the city suggests that New Yorkers have moved on with their lives.  Think of the language we used in the immediate aftermath that nothing would ever be the same.  Perhaps we build monuments and memorials because deep down we acknowledge the fickleness of memory.  [click to continue…]

The Social and Cultural Significance of Black Confederate Pensioners

confederate veteran, black confederateAs we all know one of the most misunderstood aspects of the debate surrounding the existence of black Confederate soldiers is the existence of pensions that were given by former Confederate states to qualified black citizens at various points during the postwar period.  For the uninformed or those working primarily from a narrow agenda the existence of these pensions is proof positive of the existence of black soldiers and the fantasy of a multiracial army.  The pensions have been used on numerous occasions by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage types to justify new grave markers and other monuments to these men.  I am not interested in returning to this debate. My position is clear.

What I am interested in doing is posing a few questions about these pensions, which is the subject of chapter 3 in my manuscript on the history of camp servants and the myth of the black Confederate soldier.  My goal is to use the pension records and other sources to explore how white Southerners chose to remember the Civil War and specifically the role of camp servants at the turn of the century.  The questions posed clearly assume that the applicant was present as a non-combatant; in other words they are not classed as soldiers.  Regardless of the state the vast majority of black pensioners were servants and cooks.  What is even more revealing is that pension applications make no inquiry as to whether the individual in question was wounded on the battlefield.  This does not mean that such information never made it onto an application, but that it did not change the status of the applicant.  This is a crucial point given the emphasis that black Confederate advocates place on battlefield prowess.  Again, it apparently made no difference to how white Southerners viewed these men during the postwar period.  [click to continue…]

New To the Civil War Memory Library, 04/12

Milliken's BendLinda Barnickel, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory, (Louisiana State University Press, 2013).

Earl J. Hess, Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign, (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

William A. Link, Atlanta, Cradle of the New South: Race and Remembering in the Civil War’s Aftermath, (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

Hampton Newsome, Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864, (Kent State University Press, 2013).

Caleb Smith, The Oracle and the Curse: A Poetics of Justice from the Revolution to the Civil War, (Harvard University Press, 2013).