A 1950s View of the Southern Plantation System

[Cross-Posted at the Atlantic]

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.

Blurbing the Crater

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.

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At the Heart of the Black Confederate Matter

Update: I just wanted to take a second to encourage all of you to read Pete Carmichael’s presentation in its entirety. The last thing I want is for you to read this post as some kind of hatchet job. His thoughts regarding battlefield interpretation deserve a careful read and perhaps in the next few days I will have the opportunity to explore it further.

I almost want to apologize for this post because apart from the recent Civil War Times editorial by Gary Gallagher I haven’t thought much at all about this subject.  Unfortunately, I missed a really good public history panel at the OAH that included Peter Carmichael and Ashley Whitehead, both of who discussed what they see as the future of battlefield interpretation.  [Thanks to John Rudy for posting a transcript of their talks.] I encourage you to read both of their talks because I am only going to poke at an ancillary point made by Pete at the beginning of his presentation.

So we’ve got to move ahead. One thing that strikes me is that we have a hard time doing as historians, public historians or academic historians, that we need to recognize that the interpretive battle has been won. Certainly there are pockets of the lost cause out there, and we certainly need to contend and address those issues, but we often bring undue attention to those pockets of resistance. And the blogging is largely responsible for that, in exciting and talking about the issue of the Confederate slave. Man, that’s not an issue among professional historians, that’s not an issue with most of the public, but it is an issue with really, I think, a small minority.

On the one hand I agree with much of this.  Teachers and public historians are no longer up against a widely-held framework that attempts to justify the Confederacy.  At best, they are echoes of the lost cause.  I also agree that the veracity of the black Confederate narrative found on hundreds of websites is not in any way a concern of academic historians and at best on the radar screens of a “small minority” of the general public.

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