I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the current state of interpretation re: the history of black Union soldiers during the Civil War and beyond in preparation for the Future of Civil War History Conference, which will take place later this week in Gettysburg. As I’ve said before, I think there is much to celebrate as we look back over the past 50 years. The number of scholarly and popular books being published continues at a brisk pace and popular representations of black soldiers can be seen in recent Hollywood movies such as Cold Mountain and Lincoln and even a historical novel about USCTs at the Crater by Newt Gingrich. Most importantly, many history textbooks now devote significant space to black Union soldiers and their contributions. Throughout much of the Civil War sesquicentennial USCTs have been front and center in museum exhibits, symposia, in the pages of local newspapers as human interest stories as well as in the form of new monuments and markers. [click to continue…]
In his report to the SCV’s National Leadership Conference Adjutant-in-Chief Steve Ritchie noted the following:
Adjutant Ritchie then announced what he claimed would be a controversial fact, that there is no national constitutional requirement for proof of lineage/descent from a Confederate veteran for membership in the SCV. The membership packet required at national SCV headquarters includes a completed application, a check and preferably a type written summary of the applicants information but no paperwork for descent documentation is required by national headquarters. Membership records are kept as hardcopies at SCV National headquarters. SCV National does no genealogy verification. The application requires camp officer signatures to substantiate membership satisfaction and camp requirements vary. Compiled service records are sometimes illegible or inaccurate and many were lost during the War especially when towns were burned and razed such as in Sherman’s march. Additional resources include the American Civil War Research database and Broadfoot’s records of Confederate veterans. UCV and pension records are additional resources. He highlighted that how an ancestor was separated or location of his burial may be unknown and don’t get hung up on those details when completing the application.
You have to wonder why this point was raised and whether it will lead to changes in recruitment policy on the local level. Dispensing with the lineage requirement in what is clearly the most vocal Confederate heritage organization would certainly make it easier to fill the ranks and even branch out to welcome the descendants of all those loyal black soldiers, who we can’t quite match up with wartime records. Apparently, we can blame Sherman for the lack of records. At the same time it could undercut the organization’s own claims to authority based largely on their lineal descent. We will have to see how this plays out.
It is not hard to understand the flurry of support for colonization during the Civil War. Notwithstanding the opposition of radical abolitionists, colonization presupposed emancipation, and whenever talk of emancipation arose, so too did talk of colonization. The more difficult question to answer is why it came to so little. In the modern world, wars of unification, especially civil wars inflamed by ethnic nationalism, commonly lead to forced population transfers and sometimes genocide. The Civil War in the United States was certainly a war of national unification, and the Republicans exhibited more than their fare share of ethnic nationalism. Nor was the idea of forced expulsion unheard of in the United States. Most Republican policymakers were old enough to remember the brutal “removal” of the southeastern Indians during Andrew Jackson’s administration. And during the Civil War itself the Union army forcibly expelled some ten thousand whites from their homes in Missouri. The same army systematically uprooted tens of thousands of slaves from their plantations to relocate them in areas safe from the reach of their former masters. And yet not a single emancipated slave was involuntarily “removed” from the United States in the wake of emancipation. (p. 281)
Oakes goes on to suggest an explanation, but for now I am going to leave you with just the excerpt.
With the Future of Civil War History conference right around the corner it should come as no surprise that I’ve had Gettysburg on my mind. I am also looking forward to a return visit in June for the annual Civil War Institute, which will focus on the battle of Gettysburg. With the 150th anniversary just a few months away you would think that publishers would want to cash in on the general public’s interest in this specific battle. It goes without saying that no other Civil War battle looms larger in the nation’s collective memory.
In one way or another the papers acknowledge that we are well positioned to engage the general public about the experiences of black soldiers at various battle sites. The challenges are many, including those mentioned here such as how we respond to misinformation, the continued influence of the movie Glory, and the continued hold of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. Edward Zwick’s Academy-Award winning movie about Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Mass. Vol. Infantry is coming up on its 25th anniversary, but I am unconvinced of its continued influence, especially among younger Americans. Hari Jones makes a compelling case re: the movie’s inaccuracies and the extent to which it distorts our understanding of the relevant history, but I tend to see these oversights as opportunities in our classrooms and in other educational settings. All Hollywood movies about history are fraught with interpretive problems. We need look no further than the movie Lincoln. In the case of black soldiers, however, these issues are exacerbated by decades of neglect at NPS sites as well as the intentional distortion of the historical record for racial and partisan purposes. [click to continue…]