It should come as no surprise that a National Air and Space Museum exhibit centered around the Enola Gay and the dropping of the Atomic Bomb would cause controversy in the mid-1990s. Many of the veterans of WWII were still alive and the issue itself tugged at how Americans saw themselves as moral leaders on the world stage. Ignoring some of the legitimate concerns with how the event was interpreted by the NASM, it is clear that Americans were simply too close to the event in question to allow for the kind of historical objectivity that the historians, curators, and other professionals hoped to bring to the exhibit. The debate that took place in the halls of the Senate, House of Representatives as well as countless newspapers and magazines provides the perfect case study for what happens when a historical interpretation comes up against a narrative that is rooted in a personal connection to the past that is still very much part of the event itself. We can see this at work in how the events of 9-11 are commemorated as well.
It is interesting that after 150 years many Americans are committed to framing some of the central questions about the Civil War in personal terms. Typically this connection is framed as a defense of an ancestor who fought on one side or another; implied is a belief in some sort of privileged connection to historical truth. I’ve argued in a number of places that our collective understanding has undergone profound shifts in recent years and that we are beginning to take on a more detached stance in regard to the events of the 1860s, but the cries of “heritage violations” can still be heard. While I have some respect for those who take themselves to be deeply rooted in a personal past, the rhetoric is itself sounding more and more anachronistic.
In the process of reviewing the final edits for my Crater book I’ve had to go through research files that have not been touched in a couple of years. Today I read through a bunch of editorials concerning the 1937 Crater re-enactment in Petersburg, which the National Park Service used to mark the inclusion of the battlefield within its jurisdiction. The event attracted around 50,000 people and was widely publicized around the state. Thought the support was overwhelming among white Virginians I was struck by the number of editorials the expressed concern over what they viewed as the glorification of war through re-enactment. Having experienced WWI and having to consider the possibility that American boys might be sent overseas once again it is not surprising that a vocal minority expressed concern. I thought I would share a few excerpts given the current debate about the place of re-enactments in the ongoing sesquicentennial.
Richmond Times-Dispatch (April 29, 1937)
It would be extremely unfortunate if the re-enactment of the Crater and other famous battles of the War Between the States under the auspices of the National Park Service, should impress upon onlookers with the feeling that war is a glamorous, or in any sense an alluring spectacle…. [W]e hope the lesson to be learned from it will that we of this generation must avoid such an experience.
The Petersburg Progress-Index (April 30, 1937)
We need to stop glorifying war and begin to glorify peace. I recall something in personal experience of the horrors of the so-called Civil War, and have had my best friend shot down by my side while warring with Indians, and we all have seen the results of the unrighteous World War, in which we had no business taking part. We should be cured of the war spirit. And that is the kind of spirit, that the re-enactment of the Battle of the Crater fosters among the youth of the land who are to be our future congressmen and leaders.
The Richmond News Leader (May 6, 1937)
Apropos the “Crater,” celebration at Petersburg. I am wondering if it was wise or helpful. Should we exploit the ruthless murdering called “war”? How about the horrible experiences of people in Spain? I hope the terrible occurrences are greatly exaggerated for it makes our hair stand on end to read of it.
Early on in my Mahone research I was intrigued by a letter that J. Horace Lacy wrote to the general at some point during the post-Readjuster years. Lacy shared a conversation he had with Robert E. Lee at a commencement dinner at Washington College in which the general revealed that in the event of his death or inability to lead the army he had Mahone in mind as a replacement.
Gen’l Hampton sat on the right and I as an orator of day on left of Lee. Turning to Hampton Gen’l Lee said something in a low tone, I leaned back as I thought it was possible it might be something confidential. Laying his hand upon my knee he said lean over Major I only wish Hampton and yourself to hear. Then Gen’l Hampton in the dark days which preceded the fall of the Confederacy, for a good while I was almost hopeless, and you know I did not spare this poor life, for I thought it became me to fall on one of those fields of glory. My artillery was handled well, the cavalry was in the very hands, after the death of Stuart that I preferred to any other. But I often thought if a stray ball should carry me off who could best command the incomparable Infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Of course I could not nominate a successor that whole matter was in the hands of the President. But among the younger men I thought William Mahone had developed the highest quality for organization and command.
The words were written down by me that evening and are in my desk at Ellwood. I write them now hastily in a public room. But I know they are accurate. We drifted so far apart politically and I so entirely condemned your policy and methods that I would not give them to the world. Now I cheerfully write them and as far as I am concerned this may be an open letter to the world.
It’s a great story and I don’t mind admitting that back in 2004 I was seduced by it. Mahone was my guy and I was going to rescue him from historical oblivion. In fact, in my first public talks about Mahone I used the well known 1907 print, Lee and His Generals, by George Bagby Matthews to make my point. I was still thinking through issues related to how to handle certain kinds of evidence as well as questions surrounding historical memory. More importantly, at the time I still didn’t have as solid a grasp of just how divisive Mahone’s postwar politics were and my understanding of the Confederate high command was also lacking.
No, I won’t be voting for Rick Santorum in any upcoming primary, but compared to some of his nutty friends on the right [and here] this seems to me to be a pretty reasonable response to what was probably a question about whether a state has the right to nullify or secede from the Union.
Santorum latches on to the popular Shelby Foote quote from Ken Burns’s PBS documentary about how Americans supposedly referred to the nation as “these” United States before the war as opposed to the postwar reference of “the” United States. Yes, Americans were more likely to define their allegiance primarily through their states, but such an identification did not exclude strong feelings of nationalism and patriotism. Just ask George Washington. Americans north and south identified themselves simultaneously as members of multiple communities beginning with their families and extending outward. These strong feelings were informed by an understanding of their history going back to the founding of the nation as well as a firm belief in American Exceptionalism. The process that led to secession beginning in December 1860 was not inevitable nor did it extinguish those strong national bonds in many of those southerners who came to believe that the Union was no longer tenable.
I can’t imagine that this response won Santorum many new friends in New Hampshire last night.
I am in the process of reviewing the final edits of my Crater book. As I made my way through chapter 1 I came across one of my favorite quotes that appears in the section that explores how white Southerners assessed reports of the massacre of black Union soldiers. The quote comes from the Richmond Examiner, which appeared on August 2, 1864:
We beg him [Mahone], hereafter, when negroes are sent forward to murder the wounded, and come shouting “no quarter,” shut your eyes, General, strengthen your stomach with a little brandy and water, and let the work, which God has entrusted to you and your brave men, go forward to its full completion; that is, until every negro has been slaughtered.—Make every salient you are called upon to defend, a Fort Pillow; butcher every negro that Grant sends against your brave troops, and permit them not to soil their hands with the capture of a single hero.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that some of the men in the Fourth Division charged into battle screaming “No quarter” and/or “Remember Fort Pillow.” Reports of this battle cry can be found in the letters and diaries of Confederate soldiers who were present during the battle as well as those who were not. They can also be found in many Southern newspapers, including the Examiner. It is fairly easy to judge who was positioned to hear such a battle cry, which raises the question of why the reference is so pervasive in southern accounts.
The 150th anniversary of one of the most fascinating Civil War battles is fast approaching. Learn about what happened on that bloody day and how the battle has been remembered. Get your signed and discounted copy direct from the author.
"Levin is both superb scholar and public historian, showing us a piece of the real war that does now get into the books, as well as into site interpretation.” –David W. Blight, Yale University