Once again the Civil War blogosphere has descended into the tired debate of who is and who is not a historian. The latest foray into this web of conceptual analysis can be found at Brooks Simpson’s site in response to the recent editorial about Civil War reenacting. I have very little patience for these discussions because they get us nowhere. I’ve had others debate whether I am a historian, which for the most part has been used to question the legitimacy of what I write specifically on this blog as opposed to anything else I’ve done over the past few years.
While I will never lose sleep over this issue, one thing that is not up for debate is my own self-identity as a high school history teacher. You will notice that the old tagline is once again visible under the header. I cracked a little smile yesterday when I decided to do this. When my wife and I first moved to Boston in July 2011 I was excited about the prospect of a year away from the classroom. My goal was to finish the Crater book and make a large dent in the Black Confederates book and a host of other projects. Things didn’t work out as planned. Sure, I finished the book and I was able to stay fairly productive, but there were periods of inactivity and some of it was accompanied by a good deal of depression. No one pushed me to do anything and at times I found it debilitating. [click to continue…]
I’ve known for about a year that there is a movie script about Frederick Douglass that is being bandied around, but this is the first I’ve heard of a movie about Solomon Northup. The movie is based on Northup’s autobiography, which I’ve used numerous times in the classroom. The movie boasts an impressive line-up of actors so it will be interesting to see if it does justice to the book. If you are going to make a movie about slavery Northup’s story is ideal for some of the same reasons that the story of the Amistad proved attractive to Spielberg. Both stories end with freedom. I hope the movie somehow makes it clear that Northup’s story before the Civil War was highly unusual.
The movie hits theaters this coming October.
This Thursday marks the 150th anniversary of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry’s unsuccessful assault at Battery Wagner outside of Charleston. Though the amount of attention focused on this event pales in comparison with the recent commemoration of the battle of Gettysburg, the event constitutes the “high water-mark” of the black soldier experience in the Civil War and in our popular memory. This is due in large part to the success and continued popularity of the movie, “Glory”. On the one hand, the movie obscures the rich history of those black men who fought for the United States during the war beyond the 54th, but it also opens a door that will hopefully be exploited by those involved in this commemoration over the course of the week. [click to continue…]
For many visitors to Civil War battlefields overseen by the National Park Service the orientation movie provides a much needed overview of the relevant history and a clear statement as to why it is important. Unfortunately, many of these movies are out of date, though in recent years individual parks have worked hard to bring their stories in line with more recent scholarship. Shiloh National Military Park is one such example. The first words spoken in their new movie remind visitors that United States soldiers were engaged in nothing less than the suppression of a rebellion.
I’ve never been to Shiloh. In fact, I’ve not visited any of the battlefields outside of the Eastern Theater apart from the Mobile area. In a few weeks I will be co-leading a group of history teachers from Nashville to Washington, D.C. as part of what I assume is one of the last Teaching American History sponsored programs. I will be leading a few tours in the Virginia – D.C. area, but the 10-day trip will finally bring me to places like Franklin, Fort Negley, Stones River, and Chickamauga. I can’t wait.
Jimmy Price notes that reenactments of engagements in which black soldiers participated have already taken place, though on a smaller scale. Even in these cases, however, it is not at all clear as to how the racial element was choreographed/interpreted. He also questions whether the general public would only “stomach” reenactments in which African Americans proved victorious. I don’t know.
A number of you have questioned whether a sufficient number of Confederate reenactors could be organized to reenact battles in which blacks took part. Does this video of the 2012 re-dedication of the Florida Division, UDC’s monument on the Olustee battlefield help?
One of the problems that I can’t seem to get around is the clear limitations that a reenactment offers in these specific cases. It’s one thing to be able to simulate some of the violent acts involved, but it seems to me that the crucial component is the understanding of why it happened and how it fits into a broader interpretation of the war as a whole. Perhaps I am going to get into trouble for saying this, but I just don’t trust reenactors to be able to do this. Of course, there are exceptions, but I’ve seen way too many examples of reenactors – both blue and gray – who have skirted the tough questions of race when raised. Perhaps there is a natural tendency to do so in such a setting. Then there is the question of how they should discuss these issues. Perhaps a select few could do a competent job of explaining these issues in character, but whatever benefits are gained from such a presentation its limitations are pretty clear.
I guess what I am saying is that most people need significant interpretive scaffolding before being exposed to such a reenactment and the wide range of emotions that would no doubt surface.