This event has been a long time in the making and I signed on to take part when I was still living in Virginia. John Brown Lives! is a small organization led by Martha Swan, which focuses on public and educational outreach around issues related to freedom and oppression in history and in our world today. Freedom Then, Freedom Now offers a little something for teachers, students, and anyone else who is interested in the history and legacy of emancipation. The list of speakers and subjects to be discussed looks very interesting and David Blight will deliver the keynote address. I am going to host a screening of Glory for the community and then work with a group of teachers on how they can use it in the classroom. It promises to be a fun weekend. [click to continue…]
A couple of recent titles leave me wondering whether some version of the interpretation that the Civil War was unavoidable owing to the loss of moderate influence is making a resurgence. If so, to what extent has it been fueled by our current political culture? It’s hard not to see this at work in David Goldfield’s recent book, America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation, which focuses on the infusion of evangelical religion into political discourse as leading to the breakdown. [The video is from a recent presentation based on his book at the Minnesota History Center.] I just started William Cooper’s We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 so it may be too early to say much of anything that is constructive in this context, but consider one short passage in the preface:
But not all Americans wanted another compromise. In the South, radical secessionists saw this moment, the election of a northern president heading a northern party by northern voters, as their opportunity to disrupt the Union. The North had its own segment that spurned any compromise with the South. These vigorous partisans of the triumphant Republican party were determined to celebrate their victory without any deal with an alarmed, uneasy South.
Of course, two books does not make a school of thought and I have not offered much in terms of historiography, but I thought it might help to get the intellectual juices flowing. What do you think?
Update: It looks like the SHPG decided to take down the post, which should not come as a surprise to those of you familiar with this group.
I hesitate sharing this with you, but it is another wonderful example why the Confederate flag is slowly receding from public view. It should come as no surprise that this screenshot comes from the Southern Heritage Preservation (facebook) Group. The image was posted by Gary Adams, whose commentary is unintelligible. Now I have no idea who is responsible for this sick image, but what I find incredible about the comments that follow is that these are the same people who claim with a straight face that the flag does not have racial overtones.
Anyone with even a little knowledge of American history knows the dark story of lynching and organized violence against African Americans during the 1950s and 60s – often in full view of a Confederate flag. John Stones doesn’t know how right he is. Many African Americans have been bloodied by that banner and given his role as group administrator one would think that Stones would be more careful if we assume that he simply does not understand the historical context of his own words. In this case I am not going to give Stones or “Virginia Southron” the benefit of the doubt. They mean exactly what they say.
Today in class we finish up reading a selection from historian Edmund Morgan on the evolution of slavery in Virginia. Friday’s discussion on why early in the seventeenth century many blacks enjoyed the same freedoms as other Virginians went well as did our discussion of the challenges of managing a growing and increasingly discontented population of indentured servants. Today we need to wrap it up by following the landed gentry in their gradual realization that black slavery could not only meet their labor demands, but also assuage class tensions between landless whites and the landed gentry.
Morgan concludes with the following:
It was slavery, I suggest more than any other single factor, that had made the difference, slavery that enabled Virginia to nourish representative government in a plantation society, slavery that transformed the Virginia of Governor Berkeley to the Virginia of Jefferson, slavery that made the Virginians dare to speak a political language that magnified the rights of freemen, and slavery, therefore, that brought Virginians into the same commonwealth political tradition with New Englanders. The very institution that was to divide North and South after the Revolution may have made possible their union in a republican government.
Thus began the American paradox of slavery and freedom, intertwined and interdependent, the rights of Englishmen supported on the wrongs of Africans. The American Revolution only made the contradictions more glaring, as the slaveholding colonists proclaimed to a candid world the rights not simply of Englishmen but of all men. To explain the origin of the contradictions, if the explanation I have suggested is valid, does not eliminate them or make them less ugly. But may enable us to understand a little better the strength of the ties that bound freedom to slavery, even in so noble a mind as Jefferson’s. And it may perhaps make us wonder about the ties that bind more devious tyrannies to our own freedoms and give us still today our own American paradox.
I am well aware that Morgan’s thesis has been challenged, but my goal in discussing this with my high school students is to introduce them to the process of historical reasoning and to move them beyond the traditional textbook as much as possible.
[Hat-tip to Bjorn Skaptason]
Here is an interesting story to start off the week. Apparently, a group in Chicago wants to build an alternative school that includes a Civil War museum on the grounds of Camp Douglas. If approved, the school would be housed in a former funeral home that was once owned by Ernest Griffin. Before he died Griffin discovered that the funeral home was located on the grounds of the former prison and recruitment center and that one of his ancestors had served in the USCTs.
He set out to learn all he could about the Civil War, becoming an expert and amassing a grand memorabilia collection along the way before his death in 1995. “It’s a fairly large collection, mostly genealogy,” according to Kelly McGrath, spokeswoman for the Newberry Library. Heirs Dawn Griffin O’Neal and husband Jim O’Neal donated Griffin’s collection to the museum this summer. It’s yet to be catalogued. Griffin had gained infamy by flying a Confederate flag on his property — alongside flags of the United States, Africa and a P.O.W. flag. In 1990, at a ceremony attended by Daley and then-Ald. Bobby Rush, the funeral director installed a Heritage Memorial Wall in his parking lot to honor those who died in the camp. All that is donated. A property marker remains, however, noting this is the “site of enlistment of Private Charles H. Griffin, Jan. 5, 1864, Co. B. 29th Reg., T. U.S. Col, D Infantry USCT.” Griffin’s grandfather served in Company B of the 29th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry, the first African-American Union Army division in the state of Virginia.
Organizers hope to utilize these assets to establish a program in cultural preservation. I am not quite sure what to make of this. Ignoring the local political issues and just thinking of the possibilities leaves me with a number of questions and very few answers. How does a program in cultural preservation help this particular group of students? Who staffs it? Anyway, it does sound interesting and I will make sure to keep you posted.
Last Wednesday I spent a good 45 minutes Skyping with Modupe Labode’s public history class at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The class is focused specifically on the Civil War and public history and includes both undergraduate and graduate students. Students were required to read the first chapter of my Crater book, but we managed to address a number of topics. Beyond the book itself we talked about the challenges of interpreting race and slavery at historic sites as well as the role of social media/blogs in shaping historical knowledge and memory. The students were incredibly sharp and their questions reflected a close reading of the various books and articles required for the course. It was time well spent.
This week I will be working with Professor Greg Pfitzer’s students at Skidmore College. The class is the Civil War in American Memory and students are reading David Blight’s article “Decoration Days: The Origins of Memorial Day in the North and South” in Ailce Fahs and Joan Waugh eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture along with a recent post I wrote about commemoration activities in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Students are required to respond on the post and I am going to make every effort to respond to every comment. Please feel free to share your thoughts through the week as well. As we did a couple of years ago, once the assignment is concluded we will debrief with a Skype conversation.
I am calling for a year-long moratorium on Civil War publishing from my favorite historians. There is just too much to read. Give us a chance to catch up.
William J. Cooper, We Have the War Upon Us: The Onset of the Civil War, November 1860-April 1861 (Knopf, 2012).
Guy R. Hasegawa, Mending Broken Soldiers: The Union and Confederate Programs to Supply Artificial Limbs (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012).
Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein, The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine (M.E. Sharpe, 2012).
Joe Mozingo, The Fiddler on Pantico Run: An African Warrior, His White Descendants, A Search for Family (Free Press, 2012).
Jonathan Sarna,When General Grant Expelled the Jews(Schoken, 2012).
John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, The Tribunal: Responses to John Brown and the Harpers Ferry Raid (Harvard University Press, 2012).
John F. Witt, Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History (Free Press, 2012).
This kid is awesome!