Given the frequency of posts on this site concerning the myth of the black Confederate soldier I wanted to point out the release of a new book that many of you will want to consult. I’ve been looking forward to Glenn David Brasher’s book, The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom, for some time and having completed two chapters I can now say it was worth the wait. Brasher provides an overview of history on the Virginia peninsula and analyzes the ways both free and enslaved blacks influenced the strategic and tactical decisions of both armies during the spring campaign of 1862. Brasher believes that the influence of African Americans on the Peninsula Campaign and its ultimate outcome is more important that Antietam in leading to leading to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
The most important important analytical point that Brasher has made thus far is that there was nothing inevitable about black loyalty to either side during this period. So much of the discussion surrounding black Confederates is about who can claim a moral victory for their respective side. It’s nice to remove this issue from our own soiled hands and place it back in a more strictly defined historical context. Many of the slaves who risked their lives by imposing themselves on Union forces at Fort Monroe and elsewhere remained uncertain as to whether their status as contraband would translate into real freedom. And while Brasher acknowledges the presence of slaves in Confederate ranks, he reminds us that even those who may have taken shots at Yankees may have done so for reasons that have little to do with loyalty to the Confederate cause and master.
Ultimately, this book is about the place of free and enslaved blacks in our understanding of a military campaign and the course of the war in 1862. What we ultimately learn is why the United States eventually recruited blacks into the army by early 1863 and why it took the Confederacy much longer.
And the winner is: “Celebrating the little-known Battle of Calico, California, (or Farb Forks) apparently fought over possession of the town’s only all-you-can-eat buffet.” — Ken Noe
Those of you who are into reenacting are either going to get a good laugh out of this or have your day ruined. Each year, Calico Ghost Town plays host to hundreds of Civil War reenactors and their families in a President’s Day weekend experience. The video is from this past Sunday.
#1: The Civil War Is about to Have a Very Gloomy Birthday
Despite some very noble efforts, the Civil War at 150 will be remembered as having been met by a collective national shrug, even in the South. Apparently Americans are happy enough to celebrate their past but not that interested in commemorating (or, better yet, understanding) it. The reason is not far to seek: the war and its racial legacy remains a can of worms most states don’t want to open publicly. Why shine a light or build a stage just so neo-Confederate dead-enders can perform their ludicrous one-man shows? In a house full of roaches, it is better to leave the lights off.
This is unfortunate in a sense—a “teachable moment” is about to go begging. But by comparison to the centennial celebrations, ambivalence is a victory. Ambivalence is the proper response to war. War is about damage, even at its most heroic, even when certain people and things deserve to be damaged. The destruction of slavery was a good thing and a great thing. Having to fight our bloodiest war to the end is neither good nor great. It is just sad. And remembering that the end of slavery was only the beginning of a longer battle for the kind of freedom that really matters is sadder still. Soon enough, if not already, the Civil War will be understood not as a test this country passed—a kiln in which the nation was fired—but as a test we failed when we couldn’t, short of war, give up our original addiction to “black gold.”
This “victory” of American ambivalence belongs to us, to academe. We have killed, or are killing, the war our fathers and grandfathers built. But no one, including ourselves, feels like celebrating, because it is already clear that our version of the war is an unlovely mess—sordid means serving varied ends, some good, most unforeseen; our version is a longer slog, less politically correct, less inspiring, and more befitting a chastened nation.
As birthday parties go, this one has been a bit of a downer so far. The American Civil War was 150 years old last year, but it went on for four years, so there’s still plenty of time for history buffs in period costumes to re-enact blood-soaked battles; actors to give President Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s speeches, grafting new wings on to a bygone era’s soaring oratory; and writers to churn out volumes chronicling the history of the nation’s deadliest conflict. But, up to now, the reaction has remained oddly muted, suggesting that people in the United States, though apparently still obsessed with the Civil War, remain uncertain about how to remember this troubling event collectively: as triumph or tragedy, as rebirth or mass murder, or as something else again. Or maybe it’s just that Americans are notoriously suspicious of foreign languages, and just what kind of fancy word is sesquicentennial anyway?
Why the doom and gloom and why does this attitude consistently come from within the academic community? Perhaps these characterizations of the general public’s interest reflects their own increasingly defensive posture in response to the marginalization of history and the humanities generally in our society. What is never included in these prognostications is any sense of what exactly is being measured. What would a successful commemoration 150 years later look like? What exactly do Berry and Kelman need to see to help steer us away from the cliff and collective amnesia?
Perhaps I spend too much time reading through my Google News filter about events related to the sesquicentennial. It’s impossible to keep up. The amount of new educational materials related to the Civil War is staggering; museums large and small are creating exhibits; teachers have a wide range of workshops to choose from and visits to NPS sites are up. I could go on and on. My view: The Civil War Sesquicentennial looks just like you would expect it to look like.
I am pleased to announce that Myra Chandler Sampson will be speaking on Wednesday evening at 6:30pm at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center in Austin, Texas. Her topic, as you can see in the museum’s advertisement, is Silas Chandler. If I am not mistaken, this will be her first public presentation. I am sure this is going to be an informative and entertaining talk and I strongly encourage those of you who live in the area to attend and support Myra. As interesting as Silas’s story is, however, I suspect that Myra will also talk about her personal journey that involves nothing less than reclaiming an important piece of family history that had been hijacked by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and spread on the Internet as an example of a false heritage.
It was an honor for me to be able to help Myra bring this story to a wider reading public. I certainly wish I could be there on Wednesday evening. Best of luck, Myra.