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The Future of USCTs at Civil War Sites

USCT
What follows are a few thoughts in response to the position papers of my fellow panelists, who will join me next week at Gettysburg College to talk about how we interpret the USCT experience on our Civil War battlefields.  It’s a bit rough, but it should give you an idea of some of the things I’ve been thinking about of late.

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. Continue reading “The Future of USCTs at Civil War Sites”

When Memory and History Collide

I got a kick out of this short editorial by Kevin Cullen in Danville, Illinois, who recently went looking for information about an ancestor that served in the Confederate army.

For years, I imagined Private Cullen riding a magnificent stallion, attacking the Yanks with his saber, carbine and Colt. In my mind’s eye, he wore gauntlets, a gray felt hat with a jaunty plume, and black boots that reached to the knee. He was, in every sense of the word, a fearless Southern cavalier.

But this week, well, reality struck. I had contacted The Confederate War Department, an online service that researches military records. I had hoped to get all sorts of thrilling information; instead, I discovered that my ancestor first went AWOL, then he deserted in June 1863 — and was never heard from again.

Regardless, he probably could have told some amazing tales. The Fourth Regiment, Kentucky Mounted Infantry, organized at Bowling Green, Ky., in September 1861, had 213 men disabled at the Battle of Shiloh, and then it fought at Baton Rouge and Jackson. As part of the Army of Tennessee, it fought at Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and the Atlanta Campaign. It lost 21 percent of the 275 men engaged at Chickamauga…

All things considered, I’m glad Private Cullen deserted. If he had been killed at Chickamauga, I wouldn’t be here today.

For those of you who harbor such fanciful thoughts about an ancestor that you know nothing about I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of Howard Bahr’s The Judas Field: A Novel of the Civil War.  You have to admire Cullen’s honesty.  Not everyone could have chatted with Robert E. Lee or charged fearlessly over the earthworks.  And it’s reassuring to know that the Confederate War Department is still active.

New To the Civil War Memory Library, 03/02

River of Dark DreamsHoward Bahr, The Judas Field: A Novel of the Civil War, (Picador, 2006).

William A. Dobak, Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, (Center of Military History, 2011).

Christopher Hager, Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing, (Harvard University Press, 2013).

Harold Holzer and Sara Vaugn Gabbard eds., 1863: Lincoln’s Pivotal Year, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013).

Walther Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, (Harvard University Press, 2012).

Rhonda Kolh, The Prairie Boys Go to War: The Fifth Illinois Cavalry, 1861-1865, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2013).

Margot Minardi, Making Slavery History: Abolitionism and the Politics of Memory in Massachusetts, (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Joshua D. Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson, (University of Georgia Press, 2012).

John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On, (Oxford University Press, 2013).

Confederate Like Me

black confederate

Earlier this week I received my author copies of the latest issue of The Civil War Monitor, which contains my essay on Confederate camp servants.  As I’ve said before, I am very excited about this particular piece.  It encompasses some of what I am trying to address in the first chapter of my book on the same subject. Continue reading “Confederate Like Me”

The Way Home

H/T to Peter Winfrey

I highly recommend taking the time to watch this video in its entirety.  It follows a group of black seniors to Yellowstone National Park.  Along the way there is a discussion of why black Americans have apparently lost touch with the history of our national parks, nature and the joys of reconnecting.  It’s an incredibly touching film and in my mind Ranger Shelton Johnson is a superstar.