Public History at North Carolina State University

Those of you interested in issues at the intersection of Civil War history, public history, and memory may be interested in an upcoming symposium hosted by North Carolina State University’s history department on March 26.  It’s a one day event, but the panels look to be quite interesting.  The website for the event can be found here and includes a list of panels and participants.  My panel focuses on the challenges of interpreting race at various historic sites and includes Ashley Whitehead (Doctoral Student at West Virginia University, Brian Jordan (Doctoral Student at Yale) and John Hennessy, who will offer his usual words of wisdom following the three presentations.  Here is the title and abstract for my presentation:

“When You’re Black, the Great Battlefield Holds Mixed Messages”: Discussing Race at the Petersburg National Battlefield:

Tremendous changes have taken place within the historical community, both public and academic, since the 1960s.  Nowhere have these changes been more dramatic than on Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Park Service.  At the center of these interpretive shifts is a renewed focus on the role of race and slavery, which has led to more inclusive programs meant to enrich the public’s understanding of the Civil War and attract a wider segment of the general public.  While this agenda has made some inroads in the black community, some NPS frontline staff remain bewildered and confused by the lack of a black reaction to this interpretive shift.  This is complicated by the resistance on the part of some to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970.  This talk examines the recent history of the Petersburg National Battlefield and the challenges associated with interpreting the Crater battlefield in a predominantly black community. The battle of the Crater is best remembered for the failed Union assault following the detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient that included an entire division of United States Colored Troops.  Over the past few decades the NPS in Petersburg has worked closely with local government officials and other private groups to bridge a racial divide that prevented African Americans from visiting the battlefield throughout much of the twentieth century and all but guaranteed that black involvement in the battle would be minimized, if not ignored entirely.  A close look at the recent efforts made by the NPS to reach out to the local black community in Petersburg offers a number of strategies for historical institutions to implement which may help to challenge and even overcome deeply entrenched racial boundaries on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Hope to see you there.

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“Negroes Fighting In the Ranks of the Rebels”

Here is another example of a newspaper clipping on the subject of black Confederates with the compliments of Vicki Betts.  [See here and here ] This is just the kind of evidence that certain parties love to tout as indisputable proof of the existence of black Confederate soldiers.  I have to say that if I came at this issue with no prior background knowledge of Confederate policy on this issue and lacked the ability to ask careful questions of my sources I might be drawn in as well.

NASHVILLE DAILY UNION, February 19, 1863, p. 4, c. 1

Negroes Fighting in the Ranks of
the Rebels.

The following letter containing facts of much interest to the public, is printed by the author’s permission in the Washington Republican of yesterday:”Washington, D. C. Feb. 2, 1863.

“Hon. William Whiting, Solicitor of the War Department”
“Dear Sir:  While at Yorktown, soon after its evacuation by the rebels, I was informed that during the siege the guns in those fortifications were manned and served by negroes, who were recognized as soldiers in the rebel army.

“A few days subsequently at West Point, the day after the fight at that place, I was informed by some of our officers and men engaged in that fight that during the engagement our forces encountered a full company of negroes, armed and equipped, serving in the rebel army; that said negro soldiers drove a portion of our forces into a swamp and deliberately cut the throats of our officers and men, and that our troops caught one of these negroes with a commission in his pocket for a lieutenancy in the rebel army signed by Jeff. Davis.

“At Mechanicsville a full regiment of blacks was seen under drill, in full view of our lines, for several days.

“The above facts are well known and often spoken of.  All this, if true, shows conclusively that there does not seem to be any nice question with Davis as to the equality of blacks, such at least as is now raised in Congress by his friends on the same question.

“Yours truly,
“Thos. W. Beardslee.”

We have evidence also that negroes are enlisted in the rebel army, and paid as white soldiers are, and the man who gives this evidence is a captain in the rebel army.  Read the following advertisement from the Georgia Constitutionalist:

$30 Reward.

Deserted from Company A, 29th Georgia Regiment, stationed at Dawton Battery, on Savannah River, John Rose, 22 years of age, about 5 feet 7 inches in height, complexion a brown black.  He is a free negro and an excellent drummer.  Was enlisted October 16th, 1861, and deserted November 13th, 1862.  He is at present concealed in Savannah.

W. H. Billapp,
Captain Commanding Dawton Battery.

[click to continue…]

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Acquisitions, 02/11

As excited as I am about moving to Boston I am dreading having to pack up my library.  I am seriously considering gutting a sizable chunk of it.  It will be painful, but necessary.  Here is a video I did a few years back on my Civil War library.  Anyway, I haven’t bought too many books over the past months.  Just about everything listed below was mailed to me by the publisher directly.

Judkin Browning, Shifting Loyalties: The Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina(University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Louis Masur, The Civil War: A Concise History(Oxford University Press, 2011).

Sean A. Scott, A Visitation of God: Northern Civilians Interpret the Civil War(Oxford University Press, 2011).

Jane Schultz, ed., This Birth Place of Souls: The Civil War Nursing Diary of Harriet Eaton(Oxford University Press, 2011).

David Silkenat, Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina(University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Peter H. Wood, Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War (Nathan I Huggins Lectures)(Harvard University Press, 2010).

Susannah J. Ural ed., Civil War Citizens(New York University Press, 2010).

Readers Digest, Untold Secrets of the Civil War[Reviewing for Civil War History]

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Standing Up For Teachers

Update: Chris Wehner has responded to my post in the comments section below. He takes issue with just about every point I made, but I stand by what I’ve written. What troubles me most about Wehner’s post is the claim that the work of Howard Zinn and the Social Justice movement somehow explains what is going on in Wisconsin. Wehner makes no attempt to address this claim with any substantive evidence. On the lighter side, many of you will be interested in his new Civil War blog.

I haven’t said anything about the ongoing teachers strike in Wisconsin, in large part, because I am not a member of a union and the reasons for the strike have little to do with the focus of this blog.  On the other hand, I make it a point to highlight the good work that my colleagues are doing in history classrooms across the country.  We have enough bad press out there.  It is with this in mind that I read Chris Wehner’s disgraceful editorial in which he summarily dismisses every last teacher taking part in this strike with one swift back of the hand.

Before proceeding let me state that I am not suggesting that one has to agree with the goals of the protest or even acknowledge the rights of labor and collective bargaining.  My guess is that if I knew everything going on behind the scenes there are aspects of the protest that I would disagree with as well.  All in all, this seems to be as much about politics as it does about managing a budget.  There is blame on both sides.

The new civility on display in Madison, Wisconsin has given me as a teacher pause. As a teacher I have to be held to the utmost level of integrity, do I not? I spend 8 hours a day with other people’s children; often more time than the parents do. I encourage students to work hard, be honest, and disciplined. As a history teacher I point to the nature of our democracy where majority rules, and that elections are to be taken serious as they indeed, as our esteemed President noted, “have consequences.” Yet in Wisconsin teachers have decided to use what is a teachable moment, and demonstrate that lying, banter, and at times, incivility should be used when one does not get what one wants…. You want to protest, do it after school or on the weekends. Want to organize peacefully, fine.

Apart from one quote Wehner makes absolutely no attempt to explain this rampant “lying” and “incivility” which supposedly characterizes the protesters.  On what grounds does Wehner condemn every single teacher who has picked up a sign or spent the evening in the capitol building?  He leaves absolutely no room for the possibility that many of these folks are honest and hardworking people, who are doing something that they truly believe is worth fighting for – for themselves and even for their schools and students.  Again, I am not suggesting that you must agree with their goals, but why must they all be condemned?  Even more outrageous is the suggestion that these teachers should conduct their protests after school hours and on weekends.  Is there anything in the history of labors’ struggle that would suggest that an after hours/weekend walkout ever worked?  What version of U.S. history is Wehner teaching?  Finally, since when did an election negate the right of citizens to engage in peaceful protest?  Isn’t this part of the “nature of democracy”?

According to Wehner, however, the real source of the trouble behind this protest is the boogeyman of social justice.

But none of this should be surprising when we look at how educators are taught today and how they are encouraged to be exemplars of Social Justice and to teach for Social Change.  Today’s teacher unions and educators in America, in public schools, are failing their students and for multiple reasons; some of which have nothing to do with the teachers. But some aspects of this failure have to do with bad teachers and ones that have agendas. Take the literature that is being promoted by the late Howard Zinn and other radicals. In some Universities and Colleges we are producing activists and not educators, and this explains what is happening in Wisconsin. Those who willing[ly] lied, took phony sick notes from unscrupulous doctors, and railed against the democratic system, are sending students the wrong message and setting the wrong example.

We’ve heard it all before from Wehner and others.  The late Howard Zinn and radicals in higher education are corrupting our young teachers and turning them into social radicals “and this explains what is happening in Wisconsin.”  This is as outrageous and irresponsible a claim that I can imagine in this context.  Once again, Wehner provides next to nothing to support his claim apart from one quote and references to emails that he has received from various organizations that are engaged in this enterprise.

Even if you believe that these teachers are “setting the wrong example” why do we have to bring in the issue of Social Justice?  Are we really to believe that the majority of k-12 teachers from every subject area are motivated by the Social Justice agenda?  Are we also to assume that the other civic employees, who have joined the teachers in Wisconsin and elsewhere are also driven by this as well.  Wehner turns individuals into robots without any thought on the matter.  He takes a reasonable disagreement over whether these people have the right to strike and be away from their classrooms and dismisses them without any serious attempt to understand their motivation.

It goes without saying that our education system has some serious problems, some of them are the result of the influence of unions and poor teaching.  However, for every bad apple in our school districts I can point to many more, who are honest, hard working, and struggling to help their students with very little financial support.  What ultimately troubles me about Wehner’s editorial, as well as other things he has written on his blog about the teaching profession, is that he seems to be completely unaware of this.  He would have us believe that teachers are engaged in a plot to turn our students into revolutionaries and overthrow everything that is sacred about America.  It’s as if teachers are to be feared.

I don’t know how anyone in this profession can operate with this mindset.

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“What Shall Be Done With Them?”

On Friday I posted a couple of newspaper notices on the subject of black Confederates from Vicki Betts.  Here is one more from a Memphis newspaper for your consideration.

MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL [MEMPHIS, TN], May 14, 1861, p. 3, c. 2

Our Free Colored Men–What Shall Be Done With Them?–Editors Appeal:  The proposition of the committee of safety, to enlist companies of our free colored men, is not relished by our citizens generally; and the question comes up, “what must be done with them?”  Let me suggest to that committee that they confer with Major-General Pillow as to the policy of placing four or five of our free negroes in each company from Memphis, for cooking, washing, etc.  That is their post, one of inferiority, not of citizen soldiers.  They understand that sort of work better than any boys who are called to do battle.  Let them be made useful in that way.

Common Sense.

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Civil War Memory Needs a New Tagline

UNC Press (2009)

One of my readers reminded me the other day that I am soon going to need a new tagline for Civil War Memory.  He suggested that I make it a contest, which I think is a great idea.  As you know the latter part of, “Reflections of a Civil War Historian and High School History Teacher,” will cease to apply (at least temporarily) come this summer.  So, what should it be?  The contest will be open through next Friday.  My only request is that contestants must be members of the Civil War Memory Facebook Page.  The winner will receive a copy of Aaron Sheehan Dean’s, Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).  Feel free to be as creative as you like.

Thanks for your help.

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The Mythology of the Mythology of Lincoln

Update: Here is a transcript of a debate between Harry V. Jaffa and Thomas DiLorenzo from 2002, which was sponsored by The Independent Institute.  Brooks Simpson has also written up a thoughtful response to this post.

I just finished watching Judge Napolotino’s interview with Thomas DiLorenzo and Thomas Woods on FOX News about the so-called mythology surrounding Abraham Lincoln.  The three raced through all of the talking points that are now part of the standard debunking of Lincoln’s greatness.  We are told that Lincoln was a racist [as was just about every mid-19th century white American], that he arrested thousands of political opponents [Have you read anything by Mark Neely?], and that he inaugurated a modern nation state that violated the Founders goal of establishing limited constitutional government [Relative to what?].  All of this is presented to the general public as if these arguments are somehow new.  They seem to be completely unaware of the rich Lincoln scholarship that has revised much of what we know about our 16th president.

While those of us familiar with this Lincoln scholarship might enjoy a good laugh, we would do well to keep in mind that DiLorenzo and Woods are probably influencing the general public more through their publications and activism than all of the recent scholarly studies combined.  There are a number of reasons for this, but I suspect that part of it can be traced to the unwillingness of museums, historical societies, and professional conference organizers to engage these folks in legitimate scholarly discourse.  The upshot has been the creation of a self-contained group of writers, who reaffirm one another’s legitimacy by appearing on the same television shows and spewing the same rhetoric.

I am reminded of an essay that Daniel Feller, editor of the Andrew Jackson Papers at the University of Tennessee, published in Reviews in American History in which he reviewed three popular “counter-orthodoxy” books, including DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln.

If collegial accolades could settle historical debate, the new orthodoxy conveyed in [David Blight’s] Race and Reunion would have swept all competitors from the field. Yet a counter-orthodoxy not only survives, but thrives. By the measure of book sales, it even prevails. It flourishes not only among the neo-Confederates described by [Tony] Horwitz, but in an alternative world of scholarship, a world rarely encountered by subscribers to this journal [RAH]. The works of this other narrative are taught in college courses (though not necessarily in the best-known colleges) and endorsed by university professors (though not always professors of history). The authors are not cranks in re-enactor garb, but public intellectuals with academic credentials and claims to scholarly detachment.

The popularity of these books reminds us that academics live in a cocoon, which we mistake at our peril for the world.  It is a comfortable cocoon, filled with people and ideas we feel at ease with. But outside that cocoon, convictions are being shaped that will affect us all. The inclination to ignore ersatz scholarship and go about our business is strong, for the costs of engaging are high. But if we believe what we say we do – that knowing history is important, for such knowledge has consequences – then the costs of neglect may be higher.

Of course, this is a much bigger issue than anything I can present in a blog post.  What I will say, however, is that it would be nice to see DiLorenzo and Woods have to present these arguments among historians who have actually published scholarly studies about Lincoln.  Let’s see how well their arguments hold up.  Of course, first, they have to be engaged.:

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You Interpret

[Hat-Tip to Vicki Betts]

Vicki was kind enough to send along these two brief newspaper notices.  I’ve seen plenty of these references in the course of my research – just about every one is from early on in the war.  Here is your chance to be a historian.  What do you make of these brief references to the black community and their willingness to serve the Confederate cause?  What questions do we need to answer about these specific sources and what are the possible interpretations that can be introduced?

MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL [MEMPHIS, TN], August 18, 1861, p. 2, c. 2
The Fort Smith Times of the 10th, states that two companies of southern blackmen have been formed in the neighborhood.  They are thorough southern men, not armed but are drilling to take the field, and say that they are determined to fight for their masters and their homes.

[LITTLE ROCK] ARKANSAS TRUE DEMOCRAT, September 19, 1861, p. 1, c. 7
Darkies Shooting Abolitionists.—The war has dispelled one delusion of the abolitionists.  The negroes regard them as enemies instead of friends.  No insurrection has occurred in the South—no important stampede of slaves has evinced their desire for freedom.  On the contrary, they have jeered at and insulted our troops, have readily enlisted in the rebel army, and on Sunday, at Manassas, shot down our men with as much alacrity as if abolition had never existed.  These are creatures for whose sake Lovejoy, Chandler and Pomeroy are agitating the nation, and to whom they would unconstitutionally extend the privilege of freemen and equality.—Northern Exchange.

MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL [ATLANTA, GA], December 11, 1863, p. 1, c. 8
Old Dick.–We learn, from the Danville Appeal, that the old negro man Dick Slate, well known as the drummer of the 18th Virginia regiment, was sold on last Friday for $750.  He was purchased by the corporation of Danville.  Dick entered the army at the beginning of the war, and served about two years, in which time he gained considerably notoriety, both as a drummer and a fighter.  He was favorably mentioned by Russell, the correspondent of the London Times, for his fighting qualities.

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My Final Civil War Class

Leading my Civil War Memory Class in a Discussion at the Lee Monument in Richmond

Today I am teaching my final class on the American Civil War at the St. Anne’s – Belfield School.  It’s not going to be a memorable class by any stretch of the imagination; we’ve been looking at film for much of the trimester and today we need to wrap up the last scene of Shirley Temple’s “The Littlest Rebel.”  That said, I am feeling a little sad and just a bit sentimental.  I count myself as one of the lucky ones in that for the past 7 years I’ve been able to offer a high school level course on a subject that I spend so much time with outside of class.  No, it doesn’t really seem like a job at all.  I have had some wonderful students over the past few years and a couple of them even went on to study Civil War history in college.  Let’s face it, if you can’t excite high school students with the Civil War you really have no business being in a classroom.

More importantly, my personal interest in the subject allowed me to get to know my students that much better.  And in the end that’s what it is all about.  As important as the content is in its own right, what we are doing as teachers is reaching out and making connections with our students.  The subject is the backdrop on which we work.  At the same time and to a great extent over the past ten years I’ve measured my personal growth based on the quality of my teaching and the connections that it has allowed me to make.  I am surely going to need that again at some point.

Thanks to all my students, who have helped me to better understand THE most important event in American history.

How ’bout them apples, Boston!

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Bid ‘Em In

[Hat-Tip to Jubilo! The Emancipation Century]
This video could easily be shared in the classroom to generate an interesting discussion. For me its the cadence of the auctioneers voice and the constant refrain of Bid ‘Em In that helps to bring home the horror of the slave trade. It’s incredibly powerful.

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