Remembering the Centralia Massacre

Centralia Massacre Mural

Yesterday I spent the day doing my part as one of twelve members of a Sesquicentennial Working Group that will meet next month in Milwaukee as part of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  Our panel was organized by the American Association for State and Local History.  We are now at the stage where group members are responding to the various proposals in an attempt to facilitate as fruitful a discussion as possible once we all get together in one room.

All of the proposals are very interesting and reflect a broad range of issues that educators, public historians, and museums are facing as we make our way through the Civil War 150th.  I was particularly intrigued by one case study, which focused on securing funding to properly interpret the Centralia Massacre in Missouri for students and the general public.  The author, who is a history teacher, focused on the challenges of raising sufficient funds for a story that tends to fall outside of our traditional narrative of the Civil War.

The challenge that this person faces in promoting interest in and funding for the preservation and interpretation of the Centralia Massacre highlights the continued popularity of a glorified Civil War narrative.  Americans are much more comfortable commemorating and remembering a war that pit brave Confederate and Union soldiers against one another, mainly on Eastern battlefields, and apart from any serious discussion of causes and consequences.  This is still the case even though there has been a steady stream of scholarly studies [start with Dan Sutherland’s A Savage Conflict] devoted to the Border Wars over the past few years and online databases are also available.  The story of Centralia and the war in Missouri is essential to the creation and maintenance of a sesquicentennial narrative that finally moves beyond what is still a deeply engrained Lost Cause/Reconciliationist narrative.

I’ve used the movie Ride With the Devil in my own course on the Civil War to introduce students to the Border Wars in Missouri.  While it does capture some of the violence in the region, the movie’s emancipationist streak, which emerges in the final scene masks both the short- and long-term consequences of what was essentially a civil war within a civil war.

The story of Missouri’s Civil War has much in common with this nation’s military experience overseas in recent years, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, where much of the violence is driven by local disputes among competing tribes and various other warring factions.  Questions of who holds the moral high ground is difficult to discern and arguably irrelevant to understanding the complexity and depth of violence that took place in Civil War Missouri.  This project fits into an important narrative that moves us beyond that of North v. South/Confederate v. Union and forces us to confront some of the tougher questions of the war.

The author concludes with the following: “Missourians no longer bushwhack each other; however, it is important to remember they once did.”

[Image source]

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Why the Museum of the Confederacy Chose Not To Fly the Flag

I don’t have much to add to Brooks Simpson’s post about the controversy surrounding whether the new branch of the Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox should fly a Confederate flag outside of the facility.  To be honest, I haven’t given it much thought, though I agree with Brooks that it would be appropriate to fly Third National flag opposite the US national colors for 1865.

Let me venture a guess as to why the MOC has chosen not to fly the Confederate flag in front of the building and it has nothing to do with hollow accusations of political correctness and the like.  The Confederate flag has become symbolic of very little that has to do with its Civil War past and that, in large part, is due to the actions of the very people who claim to cherish it as a symbol of their Southern heritage.  Their defense of every nitwit who comes along looking to stir up controversy with the flag and the mainstream media’s obsession with publicizing these stories as part of the “Continued War” narrative has rendered the flag as virtually meaningless.  It is nothing more than something we argue about.

The MOC has an interest in not alienating the general public by flying the flag in full public view; rather its mission is to educate and I have little doubt that it will succeed with the Confederate flag as one of its most important artifacts.   You would think that after so many butchered images of the flag that the MOC’s decision to showcase and interpret the real thing would be met with a sigh of relief from the heritage crowd.

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The Governor Considers It A Most Important Command

Statue by sculptor Thomas R. Gould constructed in 1875, Hingham, MA

One of the stumbling blocks that I continue to come up against in researching the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry is in reference to Governor John Andrew.  The problem is especially acute given my interest in the pay crisis of 1863-64.  Andrew played an important role as an advocate for these men, but I am only able to skirt the surface of his involvement thus far.  Unless I am mistaken, the last biography was written in 1904.  I suspect that his pre-mature death in 1867 as well as the general trend of the nation’s collective memory by the end of the nineteenth century has something to do with his disappearance from the historical landscape.

Of course, he makes a very brief appearance in the movie Glory and you will find him referenced in scores of Civil War studies that focus on the organization and deployment of black Union soldiers, but there seems to be little more.  Can anyone think of a more important Civil War era governor?  Andrew is central not only to the inclusion of African Americans in the United States military, but emancipation itself.

I am now toying with writing a Civil War biography of Andrew.  Such a focus would allow me to continue to research black Union soldiers and the story of black citizenship in Massachusetts, but it would also highlight Andrew’s role in this dramatic story.  I suspect there is also room to talk about how Andrew was remembered in connection to emancipation and black soldiers after his death.

[Post title comes from a letter written by Col. Robert G. Shaw on Feb. 4, 1863, which appears in Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.]

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Are You Offended By This?

Update: The bobbleheads have been removed from the shelves at the Gettysburg Visitor Center.

I don’t think it’s right to sell a memorial of him, he assassinated President Lincoln,” said Patrick Nee, a 17-year-old who attends the Tatnall School in Wilmington, Del.

“Maybe there’s a place for these, but not here in Gettysburg,” said their 11th-grade history teacher, Ruth Hiller.

Harold Holzer, perhaps the most prominent Lincoln scholar alive, agreed Lincoln’s death should not be trivialized, nor his killer celebrated with such a souvenir.

“I’m not a fan of censoring things, but I do think there is an awfully sick marketing person who came up with this idea,” Holzer said when contacted for this story. “It’s not a joke that someone who is a murderer and a criminal is celebrated in any way.”

“I would say it’s pretty sleazy. It’s almost like promoting the assassination,” said battlefield visitor Tracy Chronister, of York. “Why would you celebrate that with a bobblehead?”

There is a market for those people who glorify and revel in our Civil War.  We went down this road a long time ago.  I am no more offended by a John Wilkes Booth bobblehead than I am about 90% of the crap that is sold in Civil War gift shops.  All of it trivializes.

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A Book That Should Matter More

I just finished The Peninsula Campaign and the Necessity of Emancipation: African Americans and the Fight for Freedom by Glenn David Brasher.  It’s a must read for anyone interested in military history, the process of emancipation, and especially the controversy surrounding black Confederate soldiers.  In regard to this last area of interest it is just the kind of study we need.  Brasher takes seriously the evidence pointing to black participation in Confederate ranks and he offers what I believe are very reasonable interpretations of how they were used and why they constituted such an important part of the Confederate war effort.  It is a solid study.  My hope is to write a formal review some time next week for the Atlantic, but for now let me make one quick point.

As important as this book is to the public debate surrounding BC, it is unlikely to have much impact at all.  People don’t read books.  If they want information they go to the Internet.  It comes down to the fact that print sources play almost no role in this controversy.  This is not meant as an argument against traditional monographs, but it is intended as a call for more of us to find ways to engage a much wider audience through a digital format, especially when the subject matters.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if Joy Masoff clicked on a link to a site that contained the quality of analysis and information contained in this book rather than a Sons of Confederate Veterans site that led her to claim that an entire battalion of black soldiers fought with Stonewall Jackson.

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