One hundred and fifty years ago today the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry entered Charleston, South Carolina. Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle offer a vivid description of this moment in the latest New York Times Disunion column. It’s an incredibly powerful scene and one that is beautifully captured in the pages of Harpers Weekly.
Funny, but in all of the historical tours that I have taken with history teachers and student groups, I have never heard this scene referenced. How is it that such a joyous scene that celebrates freedom, located at the very core of the slaveholding South, is not fully embraced? The truth is that from a certain perspective this scene is just a little unsettling. From the vantage point of 1861 these men were never meant to be. The men, women and children welcoming them to their home and celebrating their freedom was not a foregone conclusion just a few years previous. As we all know, the war could have ended without anything in this scene coming to pass. Continue reading →
I’ve never understood this preoccupation with raising flags on highways and in other places that provide absolutely no historical context whatsoever. How exactly is a passerby suppose to know that this particular flag is meant to be interpreted in a certain way? Are the Flaggers oblivious to the fact that the flag is fraught with competing interpretations? For the sake of getting their message across to the general public, why wouldn’t they choose a form of commemoration that is less likely to be misunderstood? Continue reading →
It would be more accurate to say that the city council will make official what is already the case in practice. As a resident of Charlottesville for eleven years before moving to Boston in 2011 I can say with confidence that very few people formally acknowledged the holiday. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any formal recognition of the holiday throughout the state beyond the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other heritage groups. They will and should continue to honor Lee and Jackson in a way that they deem fitting.
The story will make the local newspaper tomorrow, but that will be it. Apart from a few people in and around town no one will take notice. The Virginia Flaggers may make good on their threat to raise a Confederate flag in town, but to the discerning viewer that will only highlight the inevitable retreat of Confederate symbols in public places around the Commonwealth and beyond. Continue reading →
Last Saturday Megan Kate Nelson, my wife and I went to see Suzan Lori Parks’s three-act play, “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” I don’t want to give too much away about the plot beyond the fact that the central character is a slave, who at the beginning of the first act struggles with whether he is going to go off to war with his master/Confederate colonel. Oh, and the slave, whose name is Hero, is also donning a Confederate uniform.
Following the show we enjoyed a talkback with members of the cast. Unfortunately, we missed another post-production discussion the following day with Parks, along with Henry Louis Gates and Eric Foner. The discussion kicked off with some thoughts about the current debate about black Confederates.
On one level the focus of the discussion was unfortunate. At no time is Hero’s struggle about whether he can support or serve the Confederacy and the decision has nothing to do with him serving as a soldier. Rather, it serves as the foundation for his relationship with his master, which evolves significantly during the show. It’s confusing, in part, because Hero wears a uniform, but we know of a number of slaves, including, most famously, Silas Chandler, who were outfitted in military dress. The opening act offers an opportunity to explore the complexity of the master-slave relationship and not that of the relationship between slaves and the Confederacy. Continue reading →