Back to the Battlefield: Field Notes from a Cultural Civil War Historian

This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com.

This is the second in a series.

 [The Civil War] was not a fight between rapacious birds and ferocious beasts, a mere display of brute courage and endurance, but it was a war between men of thought, as well as of action, and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield. Frederick Douglass, “Speech in Madison Square,” Decoration Day, 1878

Unfortunately, even with all of the changes that are currently being implemented we have a long way to go…[E]ven most white Americans who claim to be interested in the Civil War for whatever reason fail to come to terms with its importance to our broader history.  I sometimes think that our colorful stories of Lee and Lincoln are more of a threat to our sense of national identity as [than] no memory or connection with the war.  We would all do well to take a step back. Kevin Levin, “History Through the Veil Again”: A Response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, August 2009

Last week, through Kevin’s generosity, I jumped into a post about the missing Robinson House at Manassas to catch the sesquicentennial, before I had a chance to provide a little context.

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“Gay and Lesbian Sons and Daughters of the Southern Confederacy”

This is a cute little country song about a town in the pan handle of Florida that was taken aback by an entry into their Fourth of July Parade.  Click here for more information about Grant Peeples.  Enjoy.

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“Those Who Fight For Freedom Are Entitled To Freedom”

If “those who fight for freedom” are entitled to it then they are “entitled” to it equally.  If the negro is made to fight our battles of “freedom” then he must be governed by the same laws of war, and he must stand upon the same footing of the white man after the war.  What will be the consequences?  Why, if 250,000 negro men are entitled to their freedom because the fight for it, then their wives, children and families are also entitled to the same boon, just as their wives, children and families of the white man who fight the same battle.  In other words, the South is to be converted by this war into an abolitionized colony of free negroes, instead of a land of white freemen, knowing their rights and daring to maintain them.  If the negroes are to be free, they must be equally free with the master.  If they are to be armed like the master, then they are in fact equal of the master.  What is the result?  Why, they never can be slaves again, and must be treated as the master, politically, civilly and socially.  “Those who fight for freedom are entitled to freedom,” says the Enquirer, and we say so too. [The Lynchburg Republican, November 2, 1864]

Can it be possible that a Southern man–editor of a Southern journal–recognizing the right of property in slaves, admitting their inferiority in the scale of being and also their social inferiority, would recommend the passage of a law which at one blow levels all distinctions, deprives the master of a right to his property, and elevates the negro to an equality with the white man?–for, disguise it as you may, those who fight together in a common cause, and by success win the same freedom, enjoy equal rights and equal position, and in this case, are distinguished by color.  Are we prepared for this?  Is it for this we are contending?  Is it for this we would seek the aid of our slaves?  To win their freedom with our own independence, to establish in our midst a half or quarter of a million of black freemen, familiar with arts and discipline of war, and with large military experience!  Has the bitter experience of Virginia with regard to free negroes already been forgotten?  [Nat Turner’s Rebellion] [Richmond Enquirer, November 4, 1864]

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The Influence of “Roots” on the Black Confederate Myth

Quick Thought: I think what this shows is that the black Confederate myth is a response to a shift in popular culture rather than a response to developments in scholarship. That should not be a surprise. After all, proponents of this myth don’t read scholarly books; rather, they talk to one another on Facebook pages about “revisionism,” “political correctness,” etc.

I’ve suggested that the catalyst for the most recent incarnation of the black Confederate myth can be traced to the 1989 release of the movie, “Glory.”  Well, it looks like I may need to push that back a bit by roughly 12 years.  It should not come as a surprise that highly successful television series, “Roots” pushed some in the Sons of Confederate Veterans to make a conscious effort to correct what they perceived to be a distorted view of Southern history as well as the Confederate war effort.

Thanks to Asa Hines Gordon for publishing this material Online.  I’ve met Asa at a few conferences.  He is a passionate spokesman for the history and memory of black Union soldiers.  Of course, I need to confirm the sources, but consider the following excerpts from the Reports of the Adjutant-in-Chief of the SCV:

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The Reviews Are In

Talking With a Group of Students on Monument Avenue in Richmond

Thanks to Garry Adelman and Nicole Osier of the Civil War Trust for sending along reviews of my two presentations, which I gave at their annual Teacher Institute in Nashville two weeks ago.  I assume they took out the negative reviews so as not to upset me.  All kidding aside, I couldn’t be more pleased with the feedback.  I gave two presentations.  The first was a tutorial on digital media literacy in the classroom – specifically the need to teach our students how to access and assess online information.  I used a couple of black Confederate websites as a case study.  Here are a few reviews.

“Excellent presentation.  I have been waiting for a session like this.”

“As a new teacher, I am still grasping how to teach using the internet.  This was very helpful!”

“Can’t wait to share this talk with my fellow teachers.”

“I have never had any formal training on evaluating sites – this was so helpful.”

My second talk focused on how to use the movie, “Glory” in the classroom.  I focused specifically on the kinds of questions that can be raised in class that asks students to think critically about the intersection of Hollywood and history.  Here is what the participants had to say.

“Fascinating presentation – will take a lot of this into my classroom.  Well done!”

“Kevin Levin was a good presenter who responded wonderfully to participant questions and comments.  This workshop will certainly impact how I use Glory and other movies in my classroom.”

“Entertaining and thought-provoking.  Let’s have more like this good give and take between presenter and attendees.”

“Absolutely stellar session.  We need more of this type of session!!”

This is one of my favorite talks to give.  I am currently working on an essay on Civil War movies for an upcoming issue of the OAH’s Magazine of History, which is being edited by Carol Sheriff.

Please let me know if I can help with your teacher workshop or any other event that involves k-12 history educators.  Sharing with my fellow teachers is the most important work that I do professionally.  Click here for a list of upcoming talks.

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