Unfortunately, today I stumbled upon the new line of Dixie Outfitters t-shirts. I was particularly impressed with their emphasis on the Confederacy’s diversity. It was also interesting to see who made the cut for their “Modern Day Southern Heritage Heros” as well as the quotes for the “Reveal the Truth” lines of t-shirts.
Well, at least that is what Governor McDonnell announced at a recent conference sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission. With April right around the corner, however, we have yet to see a proclamation outlining the scope of the commemoration. Perhaps the governor’s advisers are studying a recent Harris Poll on how Americans identify with this history. Whatever is announced, I trust it will be as thoughtful as this speech.
This last trimester I am working closely with a very talented senior, who is experimenting with historical fiction set during the Civil War. The story is set in Virginia and told through the eyes of a young Virginia girl. We decided that it might be helpful to base the story on some primary sources so today the two of us headed on over to the Special Collections Department at the University of Virginia. We decided to take a look at Sara Ann Graves Strickler’s wartime diary, which is incredibly rich. I’ve known about the diary for some time, but this was my first opportunity to read it for myself. It was a real treat having the opportunity to share that inexpressible joy that comes with holding an important piece of history. As I like to say, in those brief moments time collapses. We took turns reading random entries to one another and looking to see if Sara addressed specific events during the war. Diaries such as Sara’s get us up close to individual lives and force us to confront the contingency that defined their lives and many of the same hopes, dreams, and fears that animate our own. For my student that connection was reinforced in a shared interest in the French language and literature, the references of which were sprinkled throughout the diary.
Actress Tia James portrays the enslaved African American woman represented in a painting in the Newark Museum’s collection. “Near Andersonville” was created by famed American artist Winslow Homer in 1866. The painting depicts the young woman on the ‘threshold’ of the future as she considers her freedom and views her liberators (Union soldiers) being led off to the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Homer presented an anonymous figure, but Ms. James researched published narratives of enslaved people to create her own character named Charity. Charity tells her story and comments on the dangers of the Underground Railroad, facing fear, and the hope to reunite with her husband, Walter. The gourds presented in the picture are symbols of the North Star (the guide for runaways) and the video includes a rendition of the folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. The video is a component of the Newark Museum’s curriculum, “Civil War@150,” a teaching resource recognizing the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
If you are looking for more on the painting you will want to take a look at Peter H. Wood’s concise study, Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War (Harvard University Press).
Or perhaps I should have asked what sorts of activities ought to be avoided over the course of the next few years. I just came across the results of a Harris Poll of 2,566 adults surveyed online between January 17 and 24, 2011 concerning the commemoration of the American Civil War. Judge for yourself:
“Some states, particularly those in the South, have announced plans to remember and commemorate national as well as specific local events surrounding the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. When asked, however, a majority of Americans say that a parade with a mock-swearing in of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy (68%), and parades and events to celebrate secession and the Confederacy are not appropriate (58%) ways to remember the Civil War. In addition, majorities say that flying the Confederate flag (61%) or designating a Confederate History Month (53%) are also not appropriate. Americans who live in states which were neither formed nor recognized during the Civil War are most critical of these ideas (between 59% and 74% say each is not appropriate), yet adults who live in states which were part of the Confederacy are opposed to them as well (between 51% and 69% say each is not appropriate). However, White adults living in the former Confederacy have a different mind regarding flying the Confederate flag and designating a Confederate History Month–at least half say each is appropriate (51% and 57%, respectively). Most Americans, including those in the South and the former Confederacy (91% for all) say that reading President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is, on the other hand, appropriate.”
Click through to the Online article and scroll down for the full report. It is quite interesting. Perhaps I will something to say about it once I’ve had a chance to think about it some more.
Many of you have no doubt noticed the new banner advertisement in the header. I couldn’t be more pleased to host an ad for the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago. I had the opportunity to visit the store a few years ago and I hope to visit again at some point soon to take part in a Virtual Book Signing event once my Crater study is released. This is a perfect example of the kind of companies that I hope to feature on this site. I want to showcase the products and services of companies that add value to the Civil War community and the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop fits this niche perfectly. Click through the banner ad and take a few minutes to explore what I think is one of the most unique bookstores in the country.
I hope to be able to announce the addition of a major academic publisher of Civil War studies to the line-up in the very near future. Click here for additional information about advertising on Civil War Memory?
In response to my last post in which I suggested that public historians have reason to feel good about the seismic interpretive shifts that can be seen in our museum’s and other historical institutions John Hennessy offers the following:
As it relates to the supply-side of the equation, I think there is little doubt that there is something to your and Pete’s declaration of victory. But on the consumer side–not entirely. Anyone would be hard-pressed to declare to the front-line staff on an NPS battlefield site that the issue of disputed memory/history/heritage/tradition is settled in the public’s mind. There HAS been great progress, and we see evidence of that on a regular basis, but we also see evidence of discord literally every day. And then, too, there is the issue the entrenched disconnect between the public history of the Civil War and the African-American community. As has often been said, history doesn’t turn the page, only historians do. [my emphasis]
I think John is absolutely right and this is an issue that came up a few times during the conference in Raleigh, but it didn’t receive nearly enough attention. My paper attempted to sketch some of the challenges that the National Park Service in Petersburg face in attracting African Americans and the local community to the battlefield. I am in now way suggesting that NPS historians need to spend their time generating plans on how to go about attracting any one group of Americans. I’m not even sure how one would go about this. At the same time and given their location within a predominantly black community I do believe that the NPS does have a responsibility to be sensitive to the extent to which decisions made within its own institution and beyond served to alienate African Americans from a landscape that figured prominently in a narrative that traced the transition from slavery to freedom.
It is clear to me that public historians need to spend much more time coming to terms with the myriad ways in which Americans approach their past. With all of the attention being paid to how little Americans supposedly know about the past, it would be much more helpful to try to better understand why so many of us feel drawn to the past. [One useful source is Roy Rozensweig’s and Thelen’s, The Presence of the Past.] A new YouTube video interview of H.K. Edgerton by the Sons of Confederate Veterans points to just how important this is if we hope to offer an interpretation of the past that responds to the needs of various consumers of history. I’ve written extensively about H.K. and while I find him to be quite entertaining it would be a big mistake to dismiss him without considering his core message. I find it very difficult to follow much of his thinking about slavery, Reconstruction, the Klan, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in this video. Frankly, I don’t get the sense that H.K. has read much history at all.
This past weekend I took part in a conference on the Civil War and public history at North Carolina State University. I heard a number of interesting presentations and I will likely comment on them over the next few weeks, but for now I want to say a few quick words about one specific point made during the course of the day. A number of the presentations, including my own, addressed issues relating to the continued interpretive divide that still exists between historians and segments of the general public. You can guess which organizations were mentioned at one point or another as examples of this resistance. In response to John Hennessy’s keynote address Peter Carmichael encouraged the audience to “declare victory” in reference to the interpretive wars. He is right. Public historians working in a wide range of historical institutions are now interpreting the war from a much broader perspective that includes the stories of individuals and groups, who have for far too long been left out of our collective memory. The difficult issues such of slavery and race are now being explored from every possible angle. Finally, the recent focus on historical memory has made us all more sensitive to the consequences of being left out of the nation’s collective memory.
I’ve been suggesting something along the lines of a declaration of victory for some time now. The calls of “revisionism” and emotional defenses of “Southern heritage” are little more than a reflection of an intellectual bankruptcy that was always present in many of the more traditional interpretations that tended to focus more on emotional defense as opposed to an analytical understanding of the past. John Hennessy hit the mark in his keynote address when he noted that the Civil War is one of the only places in American history where the personal anecdote is expected to frame the national narrative. You know what this looks like: My great grandfather never owned slaves….