“In school (in Venezuela) we learned about the United States’ Civil War and slavery. I learned to have a negative view of the flag — I basically associated the image of the flag with slavery, racism and the KKK…. In 1983, I was a college student in Texas and saw a group of KKK clansmen in their hooded robes, standing on a street corner yelling and waving the (Confederate) flag. My English was limited at the time, so I’m not sure what they were yelling, but I probably wouldn’t want to know. It only happened once in the 12 years that I lived there, but that image stuck with me.” — Stanley Bermudez
It’s always entertaining to watch folks get worked up about the pride they feel when defending those brave white Southerners, who in 1860-61 were doing nothing more than standing up against an evil federal government that had stepped beyond its constitutional authority. For many, it’s nothing less than an act of patriotism that may have to be carried out again if we are not careful. In this interpretation of American history, the American Civil War ushered in a new era of corrupt government. Lincoln fits perfectly into the role of arch villain, not simply for ordering the total destruction of the Confederacy, but for his blatant disregard of the Constitution. The act of secession and the war itself constituted the final stand against this blatant disregard for the Constitution.
What is interesting, of course, is that these very same people fail to extend their argument further. Why not continue to defend these salient constitutional issues within the history of the Confederacy itself? After all, a closer look at the historical record may reveal an even more defiant stand against the encroachments on states’ and individual rights in the Confederacy as opposed to the United States between 1861 and 1865. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to add to the argument that the 1860s represented a fundamental shift in our assumptions about the proper relationship between the states and the federal government?
A cursory glance at the historical record suggests that Southern slaveholders are begging to be embraced as defending their rights against what they perceived to be a corrupt government. Throughout the war they stood up against every attempt on the part of the Confederate government to impress their slaves for military purposes. They did so not only because they knew there would be a good chance that their slaves would run away, but that the legislation constituted a direct threat to their individual rights as property holders. Stephanie McCurry does a brilliant job of explaining all of this in her book, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. If we understand the direct connection between states’ right and slaveholders’ rights we can more easily view the slaveholding class as engaged in a broader struggle to protect their individual rights, first against the United States and, within a short period of time, the Confederate States of America.
I came across this question not too long ago on my Facebook News Feed. It was posted by a well-known Civil War historian, who was helping his 4th grader study for the Virginia Standards of Learning Test:
Name the roles of the following
1) White Virginians
2) Freed African Americans
3) American Indians
A) Supported the Confederacy
B) Fought for the Confederacy to protect their rights
C) Did not take sides during the Civil War.
Let me know how you did because I still can’t figure out the right answer. This past week I had the opportunity to work with a group of 4th and 5th grade teachers in Virginia Beach. It presents a unique challenge since I do not have children of my own and my work as a history teacher is on the high school level. Even more challenging is the fact that many of these teachers are not trained in history. That’s not necessarily a problem given the level at which they are working at with the kids and the skills they are working hard to impart. However, we should expect that every attempt is being made to provide these teachers with curricular materials that reflect the latest scholarship and that allows students to see as much of the richness of their state’s history as possible.
If this question reflects what our kids are being taught at this level than we’ve got a lot to worry about. In fact, if I have the right answers the question clearly reflects the content of Joy Masoff’s Our Virginia: Past and Present in which she suggests that slaves supported the Confederacy in large numbers. As bad as that is it could be argued that the assumption that all Virginians supported the Confederacy is also a gross distortion of the past. At one point during my teaching session we were discussing Robert E. Lee’s difficult decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army. I brought up General Winfield Scott’s name as another example of a Virginian, who struggled with the same decision and my audience largely stared back in silence. Scott was one of the most important Americans by 1860 and he was a Virginian. Please don’t tell me that 4th graders can’t understand the concept of a Unionist. I don’t see how you can understand the war in Virginia without it.
On a related note I also learned that public schools in Virginia Beach are not allowed to visit the Museum of the Confederacy. No one could give me an answer beyond the vague rumblings over their name, which have plagued it over the past few years. I made it crystal clear that the MOC is truly one of our most important historical institutions and that they should be taking full advantage of what it has to offer. Here we are at the beginning of the Civil War Sesquicentennial in Virginia and we are still teaching our kids not only an outdated version of the Civil War, but one that somehow manages to fall short of the cognitive capacity of 4th graders. Of course, I have no doubt that there are teachers, who are doing a first-rate job in their classrooms, but these little signs are not encouraging.
If the above question is what passes for historical knowledge in our public schools than I suggest we just bag the entire project and devote the time to math and science.
Our children deserve better.
Update: I just agreed to do my first book signing in Chicago at the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop. Of course, the date has yet to be determined. This is shaping up to be a pretty good weekend.
I am pleased to report that Remembering War As Murder: The Battle of the Crater took a giant leap forward yesterday toward publication. As many of you know back in August I submitted a revised manuscript to the publisher after responding to extensive comments by three anonymous reviewers. All of them provided a healthy dose of criticism and suggestions for improving the overall manuscript. Following the resubmission I was told that the manuscript would be sent to one of the original reviewers as well as a new outside reader. A few weeks ago I heard from the first reviewer, who gave it the green light and yesterday I received a copy of the second report. The reviewer was incredibly enthusiastic and concluded that the book, “stands to make a real and lasting contribution to the field of Civil War Memory studies.” That’s music to my ears. Both reviewers pointed out a few minor things to address, which I will take care of over the next few weeks. I’ve been working with a university press, which is why the process is perhaps a bit more involved than usual. Let me just say that it’s been worth it. The peer review process once again served me well and no doubt saved me from a few errors and helped to point out ways to make my argument even stronger. The final step will be to present the manuscript to the publisher’s board of editors in May. In addition to making these final changes I am also putting together a list of possible photographs as well as a few ideas for the cover. I would love to have the famous John Elder image of the Crater on one side and Don Troiani’s recent print of Mahone’s Charge. The two images beautifully capture the central theme of the book, which is the evolution of how Americans remembered the racial aspect of the battle.
This will be my first book and like every author I hope it sells well. The reviewer quoted above also suggested that the book will likely be used in college classrooms and be attractive to Civil War enthusiasts as well. That’s a positive sign, but how many academic titles have been marketed as having the potential to bridge these two communities? I assume that most people who publish with university presses don’t expect their book to break into mainstream readership. In my case, however, it will be very interesting to see the extent to which my Online presence will push sales. Yesterday I offered a brief update on the status of the manuscript on my Facebook page and within a few hours I had over 40 people express their enthusiasm. A number of people emailed me to let them know when the book is available for pre-order. I am going to go out on a limb here to suggest that this may be the first academic history title to come out of a strong social media presence. As many of you know much of this project was discussed at one point or another on this blog and many of you offered assistance through your thoughtful comments and offers to share your own research materials. What I am suggesting is that many of you have become invested in this project for one reason or another and I have every reason to expect that this will translate into additional sales.
It’s too early to tell, but I may have stumbled upon not only a legitimate method of vetting my ideas with a large audience, but in turning that interest eventually into a book sale. Stay tuned.
This post is the first in a short series of videos that will focus on some of the more popular black Confederate websites. I decided to do this as a follow-up to my recent New York Times editorial in which I discuss the importance of properly assessing information gathered Online. We begin with the Petersburg Express, which in my opinion is the best example of many of the problems that you will find on these sites. This is a beginner’s guide, but I hope that it is helpful to those people who are struggling with some of the basic questions of media literacy. Unfortunately, I had to rush a bit at the end. Here is the link to Whois, which you can use to find information about the source of the website.