Teaching Civil War History 2.0 (New York Times)

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A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Clay Risen of the New York Times to talk about what it might take to make their Civil War blog, Disunion, more appealing to teachers.  I’ve been reading it for some time and I am thoroughly enjoying both the range of writers and subject matter discussed. Disunion recently won the 2010 Cliopatria Award for best series of posts.  We had a nice talk and by the end of our conversation I suggested that an editorial on the recent black Confederate/4th grade history textbook controversy here in Virginia might be worth writing.  I wasn’t so much interested in rehashing the historical debate about black Confederates since that has been done to death.  Unfortunately, what has been left out entirely from the debate is the fact that the error came about as a result of the author’s failure to understand how to search and assess Online information.  It goes without saying that I am honored to published in the New York TimesClick through to the NYTs and the comments which follow.

Calling All American History Teachers

I know it’s only January, but I know some of you out there are already thinking about professional development workshops for this coming summer.  I strongly encourage you to consider the Civil War Trust’s (formerly known as the Civil War Preservation Trust) annual Teachers Institute.  This year the gathering will take place in Nashville, Tennessee from July 14-17.  I attended and thoroughly enjoyed last year’s meeting in Hagerstown, Maryland, where I took part in a roundtable discussion on how to use social media in the classroom.

I will be leading two sessions this year.  The first one will be made available to all participants, though it will cost a bit extra.  The title of the talk is, “Cutting and Pasting Black Confederates On the Internet and In Our Classrooms”.  We are going to discuss the textbook debacle here in Virginia, but my overall goal is to use this incident as a case study for how to both search and assess Online information.  Participants will have the opportunity to evaluate some of the most popular black Confederate websites currently available.  Instructors need to be committed to teaching their students how to intelligently access digital information; unfortunately, this has been almost entirely ignored by the media and other commentators in the wake of this scandal.  [Tomorrow the New York Times will publish my Op-ed piece on just this issue on their Disunion blog.  I will post the text and a link when it becomes available.]

The second session is titled, “Separating Fact From Fiction: Teaching Glory”.  I love showing this movie to my students, but all too often teachers fail to introduce it as a popular interpretation of the 54th Massachusetts and the experiences of black Civil War soldiers.  While the movie does function as a useful entry point to numerous issues concerning slavery and race there are factual and interpretive problems.  More importantly, however, the script offers a highly selective understanding of the unit’s importance to the Civil War that, in the end, may more closely reflect our collective need for a certain view of the legacy of the Civil War.  I explored this in a previous post on the movie and how I use it in the classroom.  Participants will discuss the roles of individual characters and we will examine specific scenes from the movie.  I also plan on distributing a collection of primary sources that challenge some of the interpretive decisions made in the movie and that can hopefully be used in the classroom.

I am looking forward to this trip.  I’ve only been to Nashville once and I have never had the opportunity to explore the many Civil War sites in the area.  Information about individuals sessions and presenters will be added in the near future so check back.

Noah A. Trudeau’s Black Confederates

Andrew and Silas Chandler

Yesterday I posted on the Civil War Memory Facebook page an NPR interview with Noah Andre Trudeau that focused on Robert E. Lee and recent commemorative events of the Civil War.  I didn’t listen to it straight through so I missed this little gem of a comment on black Confederates.  It’s a bit disappointing given his work on black Civil War soldiers that I used throughout the research phase of my Crater study.

This is from Jim in Birmingham: I’ll celebrate my ancestors in north Alabama who joined the First Alabama Cavalry USA and fought the slaveholders in Alabama and served with Sherman on the march to the sea.

And Andy Trudeau, that reminds us: This is not a simple conflict.

Mr. TRUDEAU: No. There are so many complex threads involved here. You cannot say something never happened. And right now, I’m a little concerned that there’s a polarization and that there’s groups that claim it was only about states’ rights.  There’s another group that’s saying that it’s absurd to think that a Southern African-American would even consider doing anything to support the Confederacy. And they just block any effort to make mention of that, when, in fact, I don’t think you can deny that some of that happened.  We’re talking small numbers, but clearly, this is a very complex community. There are bonds of intertwining trust and friendship between black and white that carry forward into the war. And it’s not unusual, I think, especially in some small units, to find African-Americans serving with their white – I guess you’d have to call them their masters. But it happened – not a lot, but it happened.

It’s difficult to know where to begin with this brief comment.  First off, I can’t discern whether Trudeau is referring to slaves or soldiers; this confusion is all too common in this debate.  If he is referring to slaves than we are talking about large numbers that were present with Confederate armies throughout the war.  Kent Masterson Brown suggests that Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia included thousands of servants and impressed men in the summer of 1863, who performed an array of jobs.  As for “bonds of intertwining trust” I think it is safe to say that we are on much shakier ground.  I have no doubt that the war probably brought master and slave together in close contact and I have no doubt that certain bonds were formed.  The problem for any historian researching this, however, is that there is almost nothing available to help fill in the blanks.  It should come as no surprise that I have yet to see a wartime account from a slave that references how he felt about his master while in the army.  Working on my article on Silas and Andrew Chandler it is easy to imagine the two conversing about how much they miss being away from loved ones, but I don’t have access to one shred of evidence that might help me to better understand Silas’s perspective.  If Trudeau is referring to soldiers than he is simply misinformed, which is unfortunate.  I would have him talk to Robert K. Krick about the presence of black soldiers in Lee’s armyContinue reading

David W. Blight on Civil War Memory

You will notice a short interview with David Blight at the top of the sidebar on the right that I recently posted.  Below you can listen to parts 2 and 3.  In part 3 Blight talks about his current project, which is an exploration of the Civil War Centennial and the writings of Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, and Bruce Catton, as well as the sesquicentennial.  In addition to this study I’ve heard that he is at work on a biography of Frederick Douglass.  I do hope that is true.  A few weeks ago my friend, Keith Harris, posted a short review of Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which in my mind is still the place to begin in the field of Civil War memory studies.  Keith’s own scholarship challenges some of the central assumptions of Blight’s work, specifically the ease with which white Northerners abandoned an emancipationist narrative of the war for reconciliation and reunion.  My own forthcoming study of the Crater and historical memory complicates Blight’s interpretive framework by showing that reunion was not a simple process for former Confederates, especially for those veterans who fought under Mahone at Petersburg.  More importantly, Confederate veterans of the Crater were not unified in terms of how they chose to remember and commemorate the war because of deep political differences, especially during the four years of Readjuster control in Virginia.  Blight’s book has spawned a growing literature that complicates the postwar narrative of how Americans chose to remember the war.  A few of my favorite studies include, John Neff’s Honoring The Civil War Dead: Commemoration And The Problem Of Reconciliation, William Blair’s Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, and, most recently, Benjamin G. Cloyd’s Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory.

At the same time I think it’s important to acknowledge Blight’s book because of the studies that it generated.  I think that’s the mark of a seminal book.  Although Blight wasn’t the first person to explore this topic, he did offer students of the Civil War a rich interpretation of the various political and cultural forces (with apologies to PC) at work following the war.  For me the book continues to offer fresh insight every time I open it up and it proved to be invaluable in helping me to think about my own narrow project on the Crater even though I ended up disagreeing with some of Blight’s central assumptions.  In other words, it’s one thing to disagree with a book, but another thing entirely for that very same book to help steer you in a different direction.
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Where Is Your Southern Honor?

Note: Here is a link to a short update on the Washington Post’s blog.  I will keep an eye out for some video of the news conference.  As of Wednesday morning I can’t find a single Online article from a Richmond newspaper or anything else for that matter.  Did anyone even show up to this news conference?

The inauguration of Governor Robert McDonnell

There is something quite pathetic about the Sons of Confederate Veterans holding a press conference to denounce Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and former Senator George Allen for what they perceive as violations of Confederate heritage.  As many of you are aware this battle between the SCV and the governor  started last spring over the latter’s handling of Confederate History Month.  I am not going to rehash that debate in this post so I encourage you to go through my old posts if interested.

Their argument is nothing new: Civil War history has become overly politicized and taken hostage by liberal academics and other illegitimate groups that have prevented the SCV from acknowledging and commemorating their ancestors.  These groups have successfully lobbied the governor to shun the SCV and their history as well as the roughly “2 million Virginia citizens [who] can trace their ancestry to a soldier who fought in the Confederate army” – the implication being that if you are descended from a Confederate soldier you automatically subscribe to the SCV’s preferred view.  Such a view paints the SCV as the victims of a conspiracy or even as modern day warriors defending a lost cause.  We are to believe that past celebrations of Confederate leaders and their cause from the late nineteenth century onward somehow fell outside of politics.  Continue reading