Black Confederates In a 7th Grade Classroom (After-Action Report)

A few days ago I mentioned that I was in contact with a 7th grade history teacher in Boston, who wanted to introduce the subject of black Confederates as part of a unit on the Civil War.  Well, today the instructor reported back with a detailed overview of the lesson.  I think it’s a wonderful example of how this subject, along with the related issue of media literacy, can be introduced at the middle school level.  A number of school districts in Virginia have had difficulty addressing the recent scandal involving the 4th grade history textbook that included false claims about the service of slaves in the Confederate army. This need not be the case.  In fact, it’s a golden opportunity to address some of the fundamental misconceptions of the war as well as the veracity of the sources of these claims.  Here is an example of a teacher making a difference.

Again, Kevin, I owe you tremendous thanks for your guidance on this topic; your suggestion to follow the UVA lead on “Retouching History” along with your own coverage of the websites purporting to educate the online community about Black Confederates were invaluable. Here’s a detailed overview of what we’ve been up to:

1) For homework last Thursday, I asked kids to conduct some research into the topic of Blacks fighting for the Confederacy. In case you want to see how I framed the question, here’s the text of the email I sent them:

During the flag project, Heather sent a representative of the Sons of Confederate Veterans an email asking for his perspective on the Confederate flag. In Mr. Barrow’s response, he mentioned that one way to show that the flag is not necessarily a symbol of slavery is to consider that Blacks actually fought for the Confederacy; if this was the case, he reasoned, how could the cause of the South been to preserve slavery?

This presents an interesting opportunity. Let’s figure out if he is correct in his statement that large numbers of Blacks fought for (not against) the South.  Your homework, then, is to conduct about a half an hour of research into the topic of Blacks fighting for the South.

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The Journey Continues

For the past ten years I have lived and worked in the beautiful state of Virginia.  Unfortunately, that time will be coming to an end this summer as my wife and I transition to a new life in Boston.  This is somewhat of an unexpected move.  We’ve been talking about moving for a couple of years now, but with a wonderful career opportunity having been offered to my wife, that timetable has been pushed forward.  Both of us love the city of Boston.  It’s a big move for both of us and it is not going to be easy to leave Virginia.

We moved to Virginia in 2000 and I have enjoyed every minute of it.  I’ve been lucky enough to work at a school that has nurtured me both as a teacher and as a historian.  My school encouraged me to go back to school for a second M.A. degree and has always encouraged and supported my teaching and writing projects outside of school.  How many people can honestly say that their place of employment allows them to do what they truly love.  My students continue to bring me great joy, but the toughest part of this move will be leaving my colleagues.  They are an inspiration to me and serve as role models for what it means to live the life of a teacher and adviser.

It goes without saying that I am also going to miss the rich history that Virginia offers.  Most of my friendships were made through a shared passion for the study and teaching of Virginia history.  It’s worth repeating that it is this history that has defined my sense of home and place.  It may sound a bit corny, but I also feel like I am leaving a list of long-departed “friends” that have helped me to better understand where I fit into this rich narrative called American history.

So, what’s next?  When I first learned that we would be moving I scrambled to secure a new teaching position.  I still love the classroom.  About a week ago it occurred to me that this may not be the best decision.  Boston has plenty of excellent private schools, but it also has a vibrant public history scene.  One of the things that I’ve enjoyed over the past few years is the opportunity to work with history teachers and historic sites.  With this in mind I’ve decided to take some time to get a sense of what I might do to allow me to continue to work in the area of history education/public history.  Over the past week I’ve talked with a couple of people in the Boston area and I am optimistic that I will be able to put my work as an educator, historian, and social media advocate to good use.  I couldn’t be more excited about what lies in store for me.  For those of you who live and work in the area please feel free to offer any relevant advice that you think might help me to achieve these ends.  I am open to anything and everything.

I am also going to enjoy some free time to complete a number of writing projects, including the black Confederate book.  The research is going well and I am confident that the right book will not only help to move the discussion forward, but will sell well.  The most exciting part of the move is the chance to sink my teeth into the history of Massachusetts.  I am most passionate about the history that surrounds me so I have no doubt that within a short period of time I will come to embrace the history in the same way that I did Virginia’s history.   I’ve thought about writing a memory study of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.  There is plenty of material on the history leading up to its dedication in 1897, but very little on the twentieth century.  Oh, and I hear they have a great deal of Revolutionary War history up there as well. 🙂

What does this mean for Civil War Memory?  I think this is a wonderful opportunity to expand the focus of this blog.  I am looking forward to exploring how the Civil War is remembered and commemorated in New England, which, I suspect, will broaden my readership and advance the overall mission of this site.  And, yes, you can expect some commentary concerning that other period in American history that some claim to be important.

The most difficult part of this move is going to be the challenge of rooting for Boston sports teams given that I am a life long Philly fan.  I tried to root for the Celtics on Saturday against the Miami Heat.  The challenge was made easier because they were playing the Heat, but I anticipate future difficulties.  My wife wondered why Boston had two basketball teams.  I had to explain that one was a baseball team.  Yes, there are going to be a number of challenges involved in this move.

As always, thanks to all of you for your continued support.

A Different Kind of Reconciliation

One of the more difficult aspects of blogging for me has been the maintenance of Online relationships.  I’ve never had much patience in dealing with problematic scenarios and my tendency has always been to find a way to distance myself from certain individuals as quickly as possible.  This usually involves ceasing any and all contact both on the blog and via email.  We have the potential to get so emotionally worked up and words on a screen seem like an inadequate way of addressing it so why bother.  In all honesty, in five years I haven’t gotten much better at it.

Long time readers are no strangers to occasional spats that I’ve had with fellow blogger, Michael Aubrecht.  At times it went way beyond what was appropriate and a few times it became very personal.  These are not interactions that I am not proud of, but I would like to think that I learned important lessons as a result.  I haven’t thought about it in quite some time, but today Michael left the following comment on Brooks Simpson’s recent post about me.

It’s no secret that Kevin and I have had our share of differences over the years, and at times, they have been of a personal and vitriol nature. Both of us are guilty in this regard and I myself have fanned the flames on more than one occasion. Frankly, there are still many issues that we do not agree upon, although I believe that there are many others that we do. Regardless of our past, I vehemently agree that Kevin’s blog has made a big impact on the CW blogosphere while bringing many important issues to light, such as the Black Confederate myth. I myself have posted on this subject with the same frustration that Kevin has. In my declining health, I find myself needing less conflict in both my professional and personal life, especially conflict that serves no greater purpose. Perhaps even Kevin Levin and I can come to terms and express a mutual respect for one another. That would show everyone on all sides of the argument that the blogosphere is not only a place where historical opinions and truths can be shared with the masses, but also a domain where stubborn historians can find a way to work toward a common goal. That goal of course is the proper preservation and presentation of our Nation’s precious history. As we begin to acknowledge the Civil War’s Sesquicentennial, we must celebrate the reunification of our country. If our forefathers could find a way to come together after four years of horrific fighting, why the hell can’t we find a way to get along too…eh Kevin?

I think Michael is right.  It’s time to move on and put the past behind us.  More importantly, I want to wish Michael a speedy recovery.  I’ve known for a few weeks that Michael’s health was in decline.  This is an opportunity to break through the silliness to what matters.

Get well soon, Michael.

The Seven Days Ballad

YouTube is probably the most popular social networking tool currently being utilized in history classrooms across the country.  The vast majority of them are simply put, horrible.  They reflect very little understanding of the medium by the student as well as their teachers.  In my view it’s the clearest example of what is wrong with the way history teachers utilize social media in the classroom.  While there has clearly been a push to embrace these tools over the past few years, many teachers have not thought enough about how they enhance students’ understanding of the past as well as the analytical skills involved.  Once in a while, however, a video stands out.  In this case two students offer a visual representation of the Seven Days Battles accompanied by a little ballad.  It’s clever and fun.

“Who’s Afraid of…?”: A Response

Thanks to Brooks Simpson for a thoughtful post about the visceral reaction that Civil War Memory engenders in certain folks.  I’ve also thought a bit about this question over the years.  Certainly, the vitriol is something that I did not anticipate.  Brooks correctly notes “that there are people (including me) who take a much more confrontational public stance on various issues, and who have not been the targets of nearly as much abuse.”  We could look at any number of things that certain readers have trouble with, including my place of birth, perceived political biases, as well as the standard litany of vague references to “anti-Southern”, “anti-Confederate”… blah, blah, blah.  Actually, I think there is something else at work here.  Brooks writes:

In short, admitting the quality of Kevin’s blog, one of the factors contributing to his influence is the reaction he engenders from people who assume he possesses such influence … which, ironically, has contributed a great deal to his influence.  If people are afraid of him, then he must be saying important things, and maybe we ought to listen to him given the reaction he sparks.  By assuming his influence, Kevin’s critics have helped make him influential.

I don’t doubt that the attention I receive from these quarters fuels interest in the blog and has contributed to my popularity.  In fact, some of my most loyal readers are counting the days until I leave the South forever.  In the end, however, this does not explain the popularity of the blog or suffice as a reason for my increased notoriety.  I suspect that what energizes this particular base is the fact that my blogging has resulted in increased opportunities to teach beyond the confines of my classroom (public lectures/workshops/advisory roles) as well as all kinds of professional writing opportunities.  I would like to think that it is the quality of my blogging as well as published work that is responsible for this success. It is the blog, however, that has allowed me to showcase this work to a broad audience that includes a small handful of folks that are offended by what I do.  It’s impossible to imagine being offered a writing gig or an opportunity to work with high school history teachers if I wasn’t perceived as a competent teacher as well as a competent practitioner of the historical craft.  To put it another way, it turns out that my blogging matters to a great many people from a wide range of backgrounds.  I suspect that this is what drives these folks to lash out in various ways.  My success is a reminder to the folks that Brooks cites in his post that their conversations have no significance beyond the walls of their blogs, listservs, and Facebook pages.

One final point.  Let’s not exaggerate the importance of the folks that Brooks references.  As far as I can tell they represent such a small sample of my readership that they don’t even appear on the radar screen.  They do not represent a significant constituency and they are not engaged in serious discussion about American history and memory.  They are at best a sideshow.  I would much rather focus on the people who have embraced my blog and helped me to better understand a crucial time in our nation’s history.

Thanks Brooks.

Should Descendants of Confederate Soldiers Celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday?

Well, historian and Sons of Confederate Veterans member, Greg Clemmer thinks so.  Clemmer is the author of Valor in Gray: The Recipients of the Confederate Medal of Honor, which was published back in 1997.  Unfortunately, he is one of the few voices of reason within the SCV.  Consider what he has to say about Lincoln’s birthday as well as his reasons for attending commemorative events at the Lincoln Memorial:

We have already touched on answers to that first question in previous Examiner articles. Yet most students of the war recognize that the Lincoln Memorial is a monument to democracy … that it is for everyone … that it primarily honors the martyred president’s success in restoring the Union … and that it remains a vivid reminder of our ongoing challenge to bind up the nation’s wounds….

Most recall that over the years the Lincoln Memorial has hosted a number of epic events, from contralto Marian Anderson’s live performance before 70,000 and a national radio audience in 1939, to Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, to the inauguration celebrations of George W. Bush in 2001 and Barack Obama just two years ago. Yet few know that this memorial was built of Indiana limestone and Colorado marble, or that Daniel Chester French sculpted Lincoln’s seated figure out of marble from the hills of Georgia….

Yes, just as aged Confederate veterans attended the Lincoln Memorial’s original dedication in 1922, there has been a “Confederate presence” at the monument on this day down through the years. Representatives solemnly present a wreath to honor Lincoln, but a wreath accompanied by that Confederate battle flag—yes, the most recognized symbol of the civil war—walked across those marble steps in remembrance of the sacrifice of both sides … yet signifying to all, the binding up of the nation’s wounds.

Clemmer’s column serves as a reminder that there is a long history of Southern admiration for Lincoln and not simply among black Southerners.   On February 12, 1928, the Virginia House of Delegates rose for the first time in respect for Lincoln’s memory and adjourned “in honor of…the martyred President of the United States, whose death was a distinct blow to the South, resulting in a national calamity.”  Not surprisingly, a number of public figures, including Lyon G. Tyler (son of of the president) and Reverend Giles B. Cook (Lee’s staff) offered a request to “to Repeal the Resolution of respect for Abraham Lincoln, the Barbarian…” and an eleven-page resolution.  At least one newspaper editor encouraged its readers to “put aside old animosities.”

Consider the following 1929 survey of 4,658 boys and girls in Alabama living in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham done by David Spence Hill.  Hill asked the following: Of all persons whom you have heard, or read about, or seen, whom would you most care to be like or resemble”?  One third of the boys and 60% of the girls named a relative or personal acquaintance; however, when it came to historic and public figures their answers were quite telling.  Of the boys, 26% chose Washington while both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee came away with 5% each.  The girls also overwhelmingly chose Washington, but Lincoln earned 3% while Lee only earned 2%.  Barry Schwartz’s analysis of the data is worth repeating in full:

Hill’s survey shows Lincoln’s prestige to have been feeble among school children, but he also documents the decline of the Confederate tradition.  That Lincoln and Lee are named by virtually the same small percentage of respondents is surprising, given the belief about the South’s lingering resentments.  No longer can negative Southern attitudes toward Lincoln be attributed to nostalgia for the Confederacy and its heroes.  Moreover, Alabama children were discovering ideals in the present as well as the past.  Boys ranked Charles Lindbergh (22 percent) just below George Washington.  Girls also mentioned Lindbergh, along with film stars Clara Bow, Billie Dove, and Ruth Elder.  Not the Confederate hero but George Washington and contemporary entertainers were competing against Abraham Lincoln for Southern children’s attention and respect. (p. 55-56)

One of the most popular publications of Confederate nostalgia was Tyler’s Quarterly Magazine and in 1939 one of its contributors complained that “praises for Lincoln emanate in almost equal fervor from practically every section of America.”  Not too long ago newspapers inquired as to why Southern states were not taking part in Lincoln Bicentennial events.  Of course, anyone who bothered to look would have noticed that there are numerous events throughout the South which acknowledge in one way or another his importance to American history.  In fact, Lincoln is getting much more attention than both Lee and Jefferson Davis.  My guess is that the author of the piece was driven more by popular perception than any serious understanding of Lincoln’s place in our national memory.  One of the reasons why I find the study of memory to be so intriguing is that it has the potential to surprise.  I am constantly struck by the extent to which our assumptions about the past or the ways in which previous generations interpreted the past deviate from our own.  We should be careful not to use those who came before as a means to our own ends.  So, if you are a white Southerner who respects and admires Lincoln, it turns out that you are in very good company.

Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner?

Sometimes I wonder if people are aware that there is a historical profession that has been engaged over the past few decades in the critical analysis of every aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life.  Consider the following description of an upcoming BBC documentary on Lincoln:

To most Americans Abraham Lincoln is the nation’s greatest president – a political genius who won the Civil War and ended slavery. Today the cult of Lincoln has become a multi-million dollar industry, with millions of Americans visiting his memorials and thousands of books published that present him as a saint more than a politician.

But does Lincoln really deserve all this adulation? 150 years after the war his reputation is being re-assessed, as historians begin to uncover the dark side of his life and politics. They have revealed that the president who ended slavery secretly planned to deport the freed black people out of America. Others are asking if Lincoln should be remembered as a war hero who saved the nation or as a war criminal who launched attacks on innocent southern civilians.

His “reputation is being re-assessed?”  Historians haven’t just “begun to uncover” anything. You couldn’t even think about doing this documentary without the fact that historians have been working on more critical and balanced interpretations of Lincoln for years. How many books on Lincoln came out during his bicentennial alone?  Give me a break.

By the way, Henry Louis Gates did this very same video a few years ago and in my view he did a much better job.

Breaking News: Lincoln Advocated Colonization

Thomas Ball

The American Studies class that I team teach just finished reading William Gienapp’s concise biography of Abraham Lincoln.  Of all the challenges that students coming to Lincoln struggle with is the issue of colonization.  It’s not simply that Lincoln advocated colonization before the war it’s the extent to which he pushed for it during the war itself.  It simply doesn’t mesh with the image of the “Great Emancipator” that many of my students come to class with.  The same holds true for my AP sections.  Luckily, the textbook that I use by Eric Foner does a first rate job with this particular topic. Understanding the steps that Lincoln took toward emancipation as well as the evolution of his thinking concerning race goes far to humanizing Lincoln and coming to terms with the challenges he faced during the Civil War.

Apparently, there is a new book set to be released that focuses specifically on Lincoln’s colonization policy.  According to a Washington Times review, “Newly released documents show that” Lincoln pushed for colonization, “to a greater degree than historians had previously known.”  I don’t know much about these new documents, but supposedly they show that Lincoln continued to push for colonization even after the release of the Emancipation Proclamation.  It would be interesting to know which slaves Lincoln was hoping to colonize; if I had to guess we are talking about those slaves in the border states.  I always remind my students that regardless of what Lincoln desired, African American leaders rejected his proposals.  Here is the book description:

Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement explores the previously unknown truth about Lincoln’s attitude toward colonization. Scholars Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page combed through extensive archival materials, finding evidence, particularly within British Colonial and Foreign Office documents, which exposes what history has neglected to reveal—that Lincoln continued to pursue colonization for close to a year after emancipation. Their research even shows that Lincoln may have been attempting to revive this policy at the time of his assassination.

Using long-forgotten records scattered across three continents—many of them untouched since the Civil War—the authors show that Lincoln continued his search for a freedmen’s colony much longer than previously thought. Colonization after Emancipation reveals Lincoln’s highly secretive negotiations with the British government to find suitable lands for colonization in the West Indies and depicts how the U.S. government worked with British agents and leaders in the free black community to recruit emigrants for the proposed colonies. The book shows that the scheme was never very popular within Lincoln’s administration and even became a subject of subversion when the president’s subordinates began battling for control over a lucrative “colonization fund” established by Congress.

That’s an interesting scenario that Magness and Page lay out, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Consider the following comment by one of the co-authors:

The way that Lincoln historians have grappled with colonization has always been troublesome. It doesn’t mesh with the whole ‘emancipator.’  The revelation of this story changes the picture on that because a lot of historians have tended to downplay colonization. … What we know now is he did continue the effort for at least a year after the proclamation was signed.

I would love to know which historians are being referenced here.  And what exactly is the criticism?  The authors claimed to have uncovered new documents that change the narrative of Lincoln and colonization.  O.K., I get it, but that doesn’t mean that historians have downplayed colonization.  In fact, the very opposite is true.  The story is front and center in both the biography and textbook that my students read.  It’s present in just about every recent biography that I’ve read in recent years.  Sorry boys, but this is not news.  At least it’s not news to my high school students.

Finally, agree with Richard Williams, however, in that I would love to see some kind of interpretive plaque placed at the Thomas Ball statue.