So You Want To Learn About the Civil War?

The Battle Between the Monitor and the Merrimack Xanthus Smith, c. 1880 (VHS)

Well, then head on over to the Virginia Historical Society for their new exhibit, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia.  I had a chance to sneak in for a few minutes today and it is well worth a visit.  It covers all of the important aspects of the war in Virginia and it does so with a wonderful selection of paintings, artifacts and interactive exhibits.  I am definitely going to have to go back and spend a bit more time. Most importantly, the museum offers a narrative of the war that reflects the best scholarship of the past few decades.   I will give you a sense of what I mean based on their printed guide:

Why Did the Civil War Happen? [Yes, slavery was crucial as a cause of secession & war.]

Slavery caused the war, but the war was not begun to free slaves.  The war had begun to determine whether the Confederate States of America would be allowed to break away as an independent nation, or whether the existing Union would survive.  Only later did the the conflict become one of liberation.  Why did the South want independence?  Southern wealth was mostly invested in slaves or slave-worked land.  Abraham Lincoln, newly elected president, led a party pledged to ban slavery in new states.

War or Murder? [Both Grant and Lee engaged in bloody assaults throughout the war.]

Throughout the war, both sides sought a single decisive victory long after it was clear that no such event was achievable…. Although Grant was called a butcher, Confederate losses, relative to the size of their army, were greater.

Men of Color To Arms? [Sorry, but no black Confederates prior to March 13, 1865.]

A few southern soldiers and civilians suggested as early as January 1864 that the Confederacy enlist slaves as soldiers, but most white southerners disagreed.  One Confederate politician noted that, “if slaves will make good soldiers [then] our whole theory is wrong.”  Desperate to avert defeat, the Confederacy authorized the enlistment of slaves on March 13, 1865, far too late to affect the outcome of the war.

Who Was the Traitor and Who the Patriot? [Virginians ought to remember their Confederates and Unionists.]

In 1861, pro-Union supporters defended the nation that had been created in 1776.  Pro-Confederates said they were exercising the right, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, to “alter or abolish” unrepresentative and oppressive government.  Wherever a Virginian placed his or her loyalty–to the rebel nation of 1776 of the new rebel nation of 1861–he or she was a patriot to the eyes of some and a traitor to others.

How Did Slaves Support the Confederacy? [The Confederacy (including Virginia) went to war as a slaveholding society.]

Slaves and free blacks provided more labor than usual for Virginia farms when 89 percent of eligible white men served in Confederate armies.  Enslaved men were sometimes forced into service to build fortifications, women to serve as laundresses and cooks for troops in the field.  Fearful that they might lose their freedom if they failed to contribute to the war effort, free blacks often worked beside the slaves, for minimal wages.

Did the Civil War End At Appomattox? [We need to think about the war beyond Appomattox.]

Freedom as Confederate independence failed.  Defeat threatened to change white southern identity that had been based on racial supremacy.  Although black Virginians  were no longer enslaved, equality remained an unfulfilled goal for generations to come.

Vanessa Williams’s Civil War

I don’t mind admitting that I am a sucker for the recent string of television shows that trace the family histories of our favorite celebrities.  They perform an important function within the muck and mire that is popular entertainment.  Most importantly, they present the study of history as an exciting process that often leads to meaningful self discovery.  This episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” follows Vanessa Williams as she searches for information about her great-great grandfather, who served in the USCTs during the Civil War.  Williams also learns that an ancestor served in the Tennessee legislature in the 1880s and even introduced legislation mandating public education.  All in all we have here another strong emancipationist narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has made it into our mainstream culture.

Exploring Black Confederate Websites: Black Confederate Soldiers

For my second installment in this series I thought we would take a quick look at Ann DeWitt’s Black Confederate Soldiers site.  It’s one of the more recent sites to appear and it is growing in popularity.  Feel free to suggest websites that might be worth exploring at a later date. I apologize for the sound quality. I am still playing around with a couple of programs so hopefully things will improve.

The Virginia Historical Society’s Civil War

Today the Virginia Historical Society’s exhibition, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia, opens to the general public and will run through to the end of the year. I am hoping to make the drive to Richmond to check it out at some point very soon.

An American Turning Point is not a top-down study of battles and generals. Instead, the exhibition engages visitors in the experiences of a representative group of individuals and situations to promote an understanding of the wartime experiences of Virginians, and those who served in Virginia, during the war. The stories of the men, women, and children who struggled to survive Virginia’s Civil War can be are found in the fabric of every uniform, the blade of every sword, the handle of every tool, the imagery of every drawing, the words of every letter, and the notes of every song.

The exhibit also reflects much broader changes since the Civil War Centennial surrounding how Americans have come to remember their Civil War.  I see this exhibit as a crucial link between the work that historians have done over the past few decades and a general public that has shown strong signs of interest in this crucial moment in American history.  Why Did the Civil War Happen? is the subject of the introductory video for the VHS exhibit.  Enjoy.

Is W.E.B. Dubois Allowed To Compare the Civil War and Reconstruction With Nazi Germany?

W.E.B. Dubois

My American Studies course is currently making its way through Reconstruction as part of a broader look at the history of race.  From here we move on to the twentieth century and the Civil Rights Movement.  Reconstruction readings include Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Dubois.  For our Dubois selection we decided to read his 1943 essay in the journal, PHYLON, titled, “Reconstruction, Seventy-Five Years After.”  It allowed the class to make connections between the three authors’ views of Reconstruction as well as the racial context of WWII.  Analogies between the Civil War and Nazi Germany come up fairly frequently on this blog and others, but our tendency is to resist the urge given the strong emotions that they engender as well as the sloppiness that almost always frames the discussion.

On the other hand, here we have an African American looking back on the history of the Civil War in the middle of WWII.  Dubois can’t help but make the connection in the process of reminding his readers just how crucial African Americans proved to be in preserving the Union:

We are today contemplating with uncertainty and fear the steps that must be taken in Germany by the victorious allies after the overthrow of Hitlerism.  Suppose it were true that the only way to restore Germany in a form which would make it impossible for her to be for a generation if not forever, a menace to the peace of the world, was to put political and social power into the hands of a mass of people who had long been victims of German oppression and who now desired freedom, work, land and education?  Suppose that when the Allies marched into Germany, they found thirty-five per cent of the population, friendly and sympathetic, but hated by the Germans as the Jews are hated; and in contrast to the Jews, ignorant, poor and sick, because of slavery and exploitation for two hundred and fifty years; would there be the slightest doubt but that this suffering and oppressed people would be fixed upon by the conquerers as the God-sent instrument for the reconstruction and democratization of Germany? ….

And what is true in the South faces the nation in this Second World War.  No matter what we may think and say of Germany, by singular paradox the race-religion which Germany has suddenly thrust to the front, is but an interpretation of what America and Europe have practiced against the colored peoples of the world.  No matter who wins this war it is going to end with the question of the equal humanity of black, brown, yellow and white people, thrust firmly to the front.  Is this a world where its peoples in mutual helpfulness and mutual respect can live and work; or will it be a world in the future as in the past, where white Europe and white America must rule “niggers”?  The problem of the reconstruction of the United States, 1876, is the problem of the reconstruction of the world in 1943.

It should be remembered that Dubois wrote this before the liberation of the Concentration Camps in 1944-45.  I actually think that this helps to strengthen rather than weaken his analysis.