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.

Emancipation as an “Honorable Discharge”

We are likely to see more of these black Confederate stories throughout Black History Month.  This one is a perfect example of the confusion and inconsistency that often accompanies these stories.  You can clearly discern both the narrative of a slave and a soldier at work here with no sense that they are mutually exclusive.  Mary Crockett presents her great-grandfather, Richard Quarls, as both a Civil War veteran and as a slave.  The reporter tells us that although he was forced into the army as a slave he wore the Confederate uniform.  The uniform is typically referenced as evidence that the individual in question was considered something other than a slave.  In addition, his pension is shown, which leads one to believe that he served in a Confederate unit as a soldier as opposed to being attached to a soldier/officer as a servant.  In this case the pension that Quarls received was for his work as a slave and not as a soldier.  Once again we can thank the Sons of Confederate Veterans for distorting this story for their own purposes by placing a marker that suggests that Quarls was a soldier.  Ms. Crockett is absolutely right when she points out that her family’s history is complex.  It’s also an important story and at this point in time we should try to get right.

Is This Image Really Controversial?

“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

By Golly They Were Fighting For States’ Rights

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.