The other day I mentioned that a professor at Rice University used a few of my old posts on black Confederates as a way to focus his students on how Americans remember the war. I thoroughly enjoyed the thoughtful comments of the students, many of which suggest that proponents of this particular narrative have a broader goal of embracing Confederate history – heritage without having to deal with the tough problems of race and slavery. I think there is some truth to this, but I wouldn’t propose it as anything approaching a generalization or even as a sufficient condition.
Second, many of you suggested that remembering the Civil War in a particular way fills certain needs people have–to absolve themselves or their ancestors of guilt, for example, or distance themselves from racism. This made me wonder (and some of you alluded to this): if remembering the Civil War as a conflict that was not meets certain psychological or cultural needs for the people doing the remembering, how does depicting the Civil War as a conflict that was about slavery, or even a war to end slavery, influence the identities or satisfy the needs of people who remember it that way?
It seems like an appropriate question given the slave auction reenactment that took place this morning on the steps of the Old Courthouse in St. Louis. Here is a very interesting interview with Angela desilva, who took part in the reenactment. [Click here for some powerful photographs from the event.] She offers a very personal response to Professor McDaniel’s question, but one that must acknowledge from a distance given my lack of any ancestral connection with slavery.
So, what needs does remembering a war to end slavery satisfy? That’s a tough question and one that I don’t think I can answer right now. I am tempted to suggest that it satisfies my need to know what happened and why, but that sounds shallow and could easily be suggested by those who minimize or reject the importance of slavery. I’m sure others will opine that my radical liberal beliefs have left me feeling guilty or that such an interpretation fits into my view of the United States as fundamentally flawed. Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not it.
Perhaps it relates to my Jewish upbringing. Although I am no longer a practicing Jew I do believe that my strong belief that we have an obligation to remember flows from my experience in Hebrew School during my formative years. It goes without saying that the Holocaust looms large in the lives of most Jews. But this doesn’t fully satisfy either. After all, I can remember the harsh reality of slavery without focusing on the Civil War. In other words, I still don’t know what needs of mine are satisfied by remembering a war to end slavery.
Presentation of M.E. Rachal Award at the Virginia Historical Society (2005) w/Paul Levengood and Nelson Lankford
The other day I received an email from a reader looking for advice on writing and publishing in the field of Civil War history. I thought it might be a good idea to respond on the blog so as to allow the rest of you to add your own perspective. First the email:
I’m emailing to seek advice on writing and publishing. I’ve always been what I guess one would call a Civil War “buff” and am now trying to take my understanding of the period to a higher, more serious level. I think the sesquicentennial is an opportune time to do so. Last month I joined the Society of Civil War Historians. In the past 1 1/2 years I’ve published a book chapter on library instruction, spoken at a few on-campus events here at my college, and presented at a few conferences as well. Later this year I have four articles being published in a woman’s history encyclopedia published by Facts-on-File.
I’m emailing because I have what I feel are some strong ideas for both academic journal articles and the general interest ACW magazines. My focus is more on the immediate postbellum period than the war itself. My position is somewhat unique because though I don’t hold the PhD, I have faculty status. (I have two masters degrees.) In a way the pressure is off because this past semester I was given tenure. (I’m thinking about starting my own blog this coming fall when my tenure becomes official with the new academic year.) Anyways, I’m emailing to see if you might be able to give me some advice on breaking in. A few questions I have are:
Again, please feel free to add your own thoughts based on your own experiences. I don’t have any hard and fast answers. That said, I do see my own story reflected in this email. I do not have a PhD in history, but I did manage to work my way to a point where I can maneuver between a number of different communities. [click to continue…]
Today in Virginia is Lee-Jackson Day, but according to the The News Leader in Staunton you are going to have to look hard to find anyone celebrating it. State offices are closed, but it looks like most government offices are open as well as public schools. I will be in my classroom today as well. While the public acknowledgment and celebration of Lee, Jackson, and all things Confederate may be on the decline, citizens of this great state will have plenty of opportunity over the next few years to study and come to appreciate the lives of these two men as well as the broader history of the war. Their stories are absolutely essential to understanding this beautiful state that we call home so I encourage everyone to embrace Lee and Jackson during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
I’m not quite sure what to make of this video, but is incredibly creative and somewhat entertaining. If you are a fan of claymation and the Civil War than this little video is right up your alley. Enjoy.
This semester Civil War Memory has shown up on Professor W. Caleb McDaniel’sAmerican Civil War Era class blog at Rice University. It looks like Prof. McDaniel started the course off by addressing a number of recent public controversies, including the black Confederate narrative. Their first assignment is to read a series of posts from the blog on the Virginia history textbook controversy as well as older posts on Silas Chandler and Weary Clyburn:
Then, leave a comment here responding to these questions: What other arguments do defenders of the “black Confederate” thesis make about the Civil War era or the history that has been written about it? Do these other arguments shed any light on the question of why Confederate heritage groups are interested in finding supposed “black Confederates” like Weary Clyburn and Silas Chandler?
I went back and perused the Clyburn post, which now includes over 100 comments. One of the things that I did hope for was that this blog might be of interest to historians and teachers interested in public history and memory. Getting beyond the emotion of many of these comment threads it is possible to see it as a catalog of various perspectives – an archive of America’s evolving and rich Civil War memory.
The Washington Post’s popular A House Divided blog has welcomed Brag Bowling as its newest member. It will be interesting to see whether Bowling can move beyond advocacy and actually formulate an argument.
As I was perusing the site I noticed an announcement for the upcoming annual meeting of the Stephen D. Lee Institute, which happens to be the “educational arm” of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. What concerns me is that Linda Wheeler chose to characterize it as offering a “southern view of the Civil War.” Well, it’s doesn’t. Wheeler goes on to include what I must assume is the organization’s own rhetoric of “presenting the true history of the South.” Again, it doesn’t. It is a fundamental mistake to assume that the Institute speaks for anyone other than their members. To casually suggest that they speak for “the South” is inexcusable and irresponsible. If we’ve seen anything over the past few months is that there are a number of competing narratives of the Civil War in the South.
They surely don’t speak for fellow southern bloggers, Robert Moore and Andy Hall. They don’t speak for the many professional historians who were born and raised in the South and who now work hard researching and teaching the history of this beautiful region of the country. We can safely assume that they do not speak for the vast majority of African Americans in the South. It’s not even clear that the Institute speaks for the majority or even a substantial minority of the region. In fact, it’s insulting to suggest that just because you live in the South that you necessarily hold firm to a certain narrative of the past. It would be nice if we could move beyond this naive view of Civil War memory.
Finally, I find it just a little troubling that Wheeler chose to announce this event at all. Of all the forthcoming events in the next few weeks why would anyone publicize a conference that has almost nothing to do with history and everything to do with advocacy?
Thanks once again to Vicki Betts for passing along documents related to the controversial issue of black Confederates. This latest gem is a letter from John C. Breckinridge’s cousin (Matilda Breckinridge Bowyer, of Fincastle, VA) recommending her son to recruit black soldiers, dated March 26, 1865. What is so striking, however, is how unremarkable it is. The document fits perfectly within the narrative accepted by professional Civil War historians and serious students of the war. Not until March 1865 did the Confederate government authorize the enlistment of a limited number of slaves into the Confederate army. There is nothing unusual about a mother with close ties to high political office, who attempts to advance her sons career following the passage of new legislation.
It is also worth commenting on what this letter fails to acknowledge. At no point does Matilda Breckenridge acknowledge that slaves were already serving in Confederate units. Nor does she suggest that her son had any experience with or prior understanding of the recruitment of slaves as soldiers. In fact, I have never seen a letter written by a Confederate civilian, soldier or politician that points to the presence of a significant number of slaves serving as soldier in the Confederate army.
One of the most important books published last year was Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Harvard University Press, 2010). This talk was given at Duke University and I highly recommend it if you have not had an opportunity to read the book. McCurry spends a great deal of time laying out her hemispheric explanation of the Confederate slave enlistment debate.