Let the Documents Speak For Themselves

This really is the best possible time to host a blog on the Civil War and historical memory.  If the next four years follows the past year we are in for a wild ride.  At the same time there is something rather depressing about the level of discourse surrounding many of these high profile events.  Consider the upcoming Secession Ball, scheduled for next Saturday in Charleston South Carolina.  The event marks a specific event in the history of South Carolina and the nation.  While organizers trot out the standard arguments distancing their event from the role that slavery played in helping to bring about the very event that is being celebrated the NAACP is working hard to distort and butcher their own version of the past.

NAACP State President Lonnie Randolph had this to say about the upcoming gala:

“There is nothing to celebrate about killing a million people. South Carolina still lives under the rule of the Confederacy today,” Randolph said.  He compared the Secession Ball to celebrating Sept. 11, Adolf Hitler, or the American Indian massacre at Wounded Knee.   “We want some consistency. We want South Carolina — and America — to be consistent in the way it treats and honors all its citizens.” Randolph said the argument that secession was about states’ rights misrepresents the facts of slavery.  “The state wanted to right to buy and sell people. Tell the whole truth,” he said.  He spoke at a news conference at the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where he was surrounded by area leaders of the organization and ministers.  Handouts at the meeting encouraged attendance at the march and mass meeting with the admonition: “A Call for Unity: Don’t Celebrate Slavery and Terrorism.”

and

Participants will watch segments of “Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 silent film that portrayed Ku Klux Klan members as heroes….  “The states wanted the right to sell human cargo,” he said [Randolph], adding the public would not tolerate similar disrespect of other minority groups – a Holocaust celebration or an event celebrating the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. “The reason this can take place so easily is we’re still suffering the effects of the Confederacy in this state,” Randolph said.

The NAACP is not going to win any converts by pushing a narrative of the war that is heavy on emotion and rhetoric and short on historical content.

Here is what I would do to protest this event.  Station both black and white residents of Charleston in different sections of the city and at a scheduled time, during the Secession Ball, have them read the actual document that was approved by South Carolina’s secession convention.  You could organize literally hundreds of people for this.  I think it would be quite powerful to see South Carolinians take ownership of what South Carolinians in 1860.  As Larry Wilmer noted the other night on the Jon Stewart Show, highlighting the role of slavery in this event is not “politically correct, it’s correct correct.”  And that’s it.

Let the documents speak for themselves.

The Edward Sebesta Circus Continues

Thanks to my readers, who are forwarding me links relevant to Edward Sebesta’s recent announcement that he does not want and will refuse the Museum of the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis Prize for best book on Confederate history if it is awarded.  Turns out that Sebesta is blanketing listservs seeking advice on how best to proceed.  Here is an example from H-Public:

Unfortunately the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) wants to consider giving my newest book an award. This is a book designed to expose the real nature of the Confederacy and the neo-Confederate movement as being about slavery and white supremacy.  No doubt they think that by giving this award they can co-opt James Loewen and myself and position themselves as different from the rest of the neo-Confederates.

As you know, institutions give awards because by honoring others they honor themselves. I don’t want to honor the Museum of the Confederacy, I don’t want my name or my book be used to legitimize them.

John Coski has approached my co-editor and asked for copies of the book, and despite my strenuous objections copies are going to be sent.  I also wrote five certified letters, four to the judges telling them that I don’t want the award and one with copies of the other four letters sent to the Director of the MOC. One would think this would result in my book being thrown out. However, I got an email from Coski saying basically I had no say in the matter.

I am asking for advice on how to prevent this award from happening. The two strategies I have adopted so far are:

1.    Make my opposition public so that they are more likely to reject my book.

2.    Use this consideration of my book as an opportunity to make my criticisms of the Museum of the Confederacy more widely known.

And there is information on the MOC. A speech by Ludwell Johnson III, given at the Museum of the Confederacy, on his being made a Fellow of the Museum and reprinted in the 3rd quarter 1994 issue of “Southern Partisan” is an appalling denigration of African Americans and African American scholarship. Their book “Before Freedom Came” is explained as a rebuke to Carol Moseley-Braun in his speech.

I think that they still give a Jefferson Davis award is appalling. The man was vile. I read a section on the congressional record where they wanted to help out Africans who were on board a captured slave ship and Jefferson Davis is simply appalling in his opposition to helping out these poor persons sweltering in a slave ship off the coast of Florida.

I am going to write up some essays about the MOC and their activities. I have a file which I am going to review. Perhaps some of the members of this listserve would like to write essays on the MOC.  Again, I am open to some advice to make sure this award doesn’t come to my book. I feel it would be a stain on my reputation. Letter follows my name.

I still have no idea why Sebesta has taken this stance.  As I stated in my last post he seems to be ignorant of the good work that the museum has done to further a scholarly understanding of the Civil War – the very thing that Sebesta and Loewen claim to support.  If the MOC was nothing more than an extension of some “Neo-Confederate” organization than why would they consider his book?  Even more bizarre is the reference to their publication, Before Freedom Came, which I am quite familiar with and have used in the classroom on numerous occasions.  It’s obvious to me that Sebesta does not own a copy nor is there any indication of its contents.  This is an edited collection that includes essays by Drew G. Faust, John Michael Vlach Charles Joyner, Deborah Gray White, David R. Goldfield, and Theresa A. Singleton.  Anyone familiar with the historiography of slavery and the history of the South would be hard pressed to describe these individuals as promoting anything other than a scholarly view of the subject.

As far as I am concerned Sebesta is doing little more than engaging in the slandering of an institution that deserves our full support.  I understand that James Loewen will accept the award, if given, but in the name of education and the promotion of scholarly history Loewen ought to reign in his erratic co-editor.  This must be incredibly embarrassing for him.

States Rights v. Slavery: No Discernible Difference

Teaching the Civil War in central Virginia offers an interesting perspective on the continuing evolution of our collective memory of the war.  My current course on the Civil War and historical memory includes students from the surrounding counties of Fluvanna and Greene as well as students who grew up in Charlottesville.  Many of the students come from families that fit into this latter category come from other regions of the country.  I spend a great deal of time listening to my students talk about their own perceptions of the war because it gives me a unique perspective on how future commemorations are likely to take shape.

What I learned today is worth sharing.  As far as I can tell there is no discernible difference between the ways in which northern children are taught to understand the cause of secession and war from what can be found in southern schools.  My students who are born and raised in the counties outside of Charlottesville – which we might suspect as being more traditional in focus – shared that they remember learning that slavery was the central issue driving secession.  I had students who attended grade school in New England and Michigan, who remember learning that slavery was ancillary and that states rights was the central reason. The difference seems to be based on individual teachers rather than anything having to do with a sharp cultural divide between regions. That said, over the past few years I’ve noticed that more and more of my students begin their study of the Civil War on the high school level with an appreciation of the role that slavery played in the events leading up to and following Lincoln’s election.

I think this is important to keep in mind given the controversy surrounding the upcoming Secession Ball that has been planned for Charleston later this month as well as future events.  If we listen too closely to the voices that populate our mainstream media we are likely to be bombarded by a language that divides rather than one that is more likely to reflect where we are in our understanding of these important historical issues.  Tonight (5pm) Chris Matthews will interview the SCV’s commander-in-chief on the Secession Ball.  I have no idea who he will be paired up with, but I can guarantee you that we will learn next to nothing about popular perception.  Rather, we will be entertained by watching one side duke it out with another and we will be left with a facile reminder that Americans are still fighting this war.  Well, that may be accurate to a certain extent, but I would suggest that it is less true than it was just a few decades ago. [Update: Looks like the interview was canceled.]

In the end I am not sure how much longer we can continue to manufacture these debates.

Teaching the Civil War

The History Teacher - November 2010

My most recent publication is now available in the new issue of the November 2010 issue of the journal, The History Teacher.  The essay focuses on how I use Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary in class and is based on a talk I gave back in 2007 at the first biennial meeting of the Society For Civil War Historians.  [Click here to read the essay (pdf file)]

One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years is the opportunity to work with fellow history teachers on how we can better teach our subject.  As much as I enjoy sharing what has worked for me with others I have to say that I’ve learned just as much from my colleagues.  This coming year will be incredibly busy in this regard.  In January I will be leading a TAH workshop with W. Fitzhugh Brundage on the Civil War and historical memory and in April I will take part in another workshop here in Virginia that was organized in response to the recent 4th grade history textbook controversy.  I am also involved in an ongoing effort to secure an NEH Grant for a workshop that will take place next summer.  Finally, I am very excited to report that I recently accepted an offer from the New York Times to write an essay on the challenges of teaching the Civil War during the sesquicentennial.

Let’s always remember to teach our children well.