The Ghosts of Civil War Memory

Tales From the Haunted SouthI am just about finished reading Tiya Miles’s new book, Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era, published by UNC Press. Miles explores the current craze and popularity of ghost stories at historic sites, specifically those involving slaves in places like Savannah and New Orleans. Here is a short passage that beautifully captures the central theme of the book:

In crafting and hearing stories of haunting, we conjure up and simultaneously contain the collective memories that threaten us. Ghost stories index disturbing historical happenings that have often been excluded from conscious social memory, but they also limit the full recognition of those very happenings. Because modern culture dismisses the possibility of ghosts (even while many people hold personal faith in the reality of haunting), ghost stories are taken lightly, in jest, and are viewed as primitive or playful. Revelations of historical import embedded in ghost stories are therefore dismissed as unreal. Ghost stories as a form of historical narrative therefore do double work: they call to mind disturbing historical knowledge that we feel compelled to face, but they also contain the threat of that knowledge by marking it as unbelievable. This process of pushing back and calling forth a memory might be described as “unsuccessful repression” in psychoanalytical literary and cultural studies. Literature scholar Renee Bergland explains the understanding of hauntings as repression in this way: “The entire dynamic of ghosts and hauntings, as we understand it today, is a dynamic of unsuccessful repression.  Ghosts are things that we try to bury, but that refuse to stay buried. They are our fears and our horrors, disembodied, but made inescapable by their very bodilessness.” Just as hauntings are about the return of the past, or time “out of joint,” ghost stories are a controlled cultural medium for recognizing trouble in that past, for acknowledging the complexities and injustices of history that haunt the periphery of public life and leave a lingering imprint on social relations. (pp. 15-16)

At first I had trouble understanding why Miles is interested in ghosts, but having recently read her previous book, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, it occurred to me that there is a great deal of overlap between ghost stories about slavery at historical sites and the challenges that public historians face in interpreting this history for the general public. The book is well worth your time and is a quick read.


Northern High Schools Confront Their Confederate Past

South Burlington Yearbook

Like many of you I have been following the growing number of public schools that have had to respond to students bringing Confederate flags onto school grounds. This is taking place throughout the country and not just in the South. I’ve read stories of schools as far north as New Hampshire and Minnesota that are currently dealing with this issue. Even more interesting are those Northern schools with deeper ties to Confederate heritage that go back to the 1960s. In my latest column at The Daily Beast I briefly explore two of those schools, one in Walpole, Massachusetts and the other in South Burlington, Vermont. [click to continue…]


Ole Miss Student Senate Votes to Remove State Flag


Just when you thought the wave of reports about Confederate flag removals had crested, we get hit by another one. Last week Florida’s state senate voted to remove the Confederate from its official seal. In Greene County, Tennessee a county commissioner proposed raising a Confederate flag in front of the courthouse, which was overwhelmingly voted down. Maryland will likely join Virginia in banning the Confederate flag from license plates. And among the “Heritage, Not Hate” crowd fifteen members of a group calling itself, “Respect the Flag” were indicted on terrorism charges following an incident that took place in Georgia over the summer. [click to continue…]


Op-Ed on Black Confederates at History News Network


Last week Rick Shenkman asked me to write an Op-Ed on the myth of the black Confederate soldier for History News Network, which I was happy to do. I decided to structure it around a recent post that highlights a simply and important point that I’ve made numerous times. In all the years that I have researched this topic, I have yet to find a single piece of wartime evidence from a Confederate soldier, civilian or politician (before March 1865) that acknowledges that black men were serving as soldiers. In fact, on numerous occasions Confederates denied their existence when confronted by stories to the contrary. [click to continue…]


Students Debate the Confederate Flag

Confederate Flag

It’s nice to see students talking to one another in the safety of a classroom about the Confederate flag. I am not sure where this debate took place. What I don’t get the sense of, however, is that students have been prepped in any way by their teacher about the history of the flag, though it is clear that a few students have done a little research. Click here for a recent post in which I outline one way that a middle or high school teacher can teach the controversy surrounding the memory of the Confederate flag. [click to continue…]