The Real Black Civil War Soldiers

With all of this talk about black Confederates it is easy to lose sight of the fact that African American soldiers did indeed exist.  Next weekend Harrisburg, Pennsylvania will commemorate the Grand Review of United States Colored Troops that took place in November 1865.  Information for the event can be found here.   An event focused specifically on black Civil War soldiers reflects just how far our collective memory of the war has come.  One would be hard pressed to find anything of this scale in the 1960s during the Civil War Centennial.  That said, we should resist the urge to celebrate ourselves too much.  I suspect that most people who attend this event will do so with images of Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman in the back of their minds.  The movie, Glory is an important milestone in our popular understanding of the war and while it introduced Americans to a long neglected aspect of this history it may have pushed even further away the real significance of the sacrifice of these men.  To address it would have run the risk of raising the specter of white guilt.

In reference to Glory what stands out to me is the emphasis on a progressive story where the individual characters as well as the unit itself becomes more closely connected or identified with the national goal of emancipation and nationalism.  Col. Shaw (played by Broderick) volunteers his regiment in the attack on Battery Wagner as a means of impressing upon the nation the sacrifices and bravery displayed by his men.  Tripp (played by Washington) begins the movie with an overtly selfish perspective, gradually comes to see the regiment as family, and finally falls in battle while holding the stars and stripes.  Even Thomas, who represents the free black men of the regiment and comes to learn during training that he has more in common with fugitive slaves, finds redemption and self-respect by volunteering to carry the flag before the assault on Wagner.

The decision to end the movie with the failed assault at Wagner solidifies this progressive theme, which links the men to one another and, supposedly, the goal of the United States by the middle of the war.  The final scenes depict the grim reality of the battlefield, including shoe-less dead black soldiers, and a mass grave in which both Shaw and his men are buried.  As the movie ends the viewer is told that the performance of the 54th Massachusetts led to the recruitment of upwards of 180,000 men and that President Lincoln credited these men with turning the tide of war.  The upshot is that the viewer finishes the movie with the impression that the story of the 54th has been brought to its completion, in large part, because of the death of Shaw.  It’s as if the mission of the unit, in terms of its contribution to the Civil War and American History, has been fully realized.  It is through defeat and death in the regiment that the nation experiences a new birth of freedom. Continue reading

 

“The Good Death”

This year I am working with a student on an independent study that focuses on how the war effected soldiers’ conception of death during the Civil War.  We are looking specifically at the war in Virginia during 1864.  Over the summer this student read This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Vintage Civil War Library) and we are currently reading Jason Phillips’s Diehard Rebels: The Confederate Culture of Invincibility, both of which I’ve read already read and highly recommend.  Beginning next trimester this student will shift to the Special Collections Department at UVA to look at archival sources.

This is the latest installment of the Museum of the Confederacy’s video series and it focuses specifically on death in the Civil War.

 

African Americans and Black Confederates (Part 2)

[Hat-tip to Brooks Simpson]

This morning I reported that Hampton historian, Veronica Davis, filed a lawsuit against the publisher of the 4th grade history textbook with the black Confederate reference to prevent them from editing the questionable passages.  At first, I thought that this was a reasonable request calling on all parties not to jump the gun, but to first do the necessary work to ensure that the text is properly corrected in a way that brings it in line with modern scholarship.  Thanks to Brooks we now have a copy of the petition and it is bizarre.  Davis supports her petition with the following:

The petitioner is gathering research and witnesses that will support the fact of there being black (African American) soldiers that served in the Confederate Army.

Davis goes on to argue:

The defendants did not establish a committee to investigate whether or not there was an error; they merely accepted the opinion of a Caucasian American parent who happens to be a professor of History at the College of William and Mary.  The parent did not provide written proof to support that her opinion was a fact.  In addition, the defendants disregarded research from notable African American scholars and Confederate Organizations.

And in light of this morning’s post the following is quite interesting:

The changing of the text also presents long and short term effects on the Plaintiff’s children and other children who have studied who have studied the contributions of African Americans, for example diminished self-respect, anger, and increased feelings of worthlessness.

Here is an article about Ms. Davis that appeared this past summer in Richmond’s Style magazine.

 

African Americans and Black Confederates

I noticed that Ann DeWitt has taken the time to respond to one of my recent posts about Entangled in Freedom [and here].  I will leave it to you to decipher her post.  In addition, yesterday Hampton historian, Veronica Davis filed a lawsuit to halt the deletion of the controversial passage about black Confederates in the Virginia 4th grade history textbook.  [Update: Brooks Simpson has included a link to Davis's petition at Civil Warriors.]  High profile African Americans, who have come to endorse this historical meme and for different reasons include H.K. Edgerton, Nelson Winbush and even Earl Ijames.  One of my readers is convinced that Edgerton and other African Americans are being paid to promote this narrative.  I couldn’t disagree more.  In fact, I would suggest that such an explanation ignores an important aspect of this cultural phenomenon and our collective memory of the Civil War.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what the identification of some African Americans tells us about the evolution of Civil War Memory and while I don’t have any firm answers it might be worth posting for further discussion.  Perhaps the identification with this narrative by some African Americans can be seen as evidence that black Americans have a deep need to connect with a Southern past.  That should come as no surprise given the central role that they have played in its formation from the very beginning.  At the same time that role has been decidedly influenced at different points in history by white Americans to buttress their own racial, cultural, and political agenda.  One need look no further than the pervasiveness of an ideology of paternalism (in the context of slavery) during the antebellum period, the advent of the Lost Cause following the Civil War, and more recently a conscious effort to support white political control in the 1950s and 60s through the control of history textbooks.

For many African Americans it is the Civil Rights Movement that looms large as a place to find heroic stories, larger-than-life personalities, and even narratives of racial reconciliation.  The Civil War, on the other hand, has been lost.  As I’ve learned over the years many African American families pushed their history of slavery away either because it was too painful or the narrative had been reduced to one of degradation and misery.  The past few decades has witnessed a dramatic shift in the way that slavery is interpreted as well as the reemergence of African American participation in the war itself – seen most clearly in the 1989 release of “Glory.”  The movie’s success in its appeal to a mainstream white audience ought to be seen as an important milestone in the evolution of popular memory of the war that has come to acknowledge the central role of slavery and emancipation in the overall conflict. Continue reading

 

Commemorating the Sesquicentennial in Brunswick County, Virginia

Last night I took part in a community forum on the Civil War Sesquicentennial with Waite Rawls, III, Executive Director of the Museum of the Confederacy and Christy Coleman, President of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar.  The event took place in Alberta at the Southside Virginia Community College and was organized by Brunswick County Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.  For about 1 hour, and in front of a racially-mixed audience numbering around 100, we discussed the reasons for and importance of commemorating the sesquicentennial.  It was a lively discussion and it was truly an honor to be asked to join this roundtable.  I have nothing but the highest admiration for the work that Christy and Waite do at their respective institutions on a daily basis.  The challenges they face are numerous, but they proceed with the full understanding that their work matters.  I could listen to Christy talk about public history all night long.

Each of us had an opportunity to make an opening statement, which I used to discuss my work in the classroom and how I’ve tried to integrate the sesquicentennial into some of my lessons.  I talked about readings, class discussions, and my annual trip to Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  The audience was given plenty of time to ask questions and they did not disappoint.  I was singled out early on in the discussion by a group, whose questions were entertaining if not predictable.  One individual asked where I was born followed by some rather odd questions about my teaching style.  My personal favorite was a question that asked if I teach my students that Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart were great men.  I usually don’t respond to the place of birth question, but I successfully diffused it by pointing out that I am from southern New Jersey.  The question is, of course, silly since it implies some kind of privilege or unique access to the past depending on birth.  As to the importance of Lee and the rest of the gang I simply noted that as a history teacher it is not my responsibility to tell them what to believe about any historic figure.  My job is to provide my students with the analytical skills to draw their own conclusions.  Some of these same people suspect that I am corrupting my students by teaching them to “hate the South” and yet they have no problem telling me how I should influence what my students believe about the Civil War. Continue reading