David W. Blight on Civil War Memory

You will notice a short interview with David Blight at the top of the sidebar on the right that I recently posted.  Below you can listen to parts 2 and 3.  In part 3 Blight talks about his current project, which is an exploration of the Civil War Centennial and the writings of Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, and Bruce Catton, as well as the sesquicentennial.  In addition to this study I’ve heard that he is at work on a biography of Frederick Douglass.  I do hope that is true.  A few weeks ago my friend, Keith Harris, posted a short review of Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which in my mind is still the place to begin in the field of Civil War memory studies.  Keith’s own scholarship challenges some of the central assumptions of Blight’s work, specifically the ease with which white Northerners abandoned an emancipationist narrative of the war for reconciliation and reunion.  My own forthcoming study of the Crater and historical memory complicates Blight’s interpretive framework by showing that reunion was not a simple process for former Confederates, especially for those veterans who fought under Mahone at Petersburg.  More importantly, Confederate veterans of the Crater were not unified in terms of how they chose to remember and commemorate the war because of deep political differences, especially during the four years of Readjuster control in Virginia.  Blight’s book has spawned a growing literature that complicates the postwar narrative of how Americans chose to remember the war.  A few of my favorite studies include, John Neff’s Honoring The Civil War Dead: Commemoration And The Problem Of Reconciliation, William Blair’s Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, and, most recently, Benjamin G. Cloyd’s Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory.

At the same time I think it’s important to acknowledge Blight’s book because of the studies that it generated.  I think that’s the mark of a seminal book.  Although Blight wasn’t the first person to explore this topic, he did offer students of the Civil War a rich interpretation of the various political and cultural forces (with apologies to PC) at work following the war.  For me the book continues to offer fresh insight every time I open it up and it proved to be invaluable in helping me to think about my own narrow project on the Crater even though I ended up disagreeing with some of Blight’s central assumptions.  In other words, it’s one thing to disagree with a book, but another thing entirely for that very same book to help steer you in a different direction.
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Where Is Your Southern Honor?

Note: Here is a link to a short update on the Washington Post’s blog.  I will keep an eye out for some video of the news conference.  As of Wednesday morning I can’t find a single Online article from a Richmond newspaper or anything else for that matter.  Did anyone even show up to this news conference?

The inauguration of Governor Robert McDonnell

There is something quite pathetic about the Sons of Confederate Veterans holding a press conference to denounce Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and former Senator George Allen for what they perceive as violations of Confederate heritage.  As many of you are aware this battle between the SCV and the governor  started last spring over the latter’s handling of Confederate History Month.  I am not going to rehash that debate in this post so I encourage you to go through my old posts if interested.

Their argument is nothing new: Civil War history has become overly politicized and taken hostage by liberal academics and other illegitimate groups that have prevented the SCV from acknowledging and commemorating their ancestors.  These groups have successfully lobbied the governor to shun the SCV and their history as well as the roughly “2 million Virginia citizens [who] can trace their ancestry to a soldier who fought in the Confederate army” – the implication being that if you are descended from a Confederate soldier you automatically subscribe to the SCV’s preferred view.  Such a view paints the SCV as the victims of a conspiracy or even as modern day warriors defending a lost cause.  We are to believe that past celebrations of Confederate leaders and their cause from the late nineteenth century onward somehow fell outside of politics.  [click to continue…]

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Dear State of Alabama,

General Robert E. Lee never marched through your state.

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A Need To Remember a War To End Slavery

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.

In response to these comments, Professor McDaniel offered the following question and I have to say that I am struggling with it:

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.

What about you?

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So You Want To Be a Civil War Historian

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…]

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