The Face of the Manassas Civil War Sesquicentennial

I find it interesting that the designer chose not to use the more visible and controversial Confederate battle flag and the soldier depicted here is not from Virginia.  [See story here]

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A Responsibility To Take Care of the Past

If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read Andy Hall’s analysis of the DeWitt-Weeks saga.  I tend to agree with Hall that there is no reason to believe that Ms. DeWitt’s goal is to intentionally mislead her young readers or distort the history covered in her book.  However, as we now know she is, in fact, doing both.  I am not familiar with the rest of Kevin Weeks’s books in the Street Series collection, but I have no reason to believe that these books are inappropriate in any way.  It just so happens that the subject of Entangled in Freedom has been on my radar for quite some time and for very good reasons.  I’ve been just as critical with white proponents of this myth as I have with African Americans.  That said, I don’t mind admitting that I am much more disappointed when the target of my criticism is black.  Let me explain.

As all of you know my primary interest in the Civil War and American history generally is centered on questions related to historical memory.  Much of that interest revolves around the broad subject of slavery and race.  My recently completed manuscript on the Crater focuses on how Americans chose to remember – or in most cases forget – the participation of black Union soldiers in the battle and my new project will address the evolution of stories related to the black Confederate narrative.  As a result of my extensive reading and research into these areas I would like to think that I have some grasp of the challenges associated with correcting /revising a collective memory of the Civil War and broader historical narrative that up until recently either ignored the subject of black history or included a grossly distorted version of it to suit the political and racial agendas of certain groups.  We can see this at different points in our history from the Dunning School in the 1920s and 30s to the continued hold of the Lost Cause narrative and its imagery of loyal and contented slaves.  I have nothing but the highest respect for those black historians such as John Hope Franklin, who worked tirelessly to correct this racist narrative and ultimately inspire countless others to continue to research topics related to the history of race and slavery in America.  Let’s face it, it’s only in the last two decades that we’ve seen significant changes to textbooks and other curricular materials used in classrooms across the country.  We should never forget what it took to bring this about.  And we should not forget that it took the hard work of both black and white Americans. [click to continue…]

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Ann DeWitt Still Doesn’t Get It

Update: Check out Andy Hall’s thoughtful analysis of the DeWitt-Weeks book over at Dead Confederates.

I am a high school history teacher, who spends a great deal of time reviewing classroom materials for their historical merit.  For what it’s worth my judgments are based on a solid education and years of reading the best in historical scholarship on the history of slavery, the South, and the American Civil War.  I point this out given Ann DeWitt’s latest response [scroll down] to my continued postings on her flawed historical fiction for children, titled, Entangled in Freedom:

Imagine writing a novel for young adults which (1) espouses the sanctity of marriage, (2) does not contain profanity, (3) promotes earning ones way in America, (4) advocates true friendship, (5) demonstrates the positive progression of America  over the last 150 years, and (6) highlights the strength of the family unit; yet, the novel is dubbed “nonsense”  by a recognized Virginia Civil War journalist and historian.

The above six principles the family narratives of Ann DeWitt.  I have no 19th century written documentation of these six family values because they were passed down to me verbally by my ancestors. I do not secretly hide them but proudly share them with the world.   As parents and/or readers, would you ban such a book from the shelves of bookstores, civil war & history museums, and libraries across America?  Google key words:  entangled in freedom.  Witness a literary ban about the subject of Black Confederate Soldiers happening right before our eyes—in the open—on the internet.

Let’s be clear that no one is trying to “ban” Ms. Dewitt’s and Mr. Weeks’s book.  I am simply using this blog to point out the shortcomings of this children’s book.  Whatever the virtues of this book may be, it does not trump the fact that neither author has any understanding of the history of slavery, race relations, and the role of African Americans in the Confederate army.  The bibliography in this book clearly reflects a lack of serious research into their subject.  I would go as far as to suggest that this book is dangerous and irresponsible and if this blog can help in preventing impressionable young minds from being exposed to it, so be it.

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Entangled in Nonsense, Fantasy, and Really Bad History

Here is another selection from Ann DeWitt’s and Kevin Week’s Entangled in Freedom, which tells the story of a black Confederate soldier by the name of Isaac.  In this scene Isaac and his master, Abraham Green, have just arrived at the camp of the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers.  The soldiers in camp are surprised to see a black man, but decide to make him their chaplain after they learn that Isaac has memorized the Bible.  But wait, it gets better.  This scene takes place as an officer in the 42nd explains to the men why Isaac and Abraham have both been given permission to stay in the officer’s quarters.

“You are putting me in a very strange predicament,” said Sergeant Major Hart.  Facing the crowd Sergeant Major Hart said, “Soldiers, let me introduce to you Sergeant Major Abraham Green and Chaplain Isaac who hail from Oxford, Georgia.  Because we are tight on space here at this training camp, I have invited both to stay in the officer’s quarters.”

“Permission to speak Sergeant Major,” said a First Sergeant at the front of the crowd.”  I am First Sergeant Russell.  This is the war of the Confederate States of America.  Only one-tenth of the people in the state own slaves…and for the most part that’s the planters.  As for the men in my tent, we don’t own any slaves.  Have you read the latest Harper’s Weekly newspaper?” he asked pulling out a torn sheet.

“What does an article have to do with where Sergeant Major Green and Isaac sleep?”

“Let me read to you an article from Harper’s Weekly newspaper.”  Lifting the newspaper clipping and shouting to the top of his authoritative voice for the seventy-six men of the 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers Company E to hear, he said, “The correspondent of the New York Herald, in one of its latest numbers, reports that the rebels had a regiment of mounted black men armed with sabers at Manassas, and that some five hundred Union prisoners taken at Bull Run were escorted to their filthy prison by a regiment of black men.”

The 42nd Regiment Georgia Volunteers Company E cheered.  Master Green winked at me and smiled.  Sergeant Major Hart asked, “What’s your point?

First Sergeant Russell said, “If these black rebels can fight for the honor of the Confederacy, I don’t see why our chaplain can’t be living amongst the soldiers.  After the prayer, we in Company E took a vote, we want Chaplain Isaac to be assigned to our company and be assigned to my tent.”

Listening to this news was baffling to me.  Learning from the First Sergeant, I asked, “Permission to speak, sir.”  Yes, Chaplain Isaac.”  Did I just hear that there are black rebels riding horses for the Confederacy?”

“Well, Harper’s Weekly states that the New York Herald newspaper gave that report.”

“Did I also hear that a regiment of black rebels took 500 Union soldiers to a Confederate prison?

“I am with you, Chaplain Isaac.  I heard the same thing.”

Master Green said, “This can’t be true.  Jeff Davis has not given the order for black soldiers to fight in the Confederacy.”

Sergeant Major Hart said, “Sounds like your courthouse and other courthouses in the south are enlisting black rebels just the same.  Look at this.  The enlistment on this report just says Isaac Green.  No one would ever know from this paper that Isaac is a black rebel.”

Master Green said, “I’ll be.  I agreed for Isaac to be a chaplain because I didn’t think he could fight.  Isaac is the best rider in Newton County.  If you boys want to win this war, I suggest that Isaac be assigned to the mounted cavalry because we need skilled riders to travel the rugged terrains at Cumberland Gap.”

First Sergeant Russell added, “Yeah, but we can’t force Chaplain Isaac to fight because look at this.”  The soldier pulled out another clipping from Harper’s Weekly.  “This shows a picture of a Confederate captain pointing a gun and making two slaves load a cannon.”

Master Green said, “That’s propaganda.  No one wants to believe that there are some areas in the south w[h]ere whites and blacks get along fine.  I’m not saying it’s perfect for Isaac.  I am saying that loyalty delivers a great prize.”

First Sergeant Russell said, “Regardless, in the 42nd Regiment, we have to work together, and every man has to want to fight in this battle.  What do you say Chaplain Isaac?” (pp. 46-47)

Yes, a truly remarkable and disturbing excerpt.  Notice that DeWitt and Weeks offer their own explanation as to how black men ended up as enlisted soldiers in the Confederate army.  First, local courthouses were clearly formally enlisting them all over the South without any knowledge on the part of the Confederate government.  More importantly, they can always point out that lack of any racial identification on the enlistment papers if asked to provide evidence for the presence of black soldiers.

It’s pretty clear to me after reading the first 50 pages of this book that DeWitt and Weeks are interested in using this story and their limited understanding of the broader history of this subject to foster reconciliation between the races.  If it can be shown that the most divisive period in America’s racial past  included a great deal of interracial cooperation than perhaps we can do so today.  Reconciliation and understanding between the races is certainly a worthy goal, but you can’t get there by distorting the past and that is all they are doing in this book.

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Historical Fundamentalism

Today I decided to kill a few minutes by browsing a bit at my local bookstore.  To my surprise I noticed a new book by Jill Lepore, who happens to be one of my favorite historians.  Her latest book is titled, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History.  Of course, I bought it and I am glad I did.  It’s a quick read and Lepore does a wonderful job of illustrating the various ways in which the Tea Party Movement is using (and often abusing) the past for their own present purposes.  Early on she introduces what she describes as historical fundamentalism:

Historical fundamentalism is marked by the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past-“the founding”-is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts-“the founding documents”-are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible. (p. 16)

Along the way I’ve learned that the term ‘Founding Fathers’ wasn’t coined until 1916 by Warren G. Harding in his address to the Republican National Convention.  And I was surprised to learn that in 1798 John Adams signed an “Act for the relief of sick and disabled Seamen”.  Both state and federal officials were, as a result of the legislation, permitted to tax shipmasters in order to construct hospitals and provide medical care for merchant and naval seamen.

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Lost Cause Nostalgia

Next month I will be taking part in another Teaching American History Grant workshop in Virginia Beach with Fitzhugh Brundage of the University of North Carolina.  The subject is the Civil War and historical memory.  I am putting together a couple of lesson plan outlines for the teachers and in doing so I came across this wonderful video that I posted a few years back.  It’s worth airing again for those of you who are relatively new to the blog.  Enjoy.

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A Slow Day or Debating American Exceptionalism

It’s a dismal and rainy day here in central Virginia and one that begs for a late afternoon nap.  But before I do so I took a quick tour of the blogosphere and came across a wonderful dialog over at Richard Williams’s site.  Richard goes after another one of those dangerous leftist academics who refuses to acknowledge America’s exceptional place on the world stage.  The post is the standard nonsensical and meaningless complaint, but it’s the comments section that is truly entertaining.  A reader by the name of Vince engages Richard with a number of very reasonable questions that he fails to satisfactorily address.  Enjoy:

Vince: I might have missed it somewhere, but could you give me a precise definition of “American Exceptionalism”? I’m having a hard time of sorting it out in my mind.  Yes, the United States is different from the rest of the world in many ways. And yes we’ve tackled the problems of society better than everyone else in many ways and worse than others in some ways. What exactly are people arguing about?

Williams: Hello Vince. Loosely defined . . . the notion that the United States holds a special and unique place in world history in regards to freedom, liberty, wealth, power, moral principles, the rule of law, and opportunity.  Each of those points could be broken down into greater detail, but I believe that is a basic definition. It is primarily those on the left who are “arguing” or, more accurately, opposing or denying AE.

Vince: Thanks, Richard. Could you explain what “holds a special and unique place in world history” means, or what its practical implications are? Is this a policy question? Or a historical question?  Reading the linked article, I was unclear how a lot of those paragraphs connected to one another. Historian A looks at WWII and sees US positives. Historian B looks at imperial wars and sees US negatives. Historian C looks at what makes the US unique and finds European roots. (A question to the author of the HNN article:) Is the idea that the US has done some things well and some things poorly too complicated for a history textbook?

Williams: Vince – is this a rhetorical question? That the US “holds a special and unique place in world history” is a given in my world.  Practical implications? Patriotism, gratefulness, responsibility, stewardship all come to mind.  Policy question? Policy should project the practical. Obviously something not being done now.  A historical question? No, a historical fact.  “Is the idea that the US has done some things well and some things poorly too complicated for a history textbook?”  It shouldn’t be. We live in an imperfect world. Only Progressives seem to believe in utopia.

Vince: I’m not sure I understand then your problems with the historians mentioned in the article. Let’s take Eric Foner. He asserts “some strains” of how Americans perceive themselves (i.e., some versions of American Exceptionalism) have directly led to serious policy mistakes in “interventions abroad.” (I assume Vietnam, post-invasion Iraq, etc.) This seems like a pretty basic historical critique supported by research.   Then, he suggests an American self-perception doused with American Exceptionalism could be detrimental to Americans who live in a more globalized world. That seems pretty obvious to me, too. Think of all the companies that took way too long to wake up to the reality of international competition. (I’m currently sitting in a grad student office in a business school of a prestigious university with the student composition: four from China, three from Turkey, one from Brazil, one from India, one from Iran, and two Americans.)  So, how do you connect what Foner is saying with self-loathing?

Williams: I’m not sure I understand your problems with AE and the need to defend Foner’s known leftist bias.  Most of the “globalization” to which you refer is only possible due to AE and the free market that unchained the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of Americans.  I’m assuming a certain level of knowledge with those reading here. I’m confident you have that knowledge. No one would argue that AE can’t and hasn’t been taken to extremes in some cases. For the sake of this discussion, there is no need to point out the obvious. The article is discussing the issue in broad terms. Its not a thesis. I believe the tone of Foner’s comments are as much to provide cover for his more radical opinions than anything else. His opposition to AE is much deeper than he’s letting on in this quote.

Vince: I guess the point I’m getting to is that this question of American Exceptionalism from the Fox News article seems to be framed in such a way to complete[ly] avoid any meaningful debate but allow people to say whatever they want. It’d be like asking whether Technology is good or bad…you’d get nowhere.  I myself very much prefer precisely defined historical or policy questions whose possible answers can be compared to one another and tested using primary sources and data. Asserting something based on the tone of comments of on an online article seems a little unconvincing to me. For example, it would help me to see something more substantive/specific in Foner’s writings…perhaps something in the introduction to one of his books? (I actually don’t know anything about Eric Foner other than that he wrote a supposedly good book on Reconstruction which I haven’t read.) Seeing a discussion played out that way would better help me figure out what’s really going on.

Williams: Vince – one of Foner’s earlier books (and I believe that is the one) is actually quite good. But if you delve more into his more recent writings and comments, his leftist bias becomes clearer.  “In the course of the past twenty years, American history has been remade. Inspired initially by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s – which shattered the ‘consensus’ vision that had dominated historical writing – and influenced by new methods borrowed from other disciplines, American historians redefined the very nature of historical study.” – Eric Foner

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From Civil War to Civil Rights

The following announcement appeared yesterday on H-NET.  Here is a link to the pdf: http://www.nps.gov/ulsg/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&pageid=202422 This is a great opportunity for students and teachers to integrate the study of Civil War memory into their history classes as well as careful consideration of their own responsibilities as Americans to continue the work of those who came before.

A NATIONAL DIGITAL HISTORY PROJECT FOR HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS

The coming year, 2011, marks the 150th anniversary of president-elect Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural train trip from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, DC and the presidency of a nation on the eve of civil war.  Inspired by that anniversary, the National Park Service invites high schools classes to join in a national digital project on the broader theme of inaugurations – new beginnings.

The National Park Service invites students to create short digital narratives on one of three themes:

  • My area in 1861 – using maps, photos, illustrations, census data, telling incidents from local newspapers, and (if available) national parks materials – students will create a portrait of where they live as it was just before Lincoln set off to Washington.
  • A civil rights hero from my area one hundred years later, in 1961, — by seeking out and interviewing a veteran of the struggle for equal rights, or finding existing oral histories, and/or maps, photos, illustrations, census data, and local news stories and national parks materials, students will tell the story of someone in their area who brought about change in the 1960s.
  • The road ahead – students will define the changes they intend to inaugurate in their adult lives.

Narratives will be gathered from schools throughout the nation and placed on a special National Park Service website. Participating students, their communities, and a broad national parks audience of all ages will then be able to use the site as window into key moments in our national life, as they were experienced locally, and as a virtual memorial for the momentous journey upon which President Lincoln embarked 150 years ago.

This project was developed by Dr. Marc Aronson in cooperation with Charles Forcey of Historicus, Inc. In the fall of 2010, the project team will provide a kit on the three themes, primary source samples and suggests, as well as links to Common Core Standards. Materials will be submitted through online forms; technical and editorial support will be available all along the way. A suite of digital resources taken from the National Park Service and Library of Congress sources will be available for all participating schools.

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