Brief Postscript to “My Sense of Place”

Ta Nehisi-Coates just shared an email he received from one of his readers.  An earlier post of his briefly referenced James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.  The email serves to remind us of just why we ought to resist the urge to reduce people to a one-dimensional notion of place of origin:

“Battle Cry of Freedom” was your first mistake. It was written by a yankee who grew up with yankee soldiers trying to justify their destruction, murder, rape and pillage of the South. Why not read the ACTUAL “Official Records” compiled by the US gov’t or listen to the actual BLACKS in the slave narratives of the 1930′s? Rather than re-hashed “stories” of biased information? Question WHY federal museums are required to tell “slavery first” at the entrance door yet – as in Gettysburg museum misquote Southerners?
Southerners – no matter the “color” support each other. You yanks and yankee sympathizers can’t stand that after 150 years we all still stand agaisnt your falsehoods.
In our goal to understand one another better we should strive to break down barriers rather than unnecessarily reinforce them.

My “Sense of Place”

Richard Williams has a post up in which he takes me to task for supposedly dismissing a question asked of me during a recent roundtable discussion that I served on as part of Brunswick County’s Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The question was posed to me by a representative of the SCV, who was curious as to my place of birth.  Apparently, Richard is not satisfied with my response and goes on to suggest that my failure to appreciate the question reflects my own lack of a “sense of past”:

Thirdly, I’m not quite sure what Kevin has to gain by insulting someone for asking an honest and reasonable question – someone who took time out of their schedule to come hear Kevin participate in a public forum. That won’t go very far to encourage attendance and sincere questions at these types of events in the future, that’s for sure.   Since Kevin has mentioned this issue before, I get the distinct impression he’s uncomfortable with the topic, perhaps revealing his own feelings (justified or not) of inadequacy due to his not being “Virginian, born and bred.” (See, I can pyscho-analyze too.)

The idea that I insulted anyone during this conference is ludicrous.  In fact, I answered the man’s question directly, but he failed to follow-up and chose to move on to whether I teach my students that Lee, Jackson, and Stuart are great men.  It was clear to my co-panelists as well as others in the audience that the question was not meant to engage me in a serious discussion, but was meant to dismiss me out of hand.  Perhaps Richard should inquire as to why he failed to ask a further question.

In the comments section Richard and another reader once again accuse me of lacking a “sense of place.”

Mr. Williams, what a well written post. It is true, as Mr. Levin said, that a “sense of place” can function as a liability but it is amusing that he does not wish to consider that those words could apply to himself.

Thank you and you are so right. Kevin’s “sense of place” – the North – is a liability when it comes to his biases against Confederate heritage and history.

Both assume quite a bit about me in concluding that I lack a “sense of place” or that my background clouds my understanding of Confederate history.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The study of history has taken me all over this beautiful state.  It’s introduced me to a wide range of Virginians and my many visits to state archival repositories has given me an intimate understanding of its rich past.  I feel more connected to Virginia than all the other places I’ve lived including the place where I was raised.  I’ve contributed to its written history more than once and have even been recognized for it by the Virginia Historical Society.

What exactly does it mean to be “biased against Confederate heritage/history”?  Would they say the same thing about Robert Moore and Andy Hall, both of who blog about the Civil War and the Confederacy specifically and are native to the South?  Is there really only one legitimate interpretation of the South?  How do their comments reflect on the fact that scores of people who are native to Virginia and the rest of the South read and enjoy this blog as well as my published work?  Is there something wrong with these folks?  If I were somehow to write about the history of the Confederacy in the way that proved satisfactory to Richard and others would my place of birth be set aside?  Finally, does my place of birth cloud my understanding of any other period in Virginia’s history.  Can I write or blog about any other aspect of this rich story without having to worry about it or is it just Lee, Jackson, and Stuart that concern them?  I could go on, but what’s the point.

Regardless of whether they acknowledge it or not, it’s my strong sense of place and love for this state’s rich history that keeps me connected to it and works to more firmly ground me in the present.  In the end, Richard has done little more than follow in the footsteps of the individual he accuses me of insulting.

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.