Developing Historic Land To Save It in Petersburg

I enjoyed reading John Hennessy’s most recent post on our perceptions of what it means to live on battlefield land.  He’s right that it is no longer acceptable for real estate developers to advertise the development of Civil War battlefields, which implicitly implies its destruction.  I admit that on occasion I’ve fantasized about living in a Civil War era home nestled on hallowed ground.  At the same time I rarely worry about whether those who currently occupy historical homes hold similar beliefs.  I tend to think that the caretaker perspective is the exception to the rule and the one that needs to be explained.  Perhaps this explains my resistance to taking a firm stand in the continued drama unfolding in Gettysburg between preservationists and commercial developers.

John notes that our tendency to resist the commercial development of historic land was not always so and he cites the sale of the McCoull House on the Spotsylvania battlefield.  It would be interesting to know at what point a community arrives at a preservationist mentality.  I find it difficult to imagine a farmer in Sharpsburg or some other remote site worrying about the preservation of his land; rather, I assume that what was most on his mind was economic recovery.  At some point, however, the community did come to see preservation as a worthy goal – with the help of the federal government, of course.

Commercial developers in Petersburg, Virginia continued to exploit the proximity to Civil War battlefields well into the twentieth century.  In the case of the developers of Pine Gardens Estate the sale of land was to be used to preserve significant Civil War sites in and around Petersburg.  The ads also reveal an attachment to well-worn themes of national reunion and reconciliation by the twentieth century. As many of you know the Crater battlefield itself was turned into a golf course before it was brought under the management of the National Park Service in 1936.  Ironically, it may have been the development of this land that helped to save it at a time when city managers pushed commercial development.

Some of you have been asking about the status of my Crater manuscript since the revised version was sent to the publisher back in August.  I haven’t heard anything yet, but I am hoping to hear something soon.

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Interviewed About Virginia Textbook Scandal

Yesterday I was interviewed by Patricia Gay, who is a reporter with the Weston Forum in Weston, Connecticut.  You might wonder why a Connecticut paper is so interested in this story.  Well, it turns out that Five Ponds Press is located in that town.  In fact, it turns out that author Joy Massoff is married to the publisher, Louis Scolnik.  Now that’s an interesting and disturbing turn.  We talked mainly about the issue related to the references of black Confederates, which was the catalyst for this story.  I am pleased to see that a large chunk of our discussion was included in the article.

Silver Lining

Although Ms. Masoff and Mr. Scolnik have come under considerable media and political scrutiny, Kevin Levin, a Civil War scholar and history teacher at a private high school in Charlottesville, Va., said there may be a silver lining to be gleaned from the debacle.

In a telephone interview with The Forum, he called mistakes in the textbook “mindboggling” and “disappointing.” But he also said the incident brought to light an important issue — the importance of teaching children how to judge information they get from the Internet.  “Ms. Masoff admitted she got her information about black Confederate soldiers from the Internet. If you search the terms ‘black’ and ‘Confederate’ online you will get Web sites put up by private individuals with no credentials,” he said.

Mr. Levin explained that most of those Web sites are written by “lost cause” Southerners who are still bitter about the South’s defeat in the Civil War. They hold on to a number of historically skewed tenets, including the belief that slavery was a benign institution and slaves were happy to serve their masters and volunteered to fight in the war, he said.

“Robert E. Lee had thousands of blacks with his army during Gettysburg. But they were performing services as impressed slaves and personal body servants. They were not soldiers. That distinction is a fundamental mistake,” he said.  In this electronic age, Mr. Levin said it is all too easy for kids to make the same mistake Ms. Masoff did, and assume all data found in a Google search is true.  “As teachers, we have a real opportunity here to teach students how to judge the information they get online,” he said.

Another positive thing, Mr. Levin said, is now when an Internet search is done for “black Confederate soldiers,” articles from the textbook ordeal will show up alongside ones written by the “lost cause” individuals.  “Before this incident, the issue of black Confederate soldiers was a preoccupation by a relatively small group. Now it has been introduced to a broader range of people,” he said.

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Upcoming Talks

This new year is already shaping up to be a busy one for me.  My work with teachers continues, which gives me a great deal of satisfaction.  I try to fit in as much as possible, given my busy teaching schedule, so feel free to contact me if you are interested in setting up a visit.  Click here and scroll down for previous talks.

“From Civil War to Civil Rights” w/Professor Fitzhugh Brundage, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill [Teaching American History Grant Workshop] Virginia Beach, January 2011.

“Cutting and Pasting Black Confederates on the Internet and in Our Classrooms”, [Teaching American History Grant Workshop] Virginia Beach, March 2011.

“Searching for Black Confederates in History and Memory” Historical Society of Western Virginia, Roanoke, Virginia, April 2011.

“Black Confederates and Media Literacy in the Classroom” and “Teaching Glory in the Classroom” Civil War Preservation Trust Annual Teachers Institute, July 2011.

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Just Say What You Mean

As a teacher I am a big fan of assigning short analytical reviews.  At some point during the year my students must review websites, articles by historians, historical documentaries and Hollywood movies.  Students in my AP and Civil War courses must write numerous reviews of short articles by a wide range of historians.  I have them do this to better understand what goes into a scholarly historical interpretation as well as preparation for their own research projects.  It goes without saying that our students must be instructed as to how to go about writing such a critique.  My students have to learn to…

  • read the publication carefully.
  • take extensive notes.
  • be aware of the primary sources utilized and how those sources are interpreted.
  • explain the author’s argument to the best of their ability and in their own words.
  • explain both the strengths and weaknesses of the interpretation to the best of their ability based on their understanding of the evidence and the relevant secondary sources.

At no time are my students told to assess the authors themselves.  As far as I am concerned it is irrelevant to the scope of the assignment.  I can’t imagine one of my student doing so, but if they handed a review in that included references to “political correctness”, “revisionism”, or “liberal bias” I would immediately hand the paper back with a grade of Incomplete.  It would get such a grade not because I agree or disagree, but because the student apparently does not understand what it means to evaluate a historical interpretation.

I share this in light of the comments that I’ve read on this site and so many others in response to PBS’s recent documentary about Robert E. Lee.  I find it funny that folks actually believe that such references convey any real significance when it comes to the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative as well as the commentary offered by the historians.  It may come to a shock to some, but it is possible to disagree with one another when thinking about the past and doing history.  There are legitimate disagreements that one can have over last night’s documentary.  For example, one of the most common criticisms has to do with the postwar portrayal of Lee as well as the amount of attention given to Lee’s faith.  That’s a legitimate criticism so make the point to the best of your ability.

So, go ahead and give it a try.  You know who you are.  Next time you feel tempted to resort to such references take a step back and regroup.  Take the necessary time to elaborate and explain your main points.   Reference specific primary and secondary sources and try to engage in a serious discussion.  Who knows, you may end up advancing the understanding of all parties.

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Not Really A Review of PBS’s “Robert E. Lee”

It’s nice to see that the latest installment [airs tonight at 9pm] of PBS’s American Experience on Robert E. Lee is getting its fair share of attention.  A few months back PBS mailed me a preview copy of the documentary.  In fact, I talked with producers of the show about three years ago and even suggested a number of the historians who were utilized as commentators.  Of course, I have no idea whether I was influential in their final choice.  I’ve read a number of very good newspaper and blog reviews and I tend to agree with the the overall positive consensus.  No doubt, the usual suspects will cry foul by accusing the producers of revisionism and political correctness; however, in the end, it’s a solid documentary based on the best scholarship.  I could quibble with some minor points, but that would miss the documentary’s target audience.  With the official beginning of the sesquicentennial there will be an increased demand for entertaining and serious documentaries and this one sets a high standard.

What I value about this series by American Experience is their commitment to ensuring that their programs are based on the latest scholarship.   Today I showed a bit more of the History Channel’s “America: The Story of Us” which included commentary from Brian Williams, David Baldacci, and Al Sharpton among others.  It was a complete joke.  Tonight you will hear from Gary Gallagher, Lesley Gordon, Peter Carmichael, Michael Fellman, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, and Emory Thomas.  All are talented historians.  I don’t have a direct line to the past.  Just about everything I can claim to know about the Civil War is from reading the scholarship of others and, in the case of Lee, from reading these historians.  In fact, apart from  my own research interest, I don’t really know how to engage in historical discourse apart from scholarship that I’ve read.

So, if you have recently been bitten by that Civil War bug sit back and enjoy this documentary and the next time you are in your local bookstore or Online check out one of these titles:

Read, people, read.

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