The Civil War Centennial: A Personal Reflection

A reader left this incredibly thoughtful comment in response to my last post on our changing attitudes on the Civil War and Civil War remembrance.

Until five years ago I didn’t know that I had a Civil War ancestor. Most of what I know about that ancestor I learned on my own by way of the internet. I spent the first five decades of my life blissfully ignorant of the myriad ways in which that conflict shaped my life. I don’t remember anything about the Centennial celebration. I lived on the west coast from 1961 until 1965 and beyond in a state that didn’t become a state until fifteen years after the war had ended. The Civil War was simply not relevant to me. Then in 1970 I moved to Houston before my senior year in high school.

I was born in Lawrence, Kansas, and started school in Topeka, five years after the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Topeka, Board of Education. There weren’t any black kids in the schools I attended. The only black kid I ever met in Topeka was named George. His father worked with my dad at the V.A. hospital. We lived in a barracks called Sunnyside on the hospital grounds. My first memory of Halloween was trick or treating with George in the barracks. We both dressed as pirates. Continue reading

Will There Be a Civil War Bicentennial?

One of the highlight of this weekend’s meeting of the Southern Historical Association was the annual dinner for the Society of Civil War Historians.  This year we awarded Professor Daniel Sutherland with the first Tom Watson Brown Book Prize, which came with a nice fat check of $50,000.  The prize was for his book, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War (Civil War America), which is a must read.  A few years back I had the opportunity to work with Prof. Sutherland while he was a visiting instructor at the University of Richmond.  He gave generously of his time and offered to give one of my seminar essays on Confederate military executions a thorough review.  This award couldn’t have been given to a nicer guy.  In addition to the award itself, Prof. Sutherland was expected to give a talk, but rather than focus on guerrillas during the Civil War he chose to reflect on the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Sutherland offered a rather gloomy view of the Sesquicentennial in comparison with the excitement that clearly animated him as a child during the Centennial.  Even with all of the media attention surrounding this commemoration I tend to share his skepticism, but our agreement ends with the assessment itself.  Sutherland seems to believe that the lack of- or waning interest in the Civil War can be attributed to a failure of our generation.  At one point he commented on the seeming lack of interest in history among our students as well as the increased distraction attributed to the Internet.  I cringe when I hear such uninformed analysis that adds to our tendency to blame everything on our kids.  Sutherland acknowledges that much of the early excitement during the Centennial was a function of the narrow focus on battlefield heroics and larger than life personalities that were completely cut off from any concern about broader issues of race and slavery.  At the same time, however, he seems to continue to grasp at the child whose imagination was spurred to action by American Heritage with its glossy maps and images.  At one point Sutherland asked whether whether the nation will take the time to commemorate the Civil War Bicentennial.

One of the first posts that I wrote on this blog was a brief reflection on the graying of our Civil War Roundtables, which flourished in the period following the Centennial.  It’s safe to say that their days are numbered.  The Centennial clearly had an influence on a generation of white Americans, but let’s not jump too quickly to a conclusion that sets them aside as some kind of “Greatest Generation.”  We would do well to understand the broader cultural and political forces that shaped the Centennial narrative and we should also remember their proximity to the war itself.  In the early 1960s there were plenty of people who had grown up listening to the stories of the veterans themselves.  That closeness matters.  We should also keep in mind the long-term consequences of the Vietnam War on our understanding of the nature of war and government.  Perhaps the excitement that Sutherland continues to recall about his childhood is a product of a unique moment in American history that is impossible to repeat.

I suspect that we won’t see the kind of resurgence of interest in the Civil War that we did in the 1960s and perhaps that’s a good thing.  Perhaps that kind of excitement wasn’t so good four our collective understanding of the war.  We should be thinking more critically about what the Civil War means to this generation and at this specific point in time.  And in 50 years I hope the nation does the same from its unique perspective and place in time.

Bruce Levine on Black Confederates

Those of you who are sincerely interested in the subject of how the Confederacy utilized its large black population during the war should begin with this presentation by Professor Bruce Levine from the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial Conference at Norfolk State University.  The approach of throwing out random accounts without any analysis/interpretation gets us nowhere.  We need serious research and Levine has given us a thorough analysis of the public debate that took place throughout the Confederate South over whether to arm its slaves.  I highly recommend that you begin your reading with his book, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War.  Levine’s presentation is hardly controversial among scholars.  Any attempt to throw out a random account, as is the norm in this debate, must come to terms with the broader narrative that clearly demonstrates that Confederate military and civilian officials stood squarely against enlisting its slave population with few exceptions.

Click here for an extended lecture by Levine.  Thanks to the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission for making these presentations available on YouTube.  They are a wonderful resource.

Proud To Be a Virginian

I’ve already shared and commented on Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s address at the recent Virginia Sesquicentennial conference at Norfolk State University.  Here is the address in its entirety.  It really is a remarkable address and serves as an excellent window into discussions about historical memory.  It’s nice to see that the governor’s understanding of the war and how we should go about commemorating it mirrors the hard work of the state’s Sesquicentennial Committee.  Additional clips from the conference will be made available via YouTube.

Melvin Patrick Ely Debates SCV on FOX

Why is it that the best evidence for the existence of black Confederate soldiers is typically pulled from Union accounts?  Why is the evidence from Confederate soldiers so sketchy on this topic?  As I’ve said before, I’ve read literally hundreds of accounts by Confederate soldiers during the summer of 1864 and in the wake of the battle of the Crater and have not come across one single reference to a black soldier.  You would think that in the wake of the Crater and in response to their first experience fighting large numbers of USCTs that Confederates would point to their own loyal and brave black comrades.  Listening to this interview reminds us of just how absurd this debate has become.  Melvin Patrick Ely is one of our most respected historians of race relations in Virginia before the Civil War and his study, Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s Through the Civil War, is a must read.   Unfortunately, the SCV representative can do little more than cite one of the standard references by Lewis Steiner, which alone tells us next to nothing about black Confederate soldiers.

I also agree with Ely that some southern blacks fought for the Confederacy.  Given the restrictions that were imposed by the Confederate government and the army itself it is likely that these men passed as white.  Their stories need to be told as it complicates our understanding of race relations and gives us a deeper sense of the challenges that freed blacks faced in parts of the South.  At the same time I suspect that the number is probably very, very small.  How does 25 sound?