2010 Is Not 1861

It’s incredibly disturbing to hear a former president compare the extreme political polarization that we are currently experiencing to the state of affairs that led to the Civil War and the destruction of a large section of the country.  To reduce our current political climate to Red v. Blue states completely misses the crucial point that no issue currently dividing Americans does so in the way that slavery did.  Our politicians are not beating one another in the Senate chamber.  President Obama did not enter office following the secession of any one region of the country and it is safe to say that he will never have to order out the military to put down a rebellion.  Comparing 2010 with 1861-65 not only grossly distorts the past, it clouds the salient conditions that led to Americans butchering one another for 4 years.  It trivializes our Civil War.  President Carter’s rhetoric only adds to the perception that what we are currently experiencing in our political culture constitutes a dangerous and new shift.  Just study the political world of the 1790s if you have any doubt about this.  In other words, CALM DOWN!

Adventures in American Studies (Part 2)

Today we returned to UVA’s Special Collections to introduce students to their individual documents/artifacts.  The students spent about 50 minutes exploring their documents and responding to a series of questions that will help them with further research.  They were able to take photographs using digital cameras and they will be required to make one additional trip to the archives at some point over the next few weeks.  I have to say that it was an absolute pleasure to watch them interact with the documents.  I had a chance to talk with each student and assist them in formulating questions.  There was an energy in the room and we couldn’t be happier that so many students were visibly excited about the exercise.  This is what teaching is all about and this is how you get kids excited about history.  I’ve got the best job in the world.  What follows are some of the questions to help students get started:

  • What do you see?  List as many small and large elements in the broadside or artifact as you can.
  • What are the key features of the broadside?  Are they printed text or images or a combination of both?
  • What words strike you as most important?  How does the text highlight the importance of that word or words?
  • What colors, if any, are used?
  • What kind of typeface/font is used?  Is the print different sizes in places?
  • Does it tell us anything about who created the document and what kind of emotions it tries to elicit or engender?
  • What is the size of the document?
  • What kind of technology was used to create the artifact?  How labor-intensive was the process behind the artifact’s creation?
  • What is going on in American history at the time of this text?
  • What is the immediate historical context of the document/artifact?
  • Does 20 years of history on either side alter your understanding of the document?
  • What was the expected audience for this piece?  Specific or General?  How can you tell?

The final product will be a website the features the document in question.  Students must decide how to present both the document as well as their interpretation.  These are the experiences that matter.  We need to move away from measuring success simply in terms of what they know about American history.  Our job must be to connect them to that past and to help students to see themselves as products of the past.

If you are a teacher who lives in a college/university town I urge you to reach our to the archival staff.  Most universities encourage their staffs to engage in this kind of outreach.  We can teach history or we can teach them how to do history.

Ann DeWitt Is At It Again

It just continues to get more and more bizarre with each passing week.  Ann DeWitt promised to continue to develop her Black Confederate Soldiers website and she does not disappoint.  She recently added a section on the pension records of Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee.   Nowhere does she inform her reader that these pensions were given to former slaves – a fact obscured by the black individual holding a Confederate flag.  But wait, it gets much better.  Check out DeWitt’s description of body servants:

So what is the definition of a body servant?  A body servant is a gentleman’s gentleman.  These African-American men, whether freedmen or slaves, dedicated their lives to the service of men who in some form or fashion shaped the United States of America.  In 21st century vernacular the role is analogous to a position known as an executive assistant—a position today that requires a college Bachelors Degree or equivalent level experience.  Ask any salesman. You cannot secure an appointment with a senior executive without getting approval from his or her  executive assistant.

I deplore slavery. However, my point is that these body servants did break ground in establishing the importance of the role in 21st century context.  Body servants were trusted advisers and confidants to Confederate Generals such as Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Nathan Bedford Forrest to name a few.  As an example, capitalist Nathan Bedford Forrest was the most revered as well as loathed Confederate General because Nathan Bedford Forrest in the end was respected by both black and white southern men who served under his leadership.  Look at the official Confederate Tennessee Pension records.  Forrest even had an “escort cavalry,” which in today’s terms we call an entourage.  Even President Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, travels with a staff of 500 people.

Here is DeWitt’s page on Alabama’s pension records:

The African-Americans, who served during the American Civil War from Alabama, served as drummers, musicians, laborers, carpenters and teamsters to name a few.  Alabama Department of Archives & History provides an Online Index with links to original pension applications.  Please note that the Alabama Department of Archives & History does not document if these African-Americans fought for the Union or the Confederate States Army. Some southerners who served in the United States Army continued to fight for the Union. Which begs the question, did some slaves go to war with their southern masters to fight for the Union?

I admit that I had a long day today, but can someone explain what DeWitt is asking in these final two sentences? I am assuming that the men listed on this page functioned as servants to soldiers in the Confederate army.

If that wasn’t enough, H.K. Edgerton is referred to as a “Human Rights Defender.” And, finally we have this creative interpretation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  Keep in mind that DeWitt intends this to be an educational site for teachers and students.  O.K. that’s enough crazy for one day.

Can You Afford Not To Use Social Media?

When it comes down to it much of the success that I’ve enjoyed as a teacher and historian over the past few years is the result of social media. I’ve taken full advantage of it from regular updates on this blog to Facebook and Twitter.  Each platform has a slightly different focus.  The blog functions as an extension of my classroom; Facebook allows me to stay in touch with old and new friends, and Twitter provides an ideal way to share and receive information in short bursts with people who share a common interest.  However, what they all have in common is they provide an effective means of remaining on the radar screens of current and future friends and colleagues.

The past few weeks provide a number of examples to support such an observation.  Back in August I was contacted by a publisher, who was interested in commissioning a book on the subject of black Confederates.  The contact was the direct result of my writing on the subject on this site.  This past week I was contacted by the Smithsonian Institution about the possibility of offering a series of lectures for one of its spring programs.  Again, the contact was the result of this site.  And this week I completed an abstract for an SHA session that was organized by a regular reader of the blog as well as a Facebook friend.  The point here is not to toot my own horn, though I would like to think that the quality of posts here as well as my published work have something to do with my limited success.  Rather, it’s to point out how little it matters apart from the broader goal of sharing an interest and scholarship with the public.

The mistake that people make is in thinking about social media as a way to build community.  Some of you who have been around for a while know that not too long ago I was fixated with creating a Civil War Memory community.  At one point or another I included Google Friend Connect and even a widget for the Civil War Memory Facebook page in the sidebar.  Somehow I envisioned readers connecting with one another and continuing discussions in various online spaces.  I now see this as completely misguided.  There are no Online communities; in fact, it demeans the very concept of community.

In the end, social media affords the user the opportunity to build an AUDIENCE.  My audience includes roughly 1,000 regular readers of Civil War Memory, 738 friends on Facebook, 350 members of the CWM Facebook page, and 490 Twitter followers.  In the context of my role as a teacher and historians, all of these people have the potential to respond in various ways to what I produce online.  They can shreak in horror, laugh, agree, or disagree.  These same people can also, “Like,” “link,” and “retweet.”  Oh…and they are also potential customers for a book about the battle of the Crater and historical memory that may or may not be published.

Happy Richard Poplar Day

Petersburg’s favorite “black Confederate” is being honored today for his loyal service to the Confederacy.  Richard Poplar’s story is probably quite interesting given the racial dynamic of Petersburg, but like everyone else that the SCV and UDC get their hands on, his story will be reduced to one of loyalty to his comrades and sacrifice for the cause.  His 1886 obituary states the following:

When the Sussex Dragoons were formed at the beginning of the war, and when they became Company H, of the Thirteenth Virginia Cavalry, Richard attached himself to the command.  The Sussex Dragoons were a wealthy organization, and each member of the company had his own servant along with him.  From April 1861, until the retreat from Gettysburg, Richard remained faithfully attached to the regiment.

The reference to Poplar as having “attached himself” to the unit suggests that he did not enlist as a soldier, which is not surprising given that the Confederate government explicitly denied free blacks the opportunity to serve.  Unfortunately, Poplar’s stone indicates that he was, in fact, a soldier.  What I would like to know is, assuming that this stone looks fairly new, what was there before and what did it say about Poplar?  Yes, I know that the H.E. Howard volume on the 13th Virginia Cavalry lists Poplar as a private, but has anyone actually seen his enlistment papers?  He may, in fact, be a bona fide black Confederate soldier.  That would make his story even more interesting, but all I’ve seen are documents related to his capture at Gettysburg on Footnote.com.

And, finally, why do these headstones fail to indicate service as a black Confederate given that so many believe that there has been an active cover-up by various groups?

Here is the 2004 proclamation for Richard Poplar

This day, 18 September 2004 is proclaimed Richard Poplar Day in Petersburg, Virginia:

WHEREAS, Richard Poplar, a highly honored Petersburg “Colored Confederate Soldier” and American veteran was buried with full military honors at Memorial Hill, Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, Virginia in 1886,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar served as a nationally known chef at the historic former Bollingbrook Hotel in Petersburg, Virginia,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar served in Co. H, 13th Virginia Cavalry, the famous Sussex Light Dragoons, with extraordinary distinction,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar spent 19 months as a Prisoner of War at Fort Delaware and Point Lookout, Maryland , and he NEVER turned his back on the South, his beloved Virginia, or his comrades,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar was a man of deep unshakeable faith, and conviction,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar provided commended honorable aid and comfort to the Prisoner Of War reserves (The Old Men and Young Boys) who were captured at the First Attack on Petersburg on 9 June 1864,
WHEREAS, along with all his comrades, Richard Poplar will be honored forever on Petersburg’s Memorial Day, the 9th of June, and appropriately on our National Memorial Day,
WHEREAS, Richard Poplar serves as a shining example to all Petersburg natives and all mankind,

Today, we honor our own Private Richard (Dick) Poplar on this 18 September 2004. This day will continue the reflection of Richard’s accomplishments for posterity.

May his life, heroism, and memory serves as a beacon to greatness for Petersburg, for our country, and for the world.

[signed] Annie M. Mickens, Mayor of Petersburg, Virginia
18September2004