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.
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.
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.
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?
Sorry for the lack of posts over the past few days. I just returned from the Annual Meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Charlotte, North Carolina. As always I had a wonderful time. Got to catch up with some good friends and make some new ones. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who stopped me to share that they read and enjoy the blog.
This week marks five years of blogging at Civil War Memory. I continue to be impressed with its growth and popularity and little did I anticipate the number of doors that would be opened for me as a result of writing this blog. As always, I thank you for reading and for adding your own thoughts to it. This site is not just a record of my own evolving thoughts on the Civil War and historical memory, but a small slice of our broader collective memory of the period.
Just a quick reminder that I will speaking this coming Wednesday evening at the Harpers Ferry Roundtable on the subject of the Crater and historical memory. The talk will take place in the annex to the Camp Hill – Wesley United Methodist Church, 601 West Washington St., Harpers Ferry, WV 25425. There is a meal at the site at 7 p.m., for which reservations should be made by calling (304) 535-2101 before Sunday, November 7. The talk is at 8 p.m.,
Update: My request has been passed on to Dr. Robertson by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission. Update #2: Thanks to Tom Perry for providing the following link, which includes an interview with Robertson in a Virginia newspaper: The claim is rejected by most historians, including local history expert James Robertson. “It’s blatantly false.” Robertson is a distinguished alumni history professor at Virginia Tech, an author and was even appointed by President Kennedy to be the executive director of the U.S Civil War Centennial Commission in the 60’s. “It implies men who were in slavery would want to fight for the country that enslaved them, which really is illogical.”…. “This is not to say there were not thousands of blacks in the Confederate Army, but they were performing camp chores, hospital attendants, cooks,” said Robertson. “I spent eight years of my life putting together a 950 page biography of Jackson and I can tell you he did not have any black battalions, any black units serving under him.
The debate about black Confederate soldiers that was recently stirred up by a brief reference in a 4th grade Virginia history textbook shows no sign of letting up. Editorials continue to be published and various interest groups have firmly dug in their heels. The contours of this debate beautifully reflect the fault lines that continue to divide Virginians over how to commemorate the Civil War. These fault lines will continue to flair up when emotionally-charged topics such as this one are introduced, and it is likely that our reliance on sound historical scholarship will be pushed further away. This is one of those topics where everyone is an expert.
If there is one history professor whose reputation has survived intact it is Professor James I. Robertson of Virginia Tech. Professor Robertson has taught at Tech for most of his career and is responsible for one of the largest and most popular survey courses on the Civil War. He has built his scholarly reputation on books about Civil War soldiers, Stonewall Jackson, and the Stonewall Brigade. In terms of his service to the public, Prof. Robertson served as the Executive Director of the Civil War Centennial and is currently a member of the Executive Committee of Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee. He has taken the lead in highlighting the importance of education for this sesquicentennial commemoration. Well, this is the ultimate teaching moment. [click to continue…]