Calling All Civil War Memory Enthusiasts

I received the following email a few days ago from an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, who is planning to write her senior thesis on Civil War memory.  While I am flattered that this student is asking me for my advice, it seems silly not to tap the interests and experiences of my many readers.  Your responses will serve as a helpful guidebook, not only for this student, but for anyone looking to explore this fascinating topic.  Feel free to suggest readings, subtopics, questions, and anything else that you believe is relevant to this student’s project.  Thanks everyone.

I am an avid reader of your blog, which I stumbled upon several months ago subsequent to some cursory online searches for information on contemporary Civil War memory. I am currently an undergraduate soon-to-be senior at UC Berkeley and am intending to write my senior thesis project on topics in contemporary Civil War memory, particularly the memory of slavery as an institution. I’m planning to look at historical societies and museums, NPS coverage and interviews, art, literature, reenactments, the timely sesquicentennial commemorations, politics and public discourse, and popular culture (from TV to YouTube) in both the North, South, and West. As part of a follow-up on this project, I plan to spend the year subsequent to graduation (and prior to applying to graduate school) writing high school, middle school, and elementary school curriculum as both a corrective to and an exploration of problems in Civil War memory. I know you do a lot of this in your classroom.

As you would know very well, has a comprehensive project like this yet been undertaken — am I being redundant or offering something valuable to this growing field of Civil War memory? If not, is there any literature that you know of on issues of contemporary Civil War and slavery memory (other than Blight, and, well, Tony Horowitz’ Confederates in the Attic)? I hope to contribute something meaningful that bridges the gap between academic and popular discourse on the Civil War and slavery generally — and memory in particular.

I apologize for asking these questions of you, as I know you are busy and this is perhaps asking a great deal — but you are certainly a flagship for a more popular discourse on Civil War memory, and you have certainly raised questions seeking a more academic approach. I hope with a comprehensive senior thesis that I plan to turn into a Ph.D. dissertation that I can start to open that academic discourse, even at the undergraduate level.

I Just Love the Title

This forthcoming book about Robert E. Lee by John Perry is apparently part of a new series of books on American military leaders published by Thomas Nelson.  The volume on Patton is subtitled: “Tenacity in Action.”  From the book description:

It’s no surprise that Robert E. Lee graduated second in his class from West Point. His four years there were marked by exemplary conduct and nary a demerit. He went on to become one of the most successful generals of the Confederate army during the American Civil War, inspiring his troops with his unselfish character and devotion to duty. Lee’s string of victories earned him praise on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. He was admired for his tactical success in battle, and even after surrendering to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomatox court house, his example of conduct for thousands of ex-Confederates made him a legend. After the war, he assumed the presidency of Washington College and devoted the remainder of his life to setting an example of conduct. He remains one of the most distinguished military heroes of all time.

I can definitely feel the “goodness”.

The Politicizing of Confederate History Month

Unfortunately, I was unable to make the recent Tea Party rally in Richmond, Virginia and it looks like I missed one of the most interesting references to Confederate History Month since the governor’s announcement.  Karen Cooper is an African American postal worker who lives in Chesterfield, Virginia.  Although the video posted below doesn’t include it, apparently she walked toward the podium declaring, “Happy confederate heritage and history month patriots!” [Update: Click here for Cooper's introduction and opening remarks.]

Ms. Cooper goes on to talk about her decision to vote for President Obama as well as the reasons for her change of position.  Along the way she delivers this little comment about the Founding Fathers:

I love my country. I love our Founding Fathers. They were visionaries. They were not a bunch of racist, sexist bigots. They knew that this country was going to abolish slavery one day and they were right.

I should point out that I don’t have any firm beliefs about the racial beliefs of the Tea Party folks.  I’ve read my share of news stories as well as the most recent poll, which seems to challenge some of the more outlandish claims made about its members.  That said, I am curious as to what Ms. Cooper sensed about what I assume was a predominantly white audience that caused her to make an explicit endorsement of Confederate History Month as well as declare that the Founding Fathers were not racists and that they understood that slavery would one day end.  What exactly does that have to do with the agenda of the Tea Party Movement?  Could it be that Ms. Cooper and Governor McDonnell had similar goals in their support of the proclamation?

What do you think?

It’s More Than Just A Historically Inaccurate Wall

If you are not reading Mysteries and Conundrums than you are missing one of the most interesting new Civil War blogs to come down the pike in some time.  The blog is maintained by the historical staff at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, which is led by John Hennessy.  The gang has been posting on a regular basis and the stories are absolutely fascinating. Much of it has focused on the analysis of images of the town and battlefield and the high-resolution photographs will leave you staring for quite some time.

The most recent post by Eric Mink addresses the history of the famous Stone Wall at Marye’s Heights and its construction by a segregated group of African American Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s.  The post goes on to address the concerns within the NPS and local white community surrounding the presence of these men as well as the steps taken to segregate park facilities, including picnic areas and bathrooms.  I encourage you to read the entire post.

Anyone who has studied the battle in detail knows that the stone wall is not an accurate representation of the original wall, though recent archaeological work has shown that it does sit on the original foundation.  This raises the interesting question of its status given the NPS’s recent work to return their battlefields to as close to their appearance at the time of the war as possible.  We’ve seen this with the return of viewsheds at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg as well as a recent decision to dismantle a New Deal bathroom between Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.

I don’t believe that there is a general rule to be applied at every battlefield; rather, I tend to think that these decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis and in a way that will enhance the interpretation of the actual site.  While I’ve walked the area around Marye’s Heights multiple times with students, family, and friends, I find it very difficult to imagine the fighting that took place there in December 1862 and May 1863.  The development of the town from the area along the river up to the very foot of the battlefield makes it very difficult for me to understand the tactical ebb and flow of the battle as well as the area’s topographical significance.   What I do understand is that the Confederate position there was pretty damn good.  I get that.

As far as I am concerned the stone wall constructed by the CCC ought to be preserved and properly interpreted.  While it would be interesting to see a historically accurate stone wall at Marye’s Heights, it’s added benefit would not outweigh the importance of the CCC wall.  Actually, I could probably make the argument that if the returning of the site to its “original” look is our goal than we should either dismantle or remove the Richard Kirkland monument.  Now, before you go off the deep end keep in mind that I am not suggesting that we do so, only that it does function as an obstacle in that regard.  When I bring students to the monument we talk very little about the actual battle as opposed to the culture of the Civil War Centennial, which goes much further in explaining the monument’s presence than anything Kirkland did or didn’t do.

A new wall would not drastically change the stories that I share with my students when we visit.  On the other hand Eric Mink’s post now allows me to share a significant story of the battlefield that will dramatically expand their understanding of the battle and its legacies.  As I discussed in a talk that I gave at Fredericksburg on the anniversary of the battle in 2009 I strive to give my students a broad understanding of the significance and legacy of our Civil War battlefields.  Here we have a major battle that took place on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Roughly seventy years later that very same spot is being maintained by a segregated group of black CCC workers for the enjoyment and education of a predominantly white audience.  Some of these men may have been the children and grandchildren of slaves.

The men who fought at Fredericksburg created their own meaning, but we should not lose sight of the fact that subsequent management of a landscape continues its history and infuses it with additional significance and meaning.  Think of the monuments that were erected at the turn of the twentieth century.  These objects over time attain their own unique historical significance.  With this wall we are presented with another object of historical significance and an interpretive opportunity that ought not to be passed over.

[Photograph from Mysteries and Conundrums/FSNMP]

Welcome New Readers

This last week has been pretty busy around here since the governor of Virginia announced his Confederate History Month Proclamation.  The number of visitors went through the roof owing to some key hyperlinks from a number of very popular news outlets.  To those of you who are new to Civil War Memory I encourage you to take a few minutes to look around.  Click here for some background about me and a brief description of the scope of this blog.  You can also explore my list of publications and research interests.  As for the blog itself you may want to check out the list of Popular Posts in the sidebar as well as the Archives and Categories list.  My most popular subjects include “black Confederates,” the Civil War Sesquicentennial, and my ongoing research on William Mahone and the battle of the Crater.  Enjoy and welcome.

My focus on the controversy surrounding Confederate History Month resulted in two writing assignments.  Today I finished a short editorial for Civil War Times that will appear in the next issue along with contributions from roughly ten others.  I’ve also been asked to write a critical review of an essay for The Wilson Quarterly.  The essay is titled, “America’s Changeable Civil War” by Christopher Clausen and is right up my alley.  How cool is that?