This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com. It is the start of a series of musings from a historian of the culture and politics of Civil War America, drawn from his notes and photographs upon bringing this perspective “back to the battlefield.”
On a Sunday in July, a few weeks before the vaunted sesquicentennial re-enactment, I enjoyed a balmy day at the Manassas battlefield. Like many of the sites I visited, the National Park Service looked ready: the new signs were beautifully designed, the ranger talks were entertaining and informative, and the trail directions were clear. The Manassas Battlefield is an excellent place to see the different scale of battles between 1861 and 1862—the difference between a skirmish between untested men across a few small hills and a major engagement across miles of terrain, with armies hardened by the experience of war.
One of my favorite sites is a Facebook page made up of folks who style themselves as defenders of Southern Heritage. There isn’t much serious history being discussed. Once in a while someone will ask for a quote’s source or the reference to a particular book, but more often than not members simply reassure one another of their own worth in the continuing struggle against folks, who they believe are out to destroy all things “Southern”. Here is a wonderful example that begins with a posting by Ann DeWitt, aka “Royal Diadem”.
I had a wonderful time at the Civil War Trust’s annual Teachers Conference in Nashville. Garry Adelmann and the rest of the staff did an incredible job of putting together a first-rate group of speakers. It was a bit hectic having to give three talks in two days, but the chance to interact with my fellow history teachers made it all the more enjoyable. The feedback on both my talk on Internet literacy and using Glory in the classroom were very positive. As many of you know I used the black Confederate myth as a case study for the first talk and I was pleased that we did not get hung up on the subject as opposed to remaining focused on the crucial issue of how to effectively judge websites. I got the sense that most of the teachers who attended the session had not given the issue much thought, which leads me to believe that much more attention needs to be given in workshops and seminars.
Gary Casteel’s latest creation was recently unveiled in the new extension of the Virginia Capitol. The sculpture is titled, “Brothers”, and depicts a reunion of two brothers following the heat of battle. My problem with this piece is not that it fails to capture documented meetings between brothers and family members on the battlefield, but that it plays on our need to see the war and all of its bloodshed and violence as somehow washed away through reconciliation and reunion. Simply put, it doesn’t push me to reflect about our past and that is what an important piece of public art ought to do.