Opening Remarks

Edward L. Ayers

The goal of today’s panels is to understand how Americans viewed their world in 1859 without the knowledge of what was to come.  From this perspective, Lincoln was a successful lawyer and Jefferson Davis still a senator.  If we do not understand the years leading to secession and war than we cannot understand four years of bloody conflict.

Governor Tim Kaine

Two crucial events in American history: Civil War forged our national identity and WWII secured the nation’s place on the world stage.  Comments on placement of Arthur Ashe, statue of Lincoln, etc.  All created controversy owing to the divisive nature of the war.  We are still wrestling with it as a commonwealth and as a country.  Not only did the war end slavery, but it enabled civil government to evolve in its responsibilities.  Mentioned that he read a biography of Andrew Jackson and learned that regional disputes have a rich history.  Hmmm…could it have been Mechum’s new biography.  Without the war and reunion the nation would not have become a player on the world stage.  Kaine is committing the state to battlefield preservation over the next few years.  We are here to learn from our past so we can come together in better understanding.

A Short Chat With Professor Charles Dew

Good morning and welcome to the University of Richmond for the first major event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The Robbins Center is beginning to fill up and there is certain excitement in the air.  As I mentioned we are expecting over 2,000 people today; keep in mind that this is a weekday.  I just finished talking with Professor Charles Dew of Williams College.  I asked him about the significance of beginning Virginia’s commemoration with 1859 as opposed to the Civil War Centennial which began with the firing on Fort Sumter.  Professor Dew believes that this will highlight the issue of slavery as the sectional conflict – the one issue that ultimately could not be dealt with within the political framework.  He believes that the integration of race and slavery is long overdue in our popular understanding of the war.  Ultimately, he hopes that this renewed focus will bring African Americans back into our national discussion of the war.

As for the format of this conference, Professor Dew couldn’t be more pleased.  He noted that historians have a tendency to talk shop and in a way that alienates the general public.  The lack of formal presenations will hopefully make for some interesting give and take between panelists and, ultimately, the audience.  We shall see.  Stay tuned.

[Note: Please keep in mind that these posts are being written on the fly.  There may be serious spelling and other grammatical issues.]

See You in Richmond

sesquicentennial-logoBeginning tomorrow morning around 8:45am you can view a live webcast of Virginia’s first “Signature Conference” commemorating the Civil War Sesquicentennial from the Robbins Center at the University of Richmond.  You can also follow the day’s events right here at Civil War Memory where I will be live blogging beginning with Edward L. Ayers’s opening remarks right up until the final Q&A.  I will be sitting with the rest of the media in a special section of the Robbins Center, along with 2,000 people from around the country.  We will have access to all of the panelists as well as conference organizers.  For those of you who do have the time to view the webcast you can submit questions to panelists in one of two ways.  You can email directly to historians@richmond.edu or you can submit them directly to me at kevlvn@aol.com after which they will be forwarded.  I was hoping to do a few video interviews with my new hand held, but I haven’t had enough time to get accustomed to its features since unwrapping it on Saturday.  I do plan on taking plenty of photographs and I will also be Twittering throughout the day, which you can follow at http://twitter.com/KevinLevin [Tweets will be organized with the hashtag, #cws09].  The format of each session will force panelists to acknowledge the contingency that colored events in 1859.  Panelists will have to discuss the significance of events without referring to their causal connection to future events.  We shall see if they can stick with such strict conditions.  This promises to be an exciting and educational day for all of those who can attend and for those of you who will be watching via the Internet.

Future “Signature Conferences” include the following:

– 2010: “African-Americans and the Civil War,” Hampton University.

– 2011: “American Military Strategy and the Civil War,” Virginia Tech.

– 2012: “Leadership and Generalship in the Civil War,” Virginia Military Institute.

– 2013: “The Home Front in the Civil War,” the College of William and Mary.

– 2014: “Civil War in a Global Context,” George Mason University.

– 2015: “Memory of the Civil War,” University of Virginia.

From All Of Us Here at Civil War Memory, Have a Wonderful Confederate Memorial Day

From Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech“:

The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically….Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics…I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

“Magnolia Morning”

I thought we might start the week off with a scene of peace and beauty.

“It was the morning of great dreams and the day of high hopes. The night before, a gala ball had celebrated Southern nationhood, and had honored the men in gray who would go to war the next day. Hours later, as the soft morning light bathed a new day, it was time for goodbyes. Now, young men in new uniforms shared farewells with loved ones. It was a bittersweet moment: departure was difficult, but ahead awaited glory, honor and the fortunes of war. It was a scene reenacted throughout America – both in the North and the South. Soon, however, the romance of the moment would disappear. Ahead lay the realities of war. More than 5,000 would fall at First Manassas. Another 23,000 would be lost at Sharpsburg, and more than 50,000 would become casualties of war at Gettysburg. For the present, however, Americans were basking in a patriotic glow. The young men of the North were preparing to fight for the Union. Southerners were rushing to arms to defend their homeland. The ball was over, and ahead lay the wages of war. Yet, in the fleeting softness of a new day and the gentle squeeze of a tender embrace, there was a brief and shining moment that would be remembered always.”

Fill in the blank: “My darling, _____________________________.”

[print by Mort Kunstler]

Civil War Sesquicentennial Fast Approaching

I am counting down the days for Wednesday’s much-anticipated inaugural event of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Virginia is far ahead of the pack in organizing events for this 4-year commemoration.  In fact, we are so far ahead that we extended the time line to include events marking the lead up to the war.  On Wednesday, April 29, 2,000 people from all over the country will converge on the University of Richmond for a day-long conference that addresses various aspects of life in the United States on the eve of the war.  Edward L. Ayers, who is the president of the university, as well as the organizer of the event, promises lively discussion along the lines of a format that we’ve come to know all so well in his scholarship:

We have the opportunity to look at this with a fresh eye.  Let’s enter into a conversation with these people of the past and understand just what they were thinking. How was it they could end up killing people that were their neighbors?

As I mentioned before, I will be attending this conference as something along the lines of an official blogger.  I will have full media access and will view the day’s proceedings from a media booth with the Washington Post, AP, Richmond Times-Dispatch, etc.  You will have a chance to view a live webcast and ask questions of the panelists through my blog.  [I recently read that VMI is also organizing a live webcast of the event on their campus.]  My plan is to live blog, Twitter, and take some video so you should expect constant updates in the form of commentary, interview, and images.  I will also be hosting The Educator’s Affinity Group Lunch for teachers who are interested in networking and discussing the morning sessions.  This promises to be an educational and fun day and I encourage all of you to take part.

I leave you with some thoughts from a few of the panelists:

Charles B. Dew, professor of American history at Williams College in Massachusetts, said southerners have been unwilling to confront a prewar economy based on slavery while northerners have sought to blot out memories of their own “profoundly racist” society.  “Americans, like most people, want a usable past. They want it to make sense,“ Dew said.  The conference, he said, is an opportunity “for shining some light in some of the darker corners in Virginia, and by extension, Southern history in a very critical moment.”

As president of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, Christy S. Coleman makes it her mission to offer a more complex, layered view of the conflict. The roles of women on the homefront and suffragists who began their activism in the anti-slavery movement are rarely told, she said.   “These women not only advocated for freedom of the enslaved, but began to tie the issue to the lack of freedom that women had in the nation,“ she said.

Manisha Sinha, an associate professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said the role of black Americans is especially overshadowed in the “whitewashed version — literally and figuratively — of the war itself and its consequences.“  “It’s about time when we talk about the Civil War in the South that we take into perspective not just the views of white southerners but also of black southerners,“ she said.

Was That Really Necessary, Mr. Councilman?

dowdell1_thumb1I‘ve said before that the best place to display a Confederate flag is in a museum where it can be properly interpreted.  It’s always surprised me that given the divisive history of this symbol that more heritage have not come out in favor of such a position.  To suggest that it ought to be interpreted simply as “Heritage, Not Hate” is to ignore much of the history of the mid-twentieth century and its use throughout the period of “massive resistance.”  Since this is unlikely we are left with a cultural tug-of-war that is unlikely every to be resolved.  Ideally it would be nice if various constituencies were able to be a bit more empathetic with other perspectives as a reflection of the multiple ways in which symbols are understood.  The SCV must understand and come to terms with the racist history of this symbol while the NAACP and others must recognize that not everyone who flies a Confederate flag is a racist who yearns for a return to the past.

Perhaps Auburn Councilman, Arthur L. Dowdell should have remembered this little piece of advice as he plucked from the ground a grave site full of Confederate flags, which had been placed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in recognition of Confederate Memorial Day.

Dowdell said in his years as councilman, he had never seen so many Confederate flags in one place.  “I’m going on the record that this will never happen again,” Dowdell said. “This will never happen again as long as I’m on the city council.”  Dowdell denied intentionally snapping the flag.  “It might have snapped itself,” he said. “If it did, so what? If I had my way, I would have broke them all up and stomped on them and burned them. That flag represents another country, another nation.”

I understand the frustration, but was this the best way to express it?  Are we really to believe that this was the first time Dowdell noticed Confederate flags in a cemetery located just across the street from where his children attend school?  Finally, we should ask what Dowdell accomplished by pulling those flags and apparently snapping them in two.  Unilike most of us, Mr. Dowdell enjoys a public forum in which he can express his concerns about the state of his community.  He has a responsibility to use it wisely in the name of all of the people he represents. Use it wisely and use it to open constructive dialog rather than breed mistrust and bitterness.