Elizabeth Varon Talks Appomattox and Historical Memory

One of the more interesting Civil War studies to be released this past year is Elizabeth Varon’s Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War. The book provides a nice counterpoint to Jay Winik’s very successful, but overly reconciliationist interpretation of the Civil War’s final act. Varon recently spoke about her book at the Miller Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Below is a taste.

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“Southern History is a Custody Battle Still in Litigation”

In March I will co-lead a group of students on a 7-day trip through the South to explore the history and memory of the Civil Rights Movement. It should come as no surprise that Montgomery, Alabama is on our itinerary. In preparation for the trip we are putting together a collection of documents that offer different perspectives on how these communities are coming to terms with their pasts. This New York Times piece about the placement of new historical markers throughout the city will be included in that list.

But Southern history is a custody battle still in litigation. The Alabama Historical Association, which has its name on many of the historical markers around the state, confirmed the accuracy of the research but declined to sponsor the markers, citing “the potential for controversy.” (The markers were eventually sponsored by the state-run Black Heritage Council.) Todd Strange, the mayor of Montgomery, while acknowledging in a newspaper article several years ago that the sign referring to slave markets made him uneasy, gave the project his backing after a meeting with Mr. Stevenson.

I love the fact that the mayor admitted to feeling “uneasy” but still provided the necessary support for the project to move forward. These projects should make us feel uncomfortable. If they didn’t there would be little reason to carry through with it at all.

Sounds like there is a pretty intense backstory to all of this.

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The Logic of Servants and Soldiers

F.R. Hoard Pension, black ConfederateEvery so often I like to browse a couple of Facebook pages devoted to the myth of the black Confederate soldier. People post all kinds of interesting things related to history and memory and once in a while an archival source appears.

This one caught my eye, though interestingly enough, it appeared without any commentary. At this point I still do not know the source. In 1920 F.R. Hoard of Churchill, Tennessee applied for a soldiers’ pension. As you can see he was denied. “It seems from your application that you were not a soldier, but the servant of a soldier, and therefore you are not pensionable.” In 1921 Tennessee offered former servants pensions. It is unknown at this point whether Churchill applied.

You may remember a similar document related to a North Carolina servant by the name of Wary Clyburn, which I posted back in 2009.

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Confederacy Theory

The following documentary about the history and controversy surrounding the Confederate flag in South Carolina was released in 2001. Glad to find this as I am putting my Civil War Memory course together for the spring semester. The documentary does a great job exploring the raising of the flag atop the state capital and the influence of both the Civil Rights Movement and Civil War Centennial. John Coski gets a good deal of air time to discuss the popularity and evolution of the Confederate flag as well as the fact that ordinary Americans utilized it as a symbol of “massive resistance” during the 1950s and 60s. He also does a first-rate job of dismantling the black Confederate narrative at the 27:00 min. mark.

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Solomon Northup: Farmer

I read Solomon Northrup’s personal account of slaverylong enough ago that I decided to pick it up again in light of having seen the movie. It’s hard not to be impressed with how close the movie actually follows the narrative, but specific choices made by director Steve McQueen stand out. Consider this passage from very early in the book:

With the return of spring, Anne and myself conceived the project of taking a farm in the neighborhood. I had been accustomed from earliest youth to agricultural labors, and it was an occupation congenial to my tastes. I accordingly entered into arrangements for a part of the old Alden farm, on which my father formerly resided. With one cow, one swine, a yoke of fine oxen I had lately purchased of Lewis Brown, in Hartford, and other personal property and effects, we proceeded to our new home in Kingsbury. That year I planted twenty-five acres of corn, sowed large fields of oats, and commenced farming upon as large a scale as my utmost means would permit. Anne was diligent about the house affairs, while I toiled laboriously in the field. (p. 9)

Those of you who’ve seen the movie already know that McQueen chose to begin his story with the Northrup family already established in Saratoga Springs, New York. Solomon is shown well dressed and walking in a park with an individual that he is unable to identify in his narrative, when he is approached by two strangers who were ultimately responsible for his kidnapping and enslavement. Northrup’s life prior to this is ignored entirely. [click to continue…]

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