Being Civil War Memory

Kevin Levin and John HennessyIt finally hit me early yesterday morning why I felt just a little uncomfortable about giving the commemorative talk on the Fredericksburg battlefield.  I am used to addressing audiences – either in the form of an academic panel discussion or informal roundtable setting – about the past from a detached perspective.  More specifically, I am used to exploring how battlefields have been commemorated and remembered by others, and trying my best to understand the factors, which have come to shape various commemorative forms as well as our popular memory.  Yesterday’s presentation collapsed that distinction.  I’m quite confident that those of you who have followed this blog for some time will not be surprised by the overarching theme of my presentation, but now that I think about it, there is something special about being able to present it on an actual battlefield.  In a sense, my words are now part of the commemorative history of that particular battlefield stretching back to the war itself.  I like that.

Despite losing my place at one point owing to the fact that my hands were shaking from the cold, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.  Most of the 200 people who attended arrived as part of NPS historian Frank O’Reilly’s yearly tour from the downtown area up to Marye’s Heights.  I would have liked to have tagged along, but there can be no complaints when the alternative is a personal tour of the downtown area with John Hennessy.

Photos from the weekend can be found at flickr.

Commemorating Fredericksburg

Today I am giving the keynote address as part of a ceremony commemorating the 146th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Thanks to my friend and fellow historian John Hennessy for inviting me to take part on this important day. I can’t say this was the easiest presentation to write, but I am fairly comfortable with the final version. As always, your critical comments are appreciated.

Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students, bound for one of the areas Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. For me, it is an opportunity to reconnect with a history that has given my life meaning in so many ways. It’s also a chance to introduce this history to my students, many of whom have never set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Visits to battlefields such as Fredericksburg provide a venue in which to discuss what is only an abstraction in the classroom and offer students and the rest of us a chance to acknowledge a story that is much larger and more remote compared to our individual lives and yet relevant in profound ways.

I suspect that my class visits to battlefields have much in common with what bring you to a place like Fredericksburg. We want to understand what happened here, why it happened, and what it means that it happened. We are compelled to do so. My students and I walk this hallowed ground and try our best to piece together what are often conflicting accounts of the ebb and flow of battle. At the same time we struggle to understand and honor the courage of the men who fought and “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Some of those stories are well known, such as the one depicted in this beautiful monument dedicated to Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, who in the heat of battle chose compassion over violence and hatred or the combination of fear and steadfastness that animated Sergeant Thomas Plunkett of the 21st Massachusetts, who carried his regimental colors into battle only to receive a direct hit by a Confederate shell which cost him one arm and part of another – his blood forever staining the regiment’s flag.

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“What Do You Mean We Can’t Fire Our Guns”? and SCV Lights a Menorah

Looks like a group of Confederate reenactors were told by event organizers in Smithfield, Virginia that while they will be allowed to march in an upcoming parade, they will not be allowed to fire their weapons.  The reenactors decided that the only reasonable thing to do was to “secede” for reasons of authenticity.

In other news, the state of Georgia along with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Children of the Confederacy, and the Georgia Civil War commission [Have I left anyone out?] are going to honor the state’s Jewish Confederates.  I just want to say that as a Jew this ceremony is long overdue.  It’s nice to know that the service and sacrifice of tens of thousands of  Jewish Confederates is finally being recognized.  Seriously though, has anyone taught these people how to make a good potato latke?

A Taste of Sunday

On Wednesday Clint Schemmer, of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, interviewed me about my upcoming talk on Sunday. I did my best to give him a taste of some of the themes that I will touch on even as I continue to write and edit. Although the assignment has been a challenge, I am looking forward to the ceremony. I am also looking forward to meeting many of you who have written to say that you will be in attendance. Here is an excerpt from today’s article that focuses on our interview. For those of you who will not be able to make the event, or who have chosen to go elsewhere that day, I will post my talk on Sunday for your consideration

During the keynote address, Charlottesville resident Kevin Levin, editor of the popular blog Civil War Memory, said he will “try to push the envelope a bit.” He does the same during tours of Fredericksburg with his high school students. “To visit a battlefield is a chance to look at causes, consequences and bigger meanings.”

“Visiting a battlefield should not be easy,” Levin said. “When we go to these places, it’s up to us, as Americans, to try and make those connections and try to understand why this happened–that for four years, Americans killed one another. We have an obligation to try to understand it, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable, to deal with issues like race, like slavery, or Jim Crow.” He noted that the Battle of Fredericksburg occurred a few weeks before President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, something that many of the men who fought at Fredericksburg were keenly aware of.

“I won’t be talking about anything the soldiers weren’t themselves talking about,” he said. “This discussion that people today have–about what is the proper scope of battlefield interpretation–is a debate more about ourselves than the history itself.” America’s Civil War magazine has lauded Levin’s writing for its “humanistic insight and scholarly precision.” History News Network recognized it with its 2007 Cliopatria Award for Best Individual Blog. Levin teaches American history at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, and writes and lectures extensively on the war.

Historians Against Wal-Mart

The battle continues over a proposed Wal-Mart, which will be placed on the Wilderness Battlefield just off the intersection of routes 20 and 3.  Awhile back I was asked by the Civil War Preservation Trust to endorse a letter to be sent to the CEO of the company.  Click here to read the letter and here to see who else signed it.  It’s an impressive list that I don’t think will make a damn bit of difference to the suits in charge.   [Note: both are pdf files.]

Welcome to the New and Improved Civil War Memory

It is with great excitement that I unveil the new design for Civil War Memory. Thanks to Dino Latoga with E.Webscapes for his help with the design and format of the blog. He was very patient with me and I especially dig the banner he came up with, which captures many of the central themes on this site. I’ve also uploaded a Beta Version of WordPress 2.7. The final version is scheduled to be released any day now, but I wanted to check out the new interface and some of the new features. I am very excited about the threaded comments feature, which will allow you to respond directly to specific comments. Hopefully, this will allow for more extended discussions and make it easier for readers to follow various threads. Because this is a Beta version of 2.7 there may be a few glitches. Please let me know if there are any visual problems depending on your browser or any other problems you notice. We may make a few more changes over the next few days so your comments are very much appreciated.

Update: I decided to go with a single sidebar.  One of the glitches I am dealing with is the inability to move the various elements in the sidebar.  This has prevented me from including widgets such as Library Thing.  These changes are forthcoming.  Bob Pollock inquired into why Lee, rather than Grant, is stuck between Lincoln and Douglass.  He’s probably right about that, and to be honest I didn’t give it much thought other than that I wanted Lee prominently featured on the banner.