I‘ve never been a fan of tearing down our Civil War monuments because I tend to think that such a move only works to make us feel better. Although the removal of monuments reflects the very same political, economic, and social conditions that led to their being initially placed in prominent spots it almost always fails to address a controversial past that has helped to divide a community. One alternative is to add some kind of marker to the historic site that educates the visitor as to why a statue was placed in a particular spot and that offers a more complete interpretation of the event/individual being commemorated. This is what the citizens of Frederick, Maryland have done with a prominent statue of Chief Justice Roger Taney that was dedicated in 1931. Now visitors can read a small plaque that outlines the infamous ruling in the Dred Scott v. Sanford as well as its long-term consequences. Not only does it educate, but it gives voice to both Dred and Harriet Scott as well as a community whose past has all too often been ignored.
I attended a couple of meetings early on of the Virginia Civil War Sesquicentennial committee. During one meeting “Bud” Robertson explained why the committee would not fund reenactments. He expressed concern that they might prove embarrassing as did the first major reenactment at Manassas in 1961 at the beginning of the Civil War Centennial. Robertson and others wanted to ensure that this time around the state would not engage in celebration, but would promote events that commemorate and educate. This was reinforced by William J. Howell, who serves as Speaker of the House of Delegates and as chairman of the commission.
It was reported a few days ago that the Manassas City Council is planning a 9-day celebration that will include a reenactment in 2011. The event is being organized by the Virginia Civil War Events Inc., which is asking for $100,000 from the city. Not only have they received the funds, the council is also requesting upwards of $250,000 from Richmond. Continue reading
One of the points that Richard Dreyfuss hammered home the other day was the idea that “America is a miracle.” He never got around to explaining what he meant, but I suspect that most people in the room agreed. For most Americans I assume that some version of this claim is taken as a given. I have little patience with such references, not because I “hate my country” but because I have no way of making sense of it as both a teacher and as a working historian. By definition a miracle constitutes an an interruption of the laws of nature that can only be explained by divine intervention. It may also be understood along secular lines as a statistically unlikely event or a unique/special or rare occasion such as birth or even a natural disaster.
The secular definition doesn’t trouble me much since it is a matter of playing loose with certain concepts. We know what someone means when they describe the birth of a child or the size of a shark as a miracle of nature. The issue is not one of a lack of explanation. What does trouble me is the idea that the United States is the result of some kind of divine intervention. I think here something has to give between the goal of teaching students civics/history and understanding this nation as a miracle. At its root the assumption that divine intervention/God has something to do with the birth of this nation precludes any attempt to explain or understand it. It essentially rips the period in question from the broader history of Europe and the rest of the world. Of course, In class we trace the origins of this nation into the 16th century as well as the ideas that formed the bedrock of our founding documents. I expect my students to be able to explain why Europeans settled in the western hemisphere and how ideas evolved throughout this period. For a teacher to push an interpretation that explains the founding of this nation apart from this broader narrative is tantamount to simple storytelling rather than engaging in serious historical explanation. Continue reading
The following commentary by Shelby Foote comes at the tail end of Ken Burns’s The Civil War
“We think that we are a wholly superior people – if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war. But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times. And our generals were the greatest generals of all time. It’s very American to do that.”
Yesterday I accepted a very kind offer to take part in the Civil War Preservation Trust’s Teacher Institute in July 2010. I’ve been following their programs over the past few years and have to say that I am very impressed. This year the institute will be held in Hagerstown, MD July 16 – 18th, 2010. The battlefield we will be touring on Saturday is Gettysburg, the tours will be led by the National Park Service (Scott Hartwig & team) and Garry Adelman (doing a then and now photography tour). There is a limit of 200 teachers so you may want to register sooner than later. This is a free professional development opportunity, teachers only cover their travel and lodging; however, there are scholarships to cover even those costs. This sounds like a great deal and I couldn’t be more excited about this opportunity to talk about something that is so important to me. I will be taking part in a panel discussion during the Saturday evening banquet to discuss the teaching of the Civil War with Web2.0 technology.