“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.

What Did You Read This Past Year?

I plan on sharing my favoite Civil War titles before the end of the year.  [Fellow blogger and NPS historian John Hoptak has already published his “best of” list for 2008.] In the meantime I am interested to know what you found worthwhile from this year’s offerings.  I don’t mind at all if you want to cite something published in 2007 that you only got around to reading this year.

Commemorating What? (continued)

I love those little bursts of creativity that I occasionally have in the classroom. With my commemoration talk scheduled for Sunday in Fredericksburg and my Civil War Memory classes focused on the analysis of soldier monuments, their inscriptions, as well as dedication talks, I decided to place them in the position of speaker and come up with their own presentation. Actually, they had to focus on the individual themes that they would include in the speech rather than write it out. Without telling them that I am the one scheduled to give the talk I described the setting beginning with a brief description of the battle, the Kirkland Memorial, and cemetery as well as the schedule for the ceremony. I referenced the wreath-laying, which will be carried out by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Sons of Union Veterans, and Daughters of the Confederacy and described the purpose of the ceremony itself.

The goal was a class discussion and it turned out to be one of the more engaging of the semester thus far. In both sections students suggested beginning with the Kirkland Memorial as a way of emphasizing the theme of brotherhood, reunion, and bravery. We talked a bit about the importance of honoring the fallen and why we find a need to do so.

What I found interesting, however, was the level of disagreement surrounding the referencing of themes that go beyond the battlefield. For instance, in both sections it didn’t take long for a student to suggest the importance of emancipation and the end of slavery as important factors for a commemoration talk. Students took very strong positions on this distinction. For those who agreed it was a matter of acknowledging what the war accomplished while those who disagreed saw little but division. From one perspective it came down to a disagreement over the proper time frame for the talk: Should it cover 1861-1865 and stick to the battlefield specifically or should it reach beyond not only the battlefield, but the war years itself? At least one student in each class suggested referencing the recent election of our nation’s first black president, while others thought that this would also prove to be problematic. It turned out to be problematic on two levels; on the one hand it threatens the bonds of affection and heroic traits found in the broader theme of reunion as well as the setting [Kirkland Memorial] for the ceremony.

The discussion moved to the question of who the commemoration is for. Is it for the Civil War generation, the living, or both? There seemed to be little agreement on this question. A number of students kept coming back to the distinction between Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 speech on the 50th anniversary of the battle. They were drawn to the way Lincoln connected the meaning of the battle to the founding ideals in Declaration of Independence as well as the way he reminded his audience and future generations of their obligations to ensure that “these men shall not have died in vain.” Others appreciated Wilson’s focus on the veterans in attendance in 1913 and understood the overall theme of “the quarrel forgotten” even though they acknowledged the racial backdrop of Jim Crow.

A few of the students kept pressing me to share my own ideas. It was not until the end of the course when I decided to reveal that I am the one giving the commemoration talk. I promised to allow them the opportunity to critique it on Monday.

Unfortunately, I did not have the time to turn this little exercise into a formal lesson plan. I do think, however, that this can be done in any history class. It forces students to think about what is worth remembering/commemorating and why. Next time, I will definitely ask students to write a formal address as well as deliver it to the rest of the class. One of the things that a classroom address would allow for are images that the student could use to provide a visual setting for the subject of the presentation. In February I will be working with a group of high school teachers on how to teach the Civil War and memory through a TAH Grant. My goal is to introduce a lesson plan based on writing commemorative speeches for this session.

Commemorating What?

It’s a strange feeling to have to write a commemoration talk when the very thing that deserves to be remembered and reinforced has almost entirely been forgotten. Even I failed to acknowledge that December 6 was the anniversary of the passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery forever. Few Americans would have conceived of this as a possibility in 1861. The battle of Fredericksburg, which was fought on the eve of the Emancipation Proclamation, is part of this story of a “new birth of freedom” and deserves to be acknowledged in a nation that professes to believe in freedom and equality for all.

I believe the commemoration ceremony this coming Sunday is being held next to the Kirkland Statue. It’s a fitting place to hold the ceremony. We all know the story of Sergeant Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina who gave aid and comfort to wounded Union soldiers at the base of Marye’s Heights. That said, I would much rather be in sight of the soldier’s graves. They force us to ask the difficult questions of what the war means to us as well as what is worth remembering and commemorating. Kirkland’s story is one that all Americans can identify with, and rightly so, but when are we as a nation going to get to a point when emancipation and the end of slavery can be acknowledged as a fitting price for so much death and suffering?