Over the weekend I heard a distinguished and recently retired Civil War historian lament the state of history education today. It’s not the first time that I have had to sit through such a doomsday scenario, but I don’t mind admitting that it was just a bit more painful given that it took place in front of a room full of history teachers.
Our students know nothing about American history and our political leaders are not much better. At one point this speaker suggested that our elected leaders ought to take a history test as a prerequisite for political office. The comment received a hearty round of applause from the audience. The situation is apparently so dire that this speaker actually compared our current situation with America in the 1850s. [click to continue…]
Thanks to the Civil War Trust for hosting another incredible teacher institute in Richmond, Virginia. While this is my 5th year with the Trust it’s been a couple of years since my last visit. I especially enjoyed the chance to catch up with old friends and spend time with some of the most passionate teachers you will find in classrooms from across the country.
It was also a chance to return to my former home. I had a chance to do some research at the Virginia Historical Society and Library of Virginia and spend a few hours at the Museum of the Confederacy/American Civil War Museum. [click to continue…]
They have already been sighted at the Gettysburg National Cemetery, the Flight 93 National Memorial and even the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. No, this is not a new wave of young history buffs, but phone wielding kids (and adults) playing Pokemon Go. Read this before proceeding any further if you have no idea what I am talking about. Don’t worry. I had to look it up as well. [click to continue…]
The new movie, The Free State of Jones, does a number of things to challenge the Lost Cause narrative of the American Civil War. It not only places slavery at the center of the story, but it also destroys the popular idea that white Southerners were united in their cause for independence. I suspect that for many people who saw the movie the Civil War is best understood as a ‘rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.’ While such a label may capture the class and race dynamics of Jones County, Mississippi it is not at all clear as to the extent to which it explains the rest of the Confederate South.
What follows ought not to be interpreted as a criticism of the movie. I have long stated that it is a mistake to critique movies as works of historical scholarship. I maintain that Free State of Jones does a very good job of portraying life in one small county during the war and into Reconstruction. [click to continue…]
Like many of you I have gone through the full range of emotions over the past few days in response to the shootings in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, St. Paul, Minnesota and Dallas, Texas. The violence and multiple narratives that we have now grown use to hearing in response to these incidents fits easily into a long history of racial violence and misunderstanding. It’s easy to slide into the feeling of disillusionment, but at the risk of sounding cliche, I still believe that when it comes to this thorny issue, the moral arc bends in the direction of justice and increased understanding. I have to believe it. [click to continue…]
For those of you who need a translation of the newspaper headline, it reads “Gone With the Wind.” Very appropriate, indeed.
Frankfurt, Germany (July 2015)
This coming Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the removal of the Confederate battle flag on the state house grounds of Columbia, South Carolina. At the time I was in Frankfurt, Germany, but as you can see their newspapers gave it front page coverage. To mark the anniversary a group calling itself The South Carolina Secessionist Party will hold a rally calling for the flag to be returned.
Today is the 153rd anniversary of “Pickett’s Charge” – the final drama of a campaign that began with Confederates hunting down free blacks and fugitive slaves once they crossed into Pennsylvania. It’s a moment in the Civil War that has inspired some of the most outlandish counterfactuals and even great works of literature such as this famous passage from William Faulkner’s, Intruder in the Dust.
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago….
Well, it did happen and we should all be thankful that the assault failed.
There is nothing worse than having to listen to people wax poetic about glorious assaults without any context. On days like today we should remember that the future of this nation and the lives of millions of people hung in the balance.
I don’t think the Brits could have asked for a more appropriate and moving tribute to those soldiers who were lost on this 100th anniversary of the battle of the Somme. On July 1, thousands of “ghost soldiers” descended on public spaces throughout the country. Reenactors handed out small cards with information about the soldiers they represented. Apart from the occasional singing of “We Are Here” the men remained silent.
Over the past ten years I have written about a wide range of very thoughtful and moving commemorative events that honor the Civil War soldier, but other than a small handful, I can’t say that they rise to this level of emotional engagement. I can only imagine what it was like to witness it in person.
It also leaves me wondering what lessons might be learned moving forward about how Americans honor and remember Civil War soldiers.