Update on African American History and Culture Museum

From the Voice of America:

“February is Black History Month in the United States, when Americans are encouraged to learn about and appreciate the many contributions African Americans have made to American society. Those efforts got a boost this week (January 30) when the Smithsonian Institution announced its plan to build a National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, where, in about 10 years, it will join the of the capital city’s famed national museums monuments.”

Looks like the museum will be located right next to the Museum of American History. I’ve already contributed to the funding of this worthy endeavor and I encourage you to do the same.

Blight in the Classroom

We wrapped up our discussion of Reconstruction with an analysis of David Blight’s North and South Magazine article, “Race and Reunion: Soldiers and the Problem of the Civil War in American Memory” (Vol. 6, No. 3, 2003). I threw this image up on the board to examine the evolution of Robert E. Lee in American memory–three of the most prominent southerners.

Black History Month

Today is the beginning of Black History Month, which was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as Negro History Week. The question of whether this month should be set aside in recognition of African American history was recently addressed by actor Morgan Freeman on a recent episode of 60 Minutes. Freeman stressed his opposition to the holiday on the grounds that it created an artificial distinction between black history and American history. I agree with Freeman. That said, regardless of the appropriateness of the holiday it is essential that we step back to acknowledge why Woodson believed it was necessary in 1926. Using a textbook by Eric Foner means that my students are reading the most up-to-date account of how historians, including Foner, have interpreted the Reconstruction period. To give them a sense of how historians have evolved in their understanding of this controversial period I’ve been reading passages from W.E.B. Dubois’s phenomenal study, Black Reconstruction. Yes, he probably goes a bit too far applying Marxist categories, but it is the most complete study of how African Americans shaped their history by engaging in political action in one of the most dangerous settings imaginable. The final chapter is titled, “The Propaganda Of History.” Dubois asks: “What are American children taught today about Reconstruction? ” From the textbooks he references:

1. “The Negroes got control of these states. They had been slaves all their lives, and were so ignorant they did not know the letters of the alphabet. Yet many now sat in the state legislatures and made the laws.”
2. “In the South, the Negroes who had so suddenly gained their freedom did not know what to do with it.”
3. “Some legislatures were made up of a few dishonest white men and several Negroes, many too ignorant to know anything about law-making.”
4. “These men knew not only nothing about the government, but also cared for nothing except what they could gain for themselves.”
5. “Legislatures were often at the mercy of Negroes, childishly ignorant, who sold their votes openly, and whose ‘loyalty’ was gained by allowing them to eat, drink, and clothe themselves at the state’s expense.”

One of my students asked who authored these various passages. My response: “Some of the brightest historical minds that this country has ever produced.” Let’s have the debate about the appropriateness of Black History Month, but let us not forget the history that it sought to address.

A Foreign (i.e. Fresh) Perspective

I had a very interesting encounter yesterday with one of my AP students who happens to be Korean. She is extremely bright, but struggles with the language and her writing. At the same time she is one of my hardest workers and best of all this student is relentless in her quest to better understand American history. Few students have made more progress. A few of the other students in the class are aware of her intelligence and accord her a great deal of room to express herself. Unfortunately, the majority display little patience, which is unfortunate because she is extremely insightful and has a great deal to offer. On average we meet 3 times a week in my office just to talk about the readings and her interpretation. Yesterday was one of those days where she was unable to express herself sufficiently regarding Lincoln’s political/leadership style. I told her to continue to think about it, but time ran out. I then told her to come back to my office after her last class to see if we couldn’t clarify her ideas. She came back to my office with her thoughts already written down and was easily able to express what was on her mind. Turns out what she wanted to say was that Lincoln understood the external pressures that influenced his wartime policy, but that he was somehow able to steer it down a road that corresponded closely to his own personal interests and “morality.” (She was of course referring to L’s policy regarding slavery.) She made the point that “it is almost as if Lincoln was one step ahead of everyone else.” I think this is a remarkable insight. What took the cake, however, was her next comment — apparently something she’s been thinking about for quite some time. Up until recently this student believed that she was at a disadvantage compared with the other students who have grown up learning about American history. The breakthrough for her was realizing that in fact her foreign birth is an advantage as she doesn’t have to juggle a traditional view that explains important events and leaders in heroic terms. Teaching is full of surprises. Guess who just walked into my office to talk about today’s reading?

A Note To People Who Comment On This Blog

I love reading the comments of those who both agree, but especially those who disagree with my posts. In fact, I’ve found since I started this blog that one of the great benefits it offers is the increased interaction with people that I normally would have no contact with. At times, however, I find people’s comments to be very curious. I say this because it seems to me that many who write assume that I am the author of a certain interpretation, whether it involves the role of slavery in causing secession, the debate about black Confederates or the importance of emancipation. I have to admit that I have not done any original research on most of the important questions connected with both the battlefield and the home front. Yes, I have done substantial work on the Battle of the Crater, William Mahone, and Civil War memory but that’s about it. What I am trying to get at is that most of what I post about is the result of a voracious appetite for the best in Civil War studies. On most historical debates I defer to the experts in the field whose job it is to research the past. This acknowledgment is no different from my deference to credentialed physicians when I need a diagnosis. I am interested in studying the work of people who are trained to investigate and analyze historical sources.

Apparently my blog is making the rounds on a Neo-Confederate listserv. As a result I’ve received some very colorful comments. For the most part I just delete the emails or ignore the individual comments posted on the blog. The only reason I raise this issue is that a few of my students who read my blog have commented on specific posts. What I am surprised by is their evaluation of these comments as a product of immature ignorance. I’d like to think their time in my class has raised the bar in terms of what counts as meaningful criticism. So, if you have a problem with my emphasis on the importance of race and slavery as it relates to secession and emancipation don’t criticize me; pick up the latest studies by James McPherson, Charles Dew, William Freehling, and Ed Ayers and find out where these and countless other historians writing over the last few decades went wrong. What I know about the Civil War is based in large part on what I read. Please don’t suggest that I check out your personal website on black Confederates or Lincoln’s “real attitude” towards slavery. I am not interested in your personal view or your non-credentialed website that more than likely is structured around some preconceived conclusion. I am only interested in the extent to which you’ve engaged the relevant secondary literature or contributed to it in some fashion that includes a strenuous peer-review process. Tell me where the leading historians have gone wrong and your views will receive a great deal of attention from me. Calling me a “yankee,” “revisionist,” “liberal,” or “Trotskyite” (still trying to figure this one out) does little more than tell me that serious debate is not on your agenda. Hold off on what Eric Wittenberg has rightly called, “Neo-Confederate Hooey.” And for those of you who feel a need to air out your emotions on my blog, know that my high school students are getting a good laugh at your expense.

I am still trying to figure out the place of blogging in my academic life. (A recent survey shows that the majority of bloggers last about 3-4 months.) As a result, I am uncertain if I will continue this blog for much longer. If I do continue it will be in large part to the incredibly thoughtful comments that many of you have shared over the last few months.

Commemorating an Unknown Battle

There are certain things that a New Jersey boy who grew up on the ocean will never understand. Within the context of Civil War culture it is the obsession that many have with commemorating and reenacting battles. I’ve never seen a reenactment and I remember feeling very uncomfortable during the one battlefield commemoration that I attended a few years back. I have great respect for this nation’s military and the people who serve, but when it comes to the Civil War I steer clear of any celebration – irregardless of whether it is directed at Union or Confederate themes. For me the war comes alive in the scholarship of a large and growing number of talented Civil War historians. From the Hagerstown Herald-Mail.

An organization is seeking to bring attention to the Battle of Monterey, which they say was the second-largest battle fought in Pennsylvania during the Civil War and the only battle fought on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. John Miller, a Civil War historian for the Emmitsburg (Md.) Historical Society, said the tale of the battle largely was lost as the Blue Ridge Summit area was converted into a summer resort town, then became home to railroad activity and mining. Now, Civil War buffs, including Miller, are joining with the One Mountain Foundation and a Pennsylvania tourism initiative to better highlight Blue Ridge Summit’s role in the war. “This is an undeveloped (battle) site,” said Gary Muller, chairman of the One Mountain Foundation. The group hopes to draw attention to the area by listing Blue Ridge Summit in promotional paperwork for a three-day Civil War Trails Discovery Weekend in Pennsylvania.

Is this just an extreme example of appropriating a bit of local history or is it a matter of economic development. My guess is that Miller and others have a sincere interest in preserving their little corner of the Civil War. Still, I don’t really get it. Are there any other countries that obsess over their Civil War battlefields like we do? Is there a Western Front Preservation Society in France? Is there any reason to judge the actions of these devoted preservationists as going above and beyond what reason dictates as worth saving or is it a purely subjective choice? Seems to me that with the rate of development in places like northern Virginia we are going to have to address these questions.

Winsmith Letters Transcribed

I just finished transcribing the last of the letters by Captain John Christopher Winsmith of the 1st South Carolina Infantry, Hagood’s Regiment. The collection consists of roughly 250 letters written between 1859 and September 1864. I first came across the collection while doing research at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond. John Coski suggested that I think about editing the collection and I am glad that I eventually came around to it. The next step will be the editing of the letters and the writing of an introduction. While I’ve read numerous published and unpublished collections I have to say that Winsmith’s letters are a real gold mine. He is an excellent writer and he has a keen sense of how events on the battlefield connected to both the home front and politics.

He remained optimistic of Confederate victory as late as his wounding outside Petersburg at the end of September 1864. His descriptions of the battlefield are quite vivid; a seven-page letter written during the height of the battles around Spotsylvania will be worth the price of the book alone. We still need more research on mid-grade officers and their responsibilities both in maintaining unit cohesion and as a liaison with their families back home. Winsmith worked hard to balance his role as disciplinarian and commander with his responsibility to comfort and look out for his men.

A planned trip this summer to Spartanburg, South Carolina for research and a tour of the Winsmith home, including the still-standing slave quarters, will hopefully result in enough background information for a history of the family. This collection should prove very attractive for historians. From what I can tell this collection has not been used in any published accounts in recent years. My only explanation is that historians have bypassed the Museum of the Confederacy on their research rounds through Richmond. If true, it is unfortunate as the museum’s collection is incredibly rich. Historians of both the Western and Eastern theaters will find Winsmith’s letters to be of great value.

Faculty Chair in Memory of Brian Pohanka

I missed this one. In October of last year a Faculty Chair in American Civil War History was created at Dickinson College in memory of Brian Pohanka. Pohanka studied history at the school and graduated in 1977. Matthew Pinsker is the first incumbent of the chair. Here is what he had to say:

“Brian was a legend in my field. He brought a richer, more accurate understanding of the Civil War to millions. I am honored by the prospect of trying to continue his important work both inside and outside the classroom.”

I can’t think of a better way to honor Pohanka’s scholarship and love for American history. Click here to read more from the article.