Politics, Race, and the Civil War Sesquicentennial

LSU Press was kind enough to send me an advanced copy of Robert Cook’s new book, Troubled Commemoration: The Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965.  This is the first book-length study of the Centennial and it provides an important framework for which to think about the upcoming Sesquicentennial which begins in 2011.  The book situates the Centennial within the politics and culture of the Cold War and explores the challenges that the Civil Rights Movement posed for organizers and participants who wished to celebrate a history that was constructed out of consensus building rather than an attempt to deal with the more divisive issues of race and class.  The narrative of the Centennial had changed little since the turn of the twentieth century; it highlighted shared values between North and South, white supremacy, and ignored or downplayed the more divisive issues of race and emancipation.

While I’ve read a number of Cook’s articles on the Centennial I am only about 20 pages into the book.  I did come across, however, a short section on the role that grassroots organizations such as Civil War Roundtables played in pushing the federal government to form a national Centennial commission.  Given the political and racial profile of members along with the profile of legislatures on the state and national levels throughout the country it is difficult to ignore the symbiotic relationship between the two.  The vision of grassroots organizations mirrored the interests of government.  More on this in a minute.

The first Civil War Roundtable was formed in Chicago in 1940.  Notable members included Avery O. Craven, Carl Sandburg, Douglass Southall Freeman, and Frank E. Vandiver.  Meetings were held monthly and attracted people from all over the country.  By 1958 there were roughly 40 groups, most of them in the South and Midwest.  The rank-and-file, according to Cook, “were predominantly urban and proved especially attractive to white male professionals, many of whom had served recently in the U.S. armed forces.” (p. 18)  The increase in Roundtables reflected a growing interest in the Civil War.  The North-South Skirmish Association was formed in 1950 and five years later Ralph Newman started the Civil War Book Club.  Within one year the club had grown to 2,142 members.  The formation of the Civil War Centennial Association in 1953 grew directly out of this increased fervor for the past.

Given the cultural and political demands of the Cold War along with the racial profile of these organizations and the “face of government” in the 1950s it is not difficult to anticipate the overall themes that would be highlighted by the start of Centennial in 1961.  In short, the discussions about what and how to remember the Civil War would be relatively easy between both private and civil organizations.  Indeed, members of federal, state, and more local Centennial Commissions would be recruited from some of the more active Roundtables.  Such a relationship worked well as politicians could use the Centennial as another weapon in the propaganda war against the Soviets and Americans more generally could remember a war of battlefield heroics and reconciliation.

Jump ahead fifty years and we see a very different dynamic between grassroots Civil War organizations and government.  Government on all levels more closely reflects a broader racial and cultural constituency while popular interest in the Civil War is still mainly confined to white Americans.  There is bound to be tension as the profiles of both sectors of society work to shape competing visions of remembrance.  The crucial component in all of this is whether various interest groups will be willing to engage in serious dialog.  Given the recent trend of slavery apologies that has recently attracted the attention of state legislatures in Alabama and Tennessee and the ensuing debates such a dialog is unlikely.  We are going to need to get beyond the overly emotional language of revisionism and racism in order to fashion something that reflects a narrative that is honest to the past and which proves attractive to large numbers of Americans from various backgrounds.  Many states have already formed Sesquicentennial Commission and have taken the initiative to staff them with individuals with a wide range of backgrounds.  Whether they can convince the politicians to support specific programs, especially given the overly sensitive way in which all things Confederate are treated will be interesting to watch.

Robert E. Lee’s bicentennial is a case in point.  While Virginia and other states have issued formal proclamations recognizing Lee’s 200th birthday as far as I can tell there has been little in terms of formal programs that require taxpayer dollars.  [Back in January there was even protest over taxpayer dollars being used to refurbish the Lee stature on Monument Avenue in Richmond.]  Overall, it has been a fairly quiet birthday bash thus far with most of the programming being handled by universities with a direct connection such as Washington and Lee or the SCV.  In addition, there has been only one serious study of Lee published thus far this year with nothing on the burner.

Positive signs can already be seen within the National Park Service, which is of course a government agency.  The way in which individual battlefield parks gear up for the Sesquicentennial will no doubt be determined by the competence and commitment of those on the ground rather than based on any directives from the top-down – at least that’s what John Hennessy’s comments in his recent Civil War Talk Radio interview suggest. As an educator my primary concern and hope is that we use the Sesquicentennial as a teaching opportunity.  Organizations – both public and private – from around the historical landscape should use the Sesquicentennial as an opportunity to raise much-needed funds, but I will be looking for programs that utilize the best of historical scholarship.  There need be no inherent conflict between these two goals.

Before worrying about anything along these lines I think it is safe to assume that we will not see the same level of interest as the country observed at the beginning of the Centennnial before the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam took center stage.  I don’t know how I feel about that since we are now one generation further removed from the war.  My wife pointed out to me the other day that plenty of people in the mid-1950s could still claim a personal connection to the Civil War through direct acquaintance.  The generation that attended Roundtables and bought books about the Civil War grew up listening to stories from the veterans themselves.  A lack of participation this time around may tell us little about our interest in the Civil War or American history more generally.  We may simply be preoccupied with other legitimate interests.

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“Southern History” by Natasha Trethewey

This morning I picked up Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book of poems titled Native Guard Poems.  It’s a very short book, but there is a great deal to ponder.  Here is a poem that touches on one of this blog’s central themes:

Southern History

Before the war, they were happy, he said.
quoting our textbook.  (This was senior-year

history class.)  The slaves were clothed, fed,
and better off under a master’s care

I watched the words blur on the page.  No one
raised a hand, disagreed.  Not even me.

It was late; we still had Reconstruction
to cover before the test, and — luckily —

three hours of watching Gone with the Wind.
, the teacher said, of the old South

a true account of how things were back then.
On screen a slave stood big as life: big mouth,

bucked eyes, our textbook’s grinning proof — a lie
my teacher guarded.  Silent, so did I.

Here is an old post titled Creating Neo-Confederates which analyzes the influences of the Lost Cause on textbooks at the turn of the twentieth century.


Authorization From College Board: Follow-Up

A few weeks back I mentioned that the College Board is asking all Advanced Placement teachers to submit curricular materials for authorization.  This authorization will allow the school in question to continue to describe their classes as AP.  I do understand the College Board’s concern that classes described as AP meet some minimal standards, but they have gone much too far in issuing a blanket call for all teachers to submit materials.  It would have been just as easy to ask for compliance from schools with questionable scores over a period of time. 

Last week I took the time to figure out what needed to be sent in, but after an hour of going through the guidelines I decided to call College Board and take my frustrations out on one of their employees.  After waiting about 20 minutes I finally got a live one on the other end and proceeded to ask for a justification behind this move.  The woman was responsive to my questions, but she could not answer why the requests for materials was not confined to select groups.  And the reason she couldn’t answer had to do with the fact that she is not an employee of College Board.  It turns out they’ve hired out the entire program to another agency.  I guess it’s not a big deal, but I thought I was interrogating a College Board employee. 

The woman did mention that the June 1 deadline would not be strictly enforced, but I made it crystal clear that I would not take one second out of my summer break to work on this.  Following the phone call I spent roughly 30 minutes putting together materials that I thought they would find interesting and uploaded it to their site.  I wasn’t clear on exactly what materials were needed because I failed to take sufficient time to read through the exact requirements.  I expected to have my application rejected.  Keep in mind that this was last week.  Yesterday I received an email authorizing my AP class:

The College Board is pleased to announce that your United States History course is authorized to use the "AP®" designation for the 2007-08 academic year. The College Board applauds and recognizes your efforts to provide your students with the academic rigor and college-level experience that is the promise of AP. I thank you for the time and effort you put into participating in the AP Course Audit.

Apparently, my application was sent out for a thorough review that somehow managed to be completed in less than a week.  Perhaps certain schools were pushed through with few questions asked.  Of course, I can’t tell if my situation is an exception to the rule for qualified teachers, but it looks like this whole thing is more bark than bite.  On the other hand I heard today from my math colleagues that the process is indeed more rigorous. 

Luckily for me that’s the end of it. 


Poet Explores Louisiana Native Guard and Comments on Memory

Poet Natasha Treatheway has won a Pulitzer Prize for her collection titled Native Guard Poems.  From the book jacket:

Growing up in the Deep South, Natasha Trethewey was never told that
in her hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi, black soldiers had played a pivotal
role in the Civil War. Off the coast, on Ship Island, stood a fort that had once
been a Union prison housing Confederate captives. Protecting the fort was the
second regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards — one of the Union’s first
official black units. Trethewey’s new book of poems pays homage to the soldiers
who served and whose voices have echoed through her own life. The title
poem imagines the life of a former slave stationed at the fort, who is charged
with writing letters home for the illiterate or invalid POWs and his fellow
soldiers. Just as he becomes the guard of Ship Island’s memory, so Trethewey
recalls her own childhood as the daughter of a black woman and a white man. Her
parents’ marriage was still illegal in 1966 Mississippi. The racial legacy of
the Civil War echoes through elegiac poems that honor her own mother and the
forgotten history of her native South. Native Guard is haunted by the
intersection of national and personal experience.

From an interview:

Trethewey started researching "Native Guard" when she realized that a war
monument at a fort on Ship Island off the Mississippi coast never mentions the
Native Guard even though they were stationed there to guard Confederate

Every Independence Day holiday as a child, a grandmother took her to the
island from her home in Gulfport, Mississippi.

"I was intrigued by the idea that I had grown up there and never knew about
this, which made me think about historical markers and monuments and how they
often only tell one part of the story," she said.

"The (Southern) landscape is inscribed with a particular narrative and in the
Deep South it’s often a narrative about Confederate history," she said in an

Click here for an interview with the Newshour’s Jeffrey Brown. I don’t read much poetry, but it looks like I will have to check this out.


Important Campaign Studies That the JAH Missed or Will Miss

I cross-posted yesterday’s entry over at Revise and Dissent and received an interesting comment from Jonathan Dresner, which included a question of whether I could come up with a short list of titles that the JAH should have on their review list.  That’s easy enough to do so here it goes.  Of course, this is not an exhaustive list and no one expects any history journal to review them all:

Michael Ballard, Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened The Mississippi (UNC Press, 2004).
Eric Wittenberg and J. David Petruzzi, Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg (Savas/Beattie, 2006).
Buck Foster, Sherman’s Mississippi Campaign (University of Alabama Press, 2006).
Edward Cunningham, Shiloh and the Western Campaigns of 1862 (Savas/Beattie, 2007).
Scott Patchan, Shenandoah Summer: The 1864 Valley Campaign (University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

It’s hard to know whether the more recent titles from 2006-07 are in fact slated for review given the amount of time it takes to commission and publish a journal review.  The apparent bias at the JAH seems to be very narrow.  For instance, John Cimprich’s study of Fort Pillow was reviewed, but I suspect it is because he gives a nod to issues of memory and public history.  Steve Woodworth’s book on the Army of the Tennessee was also reviewed.  I suspect that the latest installment in Gary Gallagher’s Military Campaigns of the Civil War Series will also be reviewed given the analytical range of the essays. 

I think one would be hard-pressed to argue that the bias at the JAH is directed at military history.  Without getting into a debate about semantics it is clear to me that the editors are targeting what they perceive to be a traditional battle study.  The problem is that it is becoming more and more difficult to draw that distinction.  Most campaign studies – regardless of whether they are written by professional/academic types and/or published by a university press – provide a broader context that gives meaning and significance to the events being described on the ground.  I am sympathetic if the editors wish to leave as much space as possible for titles that provide rich analysis of their topics, but the problem is that in the end you end up generalizing and ignoring very creative and analytically rich studies.  No doubt some of these authors do this well and other do not, but it is the job of a journal’s book review section to sift throught the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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