We’ve come a long way since the stupefied looks on people’s faces as they walked out of the movie theater back in 1989 asking: "Did black people really fight in the Civil War?" Now we look to see if movies are racially inclusive. Looks like Clint Eastwood’s new movie about the battle of Iwo Jima is receiving some flack for failing to include black actors that reflect their presence during the battle.
Nearly a thousand African-Americans took part in the battle and hundreds more played vital support roles. Yet in the sprawling two-hour plus film, no black combatant is seen. This continues the insulting and infuriating pattern in books, films, and TV movies in which the monumental contributions that black men and women made to the fighting in the Pacific and Europe have downplayed, ignored, or deliberately whitewashed.
The invisibility of black soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers, and indeed, the legions of other bio-pic movies on World War II is no surprise to the many black vets that know the true story of the war. They have taken every opportunity they’ve gotten to protest the sanitizing.
Are critics being too sensitive? I think not. My students are still shocked to learn that black men fought with George Washington during the Revolution and that significant numbers fought in the Civil War and World War I. Why exactly are they surprised?
I’ve been reading the wartime journal Eliza Frances Andrews, (b. 1840) titled The war-time journal of a Georgia girl, 1864-1865 (1908). Most of it concentrates on events in Georgia, specifically Sherman’s “March” but in the preface Andrews provides a wonderful overview of how white Southerners – and by this time much of the rest of the country – had come to view the war. In doing so she references the Crater.
The diary was written in a time of storm and tempest, of bitter hatreds and fierce animosities, and its pages are so saturated with the spirit of the time, that to attempt to banish it would be like giving the play of Hamlet without the title-role. It does not pretend to give the calm reflections of a philosopher looking back dispassionately upon the storms of his youth, but the passionate utterances of stormy youth itself. It is in no sense a history, but a mere series of crude pen-sketches, faulty, inaccurate, and out of perspective, it may be, but still a true picture of things as the writer saw them. It makes no claim to impartiality; on the contrary, the author frankly admits that it is violently and often absurdly partisan – and it could not well have been otherwise under the circumstances. Coming from a heart ablaze with the passionate resentment of a people smarting under the humiliation of defeat, it was inevitable that along with the just indignation at wrongs which ought never to have been committed, there should have crept in many intemperate and indiscriminate denunciations of acts which the writer did not understand, to say nothing of sophomorical vaporings calculated now only to excite a smile. Such expressions, however, are not to be taken seriously at the present day, but are rather to be regarded as a sort of fossil curiosities that have the same value in throwing light on the psychology of the period to which they belong as the relics preserved in our geological museums have in illustrating the physical life of the past. Revolutions never take place when people are cool-headed or in a serene frame of mind, and it would be as dishonest as it is foolish to deny that such bitternesses ever existed. The better way is to cast them behind us and thank the powers of the universe that they exist no longer.
I cannot better express this feeling than in the words of an old Confederate soldier at Petersburg, Va., where he had gone with a number of his comrades who had been attending the great reunion at Richmond, to visit the scene of their last struggles under “Marse Robert.” They were standing looking down into the Crater, that awful pit of death, lined now with daisies and buttercups, and fragrant with the breath of spring. Tall pines, whose lusty young roots had fed on the hearts of dead men, were waving softly overhead, and nature everywhere had covered up the scars of war with the mantle of smiling peace. I paused, too, to watch them, and we all stood there awed into silence, till at last an old battle-scarred hero from one of the wiregrass counties way down in Georgia, suddenly raised his hands to heaven, and said in a voice that trembled with emotion: “Thar’s three hundred dead Yankees buried here under our feet. I helped to put ‘em thar, but so help me God, I hope the like ‘ll never be done in this country again. Slavery’s gone and the war’s over now, thank God for both! We are all brothers once more, and I can feel for them layin’ down thar just the same as fur our own.”
That is the sentiment of the new South and of the few of us who survive from the old. We look back with loving memory upon our past, as we look upon the grave of the beloved dead whom we mourn but would not recall. We glorify the men and the memories of those days and would have the coming generations draw inspiration from them.
Andrews is referring to the well-attended 1903 Crater reenactment which was held in Petersburg and on the actual battlefield. I have no reason to believe that Andrews was not in attendance that day, but the event was widely covered by all the major newspapers so she would have had every opportunity to read stories such as the one outlined above. What is so striking to me is the tension that persist between the acknowledgment of her strong emotions during the war and the way she prefers to remember the war later in life. One could challenge the implicit assumption that “cool headed” necessarily implies some form of objectivity as opposed to her “sophomorical vaporings.” [I am going to try to use that phrase today at some point.] While her memory of the war in 1908 is not being fueled by the same passions of youth and harsh realities of war it is clear that the references to reunion and the hope that “coming generation draw inspiration” from the men on both sides were influenced by factors equally salient.
I recently received an email from someone who stumbled onto my blog while looking for places to study the Civil War in graduate school. Here is the email:
I stumbled on your blog while doing some of my research on grad schools. Since you seem to have your ear to the ground regarding Civil War academia, I was wondering if you know which grad schools have the best reputations for study of Civil War, have the best Civil War scholars, etc. I’ve already assembled a list of some of the schools, based in part from input I’ve received from guys like Gallagher, Robertson, and Davis, but I’d appreciate any information you might have. Thanks for your time.
Since I don’t really "have my ear to the ground" on this one I thought it might be worthwhile to appeal to some of my readers for help, especially those of you who teach the Civil War on the college level. still, I might take a crack at this one. First, I would think of the Civil War broadly and look at departments that have a strong concentration in Nineteenth-Century and/or Southern History. Obviously, the University of Virginia would be an ideal place to go given that Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, Michael Holt, Julian Bond, and Grace Hale all teach in the department. In addition, there is the Center For Digital History and the Carter G. Woodson Institute. Rice University has a strong concentration in Southern History, including John Boles who edits the Journal Of Southern History. If I were going to graduate school I would seriously consider the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Joe Glatthar, Jacquelyn D. Hall and Fitz Brundage cover a wide range of issues that connect to the Civil War. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro now has a Ph.D program in United States History and there is a strong concentration in the Nineteenth-Century, including Charles Bolton, Peter Carmichael, and Loren Schweninger among others. Penn State University has Carol Reardon, Mark Neely and William Blair on its faculty along with the George and Anne Richards Civil War Center. Finally, Ohio State University includes both Mark Grimsley and Joan Cashin. There is also a strong concentration in African-American history.
That’s just a few that I could think of off the top of my head. Perhaps Emory University, Arizona State University, University of Georgia as well as Harvard University should be considered. Anyone else want to offer their advice?
I haven’t commented in quite some time on my on-going Crater manuscript. The project is close to completion as I am trying to knock out the last chapter which covers the period from roughly 1940 to the present. By 1940 the Crater – now under supervision by the National Park Service - was being interpreted as it had been going back to the turn of the century. The broad outline of the battle focused on strictly military aspects of the battle, including the role of Mahone and his Virginia brigade. Apart from references to Stephen Elliott’s South Carolina brigade which bore the brunt of the initial explosion other Confederate units were only being briefly referenced. More importantly, the presence of United States Colored Troops was almost entirely ignored as well as the broader issues of race and emancipation, which by this time had been supplanted by themes of national reunion and reconciliation. All of this was reinforced in the public eye as a result of two well-attended reenactments that took place on the battlefield in Petersburg in 1903 and 1937. [I've placed a number of related articles on my website, including most recently, "The Battle of the Crater, National Reunion, and the Creation of the Petersburg National Military Park: 1864-1937" which appeared recently in the Virginia Social Science Journal (2005): 13-27.]
Between 1940 and 1960 the Park Service worked to improve access to the Crater and to provide interpretive markers as well as a recorded narrative that would outline the battle as visitors walked the grounds. High-ranking military officers such as Dwight D. Eisenhower as well as others from such countries as Germany, England, and France walked the battlefield during the postwar years. Very few African Americans visited Petersburg or any other Civil War battlefield during this period. By the mid-twentieth century the purging of any reference to emancipation and black participation in the war had been completed. More importantly, Jim Crow legislation had not only divided the races into separate schools, it kept African Americans from challenging a battle narrative that was geared to whites only. Federal institutions such as the National Park Service was staffed by whites and the interpretation of the battle that was inherited from the turn of the century was defined by an agenda set by white Southerners or by a shared set of values among white Americans generally that promoted nationalism.
The challenge to this agenda began during the Civil Rights Movement and continued into the 1970′s. Without going into too much detail, by challenging the racial hierarchy of much of the country African Americans began the long process of becoming more involved in state and national politics which in turn presented a challenge to the way the public remembered its past. More immediate to the 1960′s, however, the Civil Rights Movement interrupted white America’s celebration of the Civil War Centennial. While events in 1961 such as the reenactment of First Manassas proved successful, by 1963 interest was waning. I need to do more research on what was going on in Petersburg as community leaders began planning a reenactment to commemorate the Crater in late 1963- early 1964. What I do know is that plans were scrapped and in its place a simple stone marker was unveiled on the battlefield in a quiet ceremony on July 30, 1964.
The most sustained challenge to the way the Crater was being interpreted took place in the 1970′s. Not until the 1970’s did blacks command sufficient political power necessary to demand a more inclusive historical memory of the South. In 1978 a research team from Howard University led by Joseph E. Harris issued a report on the status of both black soldiers and slaves in the Park’s interpretive guides and other programs. Not surprisingly, the committee recommended substantial additions from the acknowledgment of individual black regiments to the addition of reading material for tourists to the hiring of black interpreters. Consultation with interpreters revealed that “little information was presented concerning black personnel since few visitors are aware of their services during the battles.” And when told that upon request information was made available it “was never stated what information was given to the visitors.” Black students at Virginia State University who were interviewed considered the primary function of the PNMP to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.” The teams final report “recommended that park officials not only incorporate the achievement of black personnel in their capacities as soldiers and laborers but that personnel are trained to present details concerning the black presence in greater Petersburg.”
I am going to bring the story up to the present with a discussion of Cold Mountain and the possibilities of interpretive revisions given the National Park Service’s recent steps to broaden the way its battlefields are interpreted.
A few days ago I received the program for the upcoming Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association which will be held in Atlanta this year. In addition to the roundtable discussion on Civil War soldiers that I will be joining there are a number of sessions on the war and related topics. One of those sessions is titled, "Planning for the Civil War Sesquicentennial" which will take place on Sunday, January 7 from 11:00-1:00pm. This roundtable will be headed by Rick Beard who is in charge of the CWS Project; he was recently named new director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which is located in Springfield, Illinois. Other panelists include Robert J. Cook of Sheffield University, Gordon L. Jones of the Atlanta History Center and Carroll Van West, who works with the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area. I assume that they are all involved in the project in some capacity. There is no website for the project. My guess is that this session will begin the discussion of how to go about organizing events and other related projects.
Commentary on Civil War Sesquicentennial can be found here and here.