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I’ve been looking forward to my trip to Fredericksburg for a few weeks and I couldn’t be more excited. Tonight the city of Fredericksburg will celebrate the memory of John Washington with a "dramatic presentation" and talk by historian David Blight. Washington’s emancipation narrative has recently been edited and published by Blight. Washington’s memoir chronicles his life as a slave in Fredericksburg, his decision to escape across the Rappahannock River in March 1862 and work for the Union army, and his eventual relocation to Washington, D.C. Click here for information about this event.
While events begin tonight at 7pm for the general public my day begins with a special tour of Washington’s life in Fredericksburg which will be led by historian John Hennessy and will include Professor Blight, and three generations of Washingtons who have made the trip from Florida. As I mentioned earlier the descendants of Washington have only recently learned of this memoir; it will be very interesting to see how they respond. Dinner will follow the tour and then we will head over to the Fredericksburg Baptist Church where the event will take place. This promises to be a very emotional and educational experience.
You can expect a full report and plenty of photographs.
I came across this entertaining little video from the Christian Broadcasting Network which examines the religious convictions of John Jasper, R.E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. It is somewhat humorous to find these two men being raised to something along the lines of civil rights activists. The questionable story of Lee accepting communion in a Richmond church next to a black man and just after the war is explored along with Jackson’s mission to educate his slaves and other blacks in the Lexington area. I found this passage by James I. Robertson to be just a bit curious:
As he saw it, slavery was something that God ordained upon black people in America for God’s own reasons," Robertson said. "And he had no right to challenge God’s will. That was blasphemy. And so, while he hated slavery, he was opposed to slavery, Jackson had to obey his Heavenly Father and accept the system. And he accepted it through doing the Golden Rule, do unto others as he would wish they do unto him.
Here is what I don’t understand. If God brought slavery to black people than how is it possible that Jackson "hated" or was "opposed" to it? To put it another way, isn’t God’s ordaining something to be the case a justification of its existence? As I understand it, if Jackson questioned slavery than he was also questioning God’s justification for it – whether he understood the reasons or not. I don’t see how it is possible to reconcile the claim that Jackson "had no right to challenge God’s will" on the one hand and the belief that he hated slavery. On what grounds could Jackson question slavery without coming into conflict with God’s willing it to be the case? I am the first to admit that I am no expert on these difficult religious issues.
There is something very disturbing about this evangelical view of religion. On 9-11 I lost a cousin to religious fanatics who fervently believed that their God demanded that they fly planes into buildings and kill innocent people. No one reading this blog would have been disappointed if before the attack one or more of the terrorists had come to the realization that this in fact is not what God demands. We wouldn’t argue that this revised/non-violent view is "blasphemous", but that it is in fact closer to a proper religious/moral life. We expect people to question the way they treat others.
This brings me back to the question of why we are so tolerant of this authoritarian mindset in other cases. The idea that a slaveowner had no reason to or couldn’t question the theological foundations of slavery is ludicrous. By the mid-19th century there were plenty of examples in both north and south of individuals and groups who repudiated the idea that God sanctioned or imposed slavery on blacks. The idea that Jackson was unaware of such movements is impossible to imagine. Did Jackson believe that those people who were working towards the freedom of slaves on religious grounds were disobeying God’s law? If so, then who ought we be critical of and who, in fact, should we celebrate for doing God’s work? I am not criticizing Jackson’s Presbyterian convictions, but what I am wary of is what appears to be an authoritarian psychology that allows for little questioning or the possibility that one’s moral view of the world needs to evolve. We’ve seen the consequences of blind obedience over the course of the twentieth-century, from the Nazis to Stanley Milgram’s labs at Yale.
The other thing that irks me is this notion that we can make sense of the Golden Rule within a slave system. I am always left with the same question: does a slaveowner wish to be treated like a slave? What about the perspective of the slaves themselves – where do they fit in? Did Jackson’s slaves believe that the Golden Rule was being followed? Is the lesson of Jackson that as long as we apply the Golden Rule within our own set of assumptions regarding its extension than it is safe to conclude that we are living a moral life or carrying out God’s expectations? I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that slaveowners do not properly apply the Golden Rule. Seems to me there are plenty of examples of individuals in history who come much closer to doing justice to this beautiful moral/ethical concept than a slaveowner.
Paul Taylor has posted a link to a letter written by a slave who was present with the Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg, which will be auctioned off by Christies. Here is part of the letter:
…I am well and doing well. I am driving a wagon in a Georgia battalion of Artillery and have been principally engaged during the winter in hauling wood. I am very well satisfied–have a good and Comfortable house to stay in. I get rations just as the soldiers and draw the same they do. Give all at home my best love and tell them I am very anxious to hear from there. Tell them I dream about them frequently. I dream of Sarah oftener than any other. Offer my kindest wishes & feelings to Mistress and accept the same for yourself. Please write to me and give me all the news at home. Let me know if Massa John has been home since I left. I desire my Mother to receive the money from my corn crop. Again let me offer my best love to all. Am hoping to hear from you soon. I remain your Obt. Servant…" He sends his respects to "all his fellow servants" and closes by leaving his address: care of "Maj. John Lane, Sumter Arty. Battn. 3rd Corps. — February 18, 1865
Here was the greatest irony of the war. The men who fought to keep the Federal government from interfering with their "peculiar institution" started offering emancipation to slaves who joined the depleted ranks of the dying Confederate army. The measures provoked screaming matches on the floors of Southern state legislatures as well as the Richmond Congress. Lee even thought black recruits should go into fighting units. His political masters could not go that far. Most black Confederates, like this one, served in rear echelon support roles, performing manual labor. Published in Barrow and Rosenburg, eds., Forgotten Confederates…Journal of Confederate History Series, 14: 35.
Did they even bother to read the letter or is the idea of loyal black Confederate soldiers so ingrained that even intelligent people ignore the importance of interpretation? This individual states at one point that, "I get rations just as the soldiers and draw the same they do." Perhaps I am mistaken but he is drawing a fairly sharp distinction between his own status and that of the soldiers; in other words, he does not identify himself as a soldier. Unless the rest of the letter indicates otherwise there is no irony here. There were thousands of black men present with the army at various times during the war and a few even made that final trek towards Appomattox Court House in April 1865. The auctioneers description, however, fails to draw a distinction between the debate that took place within government and southern newspapers and the reality of black participation in the war. It is of no help at all in understanding this document.
This is a wonderful find that potentially has much to tell us about the activities of black men in the Confederate army. At the same time there are plenty of questions that need to be answered before we conclude anything about the motivation (assuming his presence with the army was not forced, which it probably was) or status of this man.
A few months ago I was asked to put together a panel on teaching the Civil War for the Society of Civil War Historian’s June 2008 conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Today I was notified that the panel will indeed be included in the conference program.
Session Title: "Gearing Up For the Civil War Sesquicentennial in the High School Classroom"
Chair: Professor Joan Waugh, UCLA
Commentator: Ronald Maggiano, West Springfield High School and George Mason University
Session Description: Between 2011 and 2015 much of the country will have an opportunity to mark the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War. Questions about slavery, secession, emancipation, and the outcome of military engagements will be hotly debated within both the scholarly community and general public. The shape of these debates will tell us much about how the general public continues to choose to remember some of the most salient aspects of the war years and beyond. This panel will address ways to introduce questions of memory and the selective uses of history into the high school classroom. The presenters seek to provide high school students with the analytical skills that can be used to uncover and better understand how memory of the war has been constructed and how it continues to be reinforced in film and in public spaces. Levin’s presentation examines the popular film documentary on the Civil War by Ken Burns and its continued influence on our collective beliefs surrounding Robert E. Lee, Lincoln and emancipation, and reunion at Appomattox Court House. Percoco’s presentation explores the ways that Lincoln monuments can be used with students to investigate the American Civil War commemorative experience and public memory.
Kevin M. Levin, St. Anne’s – Belfeild School
Title: "Using Ken Burns’s The Civil War in the Classroom"
Abstract: When it aired in 1990 Ken Burns’s epic documentary about America’s Civil War garnered the largest audience in PBS history. Viewers who had little interest or knowledge of the Civil War were attracted by the powerful images, sounds, and narration by David McCullough and commentary by Shelby Foote and other noteworthy Civil War scholars – the combination of which served to introduce a heroic and tragic story to a national audience. While historians have spent considerable time analyzing Burns’s documentary as historical interpretation, little attention has been given to the ways in which the film can be used in history courses on the high school level. All too often the film is presented as historical fact rather than interpretation; such an approach renders students as passive observers rather than engaged in trying to better understand the choices that went into the film’s script along with how the sights and sounds come together to tell a coherent story. More importantly, students fail to see the film as a product of long-standing assumptions about the war that are embedded in our popular culture and often guarded as sacred. This presentation will focus on ways in which Burns’ film can be utilized, alongside other primary and secondary sources, to engage history students in critical thought. In doing so this presentation will focus on three moments in the film, including Robert E. Lee’s decision to resign his commission in the United States Army and align himself with Virginia in April 1861, Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and the surrender at Appomattox in April 1865. Utilizing The Civil War in a comparative fashion highlights for students both the film’s interpretive strengths and shortcomings as historical narrative. More importantly, it engages students in broader questions of how our Civil War has been remembered and why.
James Percoco, West Springfield High School, Springfield, Virginia
Title: "Monumental Memories of the Sixteenth President"
Abstract: There are more statues to Abraham Lincoln in the United States than any other secular figure. A recent survey of the Inventory of American Sculpture, Smithsonian Institution list 600 monuments to American presidents found on the national landscape, of that number one-third are erected to the memory of the Sixteenth President. Many of them are competent works of art, while others are out and out duds, but a handful of these Lincoln’s in marble and bronze are important works of art meriting a place in American cultural and social history. These handful of monuments shaped part of Lincoln’s legacy serving not only physical constructs of portraiture, but also as devices which interpret the life of Abraham Lincoln, within the context of the time in which they were created and dedicated. Seven specific monuments erected between 1876 and 1932 speak to various phases and themes of Lincoln iconography; the Great Emancipator, the Great Statesman, Man of Sorrows and Compassion, and the Common Man. All of them were created by America’s foremost sculptors, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, Gutzon Borglum, George Grey Barnard, James Earle Fraser, Paul Manship, and Thomas Ball. Huge and elaborate dedication ceremonies were held for each monument, bringing together, in some instances, veterans of the Blue and the Gray, as well as giants of American Arts and Letters. Jim Percoco will demonstrate how these Lincoln monuments can be used with students to investigate the American Civil War commemorative experience, public memory, American civil religion, historical interpretation, and the selective uses of history, within the context Abraham Lincoln.