Virginia’s Civil War Centennial Commission

I spent part of the day in Special Collections at the University of Virginia looking at a few pamphlets published by the Virginia Civil War Commission.  As I mentioned the other day I am working on the final chapter of my Crater manuscript which explores more recent interpretive challenges.  I wasn’t surprised by what I found in the pamphlets.  Nowhere did I find any mention of slavery as a cause of the war or as a central issue of the war itself.  Here are a few excerpts that I jotted down.

Virginia’s Opportunity: The
Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965 [published by the Virginia Civil War
Commission, Richmond,Va, 1960] Manual was prepared for Civil War centennial committees and
teachers “who are trying to interpret the meaning of this momentous era to the
youth of Virginia.”

But the Centennial is no time for finding fault or placing
blame or fighting the issues all over again. Americans from every section produced the divisions which led to
war. These divisions grew out of hate,
greed and fear, ignorance and apathy, selfishness and emotionalism—evils from
which this generation is not free….This is the time to recognize these divisive forces; but this is also the
time to honor dedication and devotion, courage and honor, integrity and
faith—qualities plentifully demonstrated in the War of 1861 to 1865—and needed
for our survival in the years to come. (from the Foreward)

The chief purpose of the Centennial is to strengthen the
unity of the country through mutual understanding—an understanding derived from
the realization that there was dedication and devotion on both sides. North and South, there were those who gave
all they had in support of what they sincerely believed was right…. In the Centennial the spotlight will be on
character in men—for war is the ultimate test of character. The stories of the Civil War are full of
lessons for present-day living. By these
examples we can teach children and adults the moral values so needed in America today.
(p. 8)

Section title: “See That The Historical Events That Happened
In Your Locality Are Properly Explained” (p. 19)

The Centennial Program In Schools (chapter)

1. The importance, the fascination and the drama of history.

The students do not want a dry-bones recital of the dates
and events. They want to know the human
story of the war. They want to feel what
the soldier on the battlefield experienced. They want to know why people acted the way they did; what choices they
had. Our goal is the present history as
exciting, moving and relevant.

2. Heroes and Patriotism.

There is an opportunity in the Centennial for our young people to learn the respect for patriotism and great men which used to be such a large part of the fabric of American life. To do this we must make our heroes understandable and present their lives and principles in present day terms. Lee’s words should have as much meaning to Virginians today as they did in reconstruction times. “You can work for Virginia, to build her up again, to make her great again. You can teach your children to love and cherish her." (p. 21)

3. Understanding.

The student can be led to see that dissensions between people are caused by ordinary human emotions and desires, by selfishness, hate and pride, that the divisions that led to this awful war were created by people in all parts of the country and that the diseases of mistrust, hatred and war can be cured only by uniting behind a bigger idea or a bigger goal than the ones that divide us. (pp. 21-22)

Chairman of the Virginia Civil War Commission: Charles T. Moses

The Civil War Centennial is a commemorative
effort of great magnitude than any ever before undertaken by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Virginia Civil War Commission’s plans are
designed to interpret and explain this cataclysmic period of history to our own
people and those who visit us and to call attention to the heroism, the
idealism and the devotion to principle displayed during the War. The Commission hopes that a theme of moral
and spiritual regeneration will run through all of its activities. Virginia
has an opportunity to attract millions of out-of-state visitors through an
exciting Centennial program. But Virginia has an even
greater opportunity to inspire these people to be as dedicated to great ideals
in a time of peace as our forbears were in a time of war. This is the time for Virginia to emphasize the victory of
character won by Lee and others in rising above the horrors of war and the
shame of defeat.

I find the language to be strikingly safe and neutral.  I wonder to what extent the references to a loss of moral character is a response to the changes taking place in response to Brown v. Board of Ed. and the heating up of the Civil Rights Movement. 

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Heritage vs. History

The heritage syndrome, if I may call it that, almost seems to be a predictable but certainly a non-conspiratorial response–an impulse to remember what is attractive or flattering and to ignore all the rest.  Heritage is composed of those aspects of history that we cherish and affirm.  As an alternative to history, heritage accentuates the positive but sifts away what is problematic.  One consequence is that the very pervasiveness of heritage as a phenomenon produces a beguiling sense of serenity about the well-being of history–that is, a false consciousness that historical knowledge and understanding are alive and well in the United States.

            Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory, p. 626

To understand something historically is to be aware of its complexity, to have sufficient detachment to see it from multiple perspectives, to accept the ambiguities, including moral ambiguities, of protagonists’ motives and behavior.

            Peter Novick, That Noble Dream

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Jesse Jackson Jr.’s Civil War

[Cross-Posted at Revise and Dissent]

In 2000 Jesse Jackson Jr. offered an interior bill that touched off a heated debate about how the National Park Service should interpret its Civil War battlefields.  The debate involves a number of "interest groups" including Park Service employees, reenactors (Civil War buffs), professional historians, and members of various Southern Heritage organizations.  Given the agendas of these groups it is not surprising that the debate remains heated even as the Park Service explores and implements programs that reflect the place of interpretation within its overall mission.  The level of anxiety that continues to fuel this issue can no doubt be traced to Jackson’s legislative agenda and the fact that he is the son of a controversial Civil Rights activist.  The issue – as many of you know – is about the proper place of slavery and other racial issues within its battlefield interpretations.  From Jackson’s interior bill:

The Civil War battlefields throughout the country hold great significance, and provide vital historic
educational opportunities for millions of Americans. There is concern, however,
about the isolated existence of these Civil War battle sites in that they are
often not placed in the proper historical context.  The Service, to all of your credit, does an outstanding job of
documenting and describing the particular battle at any given site, but in the
public displays and multimedia presentations, it does not always do a similar
good job of documenting and describing the historical, social, economic, legal,
cultural, and political forces and events that originally led to the war which
eventually manifested themselves in specific battles. In particular, the Civil
War battlefields are often weak or missing vital information about the role that
the institution of slavery played in causing the American Civil War. "The
Secretary of the Interior is directed to encourage the National Park Service
managers of Civil War battle sites to recognize and include in all of their
public displays and multimedia educational presentations, the unique role that
the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War and its role, if any,
at the individual battle sites
. The Secretary is further directed to prepare a
report to Congress on Dr. King’s birthday, January 15, 2000, on the status of the
educational information currently included at Civil War sites that are
consistent with and reflect this concern. (my emphasis)

Many read the initial bill as falling squarely within Jackson’s own political and social agenda, and his language as emphasized in italics clearly worried many that he was calling for a drastic change and/or supplanting of any discussion of what happened on the battlefield.  His opening remarks at the 2000 Civil War symposium sponsored by the NPS and  held at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. highlights his political agenda and further alienated those that were already feeling defensive.  "Only with the appropriate interpretation of these historical events–of the Civil War–,"argued Jackson, "can those Americans ever arrive at the right to a more perfect union through health care, through education, and through housing."  For Jackson the road toward certain Constitutional amendments runs straight through the way we interpret our collective past.  The problem as I see it, however, is that while Jackson can make this argument as a politician, he can only do so by unnecessarily alienating potential allies to the cause of battlefield interpretation – including this writer. 

While I am sympathetic to the issues of health care, housing, and education that is not the way to proceed, if for no other reason than that reasonable people can disagree as to the proper role of the federal government in providing certain services and agree that revisions need to be considered.  The question of how to interpret public sites, however, remains.   Luckily, Jackson provides a range of reasons for thinking anew about our Civil War battlefields and some of those reasons are spot on.

Before proceeding I want to make clear that the issue here is not what kind of Civil War history you prefer to read or research (i.e., military v. social/cultural history).  The question is how an agency of the federal government should go about interpreting our Civil War battlefields; the distinction drawn is between public history and academic or personal interest. Here are a few of the more persuasive points made by Jackson:

(1) One point that I want to make is that while 11,000,000 people visit National
Park Service Civil War sites, most Americans never get the opportunity. Either
they do not have the time or the financial wherewithal to do what I did. I
traveled to more than twenty sites throughout the country. Most Americans go to
one site. Of the eleven million visitors, most of them are raised around one
site, and, therefore, they never understand the sweep of events from Harpers
Ferry through Appomattox Court House. One of our challenges was to ensure that
if an American visited one site he or she would develop a full appreciation of
the whole war. It is quite possible that one could visit, for example, the site
at Appomattox and never hear the name John Brown or know anything about any of
the other battles. And that, quite frankly, is a very limited and very narrow
interpretation of that single site.

This seems to be a rather harmless suggestion.  Jackson’s working assumption is that it is the Park Service’s job to place any individual site within a broader historical context.  You can’t understand the battle of the Little Big Horn without some understanding of the broader conflict between the United States and individual tribes.  The same would hold true – I assume – for the Susan B. Anthony home.  The problem in the case of Civil War battles is that the broader context calls for a discussion of slavery and race.  I am not going to get into a discussion here about the so-called debates surrounding the relative importance of slavery.  As I’ve stated before I take my lead from the most talented professional historians currently working in the field, including James McPherson, Charles Dew, William Freehling, and James McPherson.  As an educator I agree with Jackson that given the majority of people will only visit one or two sites it is the Park Service’s responsibility to leave them with as sophisticated an interpretation of the site as possible.  This does not mean that the battlefield need be ignored.  The staff at Appomattox Court House has clearly demonstrated that this not be the case.  Their own publication about Appomattox includes essays by three prominent historians.  Ed Ayers concentrates on slavery, secession, and the beginning of the war; Gary Gallagher focuses on the war years; and David Blight’s contribution highlights the political, economic, and racial fallout of the war.  All three are entertaining and leave the reader with a much deeper understanding of Appomattox’s place within a broader historical and cultural context. 

(2) Some people have said to me that we are losing some of our real
estate and many of our Civil War battlefields to urban sprawl. Well, if the
stories at these historical places are broadly interpreted and every American
truly feels that the history represents them, there will be a much greater
chance of saving these sites than talking about obliques. Let’s look at Kennesaw
Mountain as an example. It was a Confederate victory, or at least a Confederate
slowing of the Union forces. It is maintained by the National Park Service and
it draws about a million visitors a year. However, the City of Atlanta and its
suburbs are sprawling. It might grow all the way out to Kennesaw Mountain. Well,
if I were an African American mayor of Atlanta, or an African American
politician, I would not care if it went all the way up Kennesaw Mountain and
became a middle class African American community. However, if the story of
Kennesaw Mountain were told in a broader interpretation, then even the African
American who goes to Kennesaw can appreciate its historical significance. Then
Atlanta would likely expand around but not up Kennesaw Mountain.

There would be no need for me to even get into the politics of
what we know to be obvious, when one starts arguing whether or not this history
is legitimate versus that history. But if the site is maintained by the
government and has a broader interpretation where everyone finds their story and
finds meaning in that site, the visitation will double or triple. But when I
went to Kennesaw, they were only selling Confederate paraphernalia. They weren’t
even selling Union paraphernalia. Well, that can’t possibly encourage a broader
audience at the site. And, when I went inside, the story mentioned nothing else
about the rest of the war, but just about Kennesaw Mountain and what happened
there militarily. So Kennesaw isn’t about the Civil War. If my children visit
Kennesaw, and other American children visit Kennesaw, they should leave with
more information than simply what happened there.

I think Jackson needs to be careful here and he needs to do a better job distinguishing between the practical considerations of urban sprawl and the question of the proper scope of interpretation.  First, I think his reference to urban sprawl and battlefield preservation is well taken.  Preservationists have got to get off the self-righteous bandwagon that places them on a so-called moral high ground against various competing materialist values.  If more Americans had a stake in preserving our Civil War battlefields the movement would perhaps be further along.  The outcry against the proposed casinos at Gettysburg may have been dead-on-arrival had there been more support.  Instead we are presented with these vague outcries about the importance of preserving the past for future generations without any consideration of who they are being preserved for.  Again, the placing of Kennesaw within a broader historical context need not mean that we ignore the battle.  The goal is to understand better and appreciate the ways in which these events connected to broader political, economic, and social issues as well as questions of meaning and significance.

What follows is what I take to be Jackson’s most attractive argument:

(3) When I go to Vicksburg or Manassas, or any other battle site, I
ask what is the historical significance of this particular site. The park
service superintendent responds saying right here was a left oblique and right
there was a right oblique. So, the historical significance of Vicksburg is about
an oblique. After all that I have just shared with you, is the historical
significance about military history or a military view of these sites? At these
sites, nothing tells us that there were no more Federalists or Whigs, and the
Democratic Party was split in two, North and South, because of slavery after
Lincoln won, or that we ended up with a two party system, Democrats and
Republicans, based on the legacy of slavery. Nor is there anything to say that
Lincoln ran on a certain campaign platform, and that South Carolina and other
southern states said that if he won they would leave the Union. Then, when
Lincoln took office he said he would put eleven stars back on that flag. All
that has more to do with the history of Vicksburg and Manassas than a left or a
right oblique.

Better yet, if the history of Vicksburg is about obliques,
maybe Congress should pass another bill eliminating the National Park Service
Civil War battlefields and just turn them over to the Army. They can explain
obliques better than you guys. The history of the site is not about an oblique.
In fact, that is why the federal government is there, to offer an interpretation
of the site that is broader than left and right obliques, or why Pickett decided
to charge across the field into cannon fire.

Jackson’s point here is essentially about causation.  The danger is in understanding the range of movements on the battlefield without any sense of why the armies are engaged in violent conflict to begin with.  The armies did not simply fall from the sky. 

It is easy to see why so many are upset with Jackson as it can be surmised that he is suggesting that we do away with any discussion of the events on the battlefield.  If we step back, however, it is clear that this is not what he is concluding.  What Jackson is arguing for is the view that if the significance of the battlefield is simply understood in terms of obliques then we’ve reduced the event to a point where is it indistinguishable from other battles in the Civil War, and indeed, battles in other wars.  The other question to ask, if we go back to the point that most people only visit one or two Civil War sites in their lives, is what do we want them to walk away with?  Do we want them to take away certain distinctions in military warfare or a richer understanding of what the war was about?

As an educator I encourage the Park Service to continue to think critically about how it interprets our Civil War battlefields.  Simply put, the more relevant information it provides the more Americans will identify with its history and work to preserve it for future generations.

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Interpreting Appomattox

I am finally getting a handle on the last chapter of my Crater manuscript.  The tentative title is "The Civil War Centennial and New Interpretive Challenges"; it essentially carries the Crater story from the inclusion of the Crater into the Petersburg National Military Park through the centennial celebrations and finally ending with the more recent debates surrounding the expansion of the National Park Service’s battlefield interpretation.  I want to connect the history of the Crater battlefield and try to make the argument that only through the broadening of the NPS’s focus can you make sense of the battle itself.  With that in mind I’ve been wanting to get my hands on a copy of Rally on the High Ground: The National Park Service Symposium on the Civil War edited by Robert K. Sutton.  This is a collection of essays that was originally presented back in May 2000 at Ford’s Theatre.  Authors include James McPherson, Ira Berlin, David Blight, Edward Linenthal and Eric Foner.  Rather than order the book I decided to drive down to Appomattox Court House to pick the book up in the NPS’s store.  I intended to pick the book up and head straight back to Charlottesville. 

As I walked past the Court House I noticed one of the interpreters getting ready to perform for a small group so I decided to join.  He played a young Union soldier from Pennsylvania.  I thought he did an excellent job sharing his personal background and the evolution of the war in Virginia–all the while staying in role.  Once finished he asked if we had any questions and of course I raised my hand.  Since he hadn’t mentioned anything related to race or slavery I thought I would ask for his thoughts about the subject.  Without missing a beat he pointed out that while he did not enlist in 1861 to end slavery he always believed it to be a moral wrong.  More interestingly, he mentioned that he was now helping the Freedmen’s Bureau set up in the area to help with the transition of the newly-freed slaves.  The final point he made was most interesting:  although he was pleased that slavery had been abolished he was wary of the mess that politicians had created in the South in reference to securing their immediate financial and physical well-being.  A number of times he mentioned that he did not trust politicians.  All in all his presentation was well thought out and he clearly enjoyed working with the visitors and sharing a story that was apparently well researched.  I’ve heard a number of impersonators comment on slavery and race.  What I find curious is that I’ve never heard anyone – when situated in a role that would warrant a comment on the end of slavery – suggest that this marked a significant opportunity for African Americans.  Why is that?  Clearly this is a belief that would have found expression in the Union army.  Perhaps many who impersonate are stuck in the perspective that interprets the end of slavery as simply the result of Lincoln’s political acts or the movements of the Union army.  I may be off base here, but it seems to me that impersonators have not yet made the transition that was so clearly made by professional historians not too long ago to view slavery, emancipation, and the end of the war through the eyes of the slaves themselves.  In short, to see slaves as actors who did not sit passively by during the war and in its aftermath.

From there it was to the bookstore where I picked up Rally and the park service’s own Appomattox publication which includes essays by Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, and David Blight.  It has received excellent reviews and I was pleased to hear from the cashier that it is their best selling book.  Finally it was over to the McLean House for a short visit.  An interpreter waited in the hallway.  I walked through rather quickly (I’ve been through plenty of times) but before I left I asked about the dismantling of the house following the war.  Eventually the conversation moved to the question of how Appomattox has been interpreted over the years.  He tried to impress upon me that the traditional account of Appomattox as the central symbol of reunion is inaccurate and more a function of our own values and hopes.  I have to say that I was very surprised and pleased by this comment as the last time I went through some old lady (apparently a volunteer) harped on the fact that the surrender took place on Palm Sunday.  As you can imagine I was unimpressed and responded by asking her where God was on the previous Palm Sundays as the two armies were butchering one another.  Needless to say she was not impressed by the question.   

I see the new publication offerings, my encounter in the McLean House, and even the Union soldier impersonator as comprising a positive step for the Park Service at Appomattox. 

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A Curious Crater Reference

I recently came across a rather curious reference to the Crater that appeared as a letter-to-the-editor in the New York Times on April 19, 1878.  It is titled, "Labor In Virginia: The Tide-Water Region-Petersburg-The Blacks and Whites – A Negro’s Speech."  References to the Crater by black writers are rare or at least I have not come across many.  Probably the most interesting reference to the battle was authored by the black Readjuster Robert A. Paul who noted the irony in the fact that black Virginians in the early 1880′s supported William Mahone who was responsible for leading the attack that left so many black soldiers dead on the field. 

The NYT’s editorial raises a number of interesting questions about authorship and interpretation/intent.  The author begins by noting the success of the former slaves in the Commonwealth: "One-third retrograde, one-third stationary, and one-third progressive."  Virginia’s market relations to the North and in particular New York are emphasized as well as the shipment of vegetables and other freight, and the author mentions that "the capital of certain philanthropic Northerners" was responsible for both physical and economic improvements in the state.  Clearly the author is attempting to impress upon the paper’s readers the economic benefits of doing business in Virginia and perhaps other parts of the South.  I am already asking myself whether the author is really black.   The author now moves to the Crater:

We visited the scene of the terrible assault by our troops on the Confederate works at Petersburg–the so-called "crater."  This only relic of the war in this quarter has been preserved by the farmer who owns the land, and is exhibited for 25 cents a head.  The horrible cavity where the poor colored regiments, and afterward the whites were so frightfully torn to blood, where chickens are plucking quietly about, and the rebel works which poured such a storm of shot then are waving with a peach orchard, which has sprung from the stones of peaches dropped by the Southern soldiers as they lay behind the mounds.  The eve can follow the line of the tunnel to the mine which the Union troops exploded under the works, and the pipe in the rebel counter-shaft is still visible.  But the scene is wonderfully peaceful, and the fields about are green with wheat or under the plow.  The woman showing the place has a quantity of the relics of the terrible struggle; twisted guns, flattened bullets, skulls, bones, military ornaments, and like. [Many of these were featured in the Battles and Leaders Series]  We picked up on the field a human jaw-bone and several Minie’ bullets.

Interesting that the author passes over the presence of black soldiers without any mention of the well-known accounts of their slaughter following the battle.  It is enough to place them with their white counterparts and in a position where both suffered equally.  However, if we read this as an attempt to secure sectional ties and establish econimic relations just over a decade following the war it makes perfect sense.

The reconciliation theme comes through very clearly here:

We afterward saw the Confederate General who led the final charge which recovered the works, the landlord of the Petersburg Hotel, a fine manly fellow.  [It's not clear to me here why the author fails to distinguish between the Confederate General who is obviously Wm. Mahone and the landlord of the P-burg Hotel which is Henry Jarratt.]  To him, the fearful scene was fresh as if of yesterday.  But to the young we talk with it is not so.  It is all history-and a long way off; scarcely nearer, often than the war of the Revolution.  The fruit-trees wave on the old intrenchments, and grain-crops cover the battlefields; so now feelings and interests have covered the old passions and wounds of the war.

The author closes by driving home the observation that the "relations of the two races seem excellent."   If I am right that this should be interpreted as an attempt to re-establish economic ties by commenting on relaxed racial tensions than it would fit neatly into a larger body of evidence that set out to accomplish similar goals during the post-war years.  In my work on William Mahone I show that both the general and his business associates attempted to attract investors to his railroad interests throughout the North, but especially in New York.  In fact, one of the most controversial biographical sketches of Mahone, which was authored by J. Watts DePeyster appeared in the New York Historical Magazine

This leaves open the question of the racial identity of the author.  There simply is nothing in the editorial that indicates that the author is black.  Perhaps I’ve missed something; feel free to comment if you have any suggestions.

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