An Evening With David Blight and the Memory of John Washington

Mark your calendars for Saturday, November 17.  On that day the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park will be hosting a special event featuring historian David W. Blight who will be discussing his new book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom.  Blight’s book includes two recently uncovered emancipation narratives one of which is by John Washington who lived in Fredericksburg.  I’ve already read both accounts and they are absolutely fascinating.  Blight’s introduction places these narratives within a broader historical context which helps to explain the genre and the time and place in which they were written.

Park historian John Hennessy was kind enough to ask me to join a special tour of John Washington’s world, including a trip into the living quarters where he spent much of his life and the site on the Rappahannock where Washington went across on April 18, 1862.  The tour will include Blight as well as a few of Washington’s descendants who have only recently been contacted and were not aware of the existence of this narrative.  Blight’s work on memory has been very important for my own research so it will be a real treat to finally meet him in person. 

John Hennessy should be applauded for his hard work in organizing events such as this.  I can think of no one who has done more to further the education of visitors to our Civil War battlefields.  John has already made use of Washington’s narrative in a recent park film on civilian life in the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania County area.  Click here for his assessment as well as my review of the project.  I am really looking forward to this.


Masur’s 1831

1831 We are finished with Ellis’s Founding Brothers and have moved on to Louis Masur’s 1831: The Year of Eclipse.  The first chapter covers Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the Abolitionist Movement and the debate in Virginia following Turner’s insurrection.  Other chapters explore various themes of Jacksonian Democracy, including voting, religion, and politics.  We will read various sections of the book given our time constraints. 

This is a highly readable book that does a great job of presenting various subjects from multiple perspectives.  Masur’s narrative is weighed heavily with the words of the participants themselves.  Masur’s coverage of Turner and the response of white Virginians utilizes these multiple perspectives quite effectively.  In our discussion of how white Virginians explained the violence to themselves and one another a few of the students admitted to being overwhelmed by so many voices.  I asked the class why Masur would present the story in this way and immediately one of the students responded by suggesting that the author wants his reader to understand that the participants themselves did not know how to explain it.  In a related note we touched on the difficulty involved in explaining Turner’s insurrection given the assumptions that white Virginians held to regarding their slave communities and their own paternalism.  For example, Masur presents to strands of thought surrounding the origin of the insurrection.  Some people pointed to their own slaves as the source of the problem, but just as many argued that the instigators must have been from outside Southampton County.  They understood that if the source of the problem was from outside they could maintain their beliefs about the loyalty of their own slaves.

Today we read a few pages from Thomas Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and explored the difficulty of distinguishing between the interviewer and interviewee. 


Demobilization in Virginia post-Appomattox

I’ve been asked by James I. Robertson and William Davis of Virginia Tech to contribute a chapter to one of their forthcoming books in their series on Virginia’s Civil War.  Most of you have no doubt seen one of the first two volumes which cover 1861 and 1862; the next volume is scheduled for publication next summer.  The series is published by the University Press of Kentucky.  My subject is demobilization in Virginia post-Appomattox and is slated to appear in the final volume.  Not much has been written on the subject, although I do have a copy of Homeward Bound: The Demobilization of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1865-1866 (Stackpole Books, 2001).  I’ve looked through this book before, but it is very weak in places.  Interesting enough it turns out that Ida Tarbell wrote something on this subject.  The editors are looking for a 5,000 word essay that covers the scope of demobilization in Virginia.  While I assume that my main focus will be on Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia other areas of the state will no doubt need to be explored.  The very scope of the subject needs to be analyzed.

So here is where you come in.  Admittedly my familiarity with this subject is limited.  I plan to attack the various repositories around the state, but please feel free to offer suggestions on additional secondary sources, including books and/or articles.  The more the better.


R.I.P. Dixie Dawn: August 24 – November 3, 2007

I had high hopes for Dixie Dawn.  I’ve been following this blog for a few weeks and while it has attracted a large number of comments on the standard issues that energize the neo-Confederate base it looks like it has run its course.  I was holding out on the possibility that Dixie would actually read one of the books cited in a recent post.  Unfortunately, it looks like its not going to happen.  Instead we continue to get emotional rants about a besieged South, silly stories about black Confederates, and vague references to the Confederate flag.  Given the number of posts about the flag perhaps she could have read John Coski’s The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Harvard University Press, 2006) or she could have read Bruce Levine’s Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 2006) in connection with the stories of black Confederates.  And why is it that every post and internet site on this topic utilizes the very same images? 

Honestly, I was holding out for the best.


Genovese is Draining

My two AP sections are at the end of the day and on Mondays I teach all my classes.  Today the two classes discussed a short selection from Eugene Genovese’s seminal work, Roll, Jordan, Roll.  This is not the first time that I’ve used Genovese, but I am always surprised by how much the students actually enjoy reading it.  Anyone familiar with it knows that Genovese’s interpretation is highly analytical and at times difficult to follow.  Today was no exception, but we did manage to make some sense of it.  A number of my students were deeply engaged in the discussion.  I started off by asking what picture of slavery Genovese may have been responding to in the years leading up to the publication of the book in 1974.  They nailed it by referring to both the "Moon and Magnolias" version of slavery as benign as well as the idea that slavery can simply be characterized as brutal along the lines of a Concentration Camp.  One of my students actually referred to Concentration Camps and this allowed me to set up a bit of historiography between the work of Phillips and Dunning along with Stanley Elkins.  They seem to think that Genovese was shooting for something in between which I think is quite impressive.

It was slow going at times, but they picked up on the broad interpretive structure that explains – according to Genovese – how the respective identities of slaves and slaveowners depended on one another.  They thought that was kind of interesting though not all agreed that the paternalism of the slaveowner explained everything.  A couple students argued that his explanation was too broad, that it did not do justice to time nor space.  Though they didn’t couch it in these terms a couple students concluded that Genovese’s analysis did not do justice to the various regions of the South.  Others thought that he was too broad and did not connect his analysis closely enough to shifts over time.  I think they picked up on this from Foner’s textbook.  Either way their teacher is very pleased that they are thinking critically.

As much as I enjoy talking about this stuff, two classes in a row of Genovese is incredibly draining.