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A Positive Sign: USCTs in the Public Mind

Yesterday I was perusing through the newspaper, Virginia’s Civil War, which is published by Civil War Traveler’s Don Pierce.  On p. 15 there is a short article about United States Colored Troops and the service of black Americans in the Civil War.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that the author made the correct distinction between black service in the Union as opposed to Confederate Army.  The author notes that both the Richmond and Petersburg National Battlefield Parks include exhibits that highlight the service of USCTs and it lists other sites where black Union soldiers saw action.  Here is how the author characterizes the service of blacks in the Army of Northern Virginia:

Thousands of blacks certainly traveled with the Confederate armies as well–as cooks, teamsters and personal servants.  For most of the war, it was the official policy of the Confederate government not to enlist blacks as combat soldiers, although, a handful may have served in that role.  However, blacks were preparing for entry into the Confederate army in March 1865.  Witnesses saw black Confederate recruits on Richmond’s Capitol Square

Those black Confederates may have been the ones captured during Lee’s Retreat to Appomattox.  A total of 36 blacks were surrendered with the Confederate army at Appomattox.  All were listed as cooks, teamsters, musicians and other non-soldier roles.

The passage reflects speculation more than conviction, which is both accurate and honest given how little we know about the ways in which Confederates and slaves/free blacks operated in the army.  It is encouraging to see such an important distinction being made in a popular publication. 

Looking Beyond Our Base: An Appeal to the SCWH

Yesterday I was asked to put together a panel for the June 2008 meeting of the Society for Civil War Historians which will take place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The topic of the panel is the teaching of the Civil War in the high school classroom.  I’ve got most of the line-up worked out and it promises to be an interesting panel.  The first person I contacted was James Percoco who teaches at West Springfield High School in Springfield, Virginia. He is one of the most innovative teachers in the field and he has published extensively on topics related to the classroom as well as public history.   His most recent book is titled My Summer With Lincoln which is forthcoming from the Fordham University Press.  I am excited about the opportunity to talk about a subject I care deeply about and just as pleased that Jim is available to take part.  That said, I do have one concern.  I have no doubt that we will receive some excellent feedback from whomever is in the audience, but more than likely it won’t be from fellow high school teachers.  The format for this conference will be familiar to those who attend academic gatherings and the participants will likely be the same faces that can be seen at the SHA, OAH, and AHA.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with this as academic conferences serve an important function for historians engaged in scholarly pursuits.  The OAH has done quite a bit to broaden its membership base to include high school teachers, but I wonder if the SCWH can go one step further. 

I remember some comments from Ethan Rafuse a few months back when this conference was first advertised.  He was concerned about the financial demands involved in traveling to another conference and suggested that the organization concentrate on setting up sessions at well-established venues.  Ethan has a point here, but only if the mission of the SCWH is envisioned along similar lines.  I think there is a unique opportunity to shape this conference and the organization as a whole in a way that branches off in new directions.  We work in a field that enjoys a great amount of attention and interest from the general public.  Civil War historians enjoy a notoriety that is unparalleled in the academic world of historical studies.  Many have reached out to the general public in various ways through roundtable talks, battlefield tours, and conferences such as Gary Gallagher’s battlefield tours/lectures through the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing Studies and Mark Snell’s program at Shepherd University.  What these programs suggest to me is that there is a demand for a setting that fosters serious thought about a subject we are all passionate about.  My participation in Snell’s most recent conference on Civil War memory has convinced me that the interest level of the general public does extend beyond the narrow confines of battlefields and generals. 

I am not suggesting anything along the lines of radical change in the planning for our first meeting next June.  We can still set up panels that address the most obscure topics under the sun, but it is easy to imagine a fairly wide range of subjects that more general Civil War enthusiasts would find interesting.  What I am suggesting is that the SCWH begin by making sure the conference is advertised widely.  For example, readers of North and South magazine along with a few of the other glossies should know about the meeting.  Perhaps a few panels could be organized to address perceptions between the general public and the academic world.  We’ve surely seen a few of those issues heat up recently in the blogosphere.  The inclusion of a broader base could help foster closer ties between the general public and academic community.   Philadelphia includes a number of Civil War-related sites.  The SCWH could follow the AHA and organize tours of some of these sites.

I’ve been a member of the SCWH for a few years now and I couldn’t be more excited about the decision to hold a conference.  Historians talk a great deal about the importance of history in the life and identity of a country.  The SCWH is in a unique position to give substance to that mantra.  This is an opportunity to shape our organization in a way that has the broadest appeal without losing its scholarly focus and commitment to furthering our understanding of this crucial moment in our nation’s history.   

Update on Virginia’s Civil War Sesquicentennial

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission in Richmond as part of an advisory council.  This was my first meeting.  The meeting included the members of Workgroup 2 which is in charge of "signature events" and "activities."  Members include a number of prominent historians, among them James I. Robertson, Ted Delaney, Gary Gallagher, Ervin Jordan and Brian Wills.  I did a great deal of listening and have to say that I am very impressed with the work that has already been done for the sesquicentennial.  It is clear that at this point Virginia is in the lead in preparing for this important commemoration.  If I am not mistaken only Arkansas has passed legislation which allows for the organization of a committee.  The federal government has yet to pass legislation and there is a good chance that given the political controversy that accompanies anything related to the Civil War it won’t.

I was particularly impressed with Robertson who gave a brief talk on the "lessons learned" in the Civil War Centennial.  Robertson mentioned a number of things that are worth passing on.  First, the commission will meet around the state during the sesquicentennial.  In addition, there will be no central headquarters; the commission is going to bring the Civil War to the people of Virginia rather than ask them to travel to Richmond.  As an educator I was especially pleased to here that "young people" will not be overlooked this time around.  According to Robertson, this was the most significant mistake made back in the 1960s.  Robertson is already working on a multi-volume DVD geared specifically for classroom use.  Two mobile trailers will travel the state during the sesquicentennial; one will focus on the war and the other on the home front.  One of two trailers will have visited every town in the state by 2015.  A series of conferences and tours are also being planned.  Again, these events will take place in different parts of the state. 

Robertson was also adamant that the sesquicentennial should not focus on celebrating the Civil War, but rather is should engage in commemoration.  I understand this to mean that all events will be rooted in solid history rather than personal bias or long-standing myths of which there are many when it comes to the war. 

One of the more difficult issues will be the sanctioning of events on a local level.  The state commission is encouraging counties and cities to form local commissions that will organize activities which address a given locales Civil War history.  No doubt numerous civic and private groups of various stripes will organize activities.  Robertson urged the commission to protect their seal and not allow just any group to appropriate it for purposes that are historically suspect.  This is going to be an issue if the commission publishes a monthly newsletter of events taking place around the state.  Unless all events are included a decision will have to be made as to what is deemed appropriate given the goals of the commission.

I will, of course, keep you updated.  A number of the participants submitted written proposals outlining their vision for the sesquicentennial.  Ervin Jordan’s submission was very thoughtful and I plan to comment on it in the near future.

Another Look at “Pickett’s Charge”

Yesterday fellow blogger Craig Warren posted an anonymous poem about Pickett’s Charge over at Civil War Literature.  I inquired as to the author and today Craig revealed that he is in fact the masked poet.  Here it is:

“WHAT IF?”

What if at Gettysburg the troops of Pickett and Pettigrew and Trimble
were already the bronze and marble men
who later gazed northward above green courthouse lawns?

Would Yankee tenacity stop the advancing rows of
stone and metal stalwarts?

Or would the Union ranks break in blue waves
before those defiant, sculpted expressions of the Lost Cause?

– Craig A. Warren

I just the love the way Craig turns the tables on our traditional understanding of the battle.  This is the "high water-mark" of the Confederacy and everything supposedly hinges on the decisions being made in Lee’s camp.  Confederates are typically understood as the actors while the Federals aligned along Cemetery Ridge, etc. tend to react.  The popularity and pervasiveness of the Lost Cause continues to fuel a cottage industry of books purporting to tell us where it all went wrong for Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.  Where is the Lost Cause equivalent that explains or celebrates the stand of the Army of the Potomac at Gettysburg?  Even George Pickett understood that the Federals had something to do with their defeat.

Thanks and well done Craig.