At the Heart of the Black Confederate Matter

Update: I just wanted to take a second to encourage all of you to read Pete Carmichael’s presentation in its entirety. The last thing I want is for you to read this post as some kind of hatchet job. His thoughts regarding battlefield interpretation deserve a careful read and perhaps in the next few days I will have the opportunity to explore it further.

I almost want to apologize for this post because apart from the recent Civil War Times editorial by Gary Gallagher I haven’t thought much at all about this subject.  Unfortunately, I missed a really good public history panel at the OAH that included Peter Carmichael and Ashley Whitehead, both of who discussed what they see as the future of battlefield interpretation.  [Thanks to John Rudy for posting a transcript of their talks.] I encourage you to read both of their talks because I am only going to poke at an ancillary point made by Pete at the beginning of his presentation.

So we’ve got to move ahead. One thing that strikes me is that we have a hard time doing as historians, public historians or academic historians, that we need to recognize that the interpretive battle has been won. Certainly there are pockets of the lost cause out there, and we certainly need to contend and address those issues, but we often bring undue attention to those pockets of resistance. And the blogging is largely responsible for that, in exciting and talking about the issue of the Confederate slave. Man, that’s not an issue among professional historians, that’s not an issue with most of the public, but it is an issue with really, I think, a small minority.

On the one hand I agree with much of this.  Teachers and public historians are no longer up against a widely-held framework that attempts to justify the Confederacy.  At best, they are echoes of the lost cause.  I also agree that the veracity of the black Confederate narrative found on hundreds of websites is not in any way a concern of academic historians and at best on the radar screens of a “small minority” of the general public.

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The Battlefield as Classroom (New York Times)

"Field of Lost Shoes" at New Market Battlefield

In December 2008 I was honored to deliver the keynote address for the National Park Service’s annual commemoration of the battle of Fredericksburg.  I used the opportunity to reflect on how I utilize battlefields to connect my students to American history.  Last year I decided to revise it to reflect the various places that I took students during my time in Virginia.  Taken together these trips remain my most memorable and enjoyable teaching experiences.  Thanks to Clay Risen of the New York Times for agreeing to publish it in their Disunion column.  This is my second essay in the series.

Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students in central Virginia, bound for one of the area’s Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. It allows us to imagine ourselves as part of a larger community, one extending far back into the past. In those moments, in those still-dewy fields, the distance between the present and past collapses. I suspect it’s the same reason that bring hundreds of thousands of people each year to Fredericksburg, Manassas, Richmond, Petersburg and the Shenandoah Valley: We want, we feel compelled even, to understand what happened, why it happened and what it means that it happened.

Read the rest of the essay.

Newt Gingrich Pushes For Monument at the Crater Battlefield

Mahone's Counterattack by Don Troiani

Well, not really.  It looks like a reporter for the Petersburg Progress-Index just finished reading Newt’s Civil War novel on the battle and decided to follow up on a call to place a monument to United States Colored Troops, who fought at the Crater. Gingrich and his co-author, William Forstchen wrote in their afterward that the staff at the Petersburg National Battlefield,

are delighted to work with us to fulfill a long-held dream of ours to see a monument placed on the site of the Crater in memory of the thousands of USCTs who fought on that field. As far as we can have been able to find out, not a single battlefield monument to any USCT regiment exists on ground they fought for. We hope to rectify this long-overdue honor and acknowledgment.

Of course, anyone who has actually taken the time to visit Petersburg knows that there is a monument to black soldiers at the site of their successful assaults on the city, which took place in June 1864.  It’s hard to know what to make of their supposed “long-held dream” given that discussions between Newt’s literary agent, who happens to be his daughter and the NPS lasted only for a few months.  In short, as far as I can tell there are no serious talks to speak of here.

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Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Civil War Memory

It’s nice to see that Ta-Nahesi Coates’s contribution to the The Atlantic’s special Civil War issue is getting so much attention.  It nicely sums up why I am now a regular reader of his blog and why last week I went to meet him in person at MIT.  Coates’s essay is a very personal and thoughtful reflection on why the African American community appears to have lost interest in the Civil War.  The essay tracks the gaping hole in his personal memory of the Civil War as a child to his discovery of it later in life and his subsequent reading of a wide range of primary and secondary sources.

Coates locates a collective lack of interest among African Americans in a narrative that has become all too familiar.  Popularized by David Blight in Race and Reunion, this narrative traces a gradual embrace of reconciliation among white Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, an acceptance of the Lost Cause view of the war, and ending with the tragic loss of of what Blight describes as an “Emancipationist” view of the war.  From there Coates jumps briefly to the Civil Rights Era and later to such popular interpretations of the war such as Gone With the Wind, Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the war and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary.

There is much to ponder within this framework, but it only gets us so far to understanding what many people working in the public history sector are reflecting on as well.  As I read Coates’s essay part of the problem seems to be in the assumption that the process of reunions gradual ascendency functioned to cut off African Americans from memory of the Civil War only to have it re-emerge on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  The danger here is that Coates runs the risk of painting a picture of blacks as emasculated from history and I know that this is not his intention.

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Petersburg: Mowing History

Battery 5 at Petersburg National Battlefield

This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com.  This is the fourth in a series.

On many Civil War battlefields, all that is left is the land. For battlefield enthusiasts, just looking at the terrain can evoke the battle, the movement of the units, the decisions of the commanders, and the experience of the soldiers, and perhaps even the war’s greater meaning.

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