Yesterday Brooks Simpson offered a brief reflection on why he spends time at Civil War battlefields. He also asks of his readers why they visit these places. Back in 2008 I was invited to give the keynote address at the National Park Services’s [FSNMP] annual commemoration in Fredericksburg. I took the opportunity to share why I bring my students to Civil War battlefields.
Stepping onto the bus in the early morning hours with my students, bound for one of the areas Civil War battlefields, is still my favorite day of the year. For me, it is an opportunity to reconnect with a history that has given my life meaning in so many ways. It’s also a chance to introduce this history to my students, many of whom have never set foot on a Civil War battlefield. Visits to battlefields such as Fredericksburg provide a venue in which to discuss what is only an abstraction in the classroom and offer students and the rest of us a chance to acknowledge a story that is much larger and more remote compared to our individual lives and yet relevant in profound ways.
One of my readers was kind enough to pass on the following video, which was originally used as part of a training course for National Park Service interpreters. The video includes interviews with various interpreters on the necessity and challenges associated with introducing the cause of the war on Civil War battlefields. There are a number of perspectives presented, but all convey the importance of doing so.
I’ve learned a umber of things in the course of my research on the Crater and public history/historical memory. For any number of reasons we’ve underestimated the level of interest in the Civil War within the African American community. In Petersburg public interest could be found in the postwar years in local churches, in black militia units, and in local schools. A heightened awareness of the role of African Americans in the Civil War can be found in the 1950s and 60s in such popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Over the course of the past year we’ve seen ample evidence of African Americans embracing the Civil War. The level of interest is directly related to the wide range of events that can be found in museums, historical societies, educational institutions, and other private organizations. Despite what the mainstream media would have us believe, we are witnessing a profound transformation in our collective memory of the war compared with just a few short decades ago.
The National Park Service has led the way in broadening the general public’s understanding of the war and the meaning of our most important historic sites. Consider John Hennessy’s recent tour of Fredericksburg, titled, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg”, which attracted roughly 70 members from the area’s historic black churches. John’s optimism is tempered somewhat by the comments he heard from a few people:
“Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.
I have little doubt that the public perception of the NPS among African Americans will continue to improve with continued programming that reaches beyond traditional narrative boundaries. The NPS in Petersburg has also taken steps to reach out to the local black community with, among other things, a series of walking tours of downtown Petersburg. Again, all of these things bode well for the future.
Those of you interested in issues at the intersection of Civil War history, public history, and memory may be interested in an upcoming symposium hosted by North Carolina State University’s history department on March 26. It’s a one day event, but the panels look to be quite interesting. The website for the event can be found here and includes a list of panels and participants. My panel focuses on the challenges of interpreting race at various historic sites and includes Ashley Whitehead (Doctoral Student at West Virginia University, Brian Jordan (Doctoral Student at Yale) and John Hennessy, who will offer his usual words of wisdom following the three presentations. Here is the title and abstract for my presentation:
“When You’re Black, the Great Battlefield Holds Mixed Messages”: Discussing Race at the Petersburg National Battlefield:
Tremendous changes have taken place within the historical community, both public and academic, since the 1960s. Nowhere have these changes been more dramatic than on Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Park Service. At the center of these interpretive shifts is a renewed focus on the role of race and slavery, which has led to more inclusive programs meant to enrich the public’s understanding of the Civil War and attract a wider segment of the general public. While this agenda has made some inroads in the black community, some NPS frontline staff remain bewildered and confused by the lack of a black reaction to this interpretive shift. This is complicated by the resistance on the part of some to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970. This talk examines the recent history of the Petersburg National Battlefield and the challenges associated with interpreting the Crater battlefield in a predominantly black community. The battle of the Crater is best remembered for the failed Union assault following the detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient that included an entire division of United States Colored Troops. Over the past few decades the NPS in Petersburg has worked closely with local government officials and other private groups to bridge a racial divide that prevented African Americans from visiting the battlefield throughout much of the twentieth century and all but guaranteed that black involvement in the battle would be minimized, if not ignored entirely. A close look at the recent efforts made by the NPS to reach out to the local black community in Petersburg offers a number of strategies for historical institutions to implement which may help to challenge and even overcome deeply entrenched racial boundaries on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
Regular readers of this blog know that I have a deep respect for the work of the National Park Service. Not only do they do an outstanding job of preserving the physical landscapes of many of our most important Civil War sites, but they help us to better understand what took place there and what it means. For any number of reasons that job has proven to be incredibly difficult over the past two decades. Still, no one is perfect and as a historical institution they are bound to make mistakes. Unfortunately, this is one of those instances that must be pointed out given how widely the subject has been misunderstood and even intentionally distorted.
As you can see this is the famous image of Andrew and Silas Chandler, which is often used to buttress arguments concerning the existence of black Confederate soldiers. It is one of the most popular images that can be found on the many websites on the topic. In this case the image is part of an exhibit at the Corinth Interpretive Center at Shiloh. Before proceeding, I should point out that I am currently co-writing an article with the great-granddaughter of Silas Chandler, which we hope to publish in a magazine in the coming year. The brief description under the image could not be more misleading. First and foremost, not once is the visitor told that Silas was a slave and not a soldier. According to the 1880 U.S. Census, Silas was born on January 1, 1837, while Andrew was born on April 3, 1844, which placed them seven years apart rather than two. It is often suggested that the two boys were childhood friends; however, there is no evidence to suggest such a relationship. That is not to suggest that the two were not acquainted with one another and it certainly should not prevent us from looking into how this master-slave relationship was shaped by the hardship of war. Finally, Silas did receive a pension for his participation in the war, but it was not as a Confederate veterans. Like other slaves Silas received a pension under the “Application of Indigent Servants of Soldiers and Sailors of the Late Confederacy.” The application clearly indicates servants were not recognized as a Confederate soldiers, but were entitled to a pension owing to his service to his master.