Category Archives: Battlefield Interpretation

Public History at North Carolina State University

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.

Hope to see you there.

 

The National Park Service’s Black Confederates (Part 2)

Andrew and Silas Chandler

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.

This is not the first time that the NPS has stepped into the black Confederate morass, but let’s hope that as in that case they step up and make the necessary corrections.

 

Public History and the Civil War Sesquicentennial

The History Department at North Carolina State University [their website is awesome] is hosting a conference in March, titled, “The Public History of the American Civil War, a Sesquicentennial Symposium.”  I’ve been asked to put together an abstract for a panel that will focus on recent interpretive challenges at Civil War battlefields.  It will come as no surprise to most of you that I am going to focus on the battle of the Crater and the Petersburg National Battlefield.  Here is the abstract. “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.

 

Portraying Violence in the Classroom

John Hennessy has an incredibly thought provoking post up over at Frederickburg Remembered, which addresses the challenges of “portraying violence” in public history.  No one is better positioned to speak on such a subject:

Having worked on or with battle sites for much of my career (which seems impossibly long these days), there is no denying the temptation to use examples of violence in public programs. Nothing gets the attention of an audience faster than the description of a horrific death or a sanguine landscape in battle’s aftermath. But, do such things really help us get our listeners to a place of greater understanding? Or are we merely indulging our own and our visitors’ morbid curiosity?

As a history teacher, who offers an entire elective on the Civil War, I can relate to the temptation that John describes.  I constantly struggle with this question when discussing battles and the experiences of the common soldiers.  My biggest problem is a strong belief that having never experienced a battlefield/combat I am simply not qualified to give voice to it.  I usually feel like an impostor when doing so.  There are a few movies that I’ve used with some success in trying to give life to a Civil War battlefield, but even here I am uncomfortable rendering any kind of judgment as to their accuracy.  I often wonder what my students are thinking when watching these scenes.  Is it simply entertainment?  Are they glorifying the event and thus minimizing the true brutality that it attempts to represent?  And I wonder, as John does, whether I am feeding my students’ “morbid curiosity.”

This is not to suggest that I steer clear entirely from the subject either; rather, I almost always allow the soldiers to speak for themselves along with utilizing other primary sources such as photographs.  The letters offer windows into an experience that most of us will thankfully never have to encounter.  My students will have their own emotional response following the reading of a letter or the viewing of a photograph.  As a teacher I do my best to guide them intellectually to a place where they can achieve some level of understanding that they can take with them after they leave the course.  Even that level of understanding must be student driven.  And in a democratic nation it is essential that we do our best to understand and appreciate the consequences of war for the individuals involved and the nation as a whole.  Most of us sailed through the last 8 years of war without having to pay much attention at all.  My students were certainly not engaged.

But isn’t that the danger here?  As skeptical as I am about my ability to properly teach the subject of war isn’t the failure to do so to be left with a generation that is simply unprepared to think critically or emotionally about the consequences of war?

Anyway, head on over to John’s site for a much more interesting discussion.

 

Dwight Pitcaithley on the Cause of the Civil War and Public History

Before I get to the subject of this post I wanted to mention that I’ve just finished previewing a forthcoming episode of American Experience on Robert E. Lee.  The show will premiere on PBS on Monday, January 3 at 9:00 p.m. ET.  Back in 2007 I received a call from one of the producers to chat about their plans for the episode.  We talked for quite a bit and I had a chance to offer some suggestions on various interpretive threads as well as suggestions on who to contact for additional commentary as “talking heads.”  The producers were able to bring together an excellent line-up of scholars that includes Peter Carmichael, Gary Gallagher, Emory Thomas, Michael Fellman, Emory Thomas, Lesley Gordon, Ervin Jordan, Elizabeth Brown Pryor and Joseph Glatthaar.  The folks at American Experience did a fine job.

The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission now has all of the panels from the recent conference in Norfolk available on their YouTube page.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going through them.  While I enjoyed Dwight Pitcaithley’s presentation he never really got around to discussing the challenges of interpreting Civil War causation within the NPS.  He did, however, say something relevant to my recent post on my tendency to steer clear of referring to people as Neo-Confederates.  In response to a student’s inquiry into whether he teaches the “true history” of the war, Pitcaithley points out to his audience that it is important to remember that people who subscribe to various strands of Lost Cause thought “come by it honestly.”  It’s important to remember because it seems to me that by calling folks “Neo-Confederates” we assume an accusatory stance that implies a conscious denial of a more complete understanding of what the war was about.