I heard about this during my presentation at Fredericksburg this past Sunday. The day before re-enactors from the 28th Massachusetts and the 47th Virginia marked the 146th anniversary of the battle with a historic handshake over the famous stone wall at Marye’s Heights. It’s arguably the most powerful example of our Civil War community’s obsession with the themes of reunion and reconciliation. I don’t really have an opinion about it one way or the other. The NPS decided to allow it and I trust their judgment. In the end, I think the gesture reflects our interests more than the soldiers themselves or anything having to do with history. It’s more about our needs. But it does point to a question of what these men and women who don uniforms claim to be reenacting. If they are reenacting Civil War soldiers than it seems to me they run the risk of being characterized as emotional farbs. These guys worry about getting the outward appearance just right, but what about the emotional outlook of the Civil War soldier? Where is the bitterness and outward expressions of anger? What exactly are you reenacting at the stone wall?
It finally hit me early yesterday morning why I felt just a little uncomfortable about giving the commemorative talk on the Fredericksburg battlefield. I am used to addressing audiences – either in the form of an academic panel discussion or informal roundtable setting – about the past from a detached perspective. More specifically, I am used to exploring how battlefields have been commemorated and remembered by others, and trying my best to understand the factors, which have come to shape various commemorative forms as well as our popular memory. Yesterday’s presentation collapsed that distinction. I’m quite confident that those of you who have followed this blog for some time will not be surprised by the overarching theme of my presentation, but now that I think about it, there is something special about being able to present it on an actual battlefield. In a sense, my words are now part of the commemorative history of that particular battlefield stretching back to the war itself. I like that.
Despite losing my place at one point owing to the fact that my hands were shaking from the cold, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Most of the 200 people who attended arrived as part of NPS historian Frank O’Reilly’s yearly tour from the downtown area up to Marye’s Heights. I would have liked to have tagged along, but there can be no complaints when the alternative is a personal tour of the downtown area with John Hennessy.
Photos from the weekend can be found at flickr.
Today I am giving the keynote address as part of a ceremony commemorating the 146th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Thanks to my friend and fellow historian John Hennessy for inviting me to take part on this important day. I can’t say this was the easiest presentation to write, but I am fairly comfortable with the final version. As always, your critical comments are appreciated.
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.
I suspect that my class visits to battlefields have much in common with what bring you to a place like Fredericksburg. We want to understand what happened here, why it happened, and what it means that it happened. We are compelled to do so. My students and I walk this hallowed ground and try our best to piece together what are often conflicting accounts of the ebb and flow of battle. At the same time we struggle to understand and honor the courage of the men who fought and “gave the last full measure of devotion.” Some of those stories are well known, such as the one depicted in this beautiful monument dedicated to Sergeant Richard Kirkland of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, who in the heat of battle chose compassion over violence and hatred or the combination of fear and steadfastness that animated Sergeant Thomas Plunkett of the 21st Massachusetts, who carried his regimental colors into battle only to receive a direct hit by a Confederate shell which cost him one arm and part of another – his blood forever staining the regiment’s flag.
On Wednesday Clint Schemmer, of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, interviewed me about my upcoming talk on Sunday. I did my best to give him a taste of some of the themes that I will touch on even as I continue to write and edit. Although the assignment has been a challenge, I am looking forward to the ceremony. I am also looking forward to meeting many of you who have written to say that you will be in attendance. Here is an excerpt from today’s article that focuses on our interview. For those of you who will not be able to make the event, or who have chosen to go elsewhere that day, I will post my talk on Sunday for your consideration
During the keynote address, Charlottesville resident Kevin Levin, editor of the popular blog Civil War Memory, said he will “try to push the envelope a bit.” He does the same during tours of Fredericksburg with his high school students. “To visit a battlefield is a chance to look at causes, consequences and bigger meanings.”
“Visiting a battlefield should not be easy,” Levin said. “When we go to these places, it’s up to us, as Americans, to try and make those connections and try to understand why this happened–that for four years, Americans killed one another. We have an obligation to try to understand it, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable, to deal with issues like race, like slavery, or Jim Crow.” He noted that the Battle of Fredericksburg occurred a few weeks before President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, something that many of the men who fought at Fredericksburg were keenly aware of.
“I won’t be talking about anything the soldiers weren’t themselves talking about,” he said. “This discussion that people today have–about what is the proper scope of battlefield interpretation–is a debate more about ourselves than the history itself.” America’s Civil War magazine has lauded Levin’s writing for its “humanistic insight and scholarly precision.” History News Network recognized it with its 2007 Cliopatria Award for Best Individual Blog. Levin teaches American history at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, and writes and lectures extensively on the war.
Yesterday, I briefly touched on some of my concerns surrounding a commemorative talk that I am scheduled to deliver in December for the anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Part of the reason I find it so difficult to commemorate a Civil War battle has to do with my tendency to interpret the war years as extending much further than 1865. In fact, the framework that I work with follows closely with the recent interpretation by Vernon Burton, in his sweeping survey of the nineteenth century, The Age of Lincoln. Burton views the period as ending with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which severly limited the freedoms and civil rights of African Americans. By then most Southern state constitutions had been rewritten to legally enforce and legitimize white supremacy.
Our tendency to distinguish between the Civil War and Reconstruction obscures the fact that fundamental questions of freedom, national identity, and citizenship were left unanswered. According to Burton:
At stake during the Civil War was the very existence of the United States. The bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War posed in a crucial way what clearly became persistent themes in American history: the character of the nation and the fate of African Americans (writ large the place of minorities in a democracy, the very meaning of pluralism). Consequently, scholars have been vitally interested in the Civil War, searching out clues therein for the identity of America. But if the identity of America is in the Civil War, the meaning of America and what we have become is found in Reconstruction, and the Civil War cannot be separated from Reconstruction any more than the sectional conflict can be separated from the war. (“Is There Anything Left To Be Said About Abraham Lincoln?, Historically Speaking, [September/October 2008] p. 6)
Rather than acknowledging the war years as part of a larger sweep of history and push toward greater freedoms we have reduced it to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the symbolism of national reunion; implied in this perspective is the view that the meaning or significance of the battles themselves can be found in the extent to which they contributed to this outcome.
This is a mistake. In recent years historians have explored Reconstruction, both politically and militarily, with an emphasis on the level of violence that persisted after the war by paramilitary units throughout the South. As someone who has spent a great deal of time researching and writing about the battle of the Crater it is fairly easy to draw connections from July 1864 to the street battles in New Orleans as well as the Colfax Massacre. On a related note, our view of Civil War soldiers as apolitical lends itself to this tendency to isolate the Civil War from the more divisive political questions of Reconstruction. It allows us to focus on those battlefield virtues that connected the soldiers on both sides even as we ignore the intense disagreements that help us to explain why they were fighting to begin with. We can no longer ignore the fact that soldiers on both sides closely followed the news and debated issues of slavery and race. My recent foray into the world of Confederate demobilization following Appomattox has only served to reinforce my belief that Lee’s men did not return home having left the political and social implications of defeat behind. I recently learned that in South Carolina men applied for the state’s Confederate pension even though they were too young to have served in the Confederate army. This little tidbit suggests that from the perspective of the State of South Carolina, the Civil War was not yet over.
For those of us interested in memory, commemoration, and the continued relevance of the Civil War we ought to take South Carolina’s pension policy seriously. It offers one among many ways to better understand the place of the Civil War within the nineteenth century and the struggle for greater civil liberties for blacks, women, and later the “common man”, as expressed in the Populist Movement, which Burton notes came to an end as a party in 1896.
It may be difficult to see how a commemorative talk is possible given such a perspective, but it seems to me that it allows for a more meaningful reflection on the relevancy of the Civil War. The loss of civil rights for most black Americans by the end of the nineteenth century was not inevitable; in fact, there were significant achievements on the grassroots level and beyond throughout the country, including the South. There is no need to filter this history into an overly simplistic morality play. The Supreme Court did indeed strike down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in 1883 and in Hurtado v. California (1884), but this did not prevent states in the Midwest, such as Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Nebraska, from passing their own civil rights statutes. And in the South, while white southerners continued to resist black civil rights by joining paramiliatary organizations and the Ku Klux Klan, others, such as William Mahone, James Longstreet, P.G. T. Beauregard, and John S. Mosby championed black rights. Former Virginia Governor Henry Wise’s son, also a Confederate officer, became a prominent civil rights attorney by the early twentieth century.
I guess my point is that we do not have to run away from history when we commemorate it. In fact, it is only through embracing it, in all of its complexity, that we truly do justice to the sacrifices, achievements, and yes, failures, of our forebears. So how does the battle of Fredericksburg, fought on the eve of emancipation, fit into this broader sweep of American history?
To be continued…