Category Archives: Battlefield Interpretation

A Taste of Sunday

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.

The Anatomy of a Commemorative Talk (continued)

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…

The Anatomy of a Commemorative Talk

I don’t mind admitting that I am just a little nervous about the upcoming commemorative speech that I will give in Fredericksburg on December 14.  I’ve never delivered such a speech before.  It’s much easier to present a traditional conference paper where the speaker at least appears to be detached from the subject at hand.  A commemorative talk on the anniversary of a famous Civil War battle, however, demands that the speaker share something more personal and in a way that facilitates an other-regarding emotion in the audience such as empathy or sympathy.  I assume most of the people who attend will want to hear something uplifting, perhaps something that reinforces a personal connection through an ancestor who fought in the war or maybe even something that dovetails with our popular perceptions of the Civil War, which at times border on the celebratory.  In the end we want to know that they (the soldiers) matter and that the bloodshed, death, and sacrifice continues to occupy a central place in our broader national narrative, one that is characterized by its exceptionalism and intrinsic goodness.

It seems to me, however, that to get to this point one must engage in a great deal of reductionism from the complex to the overly simplistic.  Doesn’t this constitute a significant portion of the history of Civil War commemoration from end of the twentieth century onward?  By their very nature commemorative talks must look beyond moral complexity, contingency, and doubt to embrace the whiggish principles that Americans so easily embrace.  I’ve never felt comfortable approaching the past in this manner.  An example of what I am getting at can be found in Mark Grimsley’s most recent post at Civil Warriors which includes a refernce to an essay by Kent Gramm:

In the introduction to a recent book on Civil War combat, historian Kent Gramm opens with a surprising comment: “One of the most harmful consequences of the Civil War results from our very interest in the war, and our attraction to it.” As a Civil War buff, he explains, you can vicariously march with the indomitable veterans of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, you can learn from the men of the Army of the Potomac’s Iron Brigade what it means to be a hero, you can return in imagination to a moment when “the hopes of a nation are still young and still full, and a kind of clarity and innocence are still poised to win the future — and the smoke and noise and dirt of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have not yet swept in behind the buzzing machines of our age.”

“Who would not love such a war?” Gramm asks. But that war, he continues, “is a war of fantasy, myth, and entertainment,” not a war of carnage, horror, and desolation. “By replacing this actual Civil War with an imaginary and beautiful war,” he argues, “we misunderstand our own natures, and we allow ourselves to fall for what Wilfred Owen called ‘the old lie’: that it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country. Falling for that old lie, we enter more easily into what should be entered into only as one would enter a corridor to hell: you go that way only because all the other ways are shut.”

I venture to suggest that while much of my audience operates within the confines of the first paragraph I have my feet firmly planted in the latter.  No doubt, this has much to do with the fact that I have no familial connection to the war and no childhood experiences of traveling to Civil War battlefields or dreaming of what might have been at Gettysburg.

Still, I can’t help but think that there is a commemorative element in how I use Civil War battlefields such as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville as teaching tools.  Just the act of visiting and walking the ground serves to collapse the distance between present and past.  Yes, I tell plenty of stories of heroic acts, but the goal of the visit has very little to do with celebrating heroism or war in any of its guises.  How can I celebrate something that I have no direct experience with?  I am much more interested in planting questions in my students than giving them answers.  What do these battles tell us about American democracy?  Did the Civil War lead to a rebirth of freedom?  Was the outcome of the Civil War worth the price in blood and suffering?  It’s not my job as a teacher to answer these questions because they are not questions that can be answered by any one individual.

I am even more reluctant to wax poetic about Civil War soldiers.  I’ve never been able to walk a battlefield and reduce the fighting to time-honored heroic categories that are staples of Civil War commemorations and remembrance.  In fact, it seems to me that this is a straight-path toward simplifying their stories to the point of triviality and meaninglessness.  I want my students to embrace and understand both the individual and collective stories of these men without coming away with an overly sanitized view that has no connection beyond the battlefield and the divisive questions that were of paramount concern and which help to explain why they fought to begin with.  To ignore these tough questions is to use these men and the past as a means to our own ends.

To be continued…

My Fredericksburg Battlefield

Just sitting here thinking about what I might say in my keynote address marking the 145th anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. I am going to center my remarks on how I use the battlefield to teach. I’ve brought my students to the Chancellorsville/Fredericksburg battlefields for the past 5 years. It’s always a new experience depending on where we go as well as the interests of my students. One of my favorite walks begins in the downtown area of Fredericksburg where we discuss the crossing of the Army of the Potomac and the civilian experience, including the town’s slave population. One of the more interesting stops on our route towards Marye’s Heights is the slave auction block, which is located at the corner of William & Charles Streets.

Thinking about the scope of my comments is difficult as I have an inclusive view of what a battlefield ought to include, especially when my students are involved. It’s never simply about the movement of troops, but the experiences of the men involved along with the bigger issues that defined the war, including its cause and aftermath.  I guess all I want to say is that without this auction block there is no Fredericksburg battlefield.  They are inextricably linked.

A few questions to consider: (1) How many Southern towns have preserved sites such as this?  (2) Why did the city of Fredericksburg preserve this particular site after the war?