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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According to Brian Schoeneman it does. That name might right a bell for regular readers of CWM. On occasion, Brian has commented not so much on the content of my posts, but on my handling of various discussion threads. Brian is a candidate for Virginia House of Delegates in Fairfax, Virginia. Recently he toured South Mountain, Harpers Ferry, and Antietam with Scott Manning. As a campaign promise, Brian promised the following:
I asked Brian if he was surprised at the lack of Confederate monuments. “Actually, I am. It kinda annoys me. There are about a zillion Union monuments here. Granted, the North took more casualties at Antietam, but they had more guys to lose.” He recalled one of the informational markers he read, “The Army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of their strength and the Army of the Potomac lost about an eighth. It was much harder for the South to replace those casualties than it was for the North.” Brian clarified that, if elected, he planned to introduce legislation next year to place a Virginia state monument on the battlefield in commemoration of the sesquicentennial. I pointed out that such a move could backfire if not done properly and he interrupted me, “There’s nothing political about recognizing that folks in the army of the state that I’m from fought here and died here. They deserve to be remembered regardless of what side they fought on and it bothers me there is nothing here, because I know there are plenty at Gettysburg.”
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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.
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I missed having the opportunity to comment on this story last week. First, let me say that I couldn’t be more pleased that developers will be prevented from building a casino at Gettysburg. That said, I’ve always thought that the battlefield preservation debate is best understood as a negotiation between legitimate competing interests rather than a moral crusade. Gregg Segal’s photography project in which he situates re-enactors in various scenes of urban sprawl is perhaps the most extreme example of this tendency to offer a mutually exclusive choice between preservation and commercial development.
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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.