One of the things that I hope my forthcoming book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory does is find a place in a growing literature that challenges the reunion and reconciliation school of Civil War Memory. It’s beautifully expressed by David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memoryand suggests that white northerners and southerners eventually brushed aside a memory of emancipation for one that embraced a shared history as well as a set of values that allowed for a swift and relatively painless sectional reconciliation. There is a certain amount of truth to this story. The story of the Crater, however, simply does not follow this broad narrative outline. The veterans of the Virginia brigade engaged in bitter feuds relating to the battle and the role of William Mahone during the few short years of Readjuster control. Mahone learned that there were limits to which he could utilize his military career to advance a political agenda that advanced the cause of the state’s black population. And while numerous meetings between former enemies took place on the battlefield, white southerners never adopted a language of reconciliation when commemorating the battle. This was a decisive Confederate victory that highlighted the fighting prowess and character of their own. The presence of a black division was simply too much for many of the veterans to forget even at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Kate Masur has an excellent post up at the NYTs Disunion blog on slaves, who were present with the Confederate army at Bull Run.
On the morning of Sunday, July 21, 1861, John Parker and three other men opened fire on Union forces. In the chaos of the Civil War’s first major battle, the group, which was operating a cannon, “couldn’t see the Yankees at all and only fired at random.”
Like so many men on both sides who experienced war for the first time that day, Parker was terrified. “The balls from the Yankee guns fell thick all around,” he later told a reporter. “In one battery a shell burst and killed 20, the rest ran. Thank the Lord! none were killed in our battery. I felt bad all the time, and thought every minute my time would come; I felt so excited that I hardly knew what I was about, and felt worse than dead.”
Read the rest of the NYTs essay here. It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the comments section to turn into another forum for the standard emotional attacks and personal pleas that have nothing to do with actual history.
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. It is the start of a series of musings from a historian of the culture and politics of Civil War America, drawn from his notes and photographs upon bringing this perspective “back to the battlefield.”
On a Sunday in July, a few weeks before the vaunted sesquicentennial re-enactment, I enjoyed a balmy day at the Manassas battlefield. Like many of the sites I visited, the National Park Service looked ready: the new signs were beautifully designed, the ranger talks were entertaining and informative, and the trail directions were clear. The Manassas Battlefield is an excellent place to see the different scale of battles between 1861 and 1862—the difference between a skirmish between untested men across a few small hills and a major engagement across miles of terrain, with armies hardened by the experience of war.
One of my favorite sites is a Facebook page made up of folks who style themselves as defenders of Southern Heritage. There isn’t much serious history being discussed. Once in a while someone will ask for a quote’s source or the reference to a particular book, but more often than not members simply reassure one another of their own worth in the continuing struggle against folks, who they believe are out to destroy all things “Southern”. Here is a wonderful example that begins with a posting by Ann DeWitt, aka “Royal Diadem”.
Gary Casteel’s latest creation was recently unveiled in the new extension of the Virginia Capitol. The sculpture is titled, “Brothers”, and depicts a reunion of two brothers following the heat of battle. My problem with this piece is not that it fails to capture documented meetings between brothers and family members on the battlefield, but that it plays on our need to see the war and all of its bloodshed and violence as somehow washed away through reconciliation and reunion. Simply put, it doesn’t push me to reflect about our past and that is what an important piece of public art ought to do.
What do you think?