Category Archives: Civil War Sesquicentennial

Stirring Up Civil War Memory on Memorial Day Weekend

Union Soldier in Forrest Hills Cemetery by Milmore

Union Soldier in Forrest Hills Cemetery by Milmore

This editorial by Jamie Malanowski, which appeared today in the New York Times, reminds me of Edward Sebesta’s petition to have President Obama end the practice of sending a wreath to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.  In the end it stirs up emotions, but fails to produce anything constructive.  Malanowski’s contribution to our collective conscience this Memorial Day weekend is to remind the public that 10 military bases located around the country are named after Confederate generals.  And you guessed it, those names need to be changed.

Malanowski begins with the questionable assumption that the “humble idea” of decorating graves “quickly spread throughout the country, and the recognition of common loss helped reconcile North and South.” It didn’t. Decoration Days were incredibly divisive throughout the period between the 1860s and the early twentieth century. Recent studies by Caroline Janney, William Blair, and John Neff suggest why this was the case.

It’s not that I am against changing the names of public places, but in most cases the push is local.  For example, consider the recent controversy in Memphis, Tennessee surrounding the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. These are questions that need to be resolved by the members of the community. Continue reading

 

The Civil War’s Untold Story

It’s the name of a 5-part documentary that will air on PBS in February 2014.  The preview looks pretty good, though it’s not clear to me exactly what is new or “untold”.  The commentary by historians is certainly within the mainstream of current interpretation, but perhaps parts of it will be new to the general public.  One thing that I really like is Allen Guelzo’s constant reinforcement of the importance of democracy and republican government as what was at stake.  The scene of impressed slaves working on Confederate earthworks looks very promising for the obvious reasons. No hint of Lost Cause rhetoric, which is very nice to see.

 

Vindicating Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th

burning-of-darien-from-glory

With the 150th anniversary of the burning of Darien, GA approaching one local historian hopes to vindicate Col. Robert Gould Shaw of any responsibility.  We all know the scene in Glory when Shaw orders his men to torch the town only after the threat of court-martial by Col. James Montgomery of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers.  Montgomery and General Hunter play the perfect villains in the movie, which ultimately leads to a transfer for the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry from hard labor to combat and glory at the base of Battery Wagner in July 1863.  It’s hard to know what McIntosh County historian Buddy Sullivan has planned for the commemoration beyond reminding his community that the raid did not take place during Sherman’s March of 1864 and that Shaw was indeed following orders.

Most of us know about this little incident from Glory and the movie gets a lot right.  Yes, Shaw disapproved of Montgomery’s order to join his unit and burn Darien.  According to historian Russell Duncan, “Shaw believed the action unjustified and disgraceful, and said he could have assented to it only if they had met Rebel resistance.” (pp. 43-44)  Shaw was concerned about the negative publicity that eventually was reported in northern and southern newspapers.  While it is true that Shaw was forced to follow orders it’s not clear whether noting that Col. Montgomery was also carrying out direct orders from General David Hunter will make it into Sullivan’s upcoming presentation.  Better to have a foil with which to vindicate Shaw.   Continue reading

 

Thomas Fleming Plays Civil War Historian

What happens when you bring a radio talk show host, who hasn’t thought about the Civil War since High School and a historian, who has been studying it for five years?  What is truly miraculous is that in the process Thomas Fleming was able to produce “A New Understanding of Why We Fought the Civil War.”  I lost count of the numerous factual mistakes and exaggerations made by Fleming.  Truly horrific, but given Fleming’s popularity I have no doubt that the book will fly off the shelves.  This new understanding basically comes down to the observation that the North and South really didn’t like one another.

 

In the Name of Confederate Heritage

Update: Susan Hathaway finally responds to this incident.

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My students Interpreting the Jefferson Davis Monument in Richmond

Barring any major development I think it’s time to move beyond this story involving the Virginia Flaggers and their unsubstantiated account of monument vandalism. Some of you are no doubt pleased to hear this. On the face of it this story has about as much value as a soap opera and accomplishes little more than attracting a large number of visitors to the blog. There is certainly a place for such entertainment.

That said, it does reflect a certain narrative thread of recent Civil War memory. Regardless of its origin, both the content of this story and Susan Hathaway’s embrace of it is evidence of this relatively small community’s collective belief that their heritage and beliefs are under assault. What better way of rallying the troops than a story involving one of their own or someone closely identified with the Flaggers defending one of the most important and even sacred sites on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. I don’t anticipate any public explanation on the part of Hathaway and/or Rob Walker Jr. That their community has remained quiet is telling enough. There will be no public demands for an explanation from this community. To do so would be a sign of weakness in the face of this ubiquitous enemy.

Move on people. There is nothing more to see here.

It won’t be long before the colors are raised and calls to “Restore the Honor” are heard on the Boulevard in front of the VMFA.