Calling All Public Historians

Yesterday’s post about my good friend John Hennessy left me wondering what, if anything, has taken place or is being planned in museums, historical societies and other institutions to help their communities make sense of the relevant history behind our ongoing and very emotional discussion about Civil War memory.

It’s an opportune moment for public historians, who focus on the Civil War Era and the history of race relations. Folks who have never thought about the American Civil War are giving it a good deal of thought. No doubt, some of that reflection is based on bad history. Continue reading “Calling All Public Historians”

Removal of Confederate Flags Marks the End of the Civil War Sesquicentennial

We just might look back and point to the wave of anti-Confederate flag fervor witnessed over the last week as marking the end of the Civil War sesquicentennial (2011-2015). A good case can be made. While the mainstream media has treated the outcry as stemming directly from last week’s shooting, a closer look reveals that the Confederate flag and other iconography have been engaged in a slow retreat from public view for some time. The flag’s retreat is part of a broader shift in our public memory of the war that has gradually taken hold over the past few decades.

In December 2010 a “secession ball” was held in Charleston to mark the 150th anniversary of the state’s decision to leave the union. That the event was  held was not surprising, but news coverage and protests on the ground suggested at the time that the sesquicentennial was not going to be a repeat of the centennial. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called the celebration “unfortunate” and reminded his city that you cannot understand South Carolina’s secession without understanding slavery. His remarks set the tone for the next four years of commemoration and remembrance. Continue reading “Removal of Confederate Flags Marks the End of the Civil War Sesquicentennial”

The High Ground Held

This morning I read through an essay by Robert K. Sutton about the National Park Service’s Holding the High Ground initiative, which grew out of a meeting in 1998 addressing concerns about the scope of Civil War battlefield interpretation. NPS historians were already thinking carefully about what it means to interpret Civil War sites even before the controversial call to do so by Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. in 2000. In 2008 the Holding the High Ground plan for the sesquicentennial outlined a broader definition of Civil War sites and included ways to integrate voices from civilians on the home front, slaves as well as broader discussions of politics, social change, economics and the legacy of the war. Continue reading “The High Ground Held”

Confederate Heritage is Alive and Well in Brazil

The gradual erosion of open celebrations of Confederate heritage throughout the United States stands in sharp contrast with a vibrant memory for the residents of Santa Bárbara d’Oeste and neighboring Americana, in Brazil’s south-eastern São Paulo state. Following Confederate defeat somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 white Southerners left for the promise of land and even the possibility of one again attaining slave-owning status in a foreign country. For close to thirty years the residents of this community have organized a celebration of their Confederate roots.

The images are right out of the Civil War centennial era, including the uniforms, dresses, dance, and large Confederate flags. All of it has a campy feel at best. Their memory of the Confederacy and the South is framed by a love for buttermilk biscuits and the “Dukes of Hazzard.” Very little attention appears to be focused on their ancestors themselves, many of whom were absorbed into Brazilian culture shortly after arrival. In fact, it’s not even clear what percentage of male immigrants actually served in the Confederate army. It also makes me wonder just how many of their ancestors wanted to put the whole Confederate experiment behind them and move on with their lives. Continue reading “Confederate Heritage is Alive and Well in Brazil”