Category Archives: Civil War Sesquicentennial

Some Thoughts About Spielberg’s Lincoln

We go to the movies to be entertained and transported to a different time and place.  That certainly happened for me while watching Steven Spielberg’s movie about Lincoln and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. That’s not such an easy thing to do when you’ve spend the better part of the last 15 years reading and writing about the period.  Historians look for complexity and and a certain attention to detail that reflects a careful consideration of the past.  I certainly did, but at the same time we would do well to remember that these kinds of questions rarely arise when watching films about other subjects.

The film fits neatly into the Civil War sesquicentennial with its emphasis on emancipation as the central problem that must be solved as opposed to the preservation of the Union.  Daniel Day-Lewis gives us a sympathetic portrayal of Lincoln as the central actor in this drama and one that certainly deserves an Oscar nomination.  He somehow manages to make Lincoln appealing and even worthy of his place in our collective memory without mythologizing him.  Indeed, one of the movie’s strengths is that it depicts Lincoln as one player (albeit an important one) in that not-so-well-oiled machine that is the legislative process.  Lincoln does his best to help to steer the amendment through Congress with the help of Thadeus Stevens, portrayed persuasively by Tommie Lee Jones.  We see the messiness of it all, but we also get a sense of Lincoln’s and Stevens’s sincere interest in ending slavery once and for all.

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No Confederate Battle Flag at Castle Pinckney

Now before some of you get up in arms, read the story.  I had no idea that the Sons of Confederate Veterans purchased Castle Pinckney last year from the State Port Authority.  What they plan to do with it is unknown, but for now they will erect a couple of poles on which will fly period flags.  The one flag that will not be flown will be the Confederate battle flag.  Why?  According to Philip Middleton, commander of the SCV’s Fort Sumter Camp:

“We’re not going to put anything up [battle flag] that’s going to be a stick in anybody’s eye. We’re going to be putting up flags that were historically correct…. We’ve pretty much ruled that out for the time being.  The only reason we’d be doing that would be to make a statement, and I don’t think we need to be doing that.”

You mean they are not going to use the opportunity to erect one of those big-ass Confederate flags?  Sounds to me like the Virginia Flaggers need to make a trip to Charleston to preserve the honor or whatever it is they do.

In the meantime, it’s nice to hear that not everyone in the SCV suffers from an unhealthy obsession with the Confederate flag.

Toward a New Synthesis of Civil War Memory

David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory has dominated the historiography of Civil War memory studies since its publication in 2001.  Beyond academic circles, Blight’s emphasis on the triumph of reconciliation over an “emancipationst narrative” can be found in documentaries, news articles, and even historical tours.  Rarely do historical interpretations enjoy such popularity.    In recent years, historians have chipped away at various aspects of Blight’s view.  Two books that stand out in this regard are John Neff’s Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation and Barbara Gannon’s recent study, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic.

While both books are important contributions to the field they do not approach the scope of Blight’s study, both in terms of the time frame and topics covered.  These and other studies, along with an even larger number of scholarly articles, have shown that reconciliation did not always triumph, bitterness remained among veterans, and memory of slavery and emancipation may have been more vibrant throughout the postwar period than we thought.  At the same time we do need to explain why our memory of the war since the 1960s has emphasized reconciliationist themes that go back to the turn of the twentieth century.  In other words, we don’t want to err by minimizing the pull of reconciliation.

Caroline Janney’s forthcoming book, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation promises to be the first broad study of Civil War memory since Race and Reunion.  She’s been chipping away at various topics, including the Appomattox Peace Monument, the Heyward Shepherd Memorial, and the establishment of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

For a taste of what you can expect in this book check out Carrie’s recent talk from the 2012 Civil War Institute.

Dedication of Battle of Island Mound State Historic Site

The Battle of Island Mound marked the first time that African-American troops were engaged in Civil War combat, nearly a year before the battle depicted in the film Glory. Battle of Island Mound State Historic site encompasses Camp Africa, where the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry were camped in 1862 before a pitched battle with pro-Confederate forces near a low hill named Island Mound. When the site is developed, it will interpret the battle, as well as the effect that the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry has on later Union decisions to allow African-American units to fight.

[website for the Missouri Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission]

Should We Still Associate Racism With Confederate Heritage?

The following clip was pulled from a recent NEH panel on the legacy of emancipation.  It included Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, Christy Coleman, Eric Foner, and Thavolia Glymph.  I highly recommend viewing the entire session if you have the time, but for now check out this short clip from the Q&A.  In it an African-American student asks if we should still associate racism with Confederate heritage.  I am not surprised that Christy Coleman, president of the American Civil War Center, decided to respond and she does so in a very fair and balanced manner.  Coleman’s response reflects both the difficulties of her position as a black woman running a Civil War museum in the former capital of the Confederacy and someone who has listened closely to visitors hailing from very different backgrounds.  Yeah, count me as a fan of Christy Coleman.