Category Archives: Civil War Sesquicentennial

Is Richmond Burning or Beginning Anew?

[H/T to Jubilo! The Emancipation Century]

This popular Currier & Ives print from 1865, depicting the evacuation of Richmond, Virginia, is one of the most popular images of the city in April 1865.  It is impossible not to drive north toward the city on I-95 without it entering your mind’s eye.  Now it is being used by the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau to attract tourists to the city’s rich Civil War history as well as the rest of the state.

The use of this particular print is a clever marketing technique that almost functions as a gestalt switch between two interpretations.  On the one hand, we know this image as marking the end of the Confederacy, but in the hands of the Visitors Bureau it is now a symbol of new beginnings.  We can freely move back and forth between the two interpretations.

To use this image, however, is to be reminded that the burning and evacuation of Richmond did lead to the emancipation of thousands of Richmond slaves that were freed by the Union army.  It is story that all Americans ought to explore if they are truly interested in the American Civil War.  Of course, we are likely to hear the same tired rumblings from certain quarters, but let’s be clear about one thing.  While good marketing works to sway the perceptions of potential customers it must begin by acknowledging how they currently view their world and what will motivate them to take action.

In this case it is safe to say that this ad builds on certain cultural, social, and political changes that have been at work in Richmond for the past three decades.

King Salim Khalfani Speaks Truth to Power Without the Truth

In yesterday’s post I linked to an article about the impending opening of the Museum of the Confederacy’s Appomattox branch this coming weekend.  The article included a quote from King Salim Khalfani, who is the Executive Director of the State Conference NAACP.  Asked if he planned to attend the opening, Khalfani had this to say:

I have never been, and I have no plans to….  These people are still fighting the Civil War. They’re just not honest about the history and the story.

Khalfani’s bio page includes the following:

My greatest accomplishment is that I am by choice a revolutionary Afrikan Man. I am a Pan-Afrikanist. I am one who speaks truth to power unashamedly on behalf of Afrikan people. I have not cringed or cowered when faced with criticism, ostracism or threats of bodily harm.

Perhaps the Civil War just doesn’t fall on the radar screen of someone who self-identifies as an Afrikan Man or Pan-Afrikanist.  That’s fine.  What I do have a problem with, however, is when we speak truth to power without any evidence behind the action.  Khalfani is no better than the Virginia Flaggers, Ed Sebesta, and the SCV, who have done next to nothing to explore what the Museum of the Confederacy has to offer.

I spent a few minutes on the Virginia NAACP’s website and I can’t find anything having to do with the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  How unfortunate.  Of course, other issues demand attention and resources, but this is a unique opportunity to connect the African American community in Virginia to an incredibly rich history.  The Museum of the Confederacy is an essential stop along that journey.  I’ve written quite a bit about the challenges associated with attracting African Americans to Civil War related events.  To the extent that an adult white male can sympathize, I get it.  That said, at some point we have to move beyond these irresponsible outbursts.

I’ve already suggested that this is not your grandfather’s Civil War commemoration.  Let’s step up to the plate and move forward.  Mr. Khalfani ought to lead the way.

Virginia Historical Society Interprets Confederate Conscription

This is the second video that I’ve posted from the Virginia Historical Society’s traveling exhibit, “An American Turning Point”.  This one addresses the issue of conscription, but it also introduces visitors to women as political agents.  It’s always nice to see an exhibit move past the traditional and one-dimensional image of Civil War era women as Melanie Wilkes caricatures.

Remembering the Centralia Massacre

Centralia Massacre Mural

Yesterday I spent the day doing my part as one of twelve members of a Sesquicentennial Working Group that will meet next month in Milwaukee as part of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  Our panel was organized by the American Association for State and Local History.  We are now at the stage where group members are responding to the various proposals in an attempt to facilitate as fruitful a discussion as possible once we all get together in one room.

All of the proposals are very interesting and reflect a broad range of issues that educators, public historians, and museums are facing as we make our way through the Civil War 150th.  I was particularly intrigued by one case study, which focused on securing funding to properly interpret the Centralia Massacre in Missouri for students and the general public.  The author, who is a history teacher, focused on the challenges of raising sufficient funds for a story that tends to fall outside of our traditional narrative of the Civil War.

The challenge that this person faces in promoting interest in and funding for the preservation and interpretation of the Centralia Massacre highlights the continued popularity of a glorified Civil War narrative.  Americans are much more comfortable commemorating and remembering a war that pit brave Confederate and Union soldiers against one another, mainly on Eastern battlefields, and apart from any serious discussion of causes and consequences.  This is still the case even though there has been a steady stream of scholarly studies [start with Dan Sutherland's A Savage Conflict] devoted to the Border Wars over the past few years and online databases are also available.  The story of Centralia and the war in Missouri is essential to the creation and maintenance of a sesquicentennial narrative that finally moves beyond what is still a deeply engrained Lost Cause/Reconciliationist narrative.

I’ve used the movie Ride With the Devil in my own course on the Civil War to introduce students to the Border Wars in Missouri.  While it does capture some of the violence in the region, the movie’s emancipationist streak, which emerges in the final scene masks both the short- and long-term consequences of what was essentially a civil war within a civil war.

The story of Missouri’s Civil War has much in common with this nation’s military experience overseas in recent years, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, where much of the violence is driven by local disputes among competing tribes and various other warring factions.  Questions of who holds the moral high ground is difficult to discern and arguably irrelevant to understanding the complexity and depth of violence that took place in Civil War Missouri.  This project fits into an important narrative that moves us beyond that of North v. South/Confederate v. Union and forces us to confront some of the tougher questions of the war.

The author concludes with the following: “Missourians no longer bushwhack each other; however, it is important to remember they once did.”

[Image source]

A Sesquicentennial From the Bottom-Up

The following video was uploaded to YouTube a couple of days ago.  I know nothing about the woman who produced it, but I think it is a wonderful example of how the Web2.0 world has shaped the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  As opposed to the centennial years, when relatively few historical institutions exercised control over how the nation remembered the war, the sesquicentennial’s narrative is being written one blog post, one video, and one tweet at a time. Much of what is being produced, including this video, defies easy categorization. Watch this through to the end.