Category Archives: Lost Cause

Some Thoughts From The CEO Of The Museum Of The Confederacy

Given the recent news surrounding the Museum of the Confederacy and the latest news regarding the SCV’s interest in taking control of the board of directors, I thought I might share this letter-to-the-editor written by S. Waite Rawls.  The letter is in response to an article which appeared in a recent issue of the University of Virginia Magazine on new tours of the grounds that explore slave life on campus.  The article is titled "Scripting History" and was written by Paul Evans who is a teaching colleague of mine.

"Scripting History" in the winter issue was very interesting, as it pointed out the great difficulty of dealing with many aspects of American history that preceded the abolition of slavery.  Monticello and Mount Vernon do a very good job of dealing quite frankly and accurately with the slave labor that supported Jefferson and Washington, yet a cloud hangs over both men in the culture of our current times.

It is even more difficult, yet more important, when the topic changes to the Civil War and, especially, the Confederacy.  Several years ago, I became president and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.  It is the oldest, largest and most important Civil War museum and research library in the country.  The Civil War is one of, if not the most important portions of American history that all Americans should understand, regardless of whether their ancestors fought in gray or in blue, or were still in India, Mexico or China.  Yet the cloud of slavery hangs heavy over all things Confederate these days, and normally intelligent people would rather erase the memory than discuss it–more reminiscent of efforts in China, Russia, or Afghanistan to erase history than what we Americans are supposed to do.

Instead, Americans should work hard to understand the real history of why the Civil War came about, and how it was fought, and what its outcomes have been.  That is particularly true of graduates of Mr. Jefferson’s University, which furnished twice as many officers for the Confederate army than any other school

“Mystic Chords of Memory”: How Americans Have Commemorated and Remembered the Civil War

I am pleased to announce that registration is now open for the 13th annual Civil War conference hosted by the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  I was honored to be asked to take part by historian and conference organizer Mark Snell.  The conference will take place between June 21-24.

Description

"Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn."  Most Americans don’t give a damn about the Civil War either, but many who do have a manufactured memory of what has been called the "crucible" of American history.  How has popular media manipulated, portrayed, or romanticized the Civil War?  How did the war’s veterans, post-war politicians, and interest groups remember the war or reconstruct its memory?  Why does the Civil War still conjure sectional, class, and racial tensions?  Why has a red, white, and blue flag, garnered with stripes and stars, evoked such emotion through the years?  This fascinating period of history still inspires debate and consternation, as well as admiration and respect.

During this long weekend of study and learning, we will focus on the forces which interacted to develop modern memory of the American Civil War.  Expert historians will help us to examine how perspectives have been shaped over more than 140 years of input and adaptation by various groups and schools of thought.

Speakers

John M. Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, and author of The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, will be with us for the entire weekend to guide the learning process and contribute his expertise during talks and tours.  In his keynote lecture, he will identify and elaborate upon some of the variables that account for conflicting memories of the Civil War — using the battle flag controversy as the primary case study for that analysis.  John will also chair Sunday’s ever-popular panel discussion, during which much insight and wisdom flows, some questions are settled, and others are ignited.

Kevin M. Levin teaches history at the St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia, and hosts a blog called Civil War Memory.  His extensive background in history and philosophy has given him searing insights into the idiosyncrasies and the implications of Civil War history and memory.  In his talk, "The Battle of the Crater, William Mahone, and Civil War Memory," Kevin will examine the ways Southerners reinterpreted this pivotal episode during the Battle of Petersurg throughout the postwar.  Memories of the Crater and Confederate Major General William Mahone proved flexible enough to encompass multiple meanings relating to issues surrounding postwar state politics in Virginia, the contentious issue of race, and the drive towards national reunion.  By analyzing the various and often contradictory interpretations of important Civil War battles, we more clearly can understand how history is frequently mixed with various elements of public memory and myth.

William Blair is Director of the Richards Civil War Era Center and Professor of American History at Penn State University.  Blair’s presentation, "The Politicization of Memorial Days," places the development of memorial holidays, Emancipation Day celebrations, and other remembrances in the context of Reconstruction politics and race relations in the South.  His research examines these civic rituals and demonstrates that the politics of commemoration remained far more contentious than has been previously acknowledged.  Blair’s analysis shows that some festive occasions that we celebrate even today have a divisive and sometimes violent past as various groups with conflicting political agendas attempted to define the meaning of the Civil War.

Thomas Clemens is a renowned expert on the Battle of Antietam and the editor of the Ezra Carmen papers, a post-war compendium of recollections by the soldiers who participated in the battle.  Leading the tour of Antietam National Battlefield, Tom will combine his knowledge of the battlefield and the memories of the battle’s participants to comment on the formation of battle legacy, commemoration, and interpretation.

G. Kurt Piehler is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of War and Society at the University of Tennessee.  During his presentation, he will recount American efforts to commemorate wars by erecting monuments, designating holidays, forming veterans’ organizations, and establishing national cemeteries.  Kurt’s experience with history and memory is extensive, having worked previously gathering more than 200 interviews with military veterans for the Rutgers Oral History Archives of World War II.  He is author of Remembering War the American Way.

Click here for the Registration Form

I Told You

Last week I wondered why more heritage folks aren’t upset with the way the Confederate flag has been marketed in popular culture.  I suggested that most kids who wear the Confederate flag probably have no understanding of the history behind the symbol.  Here is a case in point:

I asked one girl who had the [Confederate] flag on her notebook and her backpack what it really stood for other than just Southern pride, and she said, “It was when the rebels rebelled against the king.” Now, either she is confused with the Revolution and our Stars and Stripes, or believes Lincoln’s government was a monarchy.

I’m betting on general confusion.

Another Case of Selective Memory: Virginia and Lincoln

The Virginia legislature tabled proposals to establish a state bicentennial commission to honor Lincoln’s 200th birthday.  Along with the national commission 10 states have established their own commissions to mark the event.  There are no surprises as to why Virginia is reluctant.  Just listen to the following:

A Richmond resident spoke against the commission, charging it represents
"historical myopia and amnesia at its worse" and "kowtowing to the leader of
Virginia’s enemies."

Robert Lamb, a lawyer and member of Sons of Confederate Veterans who said he
was speaking as an individual, said Lincoln as U.S. president during the Civil
War sent armies into Virginia who "laid waste to the land," among other
grievances.

I agree with Brian Dirck’s summary of the situation:

I think we all know what happened here; Virginia’s self-appointed keepers of the
Confederate flame flexed their political muscles, and triumphed in their ongoing
campaign to put a particular slant on the way Americans view the Civil War and
its legacy.

What is so disappointing is that their view of Virginia’s Civil War legacy is anything but historical.  The basic approach of those like Robert Lamb is to reduce the war to a simple distinction between us and them.  We are to believe that everyone in Virginia was pro-Confederate.  When Lamb speaks of "Virginia’s enemies" he is no doubt speaking for some white Virginians and fails to understand that tens of thousands of black Virginians held very different views during the war and after as they continued to celebrate Lincoln as a liberator.  Nelson Lankford’s excellent book, Richmond Burning details the celebrations that took place in the city’s streets as Lincoln entered in April 1865.  There are plenty of Virginians who have an interest in celebrating the memory and legacy of Lincoln. Unfortunately, those like Lamb can’t acknowledge this because in their view Virginia’s Civil War is the story of white Virginians.

If this is any indication of how Virginia’s legislature is going to handle problems of interpretation during the Civil War sesquicentennial than we are in serious trouble.

Where Is The Outrage?

Last week I posted a little item about the way the Confederate flag is used to sell anything from bedsheets to bikinis.  Ken Noe wrote-in wondering why we don’t hear more objections from Southern Heritage groups over the way the flag is represented on various products.  I was wondering the same thing and hoped that someone would respond in a way that would allow me to make just that point.  Let’s start out by admitting that an argument can be made in support of the Confederate flag in certain situations regardless of whether you agree.  For instance, while I do believe that the Confederate flag ought to be removed from the statehouse grounds in South Carolina it does seem reasonable to suggest that a reasonable argument can be made in support of keeping it in its present location.

What I find difficult to understand, however, is how the items linked to in my last post promote Confederate heritage.  Why isn’t this considered to be offensive by Southern heritage folks?  Consider recent news items involving the display of the flag on high school campuses.  Two students in Fort Worth, Texas are suing their school district for being sent home because their purses depicted the Confederate flag.  Or consider the refusal of a school in Kentucky to travel for a game owing to the fact that their students waved the Confederate flag in the stands.  Both cases raise important questions about the First Amendment, but the assumption that the behavior of these students reflects a sincere interest or concern in highlighting their "heritage" or history is suspect. In other words it seems reasonable to ask whether the simple fact of display implies anything having to do with heritage. 

My problem here is that the image of the Confederate battle flag is not by itself sufficient to conclude that the individual associated with it has the interests of the men who carried that flag into battle in mind.  There is a danger that the symbol’s historical significance becomes watered down to a point of triviality.  Confederate flags on purses or the image being waved at a sporting event seems to have little to do with heritage.  The symbolic content of the image is directly connected to the role it played on the battlefield, and the further it is removed from that context the less significant it becomes.  I browsed a bit on the internet store for the Sons of Confederate Veterans and noticed a wide range of items that include the image of the flag.  There are a few items that include the Confederate flag which are tastefully done.  While I have no problem with the identification of the flag as a reminder of the sacrifices and bravery of the men who identified and forged relationships around it I do find it troubling that more people don’t see the marketing of it as antithetical to their memory.