Category Archives: Memory

An Evening With David Blight and the Memory of John Washington

Mark your calendars for Saturday, November 17.  On that day the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park will be hosting a special event featuring historian David W. Blight who will be discussing his new book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom.  Blight’s book includes two recently uncovered emancipation narratives one of which is by John Washington who lived in Fredericksburg.  I’ve already read both accounts and they are absolutely fascinating.  Blight’s introduction places these narratives within a broader historical context which helps to explain the genre and the time and place in which they were written.

Park historian John Hennessy was kind enough to ask me to join a special tour of John Washington’s world, including a trip into the living quarters where he spent much of his life and the site on the Rappahannock where Washington went across on April 18, 1862.  The tour will include Blight as well as a few of Washington’s descendants who have only recently been contacted and were not aware of the existence of this narrative.  Blight’s work on memory has been very important for my own research so it will be a real treat to finally meet him in person. 

John Hennessy should be applauded for his hard work in organizing events such as this.  I can think of no one who has done more to further the education of visitors to our Civil War battlefields.  John has already made use of Washington’s narrative in a recent park film on civilian life in the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania County area.  Click here for his assessment as well as my review of the project.  I am really looking forward to this.

 

Two Important Slave Narratives Published

BlightDavid Blight’s latest book, A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped Freedom is now available.  From the jacket:

Slave narratives, some of the most powerful records of our past, are extremely rare, with only fifty-five post–Civil War narratives surviving. A mere handful are first-person accounts by slaves who ran away and freed themselves. Now two newly uncovered narratives, and the biographies of the men who wrote them, join that exclusive group with the publication of A Slave No More, a major new addition to the canon of American history. Handed down through family and friends, these narratives tell gripping stories of escape: Through a combination of intelligence, daring, and sheer luck, the men reached the protection of the occupying Union troops. David W. Blight magnifies the drama and significance by prefacing the narratives with each man’s life history. Using a wealth of genealogical information, Blight has reconstructed their childhoods as sons of white slaveholders, their service as cooks and camp hands during the Civil War, and their climb to black working-class stability in the north, where they reunited their families.

In the stories of Turnage and Washington, we find history at its most intimate, portals that offer a rich new answer to the question of how four million people moved from slavery to freedom. In A Slave No More, the untold stories of two ordinary men take their place at the heart of the American experience.

 

“The Historical Legacy of Robert E. Lee”

Today I travel to Lexington for a 1-day symposium on Robert E. Lee sponsored by the Lee Chapel.  I will share my thoughts later today if time permits.

"We can scarcely take up a newspaper that is not filled with nauseating flatteries of the late Robert E. Lee…. It would seem from this that the soldier who kills the most men in battle, even in a bad cause, is the greatest Christian." — Frederick Douglass

The truth is, Lee lived an all too human existence, fraught with dilemmas and decisions that would challenge the sturdiest soul.  He handled some of these situations well, others with disastrous errors.  Never did he turn away, however, and even his sharpest critics never questioned his steadfastness.  This is where our sympathy with him lies; here and in the heart-rending way that he strove, but failed, to achieve his dreams–number two at West Point by fractions of a point; perennially disrupted in the home life he coveted; denied professional recognition until he stood on the very brink of national disaster; defeated when he had so confidently felt the capacity for victory.  Through all this he was brave and tenacious, and set no limits on what he would give or try to accomplish.  Yet Lee, who could be as self-serving as any of us, was not intrinsically more virtuous than others.  He simply harnessed his fine points–notably persistence and self-control–to overcome failings within and around him.  The greatest honor we can give Lee is to admire him for who he actually was, rather than as an imaginary creature, which only insults him by implying that the reality was inadequate. — Elizabeth B. Pryor, Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters (pp. 470-71)

 

The Faithful Slave

It’s Friday afternoon and I am sitting in my office waiting for the bus that will take me and 40 students to Harrisonburg where we will attend an awards event for Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  I picked up Micki McElya’s new book, Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America (Harvard University Press, 2007) and am making my way through the introduction.  I came across this interesting passage:

The myth of the faithful slave lingers because so many white Americans have wished to live in a world in which African Americans are not angry over past and present injustices, a world in which white people were and are not complicit, in which the injustices themselves–of slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing structural racism–seem not to exist at all.  The mammy figure affirmed these wishes.  The narrative of the faithful slave is deeply rooted in the American racial imagination.  It is a story of our national past and political future that blurs the lines between myth and memory, guilt and justice, stereotype and individuality, commodity and humanity. (pp. 3-4)

 

Martin Sheen’s Civil War

I had a few minutes to kill this morning and noticed the companion volume to the movie Gettysburg, which includes paintings by Mort Kunstler and text by James McPherson.  The foreword is written by Martin Sheen who played R.E. Lee in the movie.  Here is a brief passage from Sheen that beautifully captures popular perception of the war:

If we look at this horrific conflict in the conventional retelling, the truisms of Northern industrialism attempting to impose an egalitarian ideal upon Southern agrarianism, of plantation feudalism protecting its privilege, of the test whether or not a voluntary political marriage of states could end in divorce–all these apply.

But Gettysburg leaves those questions to the history books: right and wrong, good and evil, are not the concern here, nor are the political distinctions.  The focus is on the people who faced each other on the battlefield for three long days of brutal combat in July 1863.  From generals to infantry volunteers, the human beings who fought loyally and valiantly for Union and Confederacy–this is their story.  How the great battle that consumed thousands of American lives was won, and lost, because of chance, and the skill or ineptitude of men, not causes.  Gettysburg is the human story behind the great battle.

Sheen’s Civil War and his understanding of the battle of Gettysburg in particular reflects the influence of the legacy of reunion that allowed white Northerners and Southerners to transcend or bridge their differences by the turn of the twentieth century.  It’s no accident that battlefields proved to be so attractive for reunions between one-time enemies;they provided a space in which the broader questions of cause could be set aside.

The problem with Sheen’s characterization is that the movie does present the battle as an ideological struggle, albeit a rather simple one.  Characters on both sides are given plenty of time to present their justification for the war and instill meaning into the very ground that they are fighting over.  Chamberlain does this before the engagement at Little Round Top and Armistead does so before “Pickett’s Charge.”  Yes, their respective views are presented in the broadest of terms and have a tendency to cloud more specific political and ideological differences, but they are there included in the film.  It gives the movie a certain level of sappiness that is exacerbated by Ron Maxwell in Gods and Generals.

Sheen is correct that the movie ignores the political views of the enlisted men.  The problem is that leaving those questions to the history books distorts the very history that the movie attempts to conveys.  We have little trouble assuming that ordinary Americans during the Revolution could be motivated to enlist and persevere because of the broadest of political principles, but for some reason we find it difficult to interpret the Civil War as a political contest that was fought out on various battlefields.  This is not an isolated oversight on the part of the general public; the historian Bell I. Wiley also downplayed politics when writing about Civil War soldiers during the period following WWII.  In the last few years, however, historians such as Earl Hess, James McPherson, and Chandra Manning have added a great deal to our understanding of the political views of the common soldier. It is unlikely, however, that these interpretations will be embraced by the general public to any great extent.  I believe the difficulty has everything to do with our own tendency to want to steer clear of the issues of race and slavery.

It seems strange to even suggest that any understanding of a Civil War battle is possible by ignoring “right and wrong”, “good and bad” and other “political distinctions.”  Of course, it is the historian’s responsibility to flesh out what these terms mean in all of their complexity.   We are taught in our history survey courses that the 1830s involved a dramatic shift on the local and state levels in the involvement of average Americans in their political system.  Americans no longer deferred to their betters and everyone was now a gentleman.  If we accept some version of this story it seems reasonable to expect that ordinary Americans on both the home front and in the ranks would have taken a great interest in the political events of the day.

Given Martin Sheen’s political activism one has to wonder if he really understands what he is saying.