Category Archives: Memory

Why the Emancipationist Legacy of the Civil War Matters

[Hat-Tip to John Hennessy and David Blight]

Update: Click here for Hennessy’s Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star article on John Washington.

The recent discovery of John Washington’s slave narrative along with next week’s event in Fredericksburg, which will include a number of his descendants, serves to remind us of just how important the Civil War is to the history of this nation.  More to the point, the fact that his descendants had no idea of this document’s existence nor the rich history of John Washington reinforces the extent to which the theme of emancipation has been lost to our modern memory of the war.  In the minds of all too many people the memory of the war is distorted to include talk of tens of thousands of loyal black Confederates and benevolent-champions of "enslaved black men and women" such as "Stonewall" Jackson.  Such talk only reinforces dangerous generalizations about the kindness of slaveowners and content slaves.  It’s as if Gone With the Wind premiered just yesterday.

Luckily we don’t have to wait for individual narratives to surface (they are quite rare for the obvious reasons) to understand how black Americans contributed to the emancipation moment.  This talk of benevolent slaveowners and black Confederates fails to stand up even against a cursory perusal of the relevant evidence.  We have the letters and diaries of white southerners on the home front and in the armies who wrote about the loss of slave labor along with the recruitment of tens of thousands into the Union armies.  We have the letters and diaries of thousands of Union soldiers who passed fugitives on the march and who interacted with them in camp.  Finally, we have the military records of the USCTs themselves which reveal the bravery of the men who were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for their freedom even as the recent decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford failed to acknowledge black Americans as citizens. 

The price of this collective amnesia and distortion can be discerned in next week’s event.  I already mentioned that Washington’s descendants were unaware of this document, but to what extent do black Americans generally know about an ancestor’s possible flight to freedom.  Are they even aware of the question itself?  This past summer I took a few weeks to interview a number of black Americans who are somehow connected by their interest in the Civil War.  What stood out during those interviews was the almost complete absence of an early education that emphasized the centrality of black history to the Civil War.  No one remembered learning about the contributions of USCTs or they way in which the lives of fugitive slaves impacted the course of the war.  On the flip side we have the likes of H.K. Edgerton whose treks across the south with his Confederate flag and uniform reflect a desire to feel connected to a past even if it is a fantasy.

Next week’s event has meaning on a number of different levels.  A select few will walk away with an important piece of their family history as well as the history of this nation.  Residents of Fredericksburg with an interest in the Civil War will learn about the history of a section of the community that for much too long has been ignored and/or distorted.  Finally, David Blight and John Hennessy will be reminded of why their respective crafts (public and scholarly history) are so important.

p.s. Isn’t this a wonderful example of southern heritage at its best?

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)