The Split Personality of Ken Burns’s “The Civil War”

On September 7 PBS will broadcast Ken Burns’s The Civil War on what will be the 25th anniversary of its release. Burns hopes that the re-packaging of the series in ultra high-definition will attract a new crowd. We shall see.

Recently, Burns was interviewed  about the anniversary of the series on CBS’s Face the Nation. He was asked about recent polls that continue to point to the percentage of Americans who do not identify slavery as the central cause of the war or its role in shaping the war’s outcome. Burns points to movies such as Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind as continuing to shape our memory of the war and the antebellum period. Certainly these movies influenced the viewing public at some point, but it’s difficult to believe that they remain relevant.

Burns would do well to look more closely at his own documentary for a better sense of why Americans continue to struggle to fully grasp the centrality of slavery to the Civil War. Continue reading “The Split Personality of Ken Burns’s “The Civil War””

Confederate Flags are Gone With the Wind

The horrific shooting of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina back in June did not spark this public debate about the place of Confederate iconography in public places. Rather, it intensified it to a degree that few could have anticipated. Over the past ten years the Confederate flag has quietly (and on occasion not so quietly) been lowered from public places and removed from other institutions throughout the South and beyond. Southerners from all ethnic and racial backgrounds have had to wrestle with the question of whether the flag’s public display reflects their community’s collective values and view of the past.

For anyone who has followed this trend and the events of this summer, it is clear that Confederate flag advocates have been thoroughly defeated. Continue reading “Confederate Flags are Gone With the Wind”

The Confederacy Was Not a Con Job

Over the weekend the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an editorial on the current debate about Confederate iconography by Frank Hyman. It’s an interesting editorial in that it doesn’t fall into any of the popular categories on the subject. After establishing his bona fides as a white Southern male Hyman gets to his point. The problem with revering the Confederate flag and the Confederacy generally comes down to the following:

The Confederacy — and the slavery that spawned it — was also one big con job on the Southern white working class. A con job funded by some of the antebellum one-percenters, and one that continues today in a similar form…. With low wages and few schools, Southern whites suffered a much lower land ownership rate and a far lower literacy rate than Northern whites….

My ancestor, Canna Hyman, and his two sons did own land and fought under that flag. A note from our family history says: “Someone came for them while they were plowing one day. They put their horses up and all three went away to the War and only one son, William, came back.”

Like Canna, most Southerners didn’t own slaves. But they were persuaded to risk their lives and limbs for the right of a few to get rich as Croesus from slavery. For their sacrifices and their votes, they earned two things before and after the Civil War. First, a very skinny slice of the immense Southern pie. And second, the thing that made those slim rations palatable then and now: the shallow satisfaction of knowing blacks had no slice at all.

Certainly northern and even some southern observers before and after the Civil War offered their assessments about the extent to which the institution of slavery stymied economic opportunity for non-slaveholders, but we should be cautious about applying our own value judgments to the past. Continue reading “The Confederacy Was Not a Con Job”

Why Even Now It’s Still Wrong To Vandalize Confederate Monuments

Over the past month I’ve written quite a bit about the ongoing discussion about the place of Confederate iconography – specifically flags and monuments – in local communities. Listening to the viewpoints of people on all sides of this issue and having to consider the actions of others has given me quite a bit to consider. A trip to Europe and exposure to new public history has also added to my curiosity. That I blog about it gives you a front seat to a thought process that may seem confused and even frustrating.

In 2011 I published a brief essay in the Atlantic in response to the vandalizing of the Lee Monument in my old hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. I’ve linked to it numerous times over the past few weeks to give readers a sense of where I am coming from as a historian of Civil War memory and, more importantly, as an educator. I even reiterated the points made in a recent post. Continue reading “Why Even Now It’s Still Wrong To Vandalize Confederate Monuments”

Civil War Memory and the “Anglo-Saxon Civilization” of The New South

Yesterday while reading about the history of the Confederate monument vandalized for a second time in Charlotte, North Carolina I came across the United Confederate Veterans official program for its dedication. The event took place on June 5, 1929. The program is filled with what you might expect. There is a schedule of events, articles about Stonewall Jackson and other prominent Confederate, images of local and national U.C.V. members  as well as words of support from various ladies auxiliary groups. Advertisements for Davidson College, Merrick’s Chocolate and Plexico can also be found. None of this surprised me.

What did surprise me, however, is a full-page feature on “Negro Schools” and “Negro Education in the South.” Why would this be in a U.C.V. program? Continue reading “Civil War Memory and the “Anglo-Saxon Civilization” of The New South”