What follows is a guest post by Thom Bassett, who recently took a trip to Virginia to explore Civil War battlefields and other sites. He took the time to visit the new MOC museum at Appomattox and sent along this review. Thom teaches at Bryant University in Providence, R.I. He has written numerous essays for the New York Times Disunion blog and is currently working on a novel about William Tecumseh Sherman.
It’s unfortunate that in the minds of many the Museum of the Confederacy’s newly opened branch at Appomattox is associated exclusively with the ginned-up controversy about display there of the Confederate battle flag. For one thing, the museum staff seem heartily sick of the issue and those who protested the museum’s design: As I carefully began to ask about it during my visit this weekend, one of them interrupted me to scoff, “What the hell else did they want? We put the damn state flags outside!”
For another, and more important, the MoC-Appomattox overall is a superb example of sophisticated, accessible, evocative, intellectually honest public narrative about the Civil War. While it’s in some respects still very much a work in progress, the museum nonetheless already meaningfully informs and engages the public about the war and its significance today.
David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory has dominated the historiography of Civil War memory studies since its publication in 2001. Beyond academic circles, Blight’s emphasis on the triumph of reconciliation over an “emancipationst narrative” can be found in documentaries, news articles, and even historical tours. Rarely do historical interpretations enjoy such popularity. In recent years, historians have chipped away at various aspects of Blight’s view. Two books that stand out in this regard are John Neff’s Honoring the Civil War Dead: Commemoration and the Problem of Reconciliation and Barbara Gannon’s recent study, The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic.
While both books are important contributions to the field they do not approach the scope of Blight’s study, both in terms of the time frame and topics covered. These and other studies, along with an even larger number of scholarly articles, have shown that reconciliation did not always triumph, bitterness remained among veterans, and memory of slavery and emancipation may have been more vibrant throughout the postwar period than we thought. At the same time we do need to explain why our memory of the war since the 1960s has emphasized reconciliationist themes that go back to the turn of the twentieth century. In other words, we don’t want to err by minimizing the pull of reconciliation.
Caroline Janney’s forthcoming book, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation promises to be the first broad study of Civil War memory since Race and Reunion. She’s been chipping away at various topics, including the Appomattox Peace Monument, the Heyward Shepherd Memorial, and the establishment of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
For a taste of what you can expect in this book check out Carrie’s recent talk from the 2012 Civil War Institute.
I think most of you are going to enjoy this one. Speaking of reenactors, I enjoyed reading this piece about the experience of one extra in Spielberg’s Lincoln movie.
I have a fairly large file of emails that I’ve accumulated over the years from folks who interpret my writings as anti-South/Confederate or some other variation. It’s a narrative that I’ve grown accustomed to and represents a clear misunderstanding of what I do. More importantly, it reflects an oversimplified reading of the past, particularly when it comes to what I’ve written about Confederate camp servants and black Confederates.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I read the following comment from Mr. Ross Williams of Grand Rapids, Minnesota that was recently posted to a column I published on the relationship between John Christopher Winsmith and his camp servant, Spencer. I did my best to interpret the available evidence, which comes down to Winsmith’s own letters as well as my understanding of the relevant secondary literature. As is the case with many of these stories I am left with more questions than answers.
After being accused for so long of being a “South hater” it is strange to suddenly be accused of being a slavery apologist. Which reminds me, I haven’t heard a peep from my Southern heritage friends about this essay.
I really would like to know what they think of it.
Update: Once again, the post was removed.
I can only imagine the personal courage behind these sincere words of concern from the SHPG for those Northerners in the path of hurricane Sandy. As the descendant of people who would not arrive in this country until the early twentieth century, I truly appreciate Carl’s willingness to look beyond our complicity in the unconstitutional invasion of the South. In all seriousness, things are fine up here in Boston. We had a few hours of high winds, but through it all we never lost power. The same can’t be said for my hometown of Atlantic City, New Jersey. My thoughts are with my good friends still living in the area. Hope all of you are safe.