Last Saturday Megan Kate Nelson, my wife and I went to see Suzan Lori Parks’s three-act play, “Father Comes Home From the Wars.” I don’t want to give too much away about the plot beyond the fact that the central character is a slave, who at the beginning of the first act struggles with whether he is going to go off to war with his master/Confederate colonel. Oh, and the slave, whose name is Hero, is also donning a Confederate uniform.
Following the show we enjoyed a talkback with members of the cast. Unfortunately, we missed another post-production discussion the following day with Parks, along with Henry Louis Gates and Eric Foner. The discussion kicked off with some thoughts about the current debate about black Confederates.
On one level the focus of the discussion was unfortunate. At no time is Hero’s struggle about whether he can support or serve the Confederacy and the decision has nothing to do with him serving as a soldier. Rather, it serves as the foundation for his relationship with his master, which evolves significantly during the show. It’s confusing, in part, because Hero wears a uniform, but we know of a number of slaves, including, most famously, Silas Chandler, who were outfitted in military dress. The opening act offers an opportunity to explore the complexity of the master-slave relationship and not that of the relationship between slaves and the Confederacy. Continue reading →
I hesitate giving this posting from the League of the South, announcing their intention to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, any more attention that it has already attracted, but it is useful in making a couple of points.
The League of the South looks to the present and future. However, from time to time we do look back at our past.
This 14th of April will mark the 150th anniversary of John Wilkes Booth’s execution of the tyrant Abraham Lincoln. The League will, in some form or fashion, celebrate this event. We remember Booth’s diary entry: “Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment.” A century and a half after the fact, The League of the South thanks Mr. Booth for his service to the South and to humanity.
Stay tuned . . .
First, it betrays a rather naive understanding of how Americans (North and South) responded to the actions of John Wilkes Booth. Continue reading →
I’ve expressed more than once my disappointment at not being able to spend more time in Petersburg, Virginia this past year to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the war. Apart from my participation in the 150th anniversary of the Crater I’ve had to look on from afar. But about two weeks ago I was suddenly overcome with an urge to commemorate the men on both sides who lived in and braved the earthworks around Petersburg from June 1864 to April 1865.
At first I wasn’t sure what I was constructing, but a few days ago I had one of those Richard Dreyfuss/mashed potato moments of clarity. From that point on my work proceeded with great energy and focus. What you see here is the northwest side of what I am calling Battery 5. Its walls stand 10 ft. in height and 3 ft. thick. This morning I began placing palisades around the wall.
I assure you that other than our neighbors no impressed workers were used in the construction of this section of the line. There are rumors of tunneling activities by the enemy.
Update: You can watch the public debate in its entirety, including Karen Cooper’s public address in its entirety following the opening remarks and two speakers. It really is quite a performance. Susan Hathaway follows Cooper. Hathaway frames her argument around the importance of honoring veterans. I find it interesting that neither speaker mentions references their association with the Virginia Flaggers. The speaker that followed Hathaway, however, does identify himself as a Flagger and even goes as far as to threaten the city council.
I’ve always been interested in how our beliefs about the past are weaved through our understanding of the present. All of us are influenced by our personal values and assumptions concerning a wide range of issues from politics to personal background. It is with this in mind that I find Confederate heritage groups such as the Virginia Flaggers to be so interesting and, at times, worthy of our attention.
Last night my old home of Charlottesville, Virginia held a community meeting to discuss whether the annual recognition of Lee-Jackson Day ought to continue. I wish I could have been there to listen and even participate. Charlottesville was a wonderful place to teach the Civil War and Civil War memory. The city includes a wonderful Confederate cemetery adjacent to the UVA campus and the downtown area features two parks named in honor of Lee and Jackson. Both include impressive equestrian monuments. Continue reading →
One hundred and fifty years ago Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment and paved the way for ratification by the states. With a roll call and signatures roughly 240 years of slavery ended and yet as a nation we do nothing to publicly acknowledge this milestone. It’s striking given our collective embrace of a narrative that places the United States at the forefront of freedom. Even Steven Spielberg’s celebratory narrative about the build-up to this very moment in Lincoln has done little to increase awareness and interest. Why do we look beyond this moment?
I don’t have any firm answers, but the tension I often feel in my own teaching of this important event perhaps offers a few clues. On the one hand there is something quite remarkable about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. You would have been hard pressed to find Americans in 1861 predicting the end of slavery and that same year Congress passed a never-ratified amendment protecting slavery from future amendments. Lincoln backed it. Even in 1862 it is easy to imagine how a military victory might have resulted in a reunited Union with slavery largely intact. From this vantage point the end of slavery in 1865 appears to be nothing less than an achievement. Continue reading →