I am delighted to hear that residents of Fredericksburg, Virginia have resurrected a civic ceremony that was lost as a result of reunion between white Northern and former Confederates. For a number of years after the war the black residents of the city took part in annual marches on Decoration Day to the cemetery to commemorate the bravery of United States soldiers and the cause for which they fought. Those early commemorations constituted a living reminder that the war had profound results for millions of slaves and that its memory would be incomplete without the acknowledgment of emancipation and freedom.
Today I came across the Remembering Slavery, Resistance, and Freedom Project, which is a partnership between The College of William and Mary and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Association. This really is a wonderful example of how technology can promote and shape a community’s efforts to commemorate its past. What I like most about this project is the grassroots element. Organizers are not just looking for Facebook likes or Twitter followers; rather, they are encouraging involvement through attendance at any number of community meetings across Virginia. Here is a list of their goals:
- To publicly recognize sites throughout the Commonwealth associated with slavery, resistance to slavery, and emancipation from slavery
- To foster respect for the lives of enslaved persons and to contribute to an honest and informed public understanding of the consequences of the enslavement of Africans and African Americans
- To assist in the public’s recognition of “slaves” as complete persons who recognized and asserted their own humanity by memorializing their dead, who should be credited for what they produced, and who, by their very humanity and personalities, naturally resisted attempts to turn Africans and African Americans into property
- To reveal the pervasive historical presence of African and African American lives and experiences
- To provide events of remembrance that contextualize Virginia’s commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Lincoln’s relevance to Virginia and the Emancipation Proclamation
- To design a commemorative website based on the messages and goals identified by regional communities
Whether you like it or not, Lincoln is central to Virginia’s story of emancipation. You may remember that the Virginia Assembly recently failed to pass a resolution honoring Lincoln. With the Assembly’s backing of this project I have to wonder whether they had any influence on the goals listed here. It will be interesting to see whether the meetings and other forms of feedback lead to any substantial recognition of his place in this story.
This project is a positive sign given that I have not heard much on the Emancipation 150 front.
A SENATE RESOLUTION
TO DESIGNATE MAY AS CONFEDERATE HISTORY AND HERITAGE MONTH IN SOUTH CAROLINA AND TO ENCOURAGE ALL CITIZENS AND GUESTS OF OUR STATE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS CRUCIAL TIME IN THE HISTORY OF OUR PEOPLE.
Whereas, the years Two Thousand Eleven through Two Thousand Fifteen mark the Sesquicentennial commemoration of the War Between the States; and
Whereas, South Carolina became the first state to adopt an Ordinance of Secession on December 20, 1860; and
Whereas, South Carolina cast her fate with her sister southern states in ratification of the Confederate Constitution and became a faithful partner in the Confederate States of America; and
Whereas, South Carolina provided proud examples of leadership during truly trying times such as the statesmanship of Governor Francis Pickens and the heroism of General Wade Hampton, III whose dashing cavalry exploits were known far and wide; and
Whereas, the men and women of South Carolina, both civilian and soldier alike, sacrificed so much and contributed so greatly in the defense of their state; and
Whereas, the commemoration of South Carolina’s invaluable role to the Confederacy is still today a source of pride among our people and a major reason for citizens and visitors alike to explore the history of our great State; and
Whereas, the lessons to be learned from this period of our history are so important, even in matters facing America today. Now, therefore,
Be it resolved by the Senate:
That May is officially designated as Confederate History and Heritage Month in South Carolina and to encourage all citizens and guests of our State to learn more about this crucial time in the history of our people.
So, did South Carolinians do a good job of remembering their Confederate history this weekend? I would say so.
Will Moredock has a wonderful editorial in today’s Charleston City Paper that provides some sense of why a Robert Smalls Weekend is so significant. All too often the study of Civil War memory seems like an abstract exercise, but in this case it is grounded in something that all of us can relate to: history textbooks. If you want to explain why the city of Charleston is now in a position to commemorate Smalls look no further than the pages of your child’s history textbook. Not too long ago many of them were filled with all kinds of myths and distortions about black Americans and slavery. Moredock shares excerpts from Mary C. Simms Oliphant, The History of South Carolina, which was used in the state as late as the mid-1980s. Oliphant was indeed the granddaughter of William Gilmore Simms, but what Moredock does not mention is that her 1917 textbook was a revised version of Simms’s own history of the state written in 1860.
One hundred and fifty years ago George B. McClellan made his way up the Virginia Peninsula in what many anticipated would be the final campaign of the war. With the largest army ever assembled on the American continent he would seize the Confederate capital of Richmond and reunite the nation. As we commemorate the campaign and McClellan’s failure outside of Richmond in the Seven Days Battles 150 years later, however, we seem to be struggling with its significance and meaning.
Part of the problem is the scope of the campaign, which covered roughly three months in the late spring and early summer of 1862. It’s much easier to frame a useful interpretation of a major battle, where the armies meet and there is a clear victor. Bull Run and Shiloh is where we lost our innocence; Gettysburg and Antietam connect to the story of emancipation and freedom; the fall of Atlanta ensured Lincoln’s reelection and Appomattox is where the nation reunited. Regardless of how accurate such narratives might be they help to make sense of and even justify the bloodletting that took place at these sites.