Is There An Official Civil War Memory?

In response to one of my posts last week on the Civil War Sesquicentennial one of my readers expressed a feeling of frustration (not on the blog) that David Blight’s interpretation of Civil War memory has become the standard or official narrative.  The individual is a professional historian, who has written on the subject.  On the one hand, I can certainly understand the concern.  How can what is essentially a meta-narrative (a narrative about multiple narratives of the past) become something akin to an official explanation?  Since the publication of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory back in 2001 historians have chipped away at various aspects of Blight’s thesis, which emphasizes the triumph of sectional reconciliation at the turn of the twentieth century.  My own forthcoming book on the Crater and historical memory bumps up against it.

On the one hand the cottage industry of Civil War memory studies that Race and Reunion spawned is a testament to the quality of the book.  Race and Reunion unfolds much of the terrain that subsequent historians have attempted to stake their claim to and challenge.   And yet the argument has held up quite well.  That, however, does not explain the book’s popularity.

To the extent that Race and Reunion has been embraced by the general public has everything to do with the visibility of its author.  The guy gets around.  Over the past few years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Prof. Blight in a number of settings from academic conferences to National Park Service tours to small bookstore signings.  Of course, he is not the only academic historian who has achieved public notoriety, but there is something special about achieving it in an area that many might think of as much too theoretical.  Most Civil War enthusiasts want to talk about the Civil War and not about how it has been remembered and what this tells us about ourselves as a nation.

The visibility of Blight’s narrative in our popular discourse reminds us that it is the personality and sense of mission behind the book that matters most.  And that is something that we should always encourage and celebrate in our public intellectuals.

Has Edward Sebesta Ever Visited The Museum of the Confederacy?

This morning neo-Confederate crusader Edward Sebesta posted the third of his four-part series on the Museum of the Confederacy.  Sebesta is convinced that the museum stands at the center of the neo-Confederate cause: “The 3rd installment covers how the MOC creates Confederate identification amongst its supporters, visitors, and others by being a shrine and reliquary.”  This most recent entry displays the same shoddy analysis and research that can be found in the other parts.  According to Sebesta, this is clearly reflected in the museum’s flag conservation program:

National flags are by definition national identifiers. Confederate flags are those flags adopted by the Confederacy in its quest to be a nation and were intended to serve as a symbol of the Confederate nation. The conservation of flags, like the conservation of any historical artifact, is a legitimate activity for a museum. However, flags are powerful instruments of national identity and act as such – it is the purpose for which they designed.  The MOC uses Confederate flags as symbols that both assert and reinforce Confederate national identity.

Sebesta seems to think that the financial support for this project by the Sons of Confederate Veterans implies that the flag’s restoration is for their benefit only and that its purpose is to keep alive the Confederate cause.  This is absurd.  First, there is nothing necessarily wrong with the SCV offering financial support to the museum nor is there any conflict of interest for the MOC in accepting and publicizing it.  The flags belong to all of us.

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The Graying of the Civil War Centennial Generation

Central Ohio Civil War Round Table

One of my first posts all the way back in 2005 focused on what I saw as the inevitable decline of our Civil War round tables.  I suggested that without a resurgence of interest in the Civil War era that animated Americans in the early 1960s these groups would disappear one by one.  In light of the last two posts I stand by the claim that I made over six years ago.

On Saturday the Museum of the Confederacy hosted a day-long event that culminated in a “Person of the Year: 1862” that was decided by an overwhelmingly older audience.  That same day the Sons of Confederate Veterans were forced to relocate an event that had been scheduled at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as part of their national rally.  These two stories have more in common than you might think.  Both organizations cater to a centennial generation.

I have no idea why church officials canceled the SCV’s event yesterday.  That said, it seems safe to assume that enough people within the church community found out about it and voiced their disapproval.  Whatever, the reason they didn’t want their church to host an SCV event and the reason for this must rest with the SCV itself, which has done everything in their power over the past few years to alienate reasonable people.  Take a look at any photograph from Saturday’s rally along Monument Avenue and what stands out is that hardly anyone showed up.  As far as I can tell the former capital of the Confederacy paid no notice of the SCV’s presence.  And those who were present overwhelmingly represented an older crowd.

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Sons of Confederate Veterans Kicked Out of St. Paul’s Episcopal

Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis all prayed at the church at one point or another during the war.  It was there in April 1865 that Davis learned that Richmond must be evacuated.  So, why the cold shoulder?  It’s hard to tell at this point, but here is what we know.  Yesterday the Sons of Confederate Veterans held their National Heritage Rally in the city, which was to include a panel discussion titled, “Debunking the Myth of the White Confederate Military” at the church  The panelists were to include Teresa Roane archivist at the Museum of the Confederacy and Eric Richardson, who is currently a graduate student in history at North Carolina Central University.  I’ve heard through the grapevine that he is doing some very interesting research at the MOC.  It is highly unlikely that the title of the panel or the panelists themselves were responsible for the church’s change of heart.  The panel was to be followed by a revival service at the church.  Apparently, at the last minute some time on Friday church officials canceled the event.

The day began with a small rally of SCV faithful at the Lee monument on Monument Avenue.  At least one unit marched while chanting the following:

What do we do?

Kill Yankees

How Many?

All of them

Would you want these people in your church?

Note: Updates will be posted as more information becomes available.

A Black Confederate Without the Black Ancestor

Willie Levi Casey

I am making my way through a small collection of essays in Thomas Brown’s Remixing the Civil War: Meditations on the Sesquicentennial (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).  Fitz Brundage opens his essay on African American artists, who have interpreted the Civil War in recent years, with a reference to Willie Levi Casey.  You can see Casey in the image to the right and while I’ve seen it on a number of websites, up until now I didn’t know anything about his background.

While Casey is dressed to commemorate those black men who “served” in Confederate ranks and “support preserving Southern history and telling it the way it is,” his connection to the war does not end with a black individual at all.  Here is an excerpt from one news item that I found online:

Casey’s persona as a re-enactor is a free black cabinetmaker from eastern Tennessee, able to read and write, with a wife and a child at home. But he has a real-life link to the Confederacy as well–one he always vaguely knew about but pinned down only in recent years.  Casey grew up in Cross Anchor, S.C., in the 1960s and ’70s. It was an area full of Caseys, black and white.  He and his siblings knew they had a white great-grandfather, a man who had never married their American Indian/African-American great-grandmother even though they had six children together.  A family photo of the couple’s son Barney Casey shows a bulky man in overalls with lank gray hair and white skin. He’s Willie Casey’s grandfather.  Willie Casey was well into adulthood when he decided to research the white side of his family.  In the course of his genealogical effort he came across the Civil War record of one Pvt. Martin Luther Casey, a South Carolina soldier killed in 1862. That man was the older brother of Casey’s great-grandfather.  Being a collateral relative of a Civil War soldier qualified Casey for membership in the SCV.

Interestingly, websites maintained by H.K. Edgerton and J.R. Vogel conveniently overlook the fact that Casey’s ancestor is not black.

OK, so I readily admit that I am confused.  On the one hand Casey was accepted into the SCV based on his connection to the brother of his great-grandfather.  The living interpretation that he adopts for reenactments and other events, however, is based on a fictional character whose connection to history is tenuous at best.

I guess what I am having trouble understanding is that in his effort to ‘tell it the way it is’ he ignores what has to be a fascinating Civil War legacy in the story of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother.  Why doesn’t Casey do the necessary research to interpret the offspring of his great-grandparents?  That would go much further in challenging the public to expand their understanding of slavery and race relations at a critical point in American history. I am sure the SCV would be more than happy to accommodate such a living memory of one’s Civil War ancestors.

Instead, we are presented with nothing more than the same tired commentary that reinforces outdated tropes that paint the Confederacy as some kind of experiment in civil rights.

[Image Source: The Free Lance-Star]