We all know that certain Civil War narratives die hard, none more so than the black Confederate myth. While it will continue to spread on the Web and rear its ugly head from time to time in various popular forums it will never gain legitimacy in our most respected private and public historical institutions. This fact has nothing to do with a conspiracy to conceal the facts from the general public or some vaguely defined liberal bias and everything to do with what we know about this subject.
[Hat-tip to Donald Schaffer]
I don’t have much patience for the long-standing debate of who freed the slaves. The question itself is much too simplistic and sterile. Why historians have felt a need to single out one factor or engage in wholesale reductionism, in the end, tells us much more about the assumptions we employ than about the complexity of the story of emancipation that needs to be told. Today is the 150th anniversary of General Benjamin Butler’s letter informing his superiors of three escaped slaves who had made their way to Fortress Monroe.
Update: In it’s first decision since the resignation of half of its committee members, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission denied a funding request from The Guyandotte Civil War Days festival committee. It turns out that the committee invited H.K. Edgerton to give the keynote address. Clearly, the WV commission made the right decision.
Karl S. Betts was the first executive director of the Civil War Centennial Commission and a successful Kansas-born businessman. His goals were first and foremost to fashion a centennial celebration that would attract patriotic audiences and steer clear of issues related to race. This meant battle reenactments and parades. Most of the sesquicentennial commissions, including Virginia, have decided to steer clear of reenactments. As I understand it, that decision has to do with not wanting to be perceived as celebrating what was a destructive and costly war as well as wanting to focus on more substantive and educational projects.
As far as I know, the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission is the first case of a sharp divide between those who want to entertain as opposed to educate. This report is based largely on an interview done with Professor Mark Snell, who is the vice chairman of the commission. [I should note that I am good friends with Professor Snell and I trust his judgment.]
There seems to be a good deal of anticipation for History’s upcoming movie, Gettysburg, produced by Ridley and Tony Scott. I am not one of them. Audience’s will likely experience a visually stimulating and gritty depiction of the actual battle. The goal of the movie, according to the History website is the following:
Executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, GETTYSBURG strips away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War to present the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg in a new light–a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience, fought by men who put everything on the line in defense of their vision of the American future. Cinematic in scope, GETTYSBURG is an information-packed look at the turning points, strategic decisions, technology and little-known facts surrounding the battle. Developed in collaboration with highly esteemed Civil War historians, GETTYSBURG reflects hundreds of individual accounts of the battle–the unique voices of struggle, defeat and triumph that tell the larger story of a bitterly conflicted nation. [Click here for a preview.]
Will this movie really highlight what was a “visceral, terrifying, and deeply personal experience?” Wasn’t Ted Turner’s Gettysburg an example of just such a movie or is the difference here that the special effects will set the Scott production apart? I guess in the end I have trouble believing that any Civil War movie can strip away “the romanticized veneer of the Civil War” entirely. Our memory of Gettysburg is wrapped up in all kinds of romantic memes from “Brother v. Brother” to “A Battle that Decided the Fate of a Nation.” We don’t have a Civil War apart from our romantic notions that define its continued significance and meaning.
I’ve suggested before that how Americans remember their Civil War can no longer be so easily drawn along strict regional boundaries. Consider the video below. On May 15th, 2011, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Archibald Gracie Camp and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, as well as other members of New York City’s Southern Community gathered at The French Church in Manhattan for a Memorial Service honoring the Confederate Dead, 150 years after the Civil War. Dr. Michael S. Kogan delivered this sermon on the causes of the War and the legacy of the Southern Soldier.