Category Archives: Memory

People Want To Be Free

[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.

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The Ghost of Karl Betts

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.]

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The Problem With Civil War Movies

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.

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New York City’s Southern Community

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.

An Argument For Battlefield Preservation

I’ve taken a great deal of heat for much of my commentary on how Civil War battlefield preservation is typically framed for public consumption.  The most recent example can be found here.  This morning I read John Hennessy’s description of a recent NPS event that marked the anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863.  Some background for the event:

The program had its genesis in an article that appeared in one of the Civil War magazines (I believe Blue and Gray, but could be wrong). The writer had earlier done celestial calculations showing how and why the tides at Tarawa had been so exceptionally and disastrously difficult during the amphibious landing there in November 1943. His latest calculations showed that the arrangement of celestial bodies on May 2, 1996 would match precisely those of May 2, 1863, the night of Stonewall Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville–same moonrise, same moon phase, etc. Though amazed that anyone had the time to figure such a thing out, the park staff–atuned to subtle connections like that–thought it was all pretty cool, and so we decided to do a program at the site of Jackson’s wounding that night, May 2, 1996.  We issued the standard press releases about the event and prepared for it like a hundred others.

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