Category Archives: Memory

David W. Blight on Civil War Memory

You will notice a short interview with David Blight at the top of the sidebar on the right that I recently posted.  Below you can listen to parts 2 and 3.  In part 3 Blight talks about his current project, which is an exploration of the Civil War Centennial and the writings of Robert Penn Warren, Edmund Wilson, James Baldwin, and Bruce Catton, as well as the sesquicentennial.  In addition to this study I’ve heard that he is at work on a biography of Frederick Douglass.  I do hope that is true.  A few weeks ago my friend, Keith Harris, posted a short review of Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, which in my mind is still the place to begin in the field of Civil War memory studies.  Keith’s own scholarship challenges some of the central assumptions of Blight’s work, specifically the ease with which white Northerners abandoned an emancipationist narrative of the war for reconciliation and reunion.  My own forthcoming study of the Crater and historical memory complicates Blight’s interpretive framework by showing that reunion was not a simple process for former Confederates, especially for those veterans who fought under Mahone at Petersburg.  More importantly, Confederate veterans of the Crater were not unified in terms of how they chose to remember and commemorate the war because of deep political differences, especially during the four years of Readjuster control in Virginia.  Blight’s book has spawned a growing literature that complicates the postwar narrative of how Americans chose to remember the war.  A few of my favorite studies include, John Neff’s Honoring The Civil War Dead: Commemoration And The Problem Of Reconciliation, William Blair’s Cities of the Dead: Contesting the Memory of the Civil War in the South, 1865-1914, and, most recently, Benjamin G. Cloyd’s Haunted by Atrocity: Civil War Prisons in American Memory.

At the same time I think it’s important to acknowledge Blight’s book because of the studies that it generated.  I think that’s the mark of a seminal book.  Although Blight wasn’t the first person to explore this topic, he did offer students of the Civil War a rich interpretation of the various political and cultural forces (with apologies to PC) at work following the war.  For me the book continues to offer fresh insight every time I open it up and it proved to be invaluable in helping me to think about my own narrow project on the Crater even though I ended up disagreeing with some of Blight’s central assumptions.  In other words, it’s one thing to disagree with a book, but another thing entirely for that very same book to help steer you in a different direction.
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Lee – Jackson…what?

Today in Virginia is Lee-Jackson Day, but according to the The News Leader in Staunton you are going to have to look hard to find anyone celebrating it.  State offices are closed, but it looks like most government offices are open as well as public schools.  I will be in my classroom today as well.  While the public acknowledgment and celebration of Lee, Jackson, and all things Confederate may be on the decline, citizens of this great state will have plenty of opportunity over the next few years to study and come to appreciate the lives of these two men as well as the broader history of the war.  Their stories are absolutely essential to understanding this beautiful state that we call home so I encourage everyone to embrace Lee and Jackson during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

On a related note, the state of Virginia has officially rejected the notion that thousands of slaves fought as soldiers in the Confederate army.

Oh…and a reminder to the city of Norfolk: NO PARKING TICKETS ON LEE-JACKSON DAY!

Public History and the Civil War Sesquicentennial

The History Department at North Carolina State University [their website is awesome] is hosting a conference in March, titled, “The Public History of the American Civil War, a Sesquicentennial Symposium.”  I’ve been asked to put together an abstract for a panel that will focus on recent interpretive challenges at Civil War battlefields.  It will come as no surprise to most of you that I am going to focus on the battle of the Crater and the Petersburg National Battlefield.  Here is the abstract. “When You’re Black, the Great Battlefield Holds Mixed Messages”: Discussing Race at the Petersburg National Battlefield:

Tremendous changes have taken place within the historical community, both public and academic, since the 1960s.  Nowhere have these changes been more dramatic than on Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Park Service.  At the center of these interpretive shifts is a renewed focus on the role of race and slavery, which has led to more inclusive programs meant to enrich the public’s understanding of the Civil War and attract a wider segment of the general public.  While this agenda has made some inroads in the black community, some NPS frontline staff remain bewildered and confused by the lack of a black reaction to this interpretive shift.  This is complicated by the resistance on the part of some to question why so many African Americans are reluctant to embrace their Civil War past when there are so few impediments in their way as had been the case prior to 1970.  This talk examines the recent history of the Petersburg National Battlefield and the challenges associated with interpreting the Crater battlefield in a predominantly black community. The battle of the Crater is best remembered for the failed Union assault following the detonation of 8,000 pounds of explosives under a Confederate salient that included an entire division of United States Colored Troops.  Over the past few decades the NPS in Petersburg has worked closely with local government officials and other private groups to bridge a racial divide that prevented African Americans from visiting the battlefield throughout much of the twentieth century and all but guaranteed that black involvement in the battle would be minimized, if not ignored entirely.  A close look at the recent efforts made by the NPS to reach out to the local black community in Petersburg offers a number of strategies for historical institutions to implement which may help to challenge and even overcome deeply entrenched racial boundaries on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Let the Documents Speak For Themselves

This really is the best possible time to host a blog on the Civil War and historical memory.  If the next four years follows the past year we are in for a wild ride.  At the same time there is something rather depressing about the level of discourse surrounding many of these high profile events.  Consider the upcoming Secession Ball, scheduled for next Saturday in Charleston South Carolina.  The event marks a specific event in the history of South Carolina and the nation.  While organizers trot out the standard arguments distancing their event from the role that slavery played in helping to bring about the very event that is being celebrated the NAACP is working hard to distort and butcher their own version of the past.

NAACP State President Lonnie Randolph had this to say about the upcoming gala:

“There is nothing to celebrate about killing a million people. South Carolina still lives under the rule of the Confederacy today,” Randolph said.  He compared the Secession Ball to celebrating Sept. 11, Adolf Hitler, or the American Indian massacre at Wounded Knee.   “We want some consistency. We want South Carolina — and America — to be consistent in the way it treats and honors all its citizens.” Randolph said the argument that secession was about states’ rights misrepresents the facts of slavery.  “The state wanted to right to buy and sell people. Tell the whole truth,” he said.  He spoke at a news conference at the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, where he was surrounded by area leaders of the organization and ministers.  Handouts at the meeting encouraged attendance at the march and mass meeting with the admonition: “A Call for Unity: Don’t Celebrate Slavery and Terrorism.”

and

Participants will watch segments of “Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 silent film that portrayed Ku Klux Klan members as heroes….  “The states wanted the right to sell human cargo,” he said [Randolph], adding the public would not tolerate similar disrespect of other minority groups – a Holocaust celebration or an event celebrating the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. “The reason this can take place so easily is we’re still suffering the effects of the Confederacy in this state,” Randolph said.

The NAACP is not going to win any converts by pushing a narrative of the war that is heavy on emotion and rhetoric and short on historical content.

Here is what I would do to protest this event.  Station both black and white residents of Charleston in different sections of the city and at a scheduled time, during the Secession Ball, have them read the actual document that was approved by South Carolina’s secession convention.  You could organize literally hundreds of people for this.  I think it would be quite powerful to see South Carolinians take ownership of what South Carolinians in 1860.  As Larry Wilmer noted the other night on the Jon Stewart Show, highlighting the role of slavery in this event is not “politically correct, it’s correct correct.”  And that’s it.

Let the documents speak for themselves.

Are Slave Rebellions Part of the Story of American Freedom?

The Georgia Historical Society is in the process of installing new historical markers that expand our understanding of how the war impacted society beyond the battlefield.  One of the markers focuses on a failed slave revolt in the town of Quitman, Georgia, near the Florida border.  In 1864 three slaves and their white ringleader named John Vickery were hanged in Brooks County.  The reporter notes that, “The story highlights how three and a half years into war, many Georgians – especially poor, non-slaveholders — were hungry for food, war-weary and disillusioned with the Confederate cause.” And according to Todd Groce, the President and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society, the story “has a great relevance because it tells the African American people that they too are a part of the Civil War.”

Here is the text for the marker:

Civil War Slave Conspiracy

In August 1864, during the American Civil War, four men were executed in Brooks County, Georgia, for conspiring to plot a slave insurrection. The conspirators–led by a local white man, John Vickery, and three slaves named Nelson, George, and Sam–planned to seize weapons and take control of the town of Quitman, securing it for the U.S. Army in nearby Florida. Local authorities discovered the plot before it could be carried out. All four conspirators were convicted of insurrection and executed on August 22, 1864.  Anti-Confederate activity such as this, along with food riots, draft evasion, and labor unrest, increased during the final year of the war.

The choice of words is interesting.  Like most historical markers the basic outline of the event is presented, but there is little attempt to frame around a broader theme and that’s probably a good thing.  I assume that the “anti-Confederate” activity implied here is the slave insurrection itself, though it isn’t so clear.

I’ve asked this question before, but it is worth returning to given the placement of this marker: Is this event simply an example of anti-Confederate activity or is it part of a broader story of American freedom that we can all identify with?

[Note: I took the photo from one of the two article cited here because of the text that accompanied it: "A new plaque commemorates a failed slave revolt in Quitman. This image depicts a successful uprising by Nat Turner in Virginia."  It goes without saying that Turner's rebellion was not successful.]