Category Archives: Public History

The Future of Civil War History

I am very excited to share what promises to be one of the most educational and entertaining conferences to come down the pike in quite some time.  From March 14-16, 2013 the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College will host a three-day conference titled, “The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th.”  Peter Carmichael somehow managed to wrangle up roughly 100 historians of all stripes for a wide variety of formal presentations, panels, working groups and field experiences.  The goal is to “facilitate discussions between panelists and the audience about how the historical community can make the Civil War past more engaging, more accessible, and more usable to public audiences as we look beyond the 150th commemorations and to the future of Civil War history.”

Please take some time to browse through the conference website.  There are plenty of opportunities to get involved, including a number of very interesting working groups that will commence in preparation for the conference.  I strongly encourage those of you who teach history, work in some capacity in public history or are just deeply interested in the Civil War era to register soon since spaces are limited.

I am super excited for this event.  It’s a chance to spend time in one of my favorite places and best of all I get to participate.  I am a panelist for a session on how to engage museum audiences and students around issues of Civil War memory and I will be chairing another session on interpreting USCTs at Civil War sites.

See you in Gettysburg.

Why Petersburg’s South Side Depot Matters

I couldn’t be more pleased to hear that we are one step closer to seeing Petersburg’s South Side Depot renovated and utilized by the National Park Service as a welcome center and as a site to interpret the city’s rich Civil War history and beyond.  It’s nice to see the involvement of the Civil War Trust as well.  While I fully support their focus on battlefields it is essential that they involve themselves in the preservation of endangered sites beyond the battlefield that can only enhance the public’s understanding of the war.  In the case of Petersburg the battlefield was the city itself.

As someone who has thought a great deal about the challenges of interpreting the city’s Civil War history the addition of this site downtown will assist the NPS in their continued effort to reach out to the local population, especially African Americans.  I explore some of these more recent challenges in the final chapter of my new book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.

Many local blacks that I interviewed during the course of my research never learned about or even visited the local battlefields, including the Crater.  One gentleman shared that while growing up he believed the site of the Crater was off limits to blacks.  Others simply believed that the NPS’s mission was to interpret and protect and interpretation that appealed to whites only.  As recent as the 1970s black students at Petersburg State University believed that the primary function of the NPS to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.”  The upshot is a history of mistrust that the NPS has worked hard to overcome since this time.

A comment by NPS Superintendent Lewis Rogers echoes these concerns:

I’m African-American. When I grew up, I didn’t think there was anything in the Civil War for me. I learned there were African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, and Native Americans who fought in the Civil War, both of which fought at Petersburg.  We want to reach out to the urban population … and to become more a part of fabric of the community. We have four sites, but most are out in more rural areas. … We want the opportunity to be right in town and be part of the fabric of the community. We hope it will also help stimulate the economy.

An NPS presence downtown will build on the addition of walking tours that have proven to be very successful and popular among locals.  The Depot itself will take this one step further by applying the necessary assets to interpret not only the battles, but the postwar period as well.  William Mahone used the Depot as an office during part of this period, which opens up a number of avenues to discuss his involvement in the railroads as well as the racial politics of the Readjuster Party during the 1880s.

All in all this is really good news for Petersburg and I can’t wait to see what they do with the place.

Young Robert E. Lee’s Cherubs

I don’t normally share reader mail, but this struck me as worth posting.  It’s been a few years since I last visited Stratford Hall and while I had a pleasant visit I too was struck by the emphasis on the cherubs.

Today I visited Stratford Hall.  The Great House obviously demonstrates the Lee family’s tremendous wealth during the eighteenth-century, and, while I was generally impressed with the interpretation of the plantation, I was a bit disappointed that there is not a more significant effort to interpret the slave life enforced and endured at Stratford Hall.

The docent pointed out the cherubs in the nursery’s fireplace that young four-year-old Robert E. Lee said good-bye to when he and his family moved to Alexandria.  Apparently, as the story goes, young Robert recognized the gravity of his family’s move and that he would not see his cherubs anymore.

What struck me with this story is how it conveys his sense of childhood innocence, which of course we should expect from a small child. Sheltered from the world around him, he had become attached to these cherubs set into the fireplace’s iron backing.  He regarded them as something real, something deserving of a farewell, all the while his family enslaved dozens of African Americans and denied them the opportunity of any similar sense of childhood bliss.  Did young Robert ever hear the crack of a whip or the crying horror of a slave being sold away from his family?  We’ll never know perhaps.  But if he did, his family and possibly even black servant protectors shielded him from the oppression outside and away from the Great House and its more immediate and stately environs.

I have young children who have neither experienced nor have come to understand the ugliness that the world perpetuates and endures. For this, I am thankful beyond expression.  I often wonder what they will grow up to become, to believe and to defend as worthwhile. Young Robert grew up to defend a slaveocracy- an institution that represented everything opposed and contradictory to those cherubs in the fireplace.  Acknowledging our history, even its ugliness, helps to strive to do better for the next generation.

Vandalism at the Shaw Memorial

Like many of you I was saddened and outraged to hear that the Shaw Memorial here in Boston had been vandalized.  The alleged perpetrator is a 38 yr. old black woman from nearby Quincy.  While she admitted to having an interpretive issue with the memorial, following her arraignment yesterday it was learned that she will undergo a psychiatric evaluation.  I decided to write a little something for my column at the Atlantic, which you can now read, but before doing so I posted some questions about the possible racial implications of this act on my personal Facebook page.

Thanks to Brooks Simpson, Harry Smeltzer, James Percoco, Donald Shaffer, and John Rudy for sharing their thoughts.  The thread went on for some time and it gave me quite a bit to think about.  Brooks is right that the thread is a good example of the “usefulness of social media in advancing historical discussion.”

Click here for the rest of my posts at the Atlantic.