Category Archives: Public History

A Response To Edward Sebesta

Back in September I responded to the first part of a multi-post essay by Edward Sebesta concerning the Museum of the Confederacy.  A few weeks back Sebesta responded on his blog.  I admit that characterizing Sebesta’s essay as a “rant” was a poor choice of words, but I maintain that it is a poorly researched essay.  The fundamental problem with his essay can be seen in a NYTs review of the museum by Edward Rothstein:

But if there is any success in the reconciliation of regional history and national history, it will not come easily. The Museum of the Confederacy embodies the conflict in its very origins; its artifacts were accumulated in the midst of grief. The museum’s first solicitation for donations, in 1892, four years before its opening, is telling: “The glory, the hardships, the heroism of the war were a noble heritage for our children. To keep green such memories and to commemorate such virtues, it is our purpose to gather together and preserve in the Executive Mansion of the Confederacy the sacred relics of those glorious days. We appeal to our sisters throughout the South to help us secure these invaluable mementoes before it’s too late.”

That heritage casts a long shadow over the institution. When I visited in 2008, slavery still seemed an inconsequential part of Southern history. And Southern suffering loomed large.

But changes have been taking place. Several tendentious text panels (in one, Lincoln was portrayed as having manipulated the South into starting the war) have been removed. And gradually, under the presidency of S. Waite Rawls III, the museum, while keeping its name, has been expanding its ambitions, trying to turn its specialization into a strength instead of a burden.

Satellite museums are being planned at other Civil War sites in Virginia. The museum’s scholarly resources are being promoted, and nostalgic trappings are being shed. Some of the institution’s tours focus on traditional subjects like Confederate foreign policy, but others examine relationships between free and enslaved blacks in Civil War Richmond, or discuss the lives of servants in the Confederate White House.

Rothstein nails in four paragraphs what Sebesta is no closer to understanding in a 4-part essay and that is that any evaluation of the MOC must be sensitive to its unique history, first as shrine to the Confederacy and more recently as a museum.  Admittedly, the line between a shrine and a museum is blurry and what lessons one walks away with will depend on a whole host of factors.  What is difficult to dispute, however, is that the MOC has undergone significant changes over the past few decades and that its evolution continues right through the sesquicentennial.

Unfortunately, there is no indication that Sebesta has ever visited the MOC or that he has taken the time to interview some of the people mentioned such as John Coski and Waite Rawls III.  I have no doubt that Sebesta would have learned quite a bit by sitting down with the museum staff to learn about how they work to satisfy the expectations of various segments of its broader community.  In addition, while Sebesta is fond of quoting his favorite “neo-Confederate” sources he never comes to terms with the fact that the scholarly community has embraced the MOC.  The museum’s reflection of recent scholarship can be seen in both the books that they give prizes to as well as the quality of recent exhibits.

As I said in my initial post, a study of the MOC as it relates to public history and historical memory would make for a fascinating dissertation and/or book.  However, such a careful study is impossible to undertake when your paramount goal is to uncover “neo-Confederates” at every turn.

The Confederacy, Southern Unionists, and Civil Liberties

This video is part of the Virginia Historical Society’s traveling exhibit, “An American Turning Point.”  It tackles the complex subject of southern unionists and the protection of civil liberties during wartime.  Questions surrounding civil liberties often come up in reference to the steps Lincoln took at various points during the war, but rarely comes up in the context of the Confederacy.  It’s nice to see the VHS tackling these subjects and for a short clip I think it does so effectively.  What do you think?

The best book on the subject is Mark Neely’s, Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism (University of Virginia Press, 1999).

The Confederacy Has Risen Again

Sketch of MOC exhibit at Appomattox

Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know this from those folks who proclaim themselves defenders of “Southern Heritage.”  Many of these people are preoccupied with silly battles surrounding the display of the Confederate flag.  Anyone who follows this nauseating debate can see that the pro-flag forces are on the losing side of history.  Whether they are willing to acknowledge it or not, the majority of Americans do not want to see the Confederate flag in public spaces and supported with public dollars.  As the title of the post suggests, however, there is reason to celebrate.

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Why Did the Civil War Happen?

Wide Awake Films collaborated with the Virginia Historical Society to produce a four-minute visual experience of images, maps, footage and 3D animations that, together, convey an answer to the question: “Why Did the Civil War Happen?” This project is one of three pieces produced by Wide Awake Films for Virginia Historical Society’s “An American Turning Point” museum exhibit. The exhibit is currently open and will tour throughout the State of Virginia during the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

Fort Monroe Becomes a National Monument

I can’t think of a better example of the dramatic shift that has taken place in recent years in our understanding of slavery’s central place in our collective memory of the Civil War.

Fort Monroe offers the National Park Service a unique opportunity to think carefully about how they are going to establish a relationship with the surrounding communities, including Hampton.  As I learned in my study of the Crater it has not always been easy for the National Park Service to break down barriers, specifically within the black community.  I hope the NPS places this high on its list of priorities when it begins the process of staffing the facility.  The best way to begin this process is to work closely with area public schools as well as Hampton University, which has a rich history of its own going back to the Civil War era.  Get the kids involved from the beginning and give them a stake in how the site is interpreted.