Category Archives: Public History

Did the South Win the Civil War?

Negro Digest (November 1961)

This is a question that Howard N. Meyer posed in the November 1961 issue of Negro Digest.  It’s a thought-provoking essay that anticipates a burgeoning black counter-memory that emerged in the pages of popular magazines by 1965.  It also provides a helpful reference point to gauge the evolution of Civil War memory over the past few decades.  Here are a few choice quotes:

  • One is first tempted to say that the commission’s plans have been marked by a kind of equal treatment: reverence as much for the Stars and Bars as for the Stars and Stripes, honor as much for Jefferson Davis as for Abraham Lincoln; tributes for the Boys in Gray as for the Boys in Blue; equality, that is, for all except the Negro.
  • Chairman Grant is eighty years old, and apparently still accepts the ideology that prevailed during his turn-of-the-century youth: that North-South reconciliation is more important than human rights for the Negro.
  • What will the Civil War Centennial be like?  It will last four years.  Battles will be re-enacted, many on a huge scale.  Colorful ceremonies will be held, exhibitions of war trophies and mementos organized.  There will be memorials, parades, new historical markers and a great many special ceremonies…
  • The success of Southern apologists meant not merely that the Confederate side of the war was hygenized and glamorized.  The cause of the North was correspondingly demeaned.
  • One does not have to deny the tragedy of blasted homes and lives to say that the Old South depended on an iniquitous social system that could not be tolerated in America.  It does not serve America well, in the world of 1961, to ignore the evil and iniquity of slavery in marking the Centennial of the conflict.
  • When the firing on Fort Sumter was re-enacted, in a setting of live oaks and magnolias, who was there to remind the play-actors, in ever so small a voice, that the original shot was, after all, treason?

My have the times changed.

It’s Never Too Late To Reconcile

Here is an interesting story from my neck of the woods.  The Worcester Grand Army of the Republic Board of Trustees voted recently to return three captured Confederate flags to the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, N.C. The flags were captured at the Battle of New Bern, in North Carolina on March 14, 1862, by two Union divisions manned with residents of Central Massachusetts. This latest story follows a much longer trend of reconciliation gestures between the descendants of Civil War veterans.  [I will be speaking at the North Worcester County Civil War Roundtable on October 11.]

This past Friday I spent a pleasant afternoon at the Framingham History Center located in the Edgell Memorial Library, which was built after the war to honor Union veterans. The center’s director, Annie Murphy, was kind enough to give me a personal tour of their new Civil War exhibit.  It’s not the most elaborate exhibit around, but they do a nice job of highlighting was is clearly an extensive collection of artifacts and documents.  It includes General George H. Gordon’s coat, a buts of the general sculpted by Daniel Chester French and a battle worn flag of the 13th Massachusetts.  If you are in the area you should make it a point to check it out.

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On Antietam and Hot Coffee

This guest post is by Adam Arenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War, about the Civil War Era as a battle of three competing visions — that of the North, South, and West. More at http://adamarenson.com.

This is the third in a series.

Walking around the Antietam battlefield, envisioning the bloodiest day in U.S. history, one is hard-pressed for a moment of levity. There is Bloody Lane, the cornfield, and Burnside Bridge, a deceptively idyllic crossing of Antietam Creek. (If you don’t know why it looks familiar, glance at the cover of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom). Site after site is linked to death and suffering, carnage beyond belief.

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Northern Slavery, Public History, and Memory

A few of my readers have requested that I comment on ongoing and recent exhibits in my new neck of the woods that concentrate on the history of slavery and the slave trade.  I assume they are planning family vacations north of the Mason-Dixon Line so I am more than happy to comply.  Their requests, however, seem to be couched in the assumption that historical institutions in New England and elsewhere are actively ignoring this dark and complex subject in American history.  Nothing could be further from the truth so I hope this short post will alleviate their concerns and perhaps even serve as a catalyst for an exciting and educational trip north.

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The Limits of Reunion and Reconciliation in Massachusetts

One of the things that I hope my forthcoming book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory does is find a place in a growing literature that challenges the reunion and reconciliation school of Civil War Memory.  It’s beautifully expressed by David Blight in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memoryand suggests that white northerners and southerners eventually brushed aside a memory of emancipation for one that embraced a shared history as well as a set of values that allowed for a swift and relatively painless sectional reconciliation.  There is a certain amount of truth to this story.  The story of the Crater, however, simply does not follow this broad narrative outline.  The veterans of the Virginia brigade engaged in bitter feuds relating to the battle and the role of William Mahone during the few short years of Readjuster control.  Mahone learned that there were limits to which he could utilize his military career to advance a political agenda that advanced the cause of the state’s black population.  And while numerous meetings between former enemies took place on the battlefield, white southerners never adopted a language of reconciliation when commemorating the battle.  This was a decisive Confederate victory that highlighted the fighting prowess and character of their own.  The presence of a black division was simply too much for many of the veterans to forget even at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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