Category Archives: Public History

Remember To Put It In Perspective

The upcoming Secession Ball scheduled for Saturday in Charleston is certainly getting a great deal of attention from the mainstream media.  I’ve spent my fair share of time perusing through coverage from local newspapers in Charleston to national coverage as well as the blogosphere and other social media sites.  What stands out to me, however, is the amount of critical coverage of the event.  The criticisms are coming from all sides, but what is most impressive are the critiques from both black and white folks who identify deeply with the history and culture of the South.  There never was a monolithic view of the history of the South; the difference is now it has an opportunity to emerge and compete for attention.  These are people who have as much claim to the past as anyone and they are voicing outrage with the idea of celebrating an event that was carried out in defense of a social, political, and economic system built on slavery and which led to the deaths of over 600,000 Americans.  I have no access to any kind of statistical data that would give us a sense of the percentage of Americans who do not see this as worthy of celebration and I don’t think it really is important.  What is apparent is a fundamental shift in the way that Americans – regardless of race and region – are now coming to view the Civil War since the Centennial celebrations of the early 1960s.  You would be hard pressed to find anything reflective of this current shift in perception during the Centennial.  Again, that’s not to suggest that it wasn’t present, just that it did not surface in any sort of way that posed a challenge to the status quo, which was clearly a deeply rooted collective memory built around the Lost Cause.

While I have no doubt that the good people who attend the Secession Ball will enjoy themselves thoroughly, it should be clear to everyone that this broader view of the war will continue to be on the defensive for the foreseeable future.  Consider these recent setbacks:

  • A Fourth Grade Virginia textbook that includes a reference to black Confederates has been identified as out of place based on the author’s research strategy and current scholarship on the subject.
  • A series of videos slated to appear on the History Channel that outline a Lost Cause view of secession and war has been canceled.  You know you are in trouble when you are banned from a channel that runs continuous loops of UFOs, reruns of Pawn Stars, and Hitlers last days in the bunker.
  • Courts have almost unanimously upheld the decisions of a number of school districts to ban images of the Confederate flag from school property.
  • Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell apologized for a Confederate History Month Proclamation that ignored slavery and went on to correct it by issuing a new proclamation declaring next April Civil War History in Virginia Month.
  • The Museum of the Confederacy removed a black Confederate doll from its website and the National Park Service removed literature referencing the same after being notified of the problem.

As much time as we spend on the staying power of the Lost Cause it is important to put it in perspective.  What I see around me is a vibrant Civil War Sesquicentennial community that includes plenty of institutions that are organizing conferences, exhibits, and other educational opportunities for their respective communities.  Best yet, they are taking full advantage of the latest Civil War scholarship.  It really is a breath of fresh air.

Try not to get too caught up in all this silliness.

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.

The Edward Sebesta Circus Continues

Thanks to my readers, who are forwarding me links relevant to Edward Sebesta’s recent announcement that he does not want and will refuse the Museum of the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis Prize for best book on Confederate history if it is awarded.  Turns out that Sebesta is blanketing listservs seeking advice on how best to proceed.  Here is an example from H-Public:

Unfortunately the Museum of the Confederacy (MOC) wants to consider giving my newest book an award. This is a book designed to expose the real nature of the Confederacy and the neo-Confederate movement as being about slavery and white supremacy.  No doubt they think that by giving this award they can co-opt James Loewen and myself and position themselves as different from the rest of the neo-Confederates.

As you know, institutions give awards because by honoring others they honor themselves. I don’t want to honor the Museum of the Confederacy, I don’t want my name or my book be used to legitimize them.

John Coski has approached my co-editor and asked for copies of the book, and despite my strenuous objections copies are going to be sent.  I also wrote five certified letters, four to the judges telling them that I don’t want the award and one with copies of the other four letters sent to the Director of the MOC. One would think this would result in my book being thrown out. However, I got an email from Coski saying basically I had no say in the matter.

I am asking for advice on how to prevent this award from happening. The two strategies I have adopted so far are:

1.    Make my opposition public so that they are more likely to reject my book.

2.    Use this consideration of my book as an opportunity to make my criticisms of the Museum of the Confederacy more widely known.

And there is information on the MOC. A speech by Ludwell Johnson III, given at the Museum of the Confederacy, on his being made a Fellow of the Museum and reprinted in the 3rd quarter 1994 issue of “Southern Partisan” is an appalling denigration of African Americans and African American scholarship. Their book “Before Freedom Came” is explained as a rebuke to Carol Moseley-Braun in his speech.

I think that they still give a Jefferson Davis award is appalling. The man was vile. I read a section on the congressional record where they wanted to help out Africans who were on board a captured slave ship and Jefferson Davis is simply appalling in his opposition to helping out these poor persons sweltering in a slave ship off the coast of Florida.

I am going to write up some essays about the MOC and their activities. I have a file which I am going to review. Perhaps some of the members of this listserve would like to write essays on the MOC.  Again, I am open to some advice to make sure this award doesn’t come to my book. I feel it would be a stain on my reputation. Letter follows my name.

I still have no idea why Sebesta has taken this stance.  As I stated in my last post he seems to be ignorant of the good work that the museum has done to further a scholarly understanding of the Civil War – the very thing that Sebesta and Loewen claim to support.  If the MOC was nothing more than an extension of some “Neo-Confederate” organization than why would they consider his book?  Even more bizarre is the reference to their publication, Before Freedom Came, which I am quite familiar with and have used in the classroom on numerous occasions.  It’s obvious to me that Sebesta does not own a copy nor is there any indication of its contents.  This is an edited collection that includes essays by Drew G. Faust, John Michael Vlach Charles Joyner, Deborah Gray White, David R. Goldfield, and Theresa A. Singleton.  Anyone familiar with the historiography of slavery and the history of the South would be hard pressed to describe these individuals as promoting anything other than a scholarly view of the subject.

As far as I am concerned Sebesta is doing little more than engaging in the slandering of an institution that deserves our full support.  I understand that James Loewen will accept the award, if given, but in the name of education and the promotion of scholarly history Loewen ought to reign in his erratic co-editor.  This must be incredibly embarrassing for him.

Which Museum of the Confederacy Are You Protesting?

As many of you know I am a big fan of the Museum of the Confederacy.  In recent years the leadership of the museum as well as their staff have done an admirable job of steering the institution from one of advocacy for a traditional view of the Confederate past to one that promotes and awards the latest scholarship about the history of the Confederacy.  So, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that, if chosen, Edward Sebesta would refuse to accept the MOC’s Jefferson Davis Award for Civil War scholarship.  You can read Sebesta’s post for yourself, but here is the letter:

I am writing you to tell you that I do not want any book of mine to be considered for any award by the Museum of the Confederacy. More specifically I don’t want “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader,” co-edited by Edward H. Sebesta and James Loewen, University Press of Mississippi considered for an award by the Museum of the Confederacy either for 2010, or in the future.

Not to be presumptuous that the “Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader,” would win any award from the Museum of the Confederacy, but if the book did win some type of award, I would reject the award publically and use the occasion to criticize the Museum of the Confederacy.  Finally, I should let you know that in debate with James McPherson, noted Civil War historian, I have spoken out against the Museum of the Confederacy on Pacifica Radio Network.

The link that Sebesta provides laying out his theory of “banal white nationalism” fails to yield much of anything that addresses the Museum of the Confederacy specifically.

I have to say that I am at a loss as to why Sebesta has taken such a strong stance against the MOC.  Over the past ten years I’ve visited the museum on multiple occasions.  I’ve conducted research in the library and have even brought my classes to explore its impressive collection of artifacts.  One of my former students is currently working as an intern in the research library.  I am good friends with a number of its staff and I have nothing but the highest respect for the difficult work that they do.  A few weeks ago I shared a stage with CEO, Waite Rawls, whose Confederate lineage is deep, but who understands that his role is to further historical understanding and not mythology.  I would recommend any of their professional programs, including their annual Teachers Institute.  It is impossible for me to imagine a more impressive line-up of scholars who have shared their knowledge in various public symposia.  Finally, it is impossible for me to imagine a serious scholar, who would not be honored to join the prestigious list of previous Jefferson Davis book award winners.

It would be interesting to know what James Loewen, who is the co-editor of the The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader: The “Great Truth” about the “Lost Cause, thinks of this stance.  To be honest, it looks like this book has much more of Loewen’s imprint on it than Sebesta’s.

Thanks to Ed Sebesta for reminding me that I need to renew my membership with the Museum of the Confederacy.

What Does Your Civil War Soldier Have To Say?

Charlottesville's Confederate Soldier Statue

Well, it’s early Sunday morning and I am sitting in my office preparing my classes for the start of a new trimester.  Once again, I am teaching an elective called, Civil War Memory, which I’ve offered over the past three years.  The course has taken different forms from a standard readings course to a course on film.  This year I am trying to structure the course so as to give my students a sense that they are contributing to the ongoing discussion about how the Civil War ought to be commemorated throughout the sesquicentennial.  I’ve played around with the idea of having my class form their own commission and build a website that would outline what they hope to accomplish over the next few years.  One of the activities planned will ask students to write their own proclamation for the state of Virginia after a careful examination of documents related to Governor McDonnell’s experience.

I tend to use the first day of a new class to jump right in rather than go through the tedious steps of outlining the course as well as my expectations.  Most of my students are already aware of my expectations and they can read the outline on the course website.  Let’s get to the important stuff.  I think I found a promising little lesson to get things going.  This morning I read a brief editorial in our local newspaper that attempts to give voice to our courthouse Confederate statue:

My name is Johnny Reb, the young soldier you see downtown every day at the courthouse. I killed and died for the Confederate States of America. I now see the great pain and suffering I brought to my family and my country in this misguided war. I am sorry too for attempting to perpetuate the slavery of Africans, brought here in cruel servitude, an enduring stain on America’s heritage of liberty. “If I could rise from my grave, I would walk to President Lincoln’s memorial in Washington and ask his forgiveness. And I would ask to shake the hand of President Obama and thank him for his service in healing the great country America has become despite my mistake.

I’m not so concerned about the substance of the editorial as much as I am with the imaginative act of speaking for the statue – an act that reminds us that our understanding of the meaning of these sites is always changing.    Perhaps I will come up with a couple of questions to assist them or maybe it’s better just to let them go to see what they come up with.  Most of my students will have taken my survey course on the war.  This is also a way to connect students to the local memory of the Civil War and this exercise can be done on any number of grade levels.  I will let you know what, if anything, comes of it.