Category Archives: Public History

Where Is Alabama’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee?

Becoming Alabama Logo

It’s there, you just have to know where to look for it.  The question of how to commemorate the events marking the secession of the Deep Southern states 150 years later has been interesting to follow.  Not too long ago South Carolina debated the merits of locating a monument to that state’s resolution to secede on public ground.  I have to assume that the question of how to mark the secession of the rest of the Deep South, especially Alabama, is seen by many across the racial line as nothing less than a powder keg.  It looks like Alabama has tried to minimize the potential negative fallout by placing the Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration alongside two other anniversaries and under the name, “Becoming Alabama“.    Their own explanation for this decision is as follows:

The concept for Becoming Alabama began with a pragmatic assessment of the financial and logistical challenges posed by this rapid succession of anniversaries over the next several years. Given the budgetary restraints faced by nearly every historical and cultural organization in today’s economic climate, it made sense to seek efficiency in planning public programs, designing publicity, and developing educational resources.

No doubt, the economy has played havoc with the budgets of all of the state commissions but it is hard not to see other factors at work here.  I do not envy members of this committee, who will have to figure out how to commemorate the formation of the Confederate government and Jefferson Davis’s arrival in Montgomery.  Already, organizations are gearing up for all out celebrations that I am sure state sponsored events will hope to steer clear.  My only concern is that the emphasis on civil rights may hamper the ability of those who hope to offer a more complete picture of the Civil War in Alabama that appeals to both blacks and whites.  It is an interesting approach to some very tough questions.

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.]

Trace Adkins Defines Tennessee’s Civil War Sesquicentennial

Tennessee’s Sesquicentennial Commission held its inaugural Signature Event on November 12 around the theme, “The Coming of the Civil War” in Chattanooga.  According to Governor Phil Bredesen. “This inaugural event, which begins the five-year recognition from 2011-2015, will create conversation, stir interest, and help people develop a greater appreciation for history and acknowledge the role this war played in the lives of all Americans.”  Historian, Sam David Elliott, gave the keynote address on the coming of the war and I suspect that he covered much of the ground found in the latest academic scholarship.

Interestingly, the commission also invited Country Music singer, Trace Adkins, to offer a few words.

I don’t know if I have a problem with inviting a singer to offer a few brief remarks about the coming of the war, but I do wonder how the organizers hope to reconcile Adkins’s personal view with what Elliott discussed and with the scholarly consensus on this topic.  Perhaps these opposing views don’t need to be accepted, but I suspect that the applause at the end of Adkins’s remarks suggests that most of the people left with his thoughts in mind as opposed to Elliott’s.

Actually, now that I think about it I do hope that the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission doesn’t choose to invite Williamsburg’s Bruce Hornsby or Charlottesville’s Dave Matthews to the next Signature Conference to discuss Confederate war strategy.

The Sesquicentennial is Alive and Well in Fredericksburg

Congratulations to John Hennessy of the NPS and Sara Poore of the Fredericksburg Area Museum for organizing a wonderful event yesterday that included a rare opportunity to tour the grounds of Brompton as well as listen to historians George Rable and William Freehling.  More than 600 people attended the event at the historic Fredericksburg Baptist Church, which is quite an accomplishment given the beautiful weather as well as the subject.  Read John’s thoughts about the day’s proceedings at Fredericksburg Remembered.  John and Sara are two of the hardest working public historians in the business and I hope that the people of Fredericksburg appreciate their commitment to organizing programs for the local community that are both entertaining and educational.

One of the more interesting moments took place during the Q&A following John’s talk on the secession debate that took place in Fredericksburg.  A member of the audience suggested that the lack of slave rebellions during the antebellum period suggested to him that slaves may have, in fact been content.  No surprise that John handled the question directly and with the sensitivity that it deserved.  What surprised me, however, was that after John finished with his response a large percentage of the audience clapped.  The response suggests that these questions are no longer appropriate to ask.  Yes, we can have serious discussions about the complexity of the master-slave relationship, but thankfully we seem to have moved beyond being able to suggest that people were content being slaves.

Thanks to everyone involved for organizing this event.

Dwight Pitcaithley on the Cause of the Civil War and Public History

Before I get to the subject of this post I wanted to mention that I’ve just finished previewing a forthcoming episode of American Experience on Robert E. Lee.  The show will premiere on PBS on Monday, January 3 at 9:00 p.m. ET.  Back in 2007 I received a call from one of the producers to chat about their plans for the episode.  We talked for quite a bit and I had a chance to offer some suggestions on various interpretive threads as well as suggestions on who to contact for additional commentary as “talking heads.”  The producers were able to bring together an excellent line-up of scholars that includes Peter Carmichael, Gary Gallagher, Emory Thomas, Michael Fellman, Emory Thomas, Lesley Gordon, Ervin Jordan, Elizabeth Brown Pryor and Joseph Glatthaar.  The folks at American Experience did a fine job.

The Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission now has all of the panels from the recent conference in Norfolk available on their YouTube page.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed going through them.  While I enjoyed Dwight Pitcaithley’s presentation he never really got around to discussing the challenges of interpreting Civil War causation within the NPS.  He did, however, say something relevant to my recent post on my tendency to steer clear of referring to people as Neo-Confederates.  In response to a student’s inquiry into whether he teaches the “true history” of the war, Pitcaithley points out to his audience that it is important to remember that people who subscribe to various strands of Lost Cause thought “come by it honestly.”  It’s important to remember because it seems to me that by calling folks “Neo-Confederates” we assume an accusatory stance that implies a conscious denial of a more complete understanding of what the war was about.