Confederates Need Not Apply

One of my readers pointed me to an interesting public commemoration of the Civil War that is set to take place in Baltimore, Maryland on the weekend of April 16.  If you click on “Civil War Procession Application” [pdf] you will notice something quite interesting.  It plainly states that event organizers will only accept the following to take part in the parade: Union Re-enactors, Military Bands, High School/College Marching Bands, Fife & Drum, Equestrian and Honor/Color Guards.

Because I have been unable to locate a website it is impossible for me to draw any conclusions that might help to explain the decision to omit a Confederate representation.  Of course, some folks, including the individual who pointed me to this story, will revert to the standard explanation of revisionism, political correctness, etc, etc, etc.  Unfortunately, that won’t do it.  One possibility is that the organizers of this commemoration intend to hold an event that emphasizes good ole fashioned patriotism by remembering the men who helped to preserve the Union.  Of course, as we all know, Maryland sent men to both armies.  However, our decisions about how to publicly commemorate the past always involve a certain amount of remembering and forgetting.  We don’t expect places such as New York City to include an acknowledgment of the large numbers of Loyalists that lived in the city during the Revolution in their Independence Day celebrations.

That is quite a statement on the part of the event organizers if something along these  is true and it would be another indication that our collective memory of the war has turned a corner.

April is “Civil War in Virginia Month”

Well, at least that is what Governor McDonnell announced at a recent conference sponsored by the Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission.  With April right around the corner, however, we have yet to see a proclamation outlining the scope of the commemoration.  Perhaps the governor’s advisers are studying a recent Harris Poll on how Americans identify with this history.  Whatever is announced, I trust it will be as thoughtful as this speech.

Interpreting Homer’s “Near Andersonville”

Actress Tia James portrays the enslaved African American woman represented in a painting in the Newark Museum’s collection. “Near Andersonville” was created by famed American artist Winslow Homer in 1866. The painting depicts the young woman on the ‘threshold’ of the future as she considers her freedom and views her liberators (Union soldiers) being led off to the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Homer presented an anonymous figure, but Ms. James researched published narratives of enslaved people to create her own character named Charity. Charity tells her story and comments on the dangers of the Underground Railroad, facing fear, and the hope to reunite with her husband, Walter. The gourds presented in the picture are symbols of the North Star (the guide for runaways) and the video includes a rendition of the folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. The video is a component of the Newark Museum’s curriculum, “Civil War@150,” a teaching resource recognizing the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

If you are looking for more on the painting you will want to take a look at Peter H. Wood’s concise study, Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War (Harvard University Press).

How Should the Civil War Be Commemorated?

Or perhaps I should have asked what sorts of activities ought to be avoided over the course of the next few years.  I just came across the results of a Harris Poll of 2,566 adults surveyed online between January 17 and 24, 2011 concerning the commemoration of the American Civil War.  Judge for yourself:

“Some states, particularly those in the South, have announced plans to remember and commemorate national as well as specific local events surrounding the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. When asked, however, a majority of Americans say that a parade with a mock-swearing in of Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy (68%), and parades and events to celebrate secession and the Confederacy are not appropriate (58%) ways to remember the Civil War. In addition, majorities say that flying the Confederate flag (61%) or designating a Confederate History Month (53%) are also not appropriate. Americans who live in states which were neither formed nor recognized during the Civil War are most critical of these ideas (between 59% and 74% say each is not appropriate), yet adults who live in states which were part of the Confederacy are opposed to them as well (between 51% and 69% say each is not appropriate). However, White adults living in the former Confederacy have a different mind regarding flying the Confederate flag and designating a Confederate History Month–at least half say each is appropriate (51% and 57%, respectively). Most Americans, including those in the South and the former Confederacy (91% for all) say that reading President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is, on the other hand, appropriate.”

Click through to the Online article and scroll down for the full report.  It is quite interesting.  Perhaps I will something to say about it once I’ve had a chance to think about it some more.

The Real Price of Forgetting the Past (Continued)

Dixie Outfitters t-shirt

In response to my last post in which I suggested that public historians have reason to feel good about the seismic interpretive shifts that can be seen in our museum’s and other historical institutions John Hennessy offers the following:

As it relates to the supply-side of the equation, I think there is little doubt that there is something to your and Pete’s declaration of victory. But on the consumer side–not entirely. Anyone would be hard-pressed to declare to the front-line staff on an NPS battlefield site that the issue of disputed memory/history/heritage/tradition is settled in the public’s mind. There HAS been great progress, and we see evidence of that on a regular basis, but we also see evidence of discord literally every day. And then, too, there is the issue the entrenched disconnect between the public history of the Civil War and the African-American community. As has often been said, history doesn’t turn the page, only historians do. [my emphasis]

I think John is absolutely right and this is an issue that came up a few times during the conference in Raleigh, but it didn’t receive nearly enough attention.  My paper attempted to sketch some of the challenges that the National Park Service in Petersburg face in attracting African Americans and the local community to the battlefield.  I am in now way suggesting that NPS historians need to spend their time generating plans on how to go about attracting any one group of Americans.  I’m not even sure how one would go about this.  At the same time and given their location within a predominantly black community I do believe that the NPS does have a responsibility to be sensitive to the extent to which decisions made within its own institution and beyond served to alienate African Americans from a landscape that figured prominently in a narrative that traced the transition from slavery to freedom.

It is clear to me that public historians need to spend much more time coming to terms with the myriad ways in which Americans approach their past.  With all of the attention being paid to how little Americans supposedly know about the past, it would be much more helpful to try to better understand why so many of us feel drawn to the past.  [One useful source is Roy Rozensweig’s and Thelen’s, The Presence of the Past.]  A new YouTube video interview of H.K. Edgerton by the Sons of Confederate Veterans points to just how important this is if we hope to offer an interpretation of the past that responds to the needs of various consumers of history.  I’ve written extensively about H.K. and while I find him to be quite entertaining it would be a big mistake to dismiss him without considering his core message.  I find it very difficult to follow much of his thinking about slavery, Reconstruction, the Klan, and Nathan Bedford Forrest in this video.  Frankly, I don’t get the sense that H.K. has read much history at all.

Continue reading “The Real Price of Forgetting the Past (Continued)”