This past weekend I took part in a conference on the Civil War and public history at North Carolina State University. I heard a number of interesting presentations and I will likely comment on them over the next few weeks, but for now I want to say a few quick words about one specific point made during the course of the day. A number of the presentations, including my own, addressed issues relating to the continued interpretive divide that still exists between historians and segments of the general public. You can guess which organizations were mentioned at one point or another as examples of this resistance. In response to John Hennessy’s keynote address Peter Carmichael encouraged the audience to “declare victory” in reference to the interpretive wars. He is right. Public historians working in a wide range of historical institutions are now interpreting the war from a much broader perspective that includes the stories of individuals and groups, who have for far too long been left out of our collective memory. The difficult issues such of slavery and race are now being explored from every possible angle. Finally, the recent focus on historical memory has made us all more sensitive to the consequences of being left out of the nation’s collective memory.
I’ve been suggesting something along the lines of a declaration of victory for some time now. The calls of “revisionism” and emotional defenses of “Southern heritage” are little more than a reflection of an intellectual bankruptcy that was always present in many of the more traditional interpretations that tended to focus more on emotional defense as opposed to an analytical understanding of the past. John Hennessy hit the mark in his keynote address when he noted that the Civil War is one of the only places in American history where the personal anecdote is expected to frame the national narrative. You know what this looks like: My great grandfather never owned slaves….
This morning I received the following email address from the Library of Congress. I have a great deal of control over the content of this site because it is self-hosted, but what happens after I am no longer around? Well, it looks like interested readers will have permanent access to the content of this site for a very long time and that makes me very happy. I love the idea of this site being saved as a point of entry on how the Civil War was remembered at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The United States Library of Congress has selected your website for inclusion in the historic collection of Internet materials related to the American Civil War Sesquicentennial. The Library of Congress preserves the Nation’s cultural artifacts and provides enduring access to them. The Library’s traditional functions, acquiring, cataloging, preserving and serving collection materials of historical importance to the Congress and the American people to foster education and scholarship, extend to digital materials, including websites.
We request your permission to collect your website and add it to the Library’s research collections. In order to properly archive this URL, and potentially other URLs of interest on your site, we would appreciate your permission to archive both this URL and other portions of your site. With your permission, the Library of Congress or its agent will engage in the collection of content from your website at regular intervals over time and make this collection available to researchers both at Library facilities and, by special arrangement, to scholarly research institutions. In addition, the Library hopes that you share its vision of preserving Internet materials and permitting researchers from across the world to access them.
Our Web Archives are important because they contribute to the historical record, capturing information that could otherwise be lost. With the growing role of the Web as an influential medium, records of historic events could be considered incomplete without materials that were “born digital” and never printed on paper. For more information about these Web Archive collections, please visit our website.
[I will provide more information as it becomes available.]
I’ve learned a umber of things in the course of my research on the Crater and public history/historical memory. For any number of reasons we’ve underestimated the level of interest in the Civil War within the African American community. In Petersburg public interest could be found in the postwar years in local churches, in black militia units, and in local schools. A heightened awareness of the role of African Americans in the Civil War can be found in the 1950s and 60s in such popular magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Over the course of the past year we’ve seen ample evidence of African Americans embracing the Civil War. The level of interest is directly related to the wide range of events that can be found in museums, historical societies, educational institutions, and other private organizations. Despite what the mainstream media would have us believe, we are witnessing a profound transformation in our collective memory of the war compared with just a few short decades ago.
The National Park Service has led the way in broadening the general public’s understanding of the war and the meaning of our most important historic sites. Consider John Hennessy’s recent tour of Fredericksburg, titled, “Forgotten: Slavery and Slave Places in Fredericksburg”, which attracted roughly 70 members from the area’s historic black churches. John’s optimism is tempered somewhat by the comments he heard from a few people:
“Are you going to get in trouble for doing this? You know…your bosses. I didn’t think you guys were allowed to do things like this.” During the day, I received a number of comments along the same line, suggesting surprise that we, the NPS, would do a tour dealing with slavery.
I have little doubt that the public perception of the NPS among African Americans will continue to improve with continued programming that reaches beyond traditional narrative boundaries. The NPS in Petersburg has also taken steps to reach out to the local black community with, among other things, a series of walking tours of downtown Petersburg. Again, all of these things bode well for the future.
Those of you interested in issues at the intersection of Civil War history, public history, and memory may be interested in an upcoming symposium hosted by North Carolina State University’s history department on March 26. It’s a one day event, but the panels look to be quite interesting. The website for the event can be found here and includes a list of panels and participants. My panel focuses on the challenges of interpreting race at various historic sites and includes Ashley Whitehead (Doctoral Student at West Virginia University, Brian Jordan (Doctoral Student at Yale) and John Hennessy, who will offer his usual words of wisdom following the three presentations. Here is the title and abstract for my presentation:
“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.
An American Turning Pointis not a top-down study of battles and generals. Instead, the exhibition engages visitors in the experiences of a representative group of individuals and situations to promote an understanding of the wartime experiences of Virginians, and those who served in Virginia, during the war. The stories of the men, women, and children who struggled to survive Virginia’s Civil War can be are found in the fabric of every uniform, the blade of every sword, the handle of every tool, the imagery of every drawing, the words of every letter, and the notes of every song.
The exhibit also reflects much broader changes since the Civil War Centennial surrounding how Americans have come to remember their Civil War. I see this exhibit as a crucial link between the work that historians have done over the past few decades and a general public that has shown strong signs of interest in this crucial moment in American history. Why Did the Civil War Happen? is the subject of the introductory video for the VHS exhibit. Enjoy.