Category Archives: Public History

SCV Not Happy With North Carolina Sesquicentennial Website

If the SCV really wants to be taken seriously during the upcoming Civil War Sesquicentennial than they are going to have to do better than what Walter L. Adams Jr. offers as a critique of North Carolina’s sesquicentennial website.  Adams is the heritage defense officer for Pettigrew’s Partisans, Camp 2110 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.  That’s right, he is the heritage defense officer.   First, check out the website, which I think is an incredible resource and reflects a strong commitment on the part of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources to commemorate the war in an inclusive and educational manner.  What’s he upset about?

  • The views of conservative columnist such as Walter Williams, economist Thomas J. DiLorenzo, and Professor Ludwell H. Johnson have been left out.
  • “The National Park Service deliberately ignores other factors such as high tariffs, adherence to constitutional principles, or fears of political and economic domination by the North that make for a considerably more complex situation.”
  • “No mention is made of the fact that before the war, Abraham Lincoln supported the original 13th Amendment that would have barred the federal government from ever interfering with that institution.”  — Not sure what this has to do with North Carolina.
  • “No mention was made of so-called Black Codes that Northern and Midwestern states adopted to discriminate against blacks before such codes were adopted in the South.”  — Not sure what this has to do with North Carolina.
  • “The role of black North Carolinians and other black Southerners who wore the gray was completely ignored.” And, of course they are upset that no mention is made of the “estimated 19,000 African-Americans…who bore arms in the Confederate armed forces.”

How can I become a heritage defense minister?

Remembering Glory

One of the highlights of my time in Boston was meeting 54th Massachusetts reenactor, Gerard Grimes. The monument to the 54th by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is by far my favorite Civil War monument and no trip to Boston can conclude without a quick stop.  The site is a wonderful case study of just how far removed the memory of black Union soldiers is from our national memory of the war.  On the one hand, the monument is in the most prominent location, just across from the state house, but for many people it seems to have little significance beyond a bus stop. Michaela and I chatted with Mr. Grimes for quite some time. He’s been reenacting for a number of years and spends his summers camped out in front of the monument to talk with visitors. During the rest of the year, Mr. Grimes works as a grade school teacher. Not surprisingly, Mr. Grimes knew nothing about this monument as a child growing up in the Boston area. In fact, he chuckled when suggesting the number of times he must have walked by it without understanding its significance.

Mr. Grimes clearly feels a moral obligation to educate the public about what is still a little known topic in American history.  And the best part is watching his face light up when discussing the history or perhaps I should say his history.

The Future of Petersburg National Battlefield

As I make my way through my manuscript on historical memory one last time before sending it in, I am reminded of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the way we remember and commemorate the battle of the Crater.  Much of that change has taken place over the past forty years as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.  Before 1970 you would be hard pressed to find references to the story of USCTs in both written accounts and in the way the battlefield itself was interpreted.  My manuscript ends with a few reflections about the Civil War Sesquicentennial, but when I peer into the future it is this image that I see.  This is a photograph of Emmanuel Dabney, who works as a park ranger at the Petersburg National Battlefield.  He is a native of Dinwiddie County and has fully embraced its rich history.  Emmanuel has a degree in Historic Preservation from the University of Mary Washington and recently completed an advanced degree at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  If Emmanuel has his way he will spend his career educating the public at PNB.

In many ways, Emmanuel is a big part of the story that I tell about the Crater.  On the one hand, the fact that he is African American situates him at a crucial moment in the overall life of the battlefield and our broader understanding of the Civil War.  At the same time Emmanuel has been a huge help to me throughout the research and writing process.  Even this past weekend he helped to track down information about one of the Crater’s wayside markers.  One of the joys of working on this project has been the opportunity to meet people, like Emmanuel, who share my passion for history and education.

[Photograph from Petersburg Progress-Index]

The Richmond Howitzers Were Integrated (well, not quite)

A few days ago I referenced another essay by an individual masquerading as a legitimate authority on Civil War history and “black Confederates.”  In the essay, Bernhard Thuersam, who is the executive director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute, makes the ridiculous assertion that the Richmond Howitzers were “an integrated artillery unit.”  Since no references were provided we are forced to guess as to the origin of the claim.  More than likely it stems from a story about the slave, Aleck Kean, who accompanied John Henry Vest into the Confederate army at the beginning of the war.  Vest was killed in 1863, but for reasons unknown Kean decided to stay with the unit through to the end of the war.

In 1913 the Richmond Howitzers erected a stone to Aleck Kean that read: “In Testimony of this Admiration and Respect for a man who did his duty in war and peace. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”  [Unfortunately, I can't locate an image of the stone.]  I did locate a short piece by Judge George L. Christian about Kean that appeared in the pages of Confederate Veteran in 1912:

…I affirm that he was the most faithful and efficient man in the performance of every duty pertaining to his sphere that I have ever known.  His whole mind and soul seemed bent on trying to get and prepare something for his mess to eat; and if there was anything to be gotten honestly, Aleck always got the share which was coming to his mess, and he always had that share prepared in the shortest time possible and the most delicious way in which it could have been prepared in camp.  The comfort of having such a man as Aleck around us in those trying times can scarcely be described and certainly cannot be exaggerated.

There is nothing unusual about the content of Christian’s personal memory or the broader collective memory of white southerners at the beginning of the twentieth century.  In short, slaves became loyal servants worthy of remembrance.  However, only an individual lacking the most basic knowledge of the Confederacy and slavery could make the assertion that the Richmond Howitzers were “integrated.”

Lights…Camera…Action & Black Confederates

This coming Friday I am scheduled to spend the day with a film crew from Eastern Carolina University, which is producing a documentary on the subject of “black Confederates.”  I am excited about my first foray into the world of film and just a little apprehensive about how my commentary will be used.  Still, I do think it is an opportunity that I can’t pass up given that my next book project will be a study of memory and black Confederates.  The filming will be done at my home and we plan on spending about 4-5 hours discussing the subject.

I am going to put together some information sheets that I can refer to during the interview.  My overall goal is first and foremost to help the audience to properly frame the discussion around the correct terms.  This is a discussion about how the Confederate war effort altered the institution of slavery and not one about soldiers.  We need to use the correct terminology.  As anyone who is familiar with the primary evidence can tell you any examples of black southerners who actually served as soldiers are incredibly rare and therefore constitute and exception to this framework.  As I’ve pointed out over the years this is not a problem confined to the general public, but even among those who work as public historians such Earl Ijames of the North Carolina Museum of History.

And if Ijames wasn’t disturbing enough for you than have a look at this essay written by Bernhard Thuersam, who is the director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington, North Carolina.  The essay is a rough survey of the role of black soldiers in the Revolution, War of 1812, and Civil War.  I am not going to sum up the entire article.  I neither have the time nor the patience.  On top of some of the same old pieces of evidence that appear in every article/website on the subject consider the following:

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