Category Archives: Public History

“War So Terrible”

One of the highlights for me during last week’s Petersburg conference was the opportunity to view Pamplin Park’s feature film, “War So Terrible: A Civil War Combat Film.”  Will Greene describes its inception as a response to visitors who reflected on their experience in the park as somehow enjoyable or entertaining.  Greene and the rest of the staff did not want visitors, especially students, finishing their tour with a glorified view of war.  Rather, they wanted to convey the horrors of battle and the changes that soldiers underwent over the course of the war and beyond.  [This is something that I've discussed on this blog on a number of occasions.  See here and here.]

There are two versions of the film, the full length running 48 minutes as well as a less graphic version that runs 23 minutes.  The film is framed around a veterans reunion that takes place somewhere in the South.  During the ceremony both Benjamin Franklin Meyers of the Union and Andrew Jackson Stewart of the Confederacy reflect on their experiences during the war from their first battle to the trench warfare of 1864.  The film delves into questions of why men fought and persevered in the ranks without reducing the war to any one explanation.  There are no transcendent figures and no references to Lincoln, Davis, Lee, Grant or anyone to detract from the focus of the film.  Viewers empathize with both individuals and suffer through some very difficult battle footage, which is emotionally draining.  The film succeeds brilliantly in conveying the emotion of battle.  Finally, the reunion scenes steer clear of the mistaken notion that Lee’s surrender at Appomattox or even later events involving Union and Confederate veterans reflected the healing of old wounds and bitterness.  I don’t want to give too much away about this movie.

At the conclusion of the movie our group remained silent for a few moments before discussing it with Greene and I don’t mind admitting that I had a tear in my eye.  I made it a point to purchase a copy before leaving and I plan on showing the full version to my Civil War class this year.  If you are a teacher I encourage you to purchase a copy through Pamplin Park’s online store.  It’s only $9.95 and I guarantee that you won’t be sorry.

Congratulations to Will Greene and the rest of the staff for this fine film.

Update on Vicksburg’s Black Confederates

Update: This is what happens when you try to write a post when you are not feeling well. I called my contact again and now can confirm that the museum is 63 years old, while the exhibit was done within the last few years. Sorry about that.

Yesterday I shared photographs of an exhibit on black Confederates at the Old Courthouse Museum in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Today I had a chance to talk with a curator at the museum about the exhibit. I appreciate his willingness to answer my questions. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to learn much about the exhibit itself given that it has been on display for 63 years. That, of course, explains the emphasis on faithful slaves. Andy Hall correctly surmises that this probably has as much to do with a limited budget as it does with a flawed interpretation of the Confederacy and slavery.

I asked about how it was possible that slaves were enlisted as soldiers given the Confederate government’s position, but all he could say was that these men were loyal to their owners and accepted by their comrades.  For further reading it was suggested that I check out Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan.  I’ve never heard of this book before, but I will definitely take a look at it at some point.  Given my initial assumption that the exhibit was much more recent, it is interesting to note that many of the most common images and accounts that can be found today Online were being used in the 1940s.  That definitely changes my perspective on the history of when these accounts first surfaced.  I want to know, for example, when the image of the Chandler Boys first came to be used as an example of loyal black Confederate soldiers, etc.

The problem with this exhibit can be reduced to its title.  Calling it “Blacks Who Wore Gray” clouds the distinction between slave and soldier.  Rather, it should be titled, “Slaves Who Wore Gray.”

Black Confederates in the Old Courthouse

Special thanks to Robert Pomerenk, who took these photos of an exhibit on black Confederates in the Old Courthouse in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  It looks like a relatively old exhibit that was done with a very limited budget.  A quick perusal of these photos suggests that very little research went into this exhibit.  You will see the standard images as well as primary source accounts with absolutely no analysis whatsoever.  The exhibit is framed around the following assumption:

Dedicated to the faithful slaves, who loyal to the sacred trust, toiled for support of the Army, with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenseless homes, women and children, during the struggles for the principles of our Confederate States of America.

I’ve suggested that this debate ought to be understood as an extension of the central Lost Cause theme that assumes that slaves were faithful and had no interest in freedom.  This is one of the best examples of that point.  Yes, a book on this subject is desperately needed.

Home From Petersburg

I want to thank Mark Snell and Denise Messinger of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War and Will Greene and the rest of the staff at Pamplin Park for putting on a wonderful conference on the Petersburg Campaign.  It was nice to see so many familiar faces and I especially enjoyed making new friends.  It was indeed a busy three days and we spent a great deal of time in the sweltering heat, but it was well worth it.  I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and listening to fellow speakers, Chris Stowe and Earl Hess.  It was truly an honor to be on the same line up with Chris and Earl.  I was quite pleased with the response to my paper, which analyzed the Confederate response to the presence of U.S.C.T.’s at the Crater.  Speaking of that subject, I just reviewed the page proofs for the essay which will appear in the October issue of Civil War Times.  Dana Shoaf and company did a fabulous job of preparing the essay for publication and I look forward to hearing what people think.

In addition to the presentations we toured extensively around Petersburg.  For me it was an opportunity to familiarize myself with a campaign that I’ve had a great deal of difficulty understanding.  I think it’s safe to say that no one knows more about the city of Petersburg and the campaign than Will Greene.  He took us to City Point, the Crater, Weldon Railroad, Hatcher’s Run, White Oak Road, Five Forks, as well as the breakout battlefield at Pamplin Park.  There is something exciting about watching someone like Will, with such extensive knowledge, develop a narrative that makes sense of very complicated troop movements and then places those movements within a broader context for a public audience.  Not only is Will’s knowledge both broad and deep, he outlasted all of us by the end of what was an incredibly hot Saturday.

I encourage all of you to visit Pamplin Park if you happen to find yourself in the area.  The exhibits are well done and the grounds include some of the best preserved earthworks that you will see in the area.  I also highly recommend their film, “War So Terrible.” I have some things that I want to say about this film, so I am going to wait until later this week.  Finally, those of you looking for a summer Civil War seminar should seriously consider joining Mark Snell and the rest of the gang.  It’s a wonderful group of people, who enjoy one another’s company and who are well read in the history of the Civil War.  It looks like next year the conference will move to West Virginia to focus on the earliest battles while in 2012 the seminar will head southeast once again to focus on the Peninsula Campaign.  Check out the center’s website and get yourself on their mailing list.  You won’t be disappointed.

OK…back to work.

[Photo of me at the Crater]

Summer Camp With the Sons of Confederate Veterans

What do you do for your child after a full year of indoctrination in the public school system where they are taught that the Confederacy was evil and the war was about slavery?  You send them to Summer Camp with the SCV for a “true” history of the war.  According to an advertisement:

There is no question that the youth of today must run a terrible gantlet, and that many are struck down along the way by one or more of the politically correct influences which flourish in our schools…. Sometimes these youth are from the best homes with strong families and religious training. With even the most conscientious parenting, though, oftentimes (sic) in high school or college, even these best and brightest finally succumb to the liberal, politically correct view of history. This summer you can help turn the tide.

In addition to learning how to fire a cannon and parade/dance in period dress, campers learn lessons in the “Theology of the South During the War.”  Unfortunately, I don’t think the kids will be reading Eugene Genovese’s The Mind of the Master Class or Michael OBrien’s Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860.  Rather, it looks like much of the time will be spent undoing the damage of being taught that slavery was somehow central to understanding what the war was about.  Perhaps the course will be taught by none other than H.K. Edgerton.

Specifically, the teens are exposed to the group’s contention that the Civil War was not about slavery, James said. Too many people have bought into that notion, he said, and wrongly exalt then-President Abraham Lincoln as wanting to end slavery.  Lincoln was “a bigger racist than I ever knew,” James said.  The truth is that the South was fighting for independence and the North was fighting to preserve the Union, James said. Slavery played into the tensions, he said, calling the practice “morally unacceptable.”  But painting the war as being primarily about slavery falsely gives the North the “moral high ground” and makes it seem as if Confederate soldiers were fighting to maintain slavery, James said. He said slavery eventually would have ended on its own, as it has in other countries.  “To attribute the war to something that wasn’t the cause isn’t right,” James said. “We try to tell it like it is.”

Rather than offer summer camp, I would suggest that the SCV organize their own schools.  This way children will be completely removed from the dangers posed by our public schools.

Let’s see, what would that curriculum look like?  For starters, Biology would be replaced with the course Stonewall Jackson taught at VMI.