Category Archives: Public History

In Good Company

Blight, Hennessy, LevinI love this photograph, which was taken this past weekend in Gettysburg during our panel discussion on the teaching of Civil War memory in the classroom.  It was a real privilege for me to be seated in between the two historians (David Blight and John Hennessy), who have had the biggest impact on my understanding of historical memory and public history.  Their passion for history is highly infectious.  Both have encouraged me at different times and have helped to open new doors. I am certainly grateful and proud to call both friends. Continue reading

From Civil War to ?

58172-art-american-imperialismThis will probably be the last post I write before I put together my final thoughts as an introduction to the panel on interpreting USCTs at Civil War sites that I will be moderating on Saturday at Gettysburg College. I am still thinking about Carole Emberton’s essay, which I briefly touched on a few days ago.  She’s got me thinking about the place of black Union soldiers within a narrative arc that stretches from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement and the unquestioned assumption that closely links their service and sacrifice with a postwar reward of civil rights.  Emberton argues that this narrative stood in sharp contrast with a widespread belief that service in the military functioned to tame those characteristics that many white Americans (North and South) believed prevented African Americans from enjoying the benefits of full citizenship.  Continue reading

I’m Not the Only One Thinking About the Future of USCTs

Thanks to my fellow Civil War bloggers for giving me quite a bit to chew on these last few days as I put together some brief opening remarks for the Gettysburg College panel on how USCTs are currently being interpreted and where we go from here.  My own posts can be found here, here, here, and here.

Head on over to Robert Moore’s site for a thoughtful post on USCTs in the Shenandoah Valley.  Moore reminds us that the motivation behind black enlistment was complex and not always captured by the popular explanation that they were simply fighting for freedom.

One can say the local Confederates were fighting for slavery… but that would only be telling part of the truth. One can also say the USCTs were fighting for the chance to be free, but that too would be telling only part of their story. We have complicating factors that make us put on brakes… and pretty darn quick. Were some Confederates fighting to keep slaves, while others were fighting because… and, let’s be perfectly honest with ourselves and history… the boys in blue were “down here”? Absolutely. Of course, there were other Confederates who were in the ranks as well… and some of them didn’t even want to be there in the first place. That being the case, should we not expect the story of the USCTs to be equally complicated?

Jimmy Price adds to one of my recent posts on the difficulties of coming to terms with battlefield atrocities committed by USCTs.  This is something that I am particularly interested in right now.

One cannot approach the topic of US Colored Troops without encountering numerous occasions in which black soldiers were ruthlessly cut down on the battlefield while in the act of surrender. Olustee, Fort Pillow, the Crater, Saltville – the list of places where Confederate troops perpetrated these war crimes goes on and on.

But there is a flip side to this coin, and the way it is presented in the grand narrative can be problematic. Just as one can find numerous examples in Civil War texts that lay out the atrocities committed by rebel soldiers, one can also find the examples of when US Colored Troops went into action shouting “Remember Fort Pillow!” and encouraging their fellow soldiers to “raise the black flag” and give no quarter to any Confederate soldier who sought any.

Emmanuel Dabney, who will join me this weekend for this panel discussion, provides some fruitful sources for those looking for the elusive black voices in the military.  Finally, Craig Swain points to the possibilities of interpreting and commemorating the service of USCTs on the local level.

Thanks to Robert, Craig, Jimmy and Emmanuel for sharing their thoughts on this subject.  They have given me quite a bit to think about, which I hope has a chance to surface during the panel discussion on Saturday.

Carole Emberton Reconsiders the Black Military Experience

ffusctreI’ve been thinking quite a bit about the current state of interpretation re: the history of black Union soldiers during the Civil War and beyond in preparation for the Future of Civil War History Conference, which will take place later this week in Gettysburg.  As I’ve said before, I think there is much to celebrate as we look back over the past 50 years.  The number of scholarly and popular books being published continues at a brisk pace and popular representations of black soldiers can be seen in recent Hollywood movies such as Cold Mountain and Lincoln  and even a historical novel about USCTs at the Crater by Newt Gingrich. Most importantly, many history textbooks now devote significant space to black Union soldiers and their contributions.  Throughout much of the Civil War sesquicentennial USCTs have been front and center in museum exhibits, symposia, in the pages of local newspapers as human interest stories as well as in the form of new monuments and markers. Continue reading

The Future of USCTs at Civil War Sites

USCT
What follows are a few thoughts in response to the position papers of my fellow panelists, who will join me next week at Gettysburg College to talk about how we interpret the USCT experience on our Civil War battlefields.  It’s a bit rough, but it should give you an idea of some of the things I’ve been thinking about of late.

In one way or another the papers acknowledge that we are well positioned to engage the general public about the experiences of black soldiers at various battle sites.  The challenges are many, including those mentioned here such as how we respond to misinformation, the continued influence of the movie Glory, and the continued hold of the Lost Cause interpretation of the war.  Edward Zwick’s Academy-Award winning movie about Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Mass. Vol. Infantry is coming up on its 25th anniversary, but I am unconvinced of its continued influence, especially among younger Americans.  Hari Jones makes a compelling case re: the movie’s inaccuracies and the extent to which it distorts our understanding of the relevant history, but I tend to see these oversights as opportunities in our classrooms and in other educational settings.  All Hollywood movies about history are fraught with interpretive problems.   We need look no further than the movie Lincoln.  In the case of black soldiers, however, these issues are exacerbated by decades of neglect at NPS sites as well as the intentional distortion of the historical record for racial and partisan purposes. Continue reading