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 →