One of my readers was kind enough to pass on the following video, which was originally used as part of a training course for National Park Service interpreters. The video includes interviews with various interpreters on the necessity and challenges associated with introducing the cause of the war on Civil War battlefields. There are a number of perspectives presented, but all convey the importance of doing so.
This morning The Takeaway radio show, which is a national news radio program produced by WNYC, New York Times radio and the BBC, aired a segment on the subject of black Confederates. It was incredibly disappointing and a number of people, including Ta-Nehisi Coates, brought attention to it. The producers decided to do a follow-up show and a number of people suggested that they get in touch with me. Well, I just finished talking with one of the producers and we are set to do a live interview tomorrow morning at 7:20am. We began our discussion on the issue of numbers, but I quickly moved the conversation to the more substantial issues of how African Americans were viewed by the Confederate military and government as well as slaveholders. Hopefully, we can provide some context for this misunderstood topic and move beyond some of the more statements of Nelson Winbush and Stan Armstrong. I will provide a link to the interview if you don’t have a chance to listen live.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the black Confederate debate is the tendency on the part of a select few to warp the definition of a soldier to a point where it becomes meaningless. These individuals may have made room for their preferred picture of the Confederate army, but it fails to reflect anything resembling what white Southerners, both in the army and on the home front, would have acknowledged in the 1860s. Given the difficulty involved in acknowledging a distinction between a soldier and noncombatant (personal servant/impressed slave or free black) in the Confederate army, perhaps it will help to take a quick look at the Union army.
Gary Gallagher’s new book, The Union War (Harvard University Press, 2011), opens with an interesting chapter on the Grand Review, which took place in Washington, D.C. in May 1865. After dealing effectively with the claim that African American soldiers were intentionally prevented from taking part in the parade Gallagher analyzes newspaper coverage of the racial profile of Sherman’s army:
Actress Tia James portrays the enslaved African American woman represented in a painting in the Newark Museum’s collection. “Near Andersonville” was created by famed American artist Winslow Homer in 1866. The painting depicts the young woman on the ‘threshold’ of the future as she considers her freedom and views her liberators (Union soldiers) being led off to the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Homer presented an anonymous figure, but Ms. James researched published narratives of enslaved people to create her own character named Charity. Charity tells her story and comments on the dangers of the Underground Railroad, facing fear, and the hope to reunite with her husband, Walter. The gourds presented in the picture are symbols of the North Star (the guide for runaways) and the video includes a rendition of the folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. The video is a component of the Newark Museum’s curriculum, “Civil War@150,” a teaching resource recognizing the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.
If you are looking for more on the painting you will want to take a look at Peter H. Wood’s concise study, Near Andersonville: Winslow Homer’s Civil War (Harvard University Press).
I am beginning to think about what I am going to say next Saturday at North Carolina State University for their symposium on the Civil War and public history. My talk will focus not only on the challenges surrounding the discussion of slavery and race at our Civil War battlefields, but specifically the difficulty of attracting African Americans to these sites. I will look specifically about the steps taken by the National Park Service at the Petersburg National Battlefield.
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.