It’s nice to see that Ta-Nahesi Coates’s contribution to the The Atlantic’s special Civil War issue is getting so much attention. It nicely sums up why I am now a regular reader of his blog and why last week I went to meet him in person at MIT. Coates’s essay is a very personal and thoughtful reflection on why the African American community appears to have lost interest in the Civil War. The essay tracks the gaping hole in his personal memory of the Civil War as a child to his discovery of it later in life and his subsequent reading of a wide range of primary and secondary sources.
Coates locates a collective lack of interest among African Americans in a narrative that has become all too familiar. Popularized by David Blight in Race and Reunion, this narrative traces a gradual embrace of reconciliation among white Americans by the turn of the twentieth century, an acceptance of the Lost Cause view of the war, and ending with the tragic loss of of what Blight describes as an “Emancipationist” view of the war. From there Coates jumps briefly to the Civil Rights Era and later to such popular interpretations of the war such as Gone With the Wind, Shelby Foote’s three volume history of the war and Ken Burns’s PBS documentary.
There is much to ponder within this framework, but it only gets us so far to understanding what many people working in the public history sector are reflecting on as well. As I read Coates’s essay part of the problem seems to be in the assumption that the process of reunions gradual ascendency functioned to cut off African Americans from memory of the Civil War only to have it re-emerge on the eve of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. The danger here is that Coates runs the risk of painting a picture of blacks as emasculated from history and I know that this is not his intention.
It looks like the latest issue of Civil War Times magazine is now available at your local newsstand. As I mentioned last week the issue features my co-written essay with Myra Chandler Sampson on Silas Chandler. We intended the piece to challenge some of the more popular assumptions surrounding Silas’s relationship to Andrew as well as his Civil War experience. Admittedly, the evidence that we were able to marshal is limited, which makes any attempt at a robust interpretation problematic.
I am not surprised to learn that the good folks at the Southern Heritage Preservation Page are upset with the piece. Apparently, Gary Adams, who is the groups executive chairman, picked it up and he had this to say:
I picked up the latest issue of Civil War Times and found a story by one of many of you favorite writer this time credited to Kevin Levine and Myra Sampson (a descendant of Andrew Chandler)…. This is same magazine and author who had comments to his previous story censured and sent directed to the author. This resulted in discussions for boycotts of both the magazine and advertisers but we argued against that but I will admit we may have to reconsider that decision. The question remains whether or not the poor research is on purpose or attributed to a lack of talent. Here it argues Silas was a servant not a soldier. What I found strange was they fail to mention the family was and is tore with the same argument.
Now I have no idea what Mr. Adams is referring to in regards to comments from a previous CWT article nor do I have any advice on whether it might be worthwhile to boycott the magazine and sponsors.
What I will offer Mr. Adams and the rest of this group is the opportunity to write a response to the specific claims made in this article that will be published on this blog. You can’t beat that. Historical interpretations are always in need of revision based on the gathering of additional sources or a counter-interpretation of existing evidence. This would be a wonderful opportunity to bring together the collective knowledge and wisdom of the entire group against their number one enemy. Best of all, they get to do it on this very blog. I look forward to reading and learning from their research on Silas.
I just received my author copies of the latest issue of Civil War Times, which should hit newsstands any day now. As you can see Silas Chandler made the cover. I love the fact that he is pictured alone and out from behind the shadow of Andrew Chandler. It’s powerful. Kudos to whoever made this decision. What Myra Chandler Sampson and I tried to do in this short article was tell as much of the story from Silas’s perspective as possible rather than the mythical story that has come to dominate popular memory. That narrative’s treatment of Silas as a loyal slave and/or soldier is little more than a self-serving attempt to ignore or minimize the place of slavery and race in the Confederate war. He has a much more interesting story to tell if we are only willing to listen.
Myra and I want to thank Dana Shoaf and the rest of the editorial staff for their hard work and for their agreeing to take on this manuscript. I have no doubt that their inboxes will be flooded in a matter of weeks. I can already anticipate the reaction. This is my third feature article in CWT in the last year and I have nothing but the highest praise for the work they do. Finally, congratulations to Civil War Times on this their 50th anniversary. Included in this issue are articles by Harold Holzer, Scott Patchan, and Jacqueline G. Campbell. They also published an essay by Glenn Tucker on James Longstreet that originally appeared in their very first issue, which I think is a great idea.
Much of our inquiry into history can be described as a metaphorical reaching back into the past. We are not just looking for more facts, but a deeper meaning that somehow renders our own lives more intelligible. Seeing our own lives as intertwined in the lives of those who came before us is at its root an act of the imagination. We often forget, however, that the people we study engaged in a similar act of the imagination by reaching out to those who would follow, including us. I was reminded of this as I made my way through William G. Thomas’s excellent new book, The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (Yale University Press, 2011).
As we all know, often our own need to reach back into the past is shaped by what we want or need to find rather than what the available evidence reveals. Consider one of the most popular beliefs among Civil War buffs surrounding the future of slavery in 1860. It comes in many forms, but at its center is the assumption that slavery was on a path to eventual extinction. It’s pure speculation that is often wrapped in a desire to remove it from any discussion related to the Civil War or from an underlying belief in the gradual progress of the nation as a whole. In short, we need to believe that slavery’s days were numbered.
I am really sorry to have missed last weekend’s “Years of Anguish” event in Fredericksburg organized by John Hennessy and including Gary Gallagher, Peter Carmichael, and Jeff McClurken. Apparently, at some point during his presentation Gallagher commented on Lee’s views on slavery and emancipation with a reference to his January 10, 1863 message to James Seddon: