Category Archives: Slavery

Civil War Memory Syllabus

This coming trimester I will be teaching two sections of a course I am calling Civil War Memory. This is the first time that I’ve taught an elective course on the subject, and, as you can imagine, I am very much looking forward to it. Most of the students who are taking the course just completed a trimester elective on the Civil War while the others took either my survey or AP course in American history last year. Although the syllabus is not finalized I have enough that I can share it with you. You will notice that I have not included any assignments or a description of the final project as I am still working on it. Please keep in mind that this is a high school elective course.

Course Description:

“The Civil War is our felt history—history lived in the national imagination” wrote Robert Penn Warren in 1961. Indeed the Civil War occupies a prominent place in our national memory and has served to both unite and divide Americans. This course will explore the various ways in which Americans have chosen to remember their civil war through literature, monuments and memorials, histories, film, art, as well as other forms of popular culture. We will examine how memory of the war changed over time as well as the political implications for Civil War memory. Specific subjects to be addressed include the role of reunion and reconciliation in shaping memory of the war, the place of slavery in our national narratives of the war, public disputes over the display of the Confederate flag, changing perceptions of such notable figures as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and “Stonewall” Jackson, as well as other controversies surrounding the way in which the war has been remembered in public spaces. We will pay particular attention to the way in which the war has been remembered and commemorated here in Charlottesville in such places as the Confederate cemetery at the University of Virginia, Lee and Jackson Park, and Courthouse Square. Additional field trips may include the Museum of the Confederacy, American Civil War Center at Tredegar, and Hollywood Cemetery – all in Richmond, Virginia. Students are encouraged to take the Civil War course, which will be offered in the first trimester.

Books:

David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

Thomas J. Brown, The Public Art of Civil War Commemoration: A Brief History With Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’ Press, 2004). [Please note that much of the course is structured around this book.]

Alice Fahs and Joan Waugh, eds., The Memory of the Civil War in American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Vintage, 1999).

Week 1: Introduction to the Course

Questions: What is memory? Why do we find a need to remember and what is the difference between individual and collective memory? Why are Americans interested in their civil war and where can we find examples of civil war remembrance?

Readings: In Brown, read pp. 1-15; Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Woodrow Wilson’s Gettysburg Address (1913); In Blight, read pp. 6-15.

Week 2: Monuments and Soldiers – analysis of the evolution of civic monuments, including their designs, and inscriptions. Why were they built, where, by whom and for what purposes?

Readings: David Blight article on soldiers and memory from North and South Magazine; William Henry Trescott, Inscription on South Carolina Soldiers Monument, 1879, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Soldier’s Faith, May 30, 1895

[We will take our first field trip to observe and analyze Civil War monuments in the Charlottesville area.]

Week 3: Contemporary Commemorations – Analysis of recent debates surrounding the legacy of Civil War soldiers and battlefield interpretation. Students will search the news for examples of controversies surrounding the Confederate flag.

Readings: NAACP resolution on Confederate flag (2000); Charley Reese editorial (1997); Fredericksburg commemoration talk by Kevin Levin; John Coski article on the history of the Confederate flag from North and South Magazine.

Week 4: Women of the War – Analysis of the roles that women played throughout the postwar period from grave dedications to textbook oversight.

Readings: In Brown, pp. 57-74; Primary sources by Clara Barton, Howard M. Hamill, and Laura Martin Rose; in Fahs and Waugh, read James McPherson’s “Long-Legged Yankee Lies: The Southern Textbook Crusade”.

Week 5 and 6: Confederate heroes and the Lost Cause – Analysis of the evolution of the memory of Lee and other notable Confederate figures. We will pay particular attention to monuments, including the Lee equestrian statue in Richmond.

Readings: Primary sources by John W. Daniel, Abram J. Ryan, Charles Francis Adams Jr., as well as commentary from both white and black newspapers. In Brown, pp. 79-105 and Blight selections from Race and Reunion.

[We will take our second field trip to Richmond to tour Monument Avenue and Hollywood Cemetery.]

Week 7: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment – Analysis of the most famous black regiment from the Civil War, including the monument by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Readings: Primary sources by Anna Quincy Waterston, Frances E.W. Harper, William James, Booker T. Washington, Paul L. Dunbar, Robert Lowell; read chapter 9, “Black Memory and Progress of the Race” in Blight’s Race and Reunion.

Week 8: Lincoln Legacies – Analysis of the evolution of Lincoln’s place in American memory and culture with particular focus on recent comparisons with Barack Obama and Lincoln.

Readings: Recent newspaper articles and editorials; primary sources by Henry M. Turner, Frederick Douglass, F. Wellington Ruckstull, George B. Shaw; In Brown, pp. 139-65 and article by Harold Holzer and Gabor Boritt, “Lincoln in ‘Modern’ Art” in Gabor Boritt, ed., The Lincoln Enigma.

Week 9: The Civil War in Contemporary Culture – Analysis of reenactments and other forms of popular Civil War memory.

Readings: Selections from Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic and Gary Gallagher’s Causes Won, Lost, & Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know About the Civil War. We will also watch scenes from Gods and Generals, Cold Mountain, Shenandoah, and C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America

Week 10: Final Projects (TBA)

Will the Real Weary Clyburn Please Stand Up

I finally got my hands on a copy of Weary Clyburn’s pension application from the North Carolina Department of Archives and History in Raleigh.  You may remember that over the summer I did a series of posts on this Confederate slave who was to be honored by a local SCV chapter for his “service” to the Confederacy.  The posts generated a great deal of discussion surrounding my assertion that the SCV was distorting the past in order to ignore Clyburn’s status as a slave.  The SCV held a ceremony in which they invited descendants of Clyburn and also received quite a bit of media attention.

Now that I’ve had a chance to peruse the pension file it is clear to me that the SCV did nothing less than butcher the history of the war and distort the complex relationship between master and slave.  The certification letter from the pension board describes Clyburn as a “body guard” rather than a servant or slave.  Later Clyburn is cited for carrying  “his master out of the field of fire on his shoulder” and for “personal services for Robert E. Lee”, though the nature of that assistance is not discussed.  The board also mentions his age and that he “has a wife and foolish boy to support[.]”  I wonder if someone can explain that latter reference for me, though my wife just suggested that it must have something to do with his mental health.

On the actual application there is a very telling reference: “that his services were meritorious and faithful toward his master, and the cause of the Confederacy.”  The fundamental problem with all of this is that Clyburn’s voice never appears.  The documents provide us with an example of how a white-dominated government bureau handled a black man during the height of Jim Crow.  Ultimately, these documents are not about Clyburn.  Clyburn’s pension was issued owing to the assumption that he was a faithful assistant, which helped to reinforce a system of white supremacy.

Not once is Clyburn referenced for what he was – a slave.  We are playing a dangerous game when we begin to treat the past in a way that serves our own narrow interests.

Were You Lucky Enough to Attend a High School Named After a Slaveowner and Founder of the Ku Klux Klan?

Well, if you attended high school in Jacksonville, Florida (of all places) after 1959 you probably did.  How did a high school in Florida end up being named after a Confederate general from Tennessee?  It turns out that when the school opened in 1959 various interest groups, including the United Daughters of the Confederacy, competed to win the chance to name the school.  The UDC won and the school was named for Nathan B. Forrest.  It was an ideal name for a school in the South at the height of “Massive Resistance” against a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.

On November 3 the Duval County School Board will vote on whether to change the name of the school.  Of course, not everyone is happy about such a possibility given their commitment to ensure that our youth model their lives on such upstanding Americans as Forrest:

Bodie Catlin, owner of a truck accessories retailer who speaks publicly about Confederate history, has been an outspoken supporter of keeping the school’s name and said Forrest was a man of his time who was “nice” to his slaves.

“They loved him,” he said. “The only people [in favor of the name change] are people from the North who don’t care about our heritage and some that think the whole war was fought over slavery.”

It’s always those damn northerners who are getting in the way.  Stay tuned for further updates.

The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Myth, Memory, and History

Glory-DVDcoverToday my Civil War classes finished watching the movie Glory, which is still my all-time favorite Civil War movie.  Students enjoy the movie in part because of the heroic story of the unit and the performances by Denzell Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick.  The movie does a very good job of addressing the discrimination faced by the 54th Massachusetts as well as their heroic performance at Battery Wagner in July 1863.  Like all historical movies Glory gets certain things right and certain things wrong.  One of the themes that the movie captures is the slow progress that Col. Robert G. Shaw experienced in learning to more closely empathize with his men as well as the gradual changes that took place among white Union soldiers as they questioned their own racial outlook in response to the battlefield prowess of black regiments like the 54th.  This is an issue that my students recently read about in an article by Chandra Manning.  As for problems, well, they abound throughout the movie such as the profile of the regiment, which is presented primarily as a unit of fugitive slaves.  Most of the men were free blacks from Massachusetts and other parts of the North.  Other problems include the time frame for the raising and training of the regiment which began in 1863 rather than 1862 as well as the failure to acknowledge Shaw’s marriage at any point in the movie.

Beyond pointing out such oversights throughout the movie I want my students to be able to think critically about the choices that go into historically-inspired movies such as Glory.  Such questions can include character development and the broader message that movie producers and writers hope to convey to their audience.  In reference to Glory what stands out to me is the emphasis on a progressive story where the individual characters as well as the unit itself becomes more closely connected or identified with the national goal of emancipation and nationalism.  Col. Shaw (played by Broderick) volunteers his regiment in the attack on Battery Wagner as a means of impressing upon the nation the sacrifices and bravery displayed by his men.  Tripp (played by Washington) begins the movie with an overtly selfish perspective, gradually comes to see the regiment as family, and finally falls in battle while holding the stars and stripes.  Even Thomas, who represents the free black men of the regiment and comes to learn during training that he has more in common with fugitive slaves, finds redemption and self-respect by volunteering to carry the flag before the assault on Wagner.

The decision to end the movie with the failed assault at Wagner solidifies this progressive theme, which links the men to one another and, supposedly, the goal of the United States by the middle of the war.  The final scenes depict the grim reality of the battlefield, including shoe-less dead black soldiers, and a mass grave in which both Shaw and his men are buried.  As the movie ends the viewer is told that the performance of the 54th Massachusetts led to the recruitment of upwards of 180,000 men and that President Lincoln credited these men with turning the tide of war.  The upshot is that the viewer finishes the movie with the impression that the story of the 54th has been brought to its completion, in large part, because of the death of Shaw.  It’s as if the mission of the unit, in terms of its contribution to the Civil War and American History, has been fully realized.  It is through defeat and death in the regiment that the nation experiences a new birth of freedom.

The problem is that this completely ignores the history of the regiment through to the end of the war and the challenges that it continued to face.  In fact, a broader look at the history of the 54th suggests that it was not at the hands of angry Confederate soldiers that constituted the gravest threat to black Union soldiers, but their own government.  It is with this in mind that my students are now reading a wonderful article by Donald Yacovone, titled “The Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, The Pay Crisis, and the “Lincoln Despotism”” which is included in the edited collection, Hope and Glory: Essays on the Legacy of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000).

The “pay crisis” is depicted in that wonderful scene where both Shaw and his men tear up their vouchers after learning that they are to be paid under the terms set out in the Militia Act of 1862  – $10 for black soldiers as opposed to $13 for white soldiers.  Unfortunately, the scene is used to highlight the evolution of Shaw’s identification with his men and is promptly dropped as an issue.  Well, it was an issue throughout much of the unit’s history and it grew worse following the failed assault at Wagner in July 1863 and Shaw’s death.  The article does an excellent job of detailing the steps that both the men of the 54th and its new colonel took to convince the Lincoln administration to rectify the situation.  The situation continued to deteriorate following the Federal defeat at Olustee, Florida as tension in the ranks grew culminating in cases of mutinous discontent.  The most notorious case occurred on February 29, 1864 when Sergeant William Walker faced a firing squad for protesting unequal pay after ordering his company to stack arms in front of their colonel’s tent in November 1863.   Shortly thereafter, Private  Wallace Baker was arrested and executed for striking an officer after refusing to obey an order to fall in for company inspection, also in protest over pay.

It was not until July 1864 that Congress revoked its stance on the issue and awarded the men equal pay from the first day of their service.  I am hoping that this broader focus will give us much to discuss in class tomorrow.  I want to touch on questions of how Hollywood shapes our perceptions of important historical events as well as how this broader focus helps us to anticipate the challenges of Reconstruction and the federal government’s eventual abandonment of these men and the cause of black civil rights.  This reminds me of my favorite scene in the movie which precedes the assault at Wagner.  Shaw approaches Tripp and asks him to carry the regimental colors in the next engagement.  Tripp refuses and a brief conversation ensues regarding the possible consequences of the war.  At one point Tripp asks, “What are we going to get”?  The movie leaves the viewer with a sense of optimism for the future; on the other hand, Yacovone’s piece better prepares students with the tragic quality of Tripp’s question.