One of the things I enjoyed while living in Virginia was the opportunity to explore public spaces related to the Civil War. Whenever I traveled to a new city or town one of the first things I did was look for that Confederate soldier monument at a downtown intersection or on the courthouse grounds. There is something comforting about finding that monument – a present reminder of a distant past. Not so distant that we are transported back to the Civil War, but to that period between 1880 and 1920 as white southerners struggled to make sense of a past in the face of modernity. Those of us who approach these spaces are forced to confront our individual and collective need to remember as well as the consequences of forgetting.
The vast majority of black Confederate accounts on the Internet follow a well-worn narrative. First, we are somehow to believe that servants/slaves volunteered to accompany their owners to war and in doing so solidified a bond of friendship and a commitment to the achievement of Confederate independence. Many of these postwar accounts offer rich descriptions of servants who rush onto a battlefield to rescue their wounded master or secure the dead body for the long trip home. These stories were and continue to be told by whites as a way to minimize the horrors of slavery and as a vindication of the Confederate cause. African Americans almost never come out from under the shadow of white storytellers. To put it another way, African Americans remain an extension of the white storyteller’s will or as part of his chosen memory of the past. It should come as no surprise then that many of these accounts paint a picture of peaceful relations between former master and slave following the end of the war. We see this clearly in the case of Silas and Andrew Chandler. Even Andrew Chandler Battiale, who appeared on the Antiques Road Show for an appraisal of the famous tintype suggested such a relationship: “The men grew up together; they worked the fields together, and continued to live closely throughout the rest of their lives.”
Every once in a while you will read about free blacks petitioning local or state government to become a slave. In the wrong hands such accounts reflect a lingering Lost Cause view that slavery was benign. Why else would a free black individual choose bondage? Many of these requests were made in the late antebellum period following John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. Many southern states, especially in the Deep South, worried about the effects of the raid on their black populations, both free and enslaved. In addition to worrying about the ramifications of the Brown raid memories of Nat Turner’s bloody insurrection were easily recalled. Visitors from the North were suspected of inciting blacks and were often forced to leave. The smallest acts of violence and arson by blacks were met with swift and brutal punishment to prevent what many perceived to be the beginning of a more general uprising. In many localities this response included a severe crackdown on the movement and rights of free blacks. Free blacks already occupied a precarious position in the South, but the increased focus on their movement may help to explain why some chose slavery over freedom.
If I were heading back into the classroom to teach my course on the Civil War and historical memory I would begin by showing this video from the Virginia Historical Society’s exhibit, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia. If you haven’t seen it you are missing one of the more innovative exhibits to emerge early on for the Civil War 150th. The choice of Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of the “Star Spangled Banner” is the perfect accompaniment for this collage of images that covers both the short- and long-term consequences of the Civil War.
Teachers can use this video to explore how images, text, and music come together to form a historical narrative. Encourage students to critique the video by pointing out strengths and weaknesses. Which images are out of place or missing? What other musical choices could be utilized as well as choice of text?