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?
This is a question that Howard N. Meyer posed in the November 1961 issue of Negro Digest. It’s a thought-provoking essay that anticipates a burgeoning black counter-memory that emerged in the pages of popular magazines by 1965. It also provides a helpful reference point to gauge the evolution of Civil War memory over the past few decades. Here are a few choice quotes:
One is first tempted to say that the commission’s plans have been marked by a kind of equal treatment: reverence as much for the Stars and Bars as for the Stars and Stripes, honor as much for Jefferson Davis as for Abraham Lincoln; tributes for the Boys in Gray as for the Boys in Blue; equality, that is, for all except the Negro.
Chairman Grant is eighty years old, and apparently still accepts the ideology that prevailed during his turn-of-the-century youth: that North-South reconciliation is more important than human rights for the Negro.
What will the Civil War Centennial be like? It will last four years. Battles will be re-enacted, many on a huge scale. Colorful ceremonies will be held, exhibitions of war trophies and mementos organized. There will be memorials, parades, new historical markers and a great many special ceremonies…
The success of Southern apologists meant not merely that the Confederate side of the war was hygenized and glamorized. The cause of the North was correspondingly demeaned.
One does not have to deny the tragedy of blasted homes and lives to say that the Old South depended on an iniquitous social system that could not be tolerated in America. It does not serve America well, in the world of 1961, to ignore the evil and iniquity of slavery in marking the Centennial of the conflict.
When the firing on Fort Sumter was re-enacted, in a setting of live oaks and magnolias, who was there to remind the play-actors, in ever so small a voice, that the original shot was, after all, treason?
It’s an unusual form of Civil War remembrance, but the idea of a sculpture in the shape of a “Sherman’s necktie” opens up a number of avenues of interpretation. It raises issues related to the physical destruction and displacement of civilians that Sherman’s men wrought. The twisted rail also functions as a metaphor for change and the coming of emancipation in the heart of Georgia. Of course, any discussion of emancipation also needs to deal with some of the hardships that freed slaves faced as they followed the army to the coast. I think it’s an incredibly simple and yet creative piece. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate any of the addresses that marked the sculpture’s unveiling.
Today was one of the most productive writing days that I’ve had in quite some time. It marks the first day of actual writing of what I’ve tentatively titled, Searching for Black Confederates in History and Memory. The primary sources that I have collected are incredibly rich, particularly those sources related to the memory of what were commonly called camp or body servants. Here is an example from the turn of the twentieth century. It’s an excerpt from a speech given by Dr. Walter B. Hill, who was the Chancellor of the University of Georgia. It’s titled, “Negro Education in the South” and was presented at a conference on education policy that took place at the University of Virginia in 1903. The speech opens with a few words speculating as to why the state’s black population had not already taken advantage of freedom and cheap transportation costs to leave the state for the North. This is what follows:
If “those who fight for freedom” are entitled to it then they are “entitled” to it equally. If the negro is made to fight our battles of “freedom” then he must be governed by the same laws of war, and he must stand upon the same footing of the white man after the war. What will be the consequences? Why, if 250,000 negro men are entitled to their freedom because the fight for it, then their wives, children and families are also entitled to the same boon, just as their wives, children and families of the white man who fight the same battle. In other words, the South is to be converted by this war into an abolitionized colony of free negroes, instead of a land of white freemen, knowing their rights and daring to maintain them. If the negroes are to be free, they must be equally free with the master. If they are to be armed like the master, then they are in fact equal of the master. What is the result? Why, they never can be slaves again, and must be treated as the master, politically, civilly and socially. “Those who fight for freedom are entitled to freedom,” says the Enquirer, and we say so too. [The Lynchburg Republican, November 2, 1864]
Can it be possible that a Southern man–editor of a Southern journal–recognizing the right of property in slaves, admitting their inferiority in the scale of being and also their social inferiority, would recommend the passage of a law which at one blow levels all distinctions, deprives the master of a right to his property, and elevates the negro to an equality with the white man?–for, disguise it as you may, those who fight together in a common cause, and by success win the same freedom, enjoy equal rights and equal position, and in this case, are distinguished by color. Are we prepared for this? Is it for this we are contending? Is it for this we would seek the aid of our slaves? To win their freedom with our own independence, to establish in our midst a half or quarter of a million of black freemen, familiar with arts and discipline of war, and with large military experience! Has the bitter experience of Virginia with regard to free negroes already been forgotten? [Nat Turner’s Rebellion] [Richmond Enquirer, November 4, 1864]