Teaching Virginia’s “Reluctant Decision”

Tomorrow I head back into the classroom to teach the Civil War to my AP classes.  We are a little bit behind, but that is not going to stop me from giving my students a thorough overview of secession and the events that led to the clash at Fort Sumter and the subsequent decision on the part of Upper South states to secede.  This is not an easy task.  While the first round of Deep Southern states to secede is relatively easy to understand, the situation in the Upper South is a bit more difficult.  Where we find speech after speech calling for secession in response to a perceived threat to slavery by Lincoln and the Republicans the debate further north takes a bit more time to piece together.

Virginia is especially hard to grasp because most of my students are surprised to learn that the state, which would eventually become the capital of the Confederacy and the scene of some of the bloodiest battles, did not secede until after the Confederacy had already been formed.  In the past, I’ve tended to situate Virginia within the rest of the Upper South and focus on their economic ties with the North as well as the sheer size of the state, which included present day West Virginia.  In addition, I may have briefly discussed the vigorous debates between eastern and western Virginians over various tax issues that dominated the discourse into early 1861.  What is sometimes lost on my students and, I suspect, the general public is the centrality of slavery to the debates that took place during Virginia’s Secession Convention from February to April 1861.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First, in popular memory the story of Virginia’s secession is dominated by the emotional story of Robert E. Lee.  The story of the state and the Upper South stands in sharp contrast with the widely held belief in the Deep South that Lincoln and the Republicans constituted an immediate threat to slavery.  As a result, the documents available for classroom use are plentiful and ripe for interpretation.  In other words, students can really sink their teeth into it.  And that brings us to the final problem:  We just don’t have the same easy access to documents related to the Upper South as we do to the Deep South.  It’s a problem because while the debates in the Upper South were a bit more complex [Note: Daniel M. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Fred W Morrison Series in Southern Studies) is still the best study on this region.] we run the risk of minimizing the importance of slavery.

This is the first year that I’ve had the opportunity to use William W. Freehling’s and Craig M. Simpson’s eds., Showdown in Virginia: The 1861 Convention and the Fate of the Union.  For students of the Civil War and Virginia history this is a remarkable editorial achievement.  Freehling and Simpson reduced four volumes George H. Reese’s Proceedings of the Virginia State Convention of 1861 to one volume that numbers roughly 200 pages.  The nice thing about the book is that the speeches are excerpted, which makes it easy to assign specific readings for class discussion.  I’ve thought about having my students research and role play individual politicians that cover the entire debate.  The debate over slavery takes center stage in Part I, which pitted slaveholding Tidewater planters against their western nonslaveholding colleagues.  In short, the debate about Lincoln and the Republican Party was as much about the regional and political divide within Virginia as it is about Union.  Part II focuses on debates surrounding taxation, but even here slavery was present.  The most contentious issue here was the cap on taxation rates of slaves.  The volume is especially helpful in the wake of the firing at Fort Sumter.  Even after shots had been fired Virginia’s course had not been sealed.

I highly recommend this book to Virginia history teachers and general readers who are interested in a more thorough understanding of the secession crisis in Virginia.

How Will We Imagine Slavery in 2015?

Mural by George Beattie (1956)

Here is another story for those of you who doubt that we are witnessing a radical shift in our popular perceptions of the Civil War and the history of slavery.  Gary Black, the newly elected agriculture commissioner in Georgia, has ordered that a series of murals depicting slavery be removed from the building.  The murals were painted in 1956 by George Beattie to show the evolution of agriculture in the state from Native Americans through the twentieth century.  I do hope these murals find a new home so they can be appreciated and even interpreted for their historical value.  According to the news story, Black is replacing a commissioner who occupied the position since 1969.

This shift in popular thinking about slavery is still, in my mind, best understood in terms of what it finds offensive or problematic.  The Lost Cause view of slavery, with its emphasis on paternalism, has already been put to rest by scholars and we can begin to discern the consequences of this from the controversies surrounding Governor McDonnell’s Confederate History Month Proclamation to the recent coverage of the sesquicentennial of South Carolina’s secession.   What is not clear is whether the next few years and a more rigorous engagement with the history and legacy of slavery will leave us with any lasting impressions.

On this day 148 years ago the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and yet as a nation we do nothing to mark the occasion.  How strange in a nation that celebrates a narrative of the gradual embrace and expansion of freedom.

Can the NAACP Get Right With the Civil War Sesquicentennial?

NAACP Protest in Charleston, SC, December 2010

In a recent post, Ta-Nehisis Coates is critical of the NAACP for its continued boycott of South Carolina as well as its struggle to remove the Confederate flag from state house grounds.  I couldn’t agree more with Coates:

There is something that really strikes me as wrong about urging people to not visit South Carolina on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. I was listening to the radio a few days ago, and the mayor of Charleston was discussing the significance of the city’s slave ports in American history. I haven’t seen this on paper, but he claimed something like 20 percent of all African-American have an ancestor that came through Charleston. Whether that’s true, or not, you’re talking about a state with a unique place in black history, in particular, and American history at large…. At some point we have to stop telling people what they can’t believe in, and start telling them what they can. At some point we have push a positive view of history, not in the sense of white-washing, but in the sense of something beyond debunking. I don’t know that you can banish the Confederate flag from the South. I don’t know that you can make Tennessee come to terms with Nathan Bedford Forrest. But surely you can shine a light on Ida B Wells, Prince Rivers, Cassius Clay and Elizabeth Van Lew.

Continue reading “Can the NAACP Get Right With the Civil War Sesquicentennial?”

Hardball Strikes Out on Secession

First of all, apologies to South Carolina for the ridiculous national coverage of tonight’s Secession Gala in Charleston.  The coverage reinforces a number of assumptions about regional identification and race that are likely a thing of the past.  Tonight’s episode of Hardball with Chris Matthews is a perfect example of this coverage, which somehow managed to surpass the nuttiness of a recent episode of the Ed Show that featured Al Sharpton.  Matthews decided to interview Thomas Hiter of the SCV and columnist, Eugene Robinson.  All three were equally appalling.  Robinson decided to describe the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter as an “act of terrorism.”  Hiter did the usual dance around the issue of slavery and Matthews through out the hardball question of the night: “Was John Brown a good guy or bad guy?”  As far as I can tell none of these guys understands the history of secession and the Civil War.  To give you a sense of how bad this is, I actually think that Hiter won more points on the history.  And just think how easy it would be to find two guests, who could actually engage in an intellectual discussion.

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C-SPAN Visits Monument Avenue

This is a wonderful overview of Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia.  It’s one of my favorite places to bring my students to discuss the intersection between historical memory, race, and politics, and the monuments themselves allow for a wide range of interpretation.  I also highly recommend Sarah S. Driggs’s book, Richmond’s Monument Avenue (University of North Carolina Press, 2000).