Category Archives: Southern History

The Anatomy of a Commemorative Talk (continued)

Yesterday, I briefly touched on some of my concerns surrounding a commemorative talk that I am scheduled to deliver in December for the anniversary of the battle of Fredericksburg. Part of the reason I find it so difficult to commemorate a Civil War battle has to do with my tendency to interpret the war years as extending much further than 1865. In fact, the framework that I work with follows closely with the recent interpretation by Vernon Burton, in his sweeping survey of the nineteenth century, The Age of Lincoln. Burton views the period as ending with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, which severly limited the freedoms and civil rights of African Americans. By then most Southern state constitutions had been rewritten to legally enforce and legitimize white supremacy.

Our tendency to distinguish between the Civil War and Reconstruction obscures the fact that fundamental questions of freedom, national identity, and citizenship were left unanswered. According to Burton:

At stake during the Civil War was the very existence of the United States. The bloodiest war in our history, the Civil War posed in a crucial way what clearly became persistent themes in American history: the character of the nation and the fate of African Americans (writ large the place of minorities in a democracy, the very meaning of pluralism). Consequently, scholars have been vitally interested in the Civil War, searching out clues therein for the identity of America. But if the identity of America is in the Civil War, the meaning of America and what we have become is found in Reconstruction, and the Civil War cannot be separated from Reconstruction any more than the sectional conflict can be separated from the war. (“Is There Anything Left To Be Said About Abraham Lincoln?, Historically Speaking, [September/October 2008] p. 6)

Rather than acknowledging the war years as part of a larger sweep of history and push toward greater freedoms we have reduced it to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the symbolism of national reunion; implied in this perspective is the view that the meaning or significance of the battles themselves can be found in the extent to which they contributed to this outcome.

This is a mistake. In recent years historians have explored Reconstruction, both politically and militarily, with an emphasis on the level of violence that persisted after the war by paramilitary units throughout the South. As someone who has spent a great deal of time researching and writing about the battle of the Crater it is fairly easy to draw connections from July 1864 to the street battles in New Orleans as well as the Colfax Massacre. On a related note, our view of Civil War soldiers as apolitical lends itself to this tendency to isolate the Civil War from the more divisive political questions of Reconstruction. It allows us to focus on those battlefield virtues that connected the soldiers on both sides even as we ignore the intense disagreements that help us to explain why they were fighting to begin with. We can no longer ignore the fact that soldiers on both sides closely followed the news and debated issues of slavery and race. My recent foray into the world of Confederate demobilization following Appomattox has only served to reinforce my belief that Lee’s men did not return home having left the political and social implications of defeat behind. I recently learned that in South Carolina men applied for the state’s Confederate pension even though they were too young to have served in the Confederate army. This little tidbit suggests that from the perspective of the State of South Carolina, the Civil War was not yet over.

For those of us interested in memory, commemoration, and the continued relevance of the Civil War we ought to take South Carolina’s pension policy seriously. It offers one among many ways to better understand the place of the Civil War within the nineteenth century and the struggle for greater civil liberties for blacks, women, and later the “common man”, as expressed in the Populist Movement, which Burton notes came to an end as a party in 1896.

It may be difficult to see how a commemorative talk is possible given such a perspective, but it seems to me that it allows for a more meaningful reflection on the relevancy of the Civil War. The loss of civil rights for most black Americans by the end of the nineteenth century was not inevitable; in fact, there were significant achievements on the grassroots level and beyond throughout the country, including the South. There is no need to filter this history into an overly simplistic morality play. The Supreme Court did indeed strike down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in 1883 and in Hurtado v. California (1884), but this did not prevent states in the Midwest, such as Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Nebraska, from passing their own civil rights statutes. And in the South, while white southerners continued to resist black civil rights by joining paramiliatary organizations and the Ku Klux Klan, others, such as William Mahone, James Longstreet, P.G. T. Beauregard, and John S. Mosby championed black rights. Former Virginia Governor Henry Wise’s son, also a Confederate officer, became a prominent civil rights attorney by the early twentieth century.

I guess my point is that we do not have to run away from history when we commemorate it. In fact, it is only through embracing it, in all of its complexity, that we truly do justice to the sacrifices, achievements, and yes, failures, of our forebears. So how does the battle of Fredericksburg, fought on the eve of emancipation, fit into this broader sweep of American history?

To be continued…

Stay, Forrest! Stay! (for now)

By now most of you have heard that the Duval County School Board has decided not to change the name of a Jacksonville High School after Nathan Bedford Forrest.  The sometimes divisive debates over the naming and renaming of public buildings and other sites cuts to the core of the close link between history and politics.  In the case of the South these debates reflect drastic changes in the face of local and state government following the civil rights movement.  They are debates over how a community uses its public spaces to reflect its shared history.  Historians have written extensively in recent years concerning the way in which local and national memory has been shaped by Jim Crow politics and a belief in white supremacy. 

The debate in Jacksonville is just another example of what happens when a broader spectrum of the citizenry is allowed to take part in conversations about who should be remembered and why.   This has nothing to do with overturning the heritage of the South; in fact, it is entirely about forging a more inclusive memory and one that can be pointed to as reflective of a community's values.  The two black members of the school board voted for changing the name of the school while the majority voted to retain it.  I obviously know nothing about what went into the decision of the other members, but I have to wonder if they understood what the name might mean to a predominantly black community and even the few black students who actively voiced their concern such as senior, Cardell Brown.  Did they bother to consider how their school came to be named after Forrest or why public places such as schools tended not to be named after Forrest until the civil rights movement?

While Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Kirby Smith and others were all commemorated with schools, community centers, and parks during the height of Confederate commemoration, Forrest's name remained closely tied to the KKK.   In fact, the most powerful "klavern" or local Klan was the Nathan Bedford Forrest Klavern #1, located in Atlanta during the 1940s and 50s.  On the eve of the opening of the school students voted to name it Valhalla, while the booster club bought football uniforms outfitted with Vikings.  The decision to name the school after Forrest was a last-minute decision, although the superintendent warned that the decision might prove to be a mistake just three years after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of school desegregation.  Was this really a coincidence?

It was a vote that led to the naming of the school, a vote to retain it, and it will only take a vote in future to change it.  There is nothing sacred about the names of our public buildings.  They reflect the people who either have control of local government or choose to be involved. 

Virginia is for Obama (Proud to be a Virginian – 11:07pm)

Abraham_obama  Yeswecan

(artist – Ron English)

 
The exit polls are very revealing.  I was surprised by the split when it came to income brackets.  People making less than $50,000 went with Obama, but even in the higher brackets McCain failed to capitalize on the socialist rhetoric.  It's comforting to know that Americans were not so easily duped by this language.  I wonder what this means for "Joe the Plumber" recording career?  Ten-percent of the electorate who took part in yesterday's election voted for the first time.  I spoke with an employee in our cafeteria who must be in her 60s and who had never voted before.  She went to the polls with her entire family and I can't wait to talk to her about the experience.  Some will attribute this to Obama's "star" quality, but I attribute it to the ability to inspire and rally.  And isn't this what we want in a democracy?
 
It's already a cliche to say that this election is historic.  It was a very emotional experience watching the tears stream down the face of Jesse Jackson as well as the excitement of the young students at Spelman College.  We just finished discussing King's assassination in class yesterday and at one point I showed the class the famous photograph of the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, which included Jackson.  Congressman Lewis's commentary was also very moving.  We've been discussing Lewis's involvement in the Civil Rights Movement as well and the courage he displayed on more than one battlefield.  I am so happy for him this morning and the thousands of Americans who risked everything to combat injustice and racism.  These are the people – both black and white – who paved the way for this election. 
 
That said, if we are to appreciate Obama's claim that he represents the most "unlikely candidate" than we must look beyond race.  It is the appreciation of his overall profile, including his age, personal story, and profile that give meaning to his words.  There are two facts of his life that give me reason to be optimistic.  First, this is a man who wrote openly about drug use in his memoir as well as other mistakes of youth.  Second, his election to the position of editor of the Harvard Law Review was made possible by the support of members fo the Federalist Society.  The first example points to a certain level of opennness and honesty, while the second suggests that he will, in fact, try to be a president for all Americans.   
 
I know this sounds just a little sappy, but you know what, I don't care.  For the moment I am happy and proud of my country.

Latest Volume from Freedmen and Southern Society Project Released

Hahn_freedom
On Saturday I received an advanced copy of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867 [Series 3: Volume I: Land and Labor, 1865].  This is a hefty volume, running just under 1,100 pages and coming with a price tag of $85.  I assume most of the sales of this volume will come through libraries, but if you work in the area of Reconstruction or related field, and can afford the price, it is no doubt worth owning.  I've already picked out a few documents from the Freedmen's Bureau that will work well in my classes.  Here is the book description:

Land and Labor, 1865 examines the transition from slavery to free labor during the tumultuous first months after the Civil War.
Letters and testimony by the participants–former slaves, former
slaveholders, Freedmen's Bureau agents, and others–reveal the
connection between developments in workplaces across the South and an
intensifying political contest over the meaning of freedom and the
terms of national reunification. Essays by the editors place the
documents in interpretive context and illuminate the major themes.

In
the tense and often violent aftermath of emancipation, former slaves
seeking to ground their liberty in economic independence came into
conflict with former owners determined to keep them dependent and
subordinate. Overseeing that conflict were northern officials with
their own notions of freedom, labor, and social order. This volume of Freedom
depicts the dramatic events that ensued–the eradication of bondage and
the contest over restoring land to ex-Confederates; the introduction of
labor contracts and the day-to-day struggles that engulfed the region's
plantations, farms, and other workplaces; the achievements of those
freedpeople who attained a measure of independence; and rumors of a
year-end insurrection in which ex-slaves would seize the land they had
been denied and exact revenge for past oppression.